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An Argument for Classical Education

July 6, 2012 1 comment

“One of the functions of a teacher is to raise the dead.”
Peter Kreeft, Author, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College

Great leaders from our past were men of unyielding convictions in their beliefs, values, and ideals. They fought a war and crafted the Declaration of Independence; they framed the Constitution and formed a nation. They were giants on the world’s stage whose intellect was highly developed and whose thoughts and spoken language reached an uncommon level of eloquence.

What made them different? What grounded their thoughts and determination? With all the technological advances and easy access to the world’s knowledge, why are our leaders today, who are more “educated”, so obviously less literate and  uncommonly inelegant than our Founding Fathers? Could it be that our Founding Fathers were the result of a Classical Education, something our leaders do not have today?

Mike Myatt, managing director and chief strategy officer at N2growth, eloquently states, “Nations rise and fall with the quality of their leaders, and their leaders succeed and fail based upon who they are at their core – what they believe, how they think, and what they do. Nothing shapes a leader or a society like their education or lack thereof. Let me be clear: when I refer to an education, I’m not referencing earning a degree, I’m talking about developing a rich intellect – they are not always one in the same.” He asserts that we have lowered our standards and expect too little of our children. Go to the local Mall after school and see what the children of our nations parents are doing to increase their intellect and satiate their natural creative curiosity.

How is it that the Colonists in the 1770’s, who had little formal education, had an expansive vocabulary, a wider range of literacy, and a mastery of many subjects than our students have today? How is it that the graduates of these one room school houses produced these intellectually literate men and women who became the bedrock entrepreneurs of our society? I am reminded of a film I saw that illustrates this point, TRUE GRIT with Jeff Bridges. I was stunned by the vocabulary of Matty Ross the 14 year old girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Her character is the product of a one room school house education. If you haven’t seen the film, rent it and listen to her dialogue. Point made!

We spend more money and award more degrees to students who spend more time in school than ever before, most of whom are unable to read and comprehend the language of many of our historical documents or classic books. We are a one dimensional nation with a one dimensional educational system turning out test takers who are unable to have intellectually civil discourse. Should we return to the Classical studies?

Could you pass this 1895 eighth grade exam administered to the the one room schoolhouse students in Kansas? Point Made!

  The following quote by Leigh A. Bortins sums up the crossroads we currently face as a nation:
“…the current culture of education has displaced parents as the primary instructors of children in favor of professionals who try their best to recreate the home environment at school; has the federal government rather than the community determining the structure of equal educational opportunity; has deserted the idea that memorization trains the brain; has fostered a loss of literacy by replacing the study of original writings with abridged textbooks; and has created a populace unable to engage in reasonable discourse. We have rejected the historically successful model of rigorous, classical education in favor of entertainment and job training.”

Studying grammar, memorizing multiplication tables and historical events and reading original sources is no longer politically correct. Instead our students read from abridged textbooks and write their thoughts in 140 characters or less. We are a nation who believes education should be “entertaining and fun”. It should not be hard work. We are less literate and less educated than our global competitors. To succeed we need to start again to develop our greatest national treasure, the intellect of our children, who are the future of our nation.

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Education; The Kahn Academy – Educating the World

How about this for a concept – have the students do their class work at home and their homework in the classroom!

WOW, that’s an amazing idea and it is what Sal Khan dreamed up when he was tutoring his cousins. Up until Sal came along educational institutions invested heavily in computers. However, this huge technological investment was mostly relegated to computer labs run by teachers who weren’t provided the right tools to properly integrate computer technology into their day-to-day instruction. As a result we didn’t teach kids with the computer, we taught them how to use the computer. These lessons are foolishly taught to a generation of students who are teaching their parents computer skills. Computer labs were a side show, expensive investments largely squandered due to a lack of good content or purpose.

Sal Khan states, “What’s so different about our approach?  For one, we are leveraging the computer for what it does best and leveraging the teachers for what they do best.  We are ensuring students can truly work at their own pace on their own time. We are making sure students actually master concepts before they move on. We are empowering teachers with the real-time data they so badly need.  We are allowing teachers to make much better use of classroom time, with more peer tutoring, project-based learning, and one-on-one coaching.  Most importantly, we are making learning fun.”

Sal gave a presentation to TED 2011 on March 2011. It is entertaining to watch and Sal is a most amazing thinker and humble human. Like so many remarkable concepts and start-ups that have sprung forth from his generation, Khan Academy is free to anyone on the globe who wants to learn, to any teacher who wants to teach those who need it the most, to any parent who wants to help their child overcome intellectual obstacles, and to any administrator who wants their school, teachers, and students to succeed and prosper. It is FREE. All of his courses are FREE to ANYONE on planet earth!

Why is this of value?

We live in a world that teeters on the brink of chaos and destruction. Billions of people live in poverty and ignorance, without hope. They live this way primarily because they are illiterate or barely educated. Their lack of literacy enables those who are literate and shrewd to seduce them into ideologies that intelligent, confident humans would shun. They become slaves to the slave makers.

We all know an educated society is one that flourishes and grows. It is one that offers opportunity and rewards literacy, intellectual skills, and creative lateral thinkers. All things are possible through the educated mind. Khan knows this and dedicates his Khan Academy to the world. He wants to educate the world.

I’m for that. It is a noble enterprise and it is FREE.

I started out with nothing
and I still have most of it left.

Education, Lateral Thinking and the Google Ngram Viewer

June 23, 2011 1 comment

How many books are there in the world?

The answer: 129,864,880 books, more or less.

Google is, of course, in the process of digitizing many of the world’s books. Since 2004, Google has digitized more than 15 million books worldwide. The datasets they are making available today to further humanities research, for example, are based on a subset of that corpus, weighing in at 500 billion words from 5.2 million books in Chinese, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish. The datasets contain phrases of up to five words with counts of how often they occurred in each year.

The Ngram Viewer lets you graph and compare phrases from these datasets over time, showing how their usage has waxed and waned over the years. One of the advantages of having data online is that it lowers the barrier to chance: you can stumble across something in these 500 billion words and be the first person ever to make that discovery.

I went to the Ngram to prove to myself that Lateral Thinking is a relatively new concept in our educational thinking. Here is what happened to Lateral Thinking between 1900 and 2000.

Lateral Thinking from 1900 to 2000

You will see that Lateral Thinking was flat lined from 1900 until about 1965. In 1965,  which was the height of the Vietnam war and the protests associated with it, Lateral Thinking spiked from 0% to 100%  until about 1973. These years thrust forward a massive burst of intellectual lateral energy. It then took a huge downward spike beginning in about 1973 when the Vietnam War officially ended. Lateral Thinking hit bottom in 1975 (war ended, protests over, back to what was customary). It then began a gradual ascent in about 1976 with a slow climb though the 80’s and 90’s and then between 2000 and 2010 it shot up vertically to 100%. These years were responsible for the serious advent of public use of the internet and the beginning of the social media revolution; Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Groupon, EBay, Craig’s List, Priceline, You Tube, Firefox, WordPress, and more than I have  time to write.

Most of this Lateral energy flourished and bloomed outside our public educational institutions. These institutions and educators did not change with the advent of this energy. As a matter of fact, educators and education functioned more as obstacles than facilitators, except in a very few isolated instances. Many continue to teach with chalk, blackboards, and outdated textbooks while their students are speaking a different language and operating in a virtual world outside their classrooms.

This generation of young entrepreneurs and start ups have invented Lateral concepts that are changing our world; the way we shop, the way we communicate, the way we bank, the way we pay our bills, the way we travel, the way we apply for jobs, the way we sell our possessions! These Lateral thinkers are on their way to horizons we have not yet imagined. They are creating a new world and leaving our industrial educational institutions in the dust of the chalk falling off their blackboards.

Education in America; Wisconsin – The Real Story

February 23, 2011 5 comments

Here’s what we know that will make our schools better:

1.    Improve the quality of teaching.
2.    Personalize the educational experience of children to meet diverse needs and interests.
3.    Treat schools as unique, organic communities, not standard same-for-all institutions.

What do we have?

1.    We have “No Child Left Behind” that places enormous importance on standardizing instead of a more personal, organic, and creative experience for each child.
2.    We have president Obama’s recent State of the Union speech emphasizing that the only disciplines of importance are math and science. This message tells our children that if they are not good at either one of these subjects they are not smart and they will probably not be as successful as those who are accomplished in math and science.
3.    We continue to believe that if everyone is good at math and science, we’ll be fine. Meanwhile, creativity, innovation, lateral thinking, and the treasures all our children house in their minds are wasted as we are commanded to focus on math and science.
4.    The entire model for our education system is built on Industrial Age beliefs regarding supply and demand. This no longer holds true. The rapid acceleration of technology, population growth, and the shifting of power throughout the world make it impossible to predict what our society and economy will have even 2 years from now.

Here is what is true:

1.    Education is extremely personal. Everyone is unique and different in their interests, talents, and learning styles.
2.    Human talents are buried deep within us and teachers must be adept at identifying and nurturing our children’s aptitudes.
3.    It will take more than competency in Math and Science for America to prosper and grow in the future.
4.    It is NOT about money!

Now let’s look at money and what it has accomplished in Wisconsin, since it is in the news for leading the charge in education:

1.    Wisconsin’s per pupil spending on public school students increased from $6,517 in 1996 to $10,791 in 2008.
2.    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator the $6,517 that Wisconsin spent per pupil in 1996 dollars equaled $8,942 in 2008 dollars. That means that from 1996 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $1,849 or 20.7% in real terms while adding only one percentage point to their average eighth grader’s math score. (Terence P. Jeffrey)
3.    The $10,791 that Wisconsin spent per pupil in its public elementary and secondary schools in fiscal year 2008 was more than any other state in the Midwest.
4.    In the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009, the latest year available, only 31% of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned a “proficient” rating while another 8% earned an “advanced” rating.
5.    The other 61 % of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned ratings below “proficient,” including 40% who earned a rating of “basic” and 21% who earned a rating of “below basic”.
6.    The NAEP tests also showed that the mathematics test scores of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders have remained almost flat since 1996 while inflation adjusted per-pupil spending had significantly increased.
7.    In fiscal 2008, the federal government provided $669.6 million in subsidies to the public schools in Wisconsin.

I don’t mind paying teachers what they are worth. I don’t mind paying them for results, but NOT these results! If Wisconsin teachers, their unions, and teachers all across our country call the above statistics “Results” then they have lost their way.

We have placed our most precious treasures, our children, in the hands of impostors who cannot deliver. They are stealing the nation’s future. We are doomed. They cannot produce. They cannot be fired. They have TENURE, a job for life. The laugh is on us; we pay their salaries with our property taxes. They take our money and dull the minds of our children.

It is easier to get rid of a Predator Priest than it is to fire an Incompetent Teacher.

Education; The Disenthrallment of the Quiet Past

February 9, 2011 3 comments

I was reading an article on manufacturing in America in the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley. It discussed the idea of “Disenthrallment”. In Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress he speaks of disenthralling ourselves of “the dogmas of the quiet past” in order to “think anew.”

This idea of “Disenthralling”, great word, ourselves to think anew is exactly what drives me in these posts on family, parenting, and education. The first of these enthralled bad habits, Vertical or Linear thinking, must be disenthralled if we are to move forward and pull ahead into the new future think, which is Here! Now! This “dogma of the quiet past” is destroying creativity in our schools all over the country. Sir Ken Robinson believes, “Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.” The development of creative thinkers who contribute creative ideas to our society should be the mantra in our schools.

We are in transition in our educational systems and, like present day Egypt, transitions are painful and tumultuous. They are filled with uncertainty and unknowns. Because we are enthralled to a world that is passing we are threatened and cling to our certainties. Our schools teach to avoid uncertainty. We teach to memorize the answers to the questions, and if the grades are high enough on the tests we get to go the next level of memorizing. Then if we are successful in mastering these educational hurdles, we get to have a job and live happily ever after. This is an Industrial Age fairy tale!

The reality is that we are always on a path, never at a turning point, to use one of Ridley’s expressions. There is no resting place; no place to retire. We live in a dynamic, ever changing world where information flows at rates that are incomprehensible and there is no slowing down information exchange. Our schools and teachers need to disenthrall themselves from the ‘dogma of the quiet past’ and free their students from Rote memorization and challenge their creative thinking.  “Nothing endures but change”.

Hierarchies are on the way out; networks are Here Now. We must escape from top down thinking. We are in the midst of vibrant radical innovation, except in our schools, where all remains the same as before. We have done what we always do and now we are where we have always been.

People all over the world are online sharing, swapping, building, innovating and moving forward. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, SCVNGR, and Foursquare, to name a few, are burgeoning with creativity and vastly different from the days of Carnegie’s US Steel. Today’s New Age Internet Corporations need far less capital and fewer employees. The World is their marketplace and everyone who tunes in online has the ability to make valuable contributions.

In the future, corporations will begin to turn themselves into internet sites where collaboration replaces the board room. They will/are becoming fast changing networks of temporary collaboration which replaces the central authority of fixed plans. The New American worker is becoming as fluid as the information that surrounds him/her. These new workers will be changing jobs often. Since they accept there is no such thing as “security” they will not care to participate in the old Industrial Age promises of Social Security, Medicare, Pensions, Health Insurance, and other political traps. This hip generation already knows these political programs are illusions and will not function in their futures. It’s like chasing rainbows.

If we don’t change the educational system to run with this savvy generation, they will go it alone. Many are already leaving the “System”. It does not fulfill their needs and many students see it as a propaganda dead end. Why would they believe or accept something that they know leads to NOWhere? Many extremely successful entrepreneurs have dropped out of Ivy League schools, i.e. Harvard’s Bill Gates of Microsoft, Princeton’s Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR, Harvard’s Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to name a few. Now, ask yourself, “Why did these guys and others opt out of our prestigious university system?” when so many would kill to get into them. I think it’s because the system is losing relevance in the age of dynamic information flow and exchange and where technology and its manipulation is the future. These men had an idea and the educational system could not accommodate it. They left.

We have a serious drop out problem in this country, which is crippling industry because unskilled workers are what we graduate. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes, “Americans make more ‘stuff’ than any other nation on earth, and by a wide margin. According to the United Nations’ comprehensive database of international economic data, America’s manufacturing output in 2009 (expressed in constant 2005 dollars) was $2.15 trillion. That surpassed China’s output of $1.48 trillion by nearly 46 percent. China’s industries may be booming, but the United States still accounted for 20 percent of the world’s manufacturing output in 2009 — only a hair below its 1990 share of 21 percent.”

How is this possible? It’s because we don’t make ‘stuff’ any more, the ‘stuff’ that you see in Wal-Mart, Target, or other big box stores. We manufacture fighter jets and sophisticated medical equipment, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, industrial lathes and semiconductors, not easily found on your weekly shopping list. This shift in manufacturing requires technological skills because most of it is robotic. Our future workers need to know how to operate complicated machinery that has a brain of sorts. They need to be able to think, diagnose, and solve problems. They need to be Lateral thinkers and technologically skilled. They do not need to be numbed down by Rote, Vertical, Linear thinking of the ‘quiet past’.

Young savvy men and women are dropping out of schools because the schools are irrelevant.

“Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”

William James

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