Tuesday, December 10, 2013

School as Department Stores

I am perplexed by the way education as a social service has so completely been overwhelmed and then accepting of the corporate philosophy, model of management and jargon. What is it about teachers and their profession that makes them especially vulnerable to this model of management? Ah! I know why! Its because it is easier and it is someone else's responsibility and authority! And it's cleaner as true education is a messy and unpredictable activity, hardly amenable to an organized market system.

I am reminded of the old department store when I think of schools these days, establishments like the Hudson's Bay, Eaton's, or for our American friends Macy's, JC Penny, K Mart and Target. The parallels are obvious and frightening when we then apply these notions to our children and then wonder why they, for the most part, can't or won't think outside the proverbial box.

Stores have to be clean, efficient, show sales figures, draw people in, keep them and make them consume, show profit, and when done hustle the consumer out to make room for new. Customer desires are determined by data from sales figures as to which products need to be stocked and which to discontinue. Accountants and experts in business administration crunch and massage these figures to create sales goals, manage profit margins, properly deploy employees according to their credentials and/or pay rate. Time sheets, punch clocks, rules and regulations between management and labour are negotiated to some degree. Often threats of punishment from above such as loss of hours, loss of pay or the pink slip are implemented with the response from below of work to rule, increased absenteeism or strike. I see the parallels to a school and it's system in everything stated above. New schools are designed along that of fake town squares, the Mall, owned and controlled by Mall owners and operators. They are no longer institutional looking purpose built structures, but rather commercialized looking places where education is consumed.

In-house security to prevent shoplifting, unauthorized access, annoyance or a sense of insecurity to paying customers is everywhere and growing. Vagrancy is very undesirable, everything has a consumerist purpose. Advertising is unavoidable throughout the establishment, visions of perfect people where envy and jealousy are the prime motivators of purchasing products. Again the parallels to a classroom and school is obvious.

Feeding the instant gratification desires of our clients, that is students, is necessary. They must see their grades online at any time of the day or night. Parents knowing instantly the value of their investments and labour costs is a must. The student consumer also has to know this in order to make useful cost benefit analysis of their time and effort to properly allocate their resources in order to maximize their satisfaction of the scarcity issue within their wants and needs. Short lived use of the purchased item leads the consumer to come back again and again for the new and improved versions of the product.

We are being asked to have 'marked by' deadlines to ensure the student grade is as real time as possible. It's like price versus return in a stock market. Having marks posted and up to date is like looking at the stock ticker flashing past giving real time valuation to a product. I'm at a bit of a loss what that product really is. Hopefully it's not each course a student is in. Treating a course as a commodity to which cost benefit analysis, market share potential and profit would be applied would destroy education, learning, self improvement and most importantly the search for truth and meaning in life. I am sad to say it looks more like that than not. All the great minds of the past are probably sadly hanging their heads.

We have come to believe the consumer, the parents, are always right even when we know they are not. Whatever the parent wants we bend over backwards to make it happen. They are the paying customer after all, albeit through minimal taxation as opposed to the real cost of educating their children. People without children pay and so too indirectly does business. So, who has the true helm of education in their hands, elected political officials, the electorate, business leaders?

We know instant gratification consumerism is only temporary short lived fulfillment. While instant gratification may sell something to someone, or convince someone they must have something, or getting praise for work (not necessarily good work) is more valuable on a resume than the respect earned from years of experience or a full career, the idea remains that long term satisfaction has always been seen as far more valuable.

Globalized economic ventures and values are also mirrored in education. Competition for the best and brightest as well as comparative advantage in trade between nations is shown through the advertising for and attraction of foreign students as well as educational competition between nations through the OECD PISA exams. These exams make us pit children against children on a global scale between national and regional educational systems. This makes methods and teachers as 'trainers' of these children more valuable rather than as true educators. The morality of this is highly questionable and the ethics demeaning to us all. Why don't our students think outside the box? Quite simply because we really don't want them to.

The virtues of business practice are well known as are all the myriad ways people lie, cheat, cut corners to maximize income versus it's costs. Lehman Bros, Murdoch and Madoff comes to mind. Profits must always go up. Growth must always be seen to be expanding. It is perpetual and limitless. It is the definition of modern progress. Our children see all this, the hypocrisy that is there for all to see. We can always demand more from our children whether through 'modern and progressive' or 'drill and skill' forms of education. That is until the market collapses.

Unfortunately, as we have seen on the economic front in the past few years, instead of making a new, better system for all we shore up the old, entrench it further and take more from the masses to feed a few. We ignore the truly innovative, reward old ways with some twists and turns to make it appear better and press on. We are doing the same with our children. When will they collapse?

Rational History Part Two

I hope students think more than 'historically in a rational way' as explained in Part 1 of this topic of Rational History. If all one does is look rationally into the past the only option remaining in our actions today towards the future is to recapitulate the past, that which we then only know. Strict use of objectivism and rationalism as method rather than as tool, destroys divergent, intuitive leaps in thought. In objectified rational thinking all one gets is the logic that is derived from it, that is, a certain pre-determination of outcomes (it is not by accident that religious predestination among early Christian rationalists came to be an inescapable conclusion). The potential for broad thinking is diminished. Imagination becomes stifled by what was and is rather than the freedom to think what can be. With a bit of history students should begin to think a-historically. That is, toward not just one, but multiple possible futures any one of which may be better than today and some that will be worse! We are not talking of the insanity if irrational thought either. I am speaking of arational, intuitive leaps of thought. In my view the youth of today and particularly their teachers must broaden their scope rather than be limited by objectified history and rationalistic logic leading to the potential and the danger of the recapitulation of the past through the essentialist actions of the reductionist. History has no future if this essentialism is paramount, for then only determined outcomes can be foreseen. The unforeseen, both potentially good or bad, are then to be avoided. If these unforeseen things do occur they are as catastrophe. But none of this is possible apriori as is it not knowable what, or which, circumstances will create what will become history.

It is here that we come face to face with the idea of how much do we need to know to make a prediction? Everything that can be known of the past? If this were true then we'd truly have no future as all our time and effort would be required to study all the intricacies of what has been done and we would still never know enough. We couldn't live in the present for all the time we would have to invest in the past to predict an unknowable future. We would then have to trim our requirements down, we'd have to make generalizations of the past. And the more we make of those the looser and more dubious and unreliable our prognostications become. The basis of everything involved in rational historical study becomes untenable. We be just as well off to use astrological charts to predict the future.

Another fatal flaw of the rational approach to history is the scientific need to collect data, mountains of data. And this quantitative approach leads one to use statistical mathematic analysis to draw out that which may be spoken about. Of course statistics likes to draw inferences from its largest data sets, that is the region within data fields which will render the greatest statistical likely hood of being involved in the action or question being researched. This ultimately means averages are created, and it is the commonality of events that the averages are that can lead one to say that a high likelihood of something occurring lies within a high average, or degree of probability. In other words the method of the study determines its outcome.

And, yes, you could say based on the analysis of the data such and such will happen. Well, at least, you could say that, but you would be wrong, of course. Wrong, because no matter the data, the massage or the twist, history cannot and does not repeat itself and is therefore completely unpredictable except in the broadest and most general of terms. For example, the sun will come up tomorrow out of the east and as the day wears along eventually after a predictable amount of hours will set in the west.

This is a problem as most often it seems, it is not the average person, group, or event, that rises to notice. In fact, this is such a problem that this form of analysis leads to gross oversimplifications. Rather it is the outlier beyond the radar of average, beside statistical likelihood, outside the average that becomes crucial. It isn't the common or the average among us that drives the great people and moments in history. It is, rather, the outliers living beyond the seeming recognition of history that are the engines towards our future.

I am not so sure 'how and why' we got here is as important as it once was. What is done today for tomorrow is far more important. I believe the old saying that 'if one does not know history one is doomed to repeat it' is erroneous. Nothing in all my studies of history has shown that history repeats itself. There may be similarities from time to time but nothing is ever exactly the same, circumstances are always different, the people are always different, the cultures, traditions, technology and so history is always different. That being the case, then what can the study of history be for? Some use it to justify retribution, even old scores and even guilt tripping. But often it is used by those in positions of authority to justify why they are where they are and to enshrine it for the foreseeable future. History, such as it is, is often used as a justification for sovereignty, as a means for the powerful to functionally, historically lend credence to their rule.

Prognosticating the future, particularly a free future, is nothing more than guessing. The numbers of variables involved, the largest of which would be people themselves, are innumerable. Of the causal variables it is only a guess again which would be important to any given event and a further guess as to how that may influence the vicissitudes of history.

Friday, December 6, 2013

This is still true...

I came across this little piece today on my hard drive. I have meant to work on it for some time. I think I first wrote about it in 2009, perhaps 2010. I re-read it and am sad to say it remains valid.

Hedge funds and the Economics of Grades (2009)

I hit upon a new 'economic grade' term this afternoon in class. It began with a student asking if there were going to be any other projects than the term paper. I replied that I hadn't thought about it and asked why the need to get another project mark. "Oh, well, its just that I am really good at projects." she said.  I then said, "Your paper should be a good read then." To which she replied, "Probably not and that's why I want to do another project like we did last year with puppets.  I got a really good mark for that and it was fun."  "Ahhh," I said, "It’s just like the new unit on economics we start tomorrow. “You want a hedge fund! Do you know what that is?”

There were blank stares and shaking heads around the room.

“It’s when you make investments, like when you do your homework, in order to gain marks.  You study for tests to help you do better in the market of grades. Some days if you have two things to do you will decide which will give you the best marks and just do the one that gives the highest and forget the lowest - that is cost benefit analysis. Some other days you will have two different pieces of homework from different subjects and you'll use cost benefit analysis again and comparative advantage (which subject you are best at and get the easiest and the highest marks for) to help you decide which to apply most or least effort to in order to maximise your marks and overall grade for the least amount of effort. And sometimes teachers give you grades just for showing up, or for putting your name on a paper, or for good behavior. These are welfare grades, marks available to those who can’t, or won’t, get good grades any other way. With me so far?“

Then there were hesitant nods sprinkled throughout the room. I went on...

“Well, what you want now is easy extra marks for an extra project to add to your over all mark, right?”

Nods all over this time!

“This is to ensure that in case you do not acquire as much grades as you had hoped in the regular investment of the term paper, in the same way that if your money investments tank like they have over the past 6 months, you want to have a hedge fund, an extra project, where you can get extra easy 'for sure' marks to make up for the possible shortfall in grades earnings on the term paper so the hit, or loss, won't be as bad. Does this about sum up what you want?”

Guilty nods all around - I laughed like crazy! They must have thought me a mad economist!

“NO!“ I emphatically said to them.

“So,” I said as I went on, “to continue this line of thinking…if the worst happens and your brains fall out and you get the paper wrong, do all the wrong format, get all the wrong information and poorly write it up and then fail all your tests, because you studied all the wrong material or didn’t study at all, and skipped all my classes from here to the end of June all because you hoped your extra project ‘sure thing’ hedge fund would come to your rescue and fill the grade void. But, surprise, surprise, you still end up failing.  In economics that’s called moral hazard where you are responsible for the outcome of your decisions, you could lose your invested grades or your invested money. That being so, you probably try not to make these bad decisions right?”

Nods all around.

“Okay, but, what if you were so confident and went right ahead and made these bad decisions anyway, would you expect a Principal's bailout for your bad decisions so you could at least get 50%, your high school diploma and get a half decent job even though you screwed it all up? And you are walking the stage at grad because of this bailout, feeling big and important, and walk with the others who worked hard and risked carefully?  Would they think you deserved it? Would they think that their own work has been cheapened by this?”

They were shocked at my inferences to their morality even though there were a few who very vigorously nodded affirmatively, the ones who made the right decisions, sacrificed, worked hard and rightly earned their grades and diploma.


Later I analysed this further...

It had all made me laugh like crazy BUT it also made me see that perhaps this pervasive form of 'Let the market decide' philosophy in our society over the past 30 years still requires the hope and glimmer of humanism and a socialistic way out of the moral dilemma of personal responsibility for everything one does, especially when it turns out badly. People who screw up hope to receive clemency from the rest of us, and we generally have done so leading to the expectation of this occurring and the negation of moral hazard as a natural consequence of poor decision making.

This all melds quite nicely with cost benefit analysis, comparative advantage, and welfare grades.  Its no wonder our kids are such good consumers of education.  They don't learn much, and I don't mean that in a negative sense - they REALLY don't learn much as electronic devices have all the content required, but they sure consume, consume and consume some more.  For example, I ran a quick test in my grade 12 class and asked quickly of random students what mark they got in various subjects in grade 9. Most knew in an instant. I then asked who was the first Prime Minister, some answered, most didn't. Who was the second? Who was the one before the current one? I asked questions relating to their grade 9 curriculum. They were stumped. The content is secondary to the grade and so what was learned as content was only temporary, needed for only as long as it took to write the final exam, the mark was the dividend and of real value and something to be remembered. It somewhat goes to prove that they go to school for the marks economy, not for the content involved. What IS important is the process of acquiring grades, the how to learn, the how to gain grades, takes precedence over what was learned, the dreaded content. The kids do know how to DO process, they look toward leaders (teachers mostly) to tell them what to do, blast through worksheets or assignment questions from the book, usually by just copying and pasting the answer without much deep thinking or struggle. Indeed, there is no struggle on their part, the information as facts is given to them, the questions to think about as well and in many cases the answers partially uncovered to make it easier for them to ‘discover’. And to make matters worse students were given grades at every step, leading them in the end to demand the grade no matter what. This leads to the comments of the knowledge based educated people, "Today's kids don't know anything, and if left alone to figure it out just sit there until someone shows them, and still they expect to get paid for the time they spent unproductively just sitting there."

The notion of education as a ‘business’ with the parents as ‘clients’ and their children as the ‘widgets’ to be buffed, shined and pushed out the door ready for the real world has done mighty damage to our society as well as the expectations of parents and students. Teachers are constantly viewed as industrial workers, not the highly educated and dedicated people that they are. Principals of schools are no longer master teachers but rather building and personnel managers with responsibilities not of fostering an environment of good teaching and learning but rather of efficiency and accountability. School based management with ever shrinking funding leads to stresses and strains on a public social institution that has the same expectations as a private business. Public institutions cannot be held to the same standard as a private business. In fact, the public institution, particularly that of public education, has a higher moral and ethical standard than that of private business and to have brought it down to that same level has led to no end of problems. It is the greatest error and calamity to have hit public education since its inception and nothing will be better, not student achievement nor teacher practice, until this is finally understood and dealt with.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thoughts on education today: Potential

'Potential' ... Love and hate that word. Human potential is the great hope of mankind. And yet, who knows what a student's potential is? I don't, even after 30 years experience in the classroom. Can a student do better? Maybe. According to the latest conventional wisdom the high school adolescent brain can only do so much at this point in their development in any case. Boys, for example, lack judgment and empathy in their teen years and, some say, this isn't fully developed until they reach their middle to late 20's. This makes it easier to put young men in uniform and ship them off to idealistic battle, oops, inner voice leaking out again.

Where do we begin to determine a student's 'potential'? Of course the teacher presiding over each level of the student's progress can give anecdotal advice, but this has been largely downplayed and discredited by the rationalists and this 'unreliable' subjective evaluation as wholly unacceptable. Empirical, dispassionate, evidence of a student's potential is the universal benchmark these days, that means number grades. Grades made up from quizzes, tests, graded class work, all euphemistically and unemotionally called 'assessment', will be collected and averaged to create the benchmark. We have been indoctrinated with this for many generations now and have come to expect, know and believe this as accurate in showing what a student has done with their 'potential'. However, this 'grade' does not indicate a student's further potential into the future.

Teachers intuitively know these grades to be inaccurate so massage them with weightings and other devious methods to give the student the best advantage possible. The issue is that averages are just that, average. And within the mathematically objective process of averaging, disappears the flashes of brilliance, the disasters, the good days and the bad, the motivations and the boredom, that all of us recognize exists as something we know as life. There exists the conflict of objectification of a subject; that is, taking a vague, undefinable, action or thought, sense or feeling and turning it into a quantity, affixing a value. Put a value on love; love a little is a 1, love a lot is a 5 and sort out the other values as you see fit, make it arbitrary rather than fluid. You can't average it otherwise.

So, what is it about 'assessment' then? Is it the almost arbitrary nature of objectifying subject matter, whether formative or summative, the student either gets it or not, or the over emphasis on a device that really does not measure much in regards to a students education and what goes on in their mind?

As well, collected marks, among different objectified subjects, averaged together to 'give' a student a benchmark of their averaged ability is completely inaccurate in determining what the 'potential' of a young individual human being may be for the future.  If anything demonstrates that student learning cannot be addressed via an empirical rationalist means it would be here. Indeed, any attempt to claim that a prediction to a student's potential is accurate and true is ludicrous when all known variables, let alone the unknowable, are taken into account. Yet, these averages and potentials are the stock in trade in any conversation regarding education.

All forms of assessment are isolated snapshots, orchestrated by the instructor, of a moment in time that becomes the past as soon as its done of a student's learning or ability as it progresses forward. I hope you see the problem here. If, presumably, one learns progressively, for regressively would be to unlearn and statically would be to halt, an assessment is always about the past, never about the future. After all one cannot test for what one does not know now but may in the future. We only assess for what one has done and to what level and is really no means of an accurate predictor of what may be learned or of interest in the future. So, then, assessment and its relative importance are to be regarded with high skepticism not blind faith.

Assessments are dependent on what the instructor wants to see in the answers to the questions, which is further framed by the overall expectations of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA's) within the prescribed curriculum as set out by government as representative of the needs of society, further framed again, by special interests, business and labour markets as well as post secondary requirements, that determine what the societal needs are for the community of their children in later life. This is social engineering for perhaps individualistic, democratic and capitalistic characteristics or as cheap, docile, obedient labour, or superior technical skills for the industrial and space races, or for patriotism, national identity and nationalism. Perhaps all of that is considered important in a societally stratified, powerful state.

In any case, test results are dependent on the emotional/rational moment in time of the student as many internal and external factors are at play at any given moment. Physiology, psychology, cause and effect, life, in other words all have an effect on a students ability to write a test at any given moment. As with the NASA training of chimps before going into space, over the years the students 'irrational' fears are trained out of them in order to deal with these rational tests.

No experienced teacher who has seen 10 years worth of students in their classroom puts too much stock in assessments for other than a rudimentary sample of a young persons knowledge and abilities and says nothing about what any one student may learn in the future. However, outside the experienced teacher's classroom, assessments are used to artificially stratify students in a class system hierarchy of ability, which will supposedly mirror their place in greater society and supposedly help them, and others, make choices to fit in to those places. 

Assessments are also used to ensure teachers follow the proscribed curriculum created by that greater society in order to ensure it's self perpetuation. In fact, assessments themselves have become the means of pointing to an outcome of a minimum standard of knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA's) attainment by any student and it is this simple exposure to the KSA's themselves that is all a state requires to maintain and perpetuate itself for many generations at a time, it is the mysterious hidden curriculum spoken about in such hushed tones in the university education classes. And in any and every case these assessments are only an average outcome that says nothing about the real significance of statistical outliers and may in fact serve to keep them 'average' or outcast as anomalies.

 All in all it is a most unfortunate situation for all involved that normal learning development of youth cannot be allowed to naturally occur. 'Potential', then, would have a completely different connotation and a more positive one at that. But large society is not a 'state of nature', it is rather a construct of KSA's that a community commits to. To say that students should be able to head out and learn whatever they want, whenever they want, to finally do whatever they want is far too anarchic for those older members of government, business and labour of society who have finally reached a measure of power and control over their own lives and society. Government doesn't really want autonomous thinkers, neither does business or any other social organization of humanity. Visionary thinkers, yes, but not too visionary and not autonomous. Galileo's experience some 500 years ago remains a cautionary tale to this very day.

It would seem it is time for the levels of society to admit finally, and clearly for once that education, as it fits in today's society, is a process implemented upon our youth to socialize, stratify and emulate the existing society and to maintain and perpetuate it as purposefully as possible. It follows the naturalistic philosophy of classical liberalism that struggle and competition, as demonstrated by nature, makes one more able to achieve, than if allowed to develop solely by nurture in a safe, caring and sympathetic social environment. This argument is nearly 400 years old with no sign of resolution in sight.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

History doesn't repeat itself, but human nature does

Is it an accident or fate of history that seemingly momentous disasters in recent sport stories come from places that once were havens for Christian fundamentalists searching for freedom from oppression to practice their beliefs? There seems to be a parallel, or at least I see a parallel. For me it is oddly amusing to connect the dots. History doesn't repeat itself, but human nature does.

Re: The unwarranted mythology of Oscar Pistorius


How is this any different than the unwarranted mythology of (insert name of nation here)?

No question the author is fundamentally correct regarding true athletes specifically, not just wannabe's in general. But this applies to everything, including the author. Why write about it? Why take some pleasure from helping to demolish another? Is the author, by diminishing another, elevating his self? All of this begs the elemental questions about human nature. Is the highly competitive survival instinct of humanity, that is head to head physical competition, no longer acceptable to a self supporting society no longer listening to the 'state of nature' of a long ago past? Do we have to struggle any longer? Must we compete for mates for procreation? Must we strive for higher, faster, stronger? Must we compete for grades, schooling and work? Are we now becoming the ultimate Calvinist society, divesting itself of all base 'natural' instinct and its resulting self expression in favour of uniformity, obedience, hard work for possible salvation in the hereafter? And the fear that someone somewhere is happy? The here and now is so determined, constructed, safe (the only predator we fear is the psychotic human as shown by all our TV programs, ie 'The Following', and pop culture books ie The Hunger Games) that life IS boring and the contest between unbridled human 'nature' and the sedated modern world is becoming more and more protracted. We emphasize one over the other at various moments sometimes apart from one another, but sometimes confusingly overlapped.

As a critical, perhaps cynical from time to time, thinker, I can see some of the world as it is from a position of experience. I am not too concerned by that, but what must the inexperienced youth of today make of what they see. Their base natures being enticed by 'Axe' commercials and then the sedation of the 'rules' of a safe community and then the 'inoculation' of hard honest work, for money, as a means to all that is valuable in life.

Re: DutchNews.nl - Dutch cycling star Michael Boogerd admits doping up to 2007


Yah, and now it seems in those days if you didn't dope you weren't a real cyclist. And if now everybody says they doped, then it really was a level playing field as Armstrong said. There sure must have been a lot of blind eyes...sponsors, mechanics, directeurs, trainers, etc, etc. which means...Everybody benefitted from the money, from the lowest to the highest, even the public who lined the road.  After all the pro cycling organizations weren't murdering anyone, didn't cause societal unrest nor debauchery! After all, how many people willingly and knowingly risk and die on any job in the real world, say, in the oil drilling business, construction or transportation?

The only guys taking a big risk in cycling were the riders and their health; besides if you died on the job you would be mourned by many, could become a hero and have a marker placed beside the road. So, then...if everyone was doing it, most knew it was going on and most everyone benefitted, then why was/is it illegal?

So, in walks the American purest, a real Puritan of the American tradition of its early settlers, hard line moralist religious people, taking down Armstrong and the rest. The Inquisitors have largely done their work, thumbscrews and all. They have made once solid teammates and comrades become traitors to each other and appear as thieves and pirates to the public at large. If taken too far with all this, as Puritans are likely to do, we will get to the Salem witch trials and begin burning innocents and soon no-one will 'play' anymore as it is another thing that only reveals the excesses of human activity, a sin, something according to the Puritans condemned by God as impure. The seven deadly sins versus their corresponding virtues, the contest of which, for most of us, is too much to deal with and is, in the end, equally destructive in their strict adherence at either end of this spectrum. Author Walsh would do much for the sport of cycling if he were to 'study up' regarding real life, get down off his high 'bike' and see it all for what it is rather than from his own poor me victim position.

Efforts to be 'reasonable' have largely left the building leaving everyone everywhere left to ponder what to do as we now watch the lawyers sue and counter sue. It's only cycling, people! Leave the Puritans to clean up their own backyard, God knows there is plenty to do with, murder, mayhem and Las Vegas! So, get on your bike and ride!!

Re: Cycling Lobby Group Urge Armstrong To Make Full Confession


The fundamentalist religious undertones are quite evident - Armstrong's confession in order to begin the journey of salvation of his individual soul and to purify the community from a corrupt old church, the UCI, is the primary goal of the new puritan cycling community of competitors, sponsors and followers. The puritan church, USADA in this case, with its most puritanical leader are lost and confused with the attitude of a non-believer, a realist, like Armstrong. It is further fascinating to listen to the ongoing consternation of the puritan leadership of the USADA as it tries to legitimize itself as the grand, universal, arbiter of athletic souls through the epistles of its beliefs and its truth about sport above all others. Sanctimonious attitudes writ large. The puritan church has managed to achieve and receive contrition from the rollers who fell from grace, a rag tag group of 'born again' now evangelical riders and managers who now lead the charge and acceptance and obedience from the rest, all except one.

But what to do with the sacrilegious barbarian, the Viking Armstrong, who follows his own code of personal honour different from that of the collective as believed by the fundamentalist USADA hierarchy? An honour forged in competitive combat in the peloton, on the road, rather than from the comfort of the office chair where only idealized principles are discussed, and where nary a drop of sweat is noticed during these lofty incantations. The voices and sounds of disbelief, the begging and cajoling of the puritan leaders for Armstrong to come clean, to save himself, to cleanse his soul, is heard everywhere. But would it save himself? Armstrong is condemned either way, his victories not just taken away, but his participation erased from history itself. Or would Armstrong's 'confession' save and further legitimize the church, the USADA, thereby making their position canon in the world of sport. Is that what it's all really about? Must the USADA have every soul, every bended knee, every last corruption rooted out?

If the canon from the USADA were the last word on what is right and good in sport, even above the old church, the UCI, then, if they are so right and certain, why not leave the 'unbelievers' behind, to die in ignominy as it were, and move on? Why put all this effort in reclaiming the one soul of the recalcitrant and unrepentant Viking Armstrong? Is that one individual so central to the legitimate existence of all that he is to be hounded for his confession and conversion to USADA canon?

Though the puritans would wish to have any acknowledgment of Armstrong's existence expunged from memory, the best they can hope for is his dying confession screamed to the god of sport as the flames consume him, purifying his soul for the legitimacy of the god of sport and his representative on earth, USADA, and to cleanse the guilt of those who believed and followed him in error.

Older and more civilized regions of our world have a longer and more circumspect view, recognizing the fallibility of the human animal despite whatever it may think and believe. Reasonableness is paramount in the old world, having experienced with great pain the results of both rigid thought and action and no thought and inaction. Surviving the 'vicissitudes of outrageous fortune' is the real task at hand.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Rational History? Part One

Part One

Looking up 'thinking historically' there seems to generally be a semantic argument of terms and sequence of the inquiry into history. The usual suspects of deterministic importance between individuals regarding the nature of history is evident, whether 5 C's ( (1) Change over time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity.) Or 1. Chronological, 2. Comprehension, 3. Interpretation, 4. Research, 5 Complexity. It seems to be an argument of themes, as you see generally five, with purpose of each and order. I have not read enough of this argument, but I have a feeling it will just make me further upset! A strict rationalist, determinist, approach is heavily woven throughout and, to me, is the greatest impediment to the teaching and learning of history. This may also be true of many of the other mandatory subjects a student must learn.

History is not meaningful in a rational sense; that is, names, dates, places. I am passionate about history, and I find it is far from rational. In fact, my own study of history is far from deterministic! I pick those parts of history that I am emotionally bound to and get excited about in that moment; for some reason I need to know it, and tomorrow it may be the subsequent bit of history, or it may be an entirely different part separated by hundreds of years. History is made by emotional people in emotional situations, there is nothing rational about it, it is subjective from beginning to end. So, why should history be dissected in a rational way? No one learns history chronologically; pieces, chunks are chosen that are of interest as one moves along in their day to day life. These pieces are often disjointed ideas and times, or places, or people, that for some reason generate a need for inquiry. A book is fetched, or one goes online or ask someone who may know the circumstances that has piqued this interest. Over time, after many such investigations, a person may be able to reconstruct a timeline with gaps all over in terms of chronology of events, subjects, individuals, dates and places. And linkages are made between these bits of what each individual feels is of personal interest, importance and relevance.

That is what makes learned history stick. As my daily mantra before every class goes, "Relevance, relevance, relevance." If it is not relevant to the student it is meaningless, easily forgotten with no real need to be retained simply because it is meaningless. I mean, you don't really accurately remember and recite meaningless stuff, do you? And so I try every class to make it relevant to each student knowing full well that each student will have a different angle of relevance. In much the same way that if I say the word 'dog' to a class, instantly a picture is conjured up in the mind of each student. But what is conjured up is based on individual experience and no two are the same. Some may see a ferocious set of teeth and be frightened, another sees a Chihuahua, another a cuddly puppy, a Lab, a Great Dane and on and on. The point is, while each student 'sees' in response to 'dog', each context of what they 'see' will be different in their individual definitional experience. How that becomes applied to any word or concept within the classroom, too, is as individual as each student. This is true for everything we say and do in class. How then to make a point similar, if not identical, to each individual student so that their collective understanding is the same. Not an easy task necessary for authority to maintain and ensure perpetuation of their society. And is crucially important to the class average on standardized tests. And the core of a propagandists hard work.

The easiest way to standardize these contextual inferences made by individual students is to objectify the subject first, then rationalize its context and reduce it to its essential components; in other words, make a textbook. A standardized, vetted by some authority, interpretation by someone else, volume of information, that is facts and examples, to be put in the hands of every student. This, to make the nuances of individual difference between students disappear in favour of a universal impersonal uninvested fact is to rationalize, if not negate, unique individual experience. This is standardized, over generalized, mind numbing, meaningless mass industrial education of a bygone age. And why, today, most young people as they get older, more able to more greatly conceptualize things about them in their middle to late teens, eventually begin to dislike school as uninteresting, irrelevant, banal and look for other things that are immediate to their needs.

The notion of instant gratification is a symptom of the student's plight. Delayed gratification has become too unreliable to satisfy their needs for success. They intuitively know, because the material taught is dull and boring, that memorization of his dry meaningless stuff is their only way to retain in the short term what they are required to know and laying all their cards on the table at the end during a high stakes examination is far too big a gamble. So, emphasizing the immediate, the quiz or homework or special project, capitalizes on a student's effort and hedges their accumulated grades against the final summative examination. Some are very good at it, while others not so good and still others fed up with the whole thing, either because they are too smart or have failed miserably time and again, leave school altogether. Whatever the outcome, the unfortunate thing is that for the majority of students what they have learned is a rationalized history; an unreal, largely irrelevant view of how the world works, which they intuitively know at worst is wrong or at best is only a part of the real story of history.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Things to Fear

Two things to fear above all; complacency and smugness.

Complacency - when it appears that everything is just fine, nothing is broken thats needs fixing and until something is very broken and can be shown to be broken, we should just continue on the same path. This complacent mode is normally espoused by lazy people who don't want to look for possible issues before they become one, cannot see any reason to doubt their own skills, methods and knowledge and have worked hard enough to get where they are now and see no point in working harder. The complacent generally are not affected by what is perceived to be broken by others and steadfastly denies the reality of what others recognize, or accept the issue as part of the cost of the system as it is. Adaptability, change nor thinking about change, even to improve things for others, are not a part of the complacent. When confronted with the notion of change the complacent react with knee jerk defensiveness of their own domain followed by an aggressive attack on the possibility of change and its rational, rather than reflection on their own, as well as personal attacks on those who do see a need for change. Now you know why we have a 20-25% drop out rate from our schools.

Smugness - when someone feels that what they are doing is above and beyond reproach, criticism or evaluation. Too much success can be a bad thing when combined with a sense of certainty that what one does is the best of a long list of alternatives and hard fought sets of knowledge, skills and attitudes. The smug see nothing of use in what others say in critique of what they do, quickly pull up straw-men as a defence and generally deride any suggestion that a better alternative is out there. Their beliefs and experiences and their claims to particular knowledge supercedes anyone else's.

Other things to fear:

The notion that the scientific method actually is something that is done and that it works is something to fear. No greater myth exists in western culture. Whenever someone tries to think outside the empirical, rationalist dogma that is the foundation of our society since the 15th century immediately the notion of the evidence, massaged data averaged with outliers eliminated, provided by the scientific method, is proudly trotted out as a defence. Too bad the 'method' is retrospectively relied upon after a discovery has been made in order for the scientist to explain what he did, not what s/he had initially set out to do. Logical procedural thinking plus a great deal of serendipity and just plain old luck is how science is really done and is judiciously left on the cutting room floor. Knowledge making, epistemology, is all it is, and is founded on curiousity not procedual methodology. Little kids do it all the time without any method at all and so to do their mothers and fathers in the lab or out in the field, they play and discover.

And yet another thing to fear is the notion of a liberal education when the curriculum outcomes are tightly engineered and validated and scrutinized by high stakes testing. A liberal education ceases to exist when it appears that all aspects of an issue are explored, when numerous examples are put before a student and a defined mental rigour is inculcated, a model of inquiry for example, towards finding an acceptable (to the curriculum) end solution. This is directed inquiry, a highly formalised and not at all naturally occurring form of thought for most people. It comes from the notion in rationalism that intuitive leaps of thinking are not to be entertained, only a 'scientific methodology', a rational logic, is acceptable. The aquisition of knowledge and its use in applied skill, epistomology and technology, is all that matters. Practical wisdom and intuition are discarded as serendipitous, unquantifiable, and therefore an unknowable personal 'point of view' that cannot be averaged and generalised. What happens to people who can't think like this in this form of liberal education? They fail, of course. Many truly bright divergent thinkers end up in the dustbins of society for just that. This is far from what the intent of a liberal education was to be. Liberal education was not intended to create a vast caste of like minded people! It was meant to liberate in every way the travels of a student through their own learning, not some idealistically prescribed curriculum for the masses with the intent of creating a complacent (see my above description), docile, accepting, quasi-democratic, capitalistic, individual with very little moral training and practically no ethical notions other than to not drink and drive, carry guns and stay out of trouble with the police. Perhaps it could be argued that many topics are quite 'liberal' in the scope, that may be true, but they are very illiberally dealt with in most classrooms.