Debunking Education

Over at Chicago Boyz, the Assistant Village Idiot (How I admire that nom de Internet!) Has some thoughts about education, and they do not involve much handwringing at all. I approve.

I don’t think we argue quite enough around here. Perhaps there have been good arguments in the posts I don’t read the comments of, but it seems too much of “Yeah, and let me tell you another thing about that!” lately. So I will go after a conservative favorite, of how much better education was in the Good Old Days, which I think is bosh. I don’t defend much of what I read about education today, but neither do I think it was any better then. Since 2011, I have increasngly concluded that schools don’t matter quite as much anyway. The worst 20%, where it is dangerous to even go and hard to concentrate – that’s bad. The rest, it doesn’t make much difference. Never did. It’s all right to disagree with me about that, it won’t hurt me. I have seen lots of schools, old days and new; I know lots of teachers, old and new. I have read some of the real research, not the media-driven crap where they still can’t tell causation from correlation, and I have discussed this widely for decades. I know what the disagreements are (though I do get an occasional surprise). Have fun with it.

I am leading with this as a teaser, for its entertainment value, and because it introduces some concepts I’ll be bringing in later. I have edited it only a little from 2011. With the recent elite school admission scandals, parts of this are wryly humorous now.

THAT 1869 HARVARD ENTRANCE EXAM

An anonymous commenter linked to the 1869 Harvard entrance exam that was dug up by a NYTimes writer and made the rounds last year.  It looks pretty intimidating at first glance, and the commenter used it as evidence that Billy Sidis’s entrance into Harvard in 1909 was a pretty solid accomplishment in itself.  Interestingly, the boy’s getting in was probably even better than the exam would indicate.  Harvard was no great shakes in 1869, but had improved considerably by 1909, and was one of the world’s best by then.  I will note that it was still not what we think of today.  Competitive university admission is mostly a post WWII, or even post 1960 phenomenon.  Many of the brightest did indeed go to the Ivies, the Little Ivies, or the Seven Sisters,* but you simply couldn’t count on it.  The rich and the alums got their kids in, and nationally, people stayed closer to home and many of the brightest went to other schools, far more than, say, in 1990.

The gap exactly covers the period of Charles William Eliot’s presidency of Harvard, if you want more background than I will give here.

Read the headings over each section. See how few questions were required.

Also – it doesn’t say what a passing score was, does it?

185 out of 215 applicants got into Harvard that year.

But the test.  That Latin and Greek look awfully impressive right out of the gate. If you are older, and/or a reader of history, and/or a traditionalist, you may still have Latin Envy, believing that a “proper” education must include it, and Greek!  Why, that just seals it.  A different alphabet and everything.  Weren’t they smart, then?

No, not especially. They had had six years of Latin and four of Greek by then, whether by tutor or at academy.  If you took any languages at all in late 20th C, and make the mental comparison of what, exactly, they were being asked to do after six years, it looks much less impressive.  Note also, there was a standard set of works studied in those languages, which these questions are drawn from. There was frequent drill in grammar. Even if you had Latin yourself, you should note that the primary authors studied now are not quite the same as studied then, nor in quite the same way. These exam questions are essentially “Did you have proper teachers, are you reasonably bright, and did you make a moderate effort these last few years?” Nothing more.

Before I get into the math, let me note a major difference, then and now, in the test as a whole.  Look at what is missing in this exam.  There is no biology, no chemistry, no physics, and certainly no other sciences such as geology or economics.  There are no questions on English Literature – no Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton – and certainly no American literature (Horrors!  To even imagine such a thing!).

A lot of what is being said here is, in my opinion, is that teaching to the test is what happened then and happens now, and will happen in 2230. Teachers’, and schools’. reputation is based on how students do on tests, so not teaching to the test is professional suicide, and that ain’t gonna happen.

Could schools be better? Of course, they could. That’s true now, that was true in the ’60s when I went, a hundred years ago when my parents went, a hundred years before that when Abe Lincoln did his semester, and when Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great. It just is. Schools run on a logarithmic curve like anything else. Some few are amazingly good, some few are terribly bad. Most cluster around average (because that is what defines average). School improvement is based on raising the average infinitesimally.

Always remember half of the kids in school, like half of the teachers, and half of the schools themselves, are below average.

You know what makes the most difference in education? The kid’s parents’ attitude. If a kid is taught to be curious, to attempt to learn, instead of to shut up and do what he’s told, he’ll learn, in school, or not. Vice versa is true too.

Almost all the rest, the theories, the books, the lecturers, the bureaucrats, are a scam, to make a living, often a good living, off of the fact that half of everything is below average. Some may help, many will probably hurt, all will cost you (or you as the taxpayer) money. Caveat emptor.

Long ago it was declared that education was the parents’ responsibility. It still is. Schools are a tool, but only a tool, whether it is Oxbridge, or an Ivy, or Podunk Central Junior High. You get out what you put in.

Nothing more and nothing less.

College-Admissions Fraud; Color Me Unsurprised.

So the completely unsurprising scandal of celebrities buying their stupid offspring into elite so-called universities for credentialing purposes continues. In truth, nothing could be less surprising. Heather MacDonald in City Journal writes:

The celebrity college-admissions cheating scandal has two clear takeaways:  an elite college degree has taken on wildly inflated importance in American society, and the sports-industrial complex enjoys wildly inflated power within universities. Thirty-three moguls and TV stars allegedly paid admissions fixer William Singer a total of $25 million from 2011 to 2018 to doctor their children’s high school resumes—sending students to private SAT and ACT testing sites through false disability claims, for example, where bought-off proctors would raise the students’ scores. Singer forged athletic records, complete with altered photos showing the student playing sports in which he or she had little experience or competence. Corrupt sports directors would then recommend the student for admission, all the while knowing that they had no intention of playing on the school’s team.

None of this could have happened if higher education had not itself become a corrupt institution, featuring low classroom demands, no core knowledge acquisition, low grading standards, fashionable (but society-destroying) left-wing activism, luxury-hotel amenities, endless partying, and huge expense. Students often learn virtually nothing during their college years, as University of California, Irvine, education school dean Richard Arum writes in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. They may even lose that pittance of knowledge with which they entered college. Seniors at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Berkeley scored lower in an undemanding test of American history than they did as freshmen, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. College is only desultorily about knowledge acquisition, at least outside of the STEM fields (and even those fields are under assault from identity politics).

Yep, pretty much covers it, for me at least.

What the pay-to-play admissions scam does not demonstrate, however, is that “legacy” admissions are somehow more corrupt than race-based affirmative-action admission policies—which seems to be the primary lesson that left-wing commentators and politicians are taking from the scandal—or that meritocracy is a “myth” that has now been debunked. Racial preferences are a far more significant deviation from academic meritocracy than legacy preferences, which are not even implicated in the current scandal. An underreported but salient detail in the Singer scam is that he “falsified students’ ethnicities,” according to the New York Times, because “some families and students perceive their racial backgrounds can hurt or aid their chances of getting in to schools that consider race in their admissions decisions.” This is not a mere perception; it is the truth. […]

To be sure, legacy preferences and racial preferences should both be eliminated.

Colleges should adopt a transparent, purely merit-based admissions system based on quantified tests of academic preparedness. Such a system would guarantee that entering freshmen were all equally prepared to compete academically, and would have the additional benefit of putting most college admissions officers out of a job. These self-important bureaucrats view themselves as artistes, using their exquisite insights into character to curate a utopian community of “diverse” individuals. The Harvard racial-preferences trial put such airs on nauseating display. In fact, admissions officers are simply allocating a scarce resource based on their own prejudices and inclinations.

Yes, anything else is smoke and mirrors, or in good flyover country English: Bullshit. If you are going to college, and fewer than half of our kids have anything to gain from it. I personally found two years in that I didn’t. Luckily Purdue was a land grant University so I wasn’t saddled with huge debts for my trouble, and I learned quite a lot, and like most alumni, love the place (as you know). But not finishing has not hurt my career, which has been pretty satisfying and paid the bills, as well.

The real losers here though, are the kids who thought they were getting an education but instead have found out their parents were buying them credentials, but without the skills that must go with those credentials to be useful in the real world.

Until the ‘elite’ schools once again teach how to think instead of indoctrinating leftists, I, as a business type person would simply shitcan any resume with a degree other than engineering, or other stem fields. And yes, Purdue would be favored, I’m a bit corrupt, as well, I prefer excellence over mediocrity.

Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

This is the Samizdata quote of the day from yesterday, and it leads to a most interesting article by Kåre Fog in Quillette. Not a particularly easy read, but very valuable and highly recommended.

From this laborious work, and from all my other efforts in this field, I have drawn the conclusion that the evidence for social constructionism is a mirage in the desert. It does not exist. Most people in the humanities – including those who are able to express their opinions freely without fear of being fired – presuppose that gender roles are social constructs, and that the results obtained by natural scientists are determined by their social and political environment. Thousands of pages of academic ‘research’ express such notions, and thousands of university students are taught that this is how things are. But it is all hot air. The whole scenario is reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes – nobody listens to the little boy who alone has the courage to point out that the Emperor is naked.

Much of this material – and Judith Butler’s obscurantism, in particular – functions like a Latin liturgy. It is not meant to be understood. About 600 years ago, the clergy in England supposedly existed to combat evil and make the world a better place. The sermons were in Latin, and the Bible was only available in Latin, so laypeople had no means of verifying what the clergy told them about religious doctrine. When a number of idealists translated the Bible into English so that common people could read and understand it, the idea – in principle, anyway – was that this would give more people direct access to God’s word. But instead of embracing this opportunity, the clergy fought all attempts at translation. And when the Bible became available in a language that people understood, the clergy burned the English translations, and those who distributed them were caught and executed. Given the choice of either supporting the wider dissemination of God’s word or preserving their own power and authority, they chose the latter.

A similar pattern of motivated self-interest is in evidence today (although opponents are no longer executed). Social constructionism has transformed the humanities departments of many universities into a kind of postmodern clerisy. In its own understanding, this clerical class strives to improve the world by insisting that all differences between groups of people are social constructs that testify to the unfairness of society. Society, therefore, can and must be reconstructed to dismantle these iniquities. But if wide-ranging social change is being demanded, then the basis for those demands needs to be firmly established first. Scholars ought to be labouring to prove the extent to which such differences are indeed social constructs and the extent to which disparities can be mitigated or dispelled by the radical reorganisation of social policy and even society itself. But this step in the process is simply absent. Instead, theorists make claims without bothering to substantiate them. Confronted with a choice between the disinterested pursuit of truth and understanding, or preserving their ideologies and positions of influence, they consistently opt for the latter.

And so, large swathes of the humanities and social sciences have been corrupted by ideology. Pockets of integrity remain but they are the minority, and they are only tolerated so long as they do not contradict the central planks of the accepted narrative. The unhappy result is that our universities are corroding, and our students will graduate with nothing more than the ability to further corrode the rest of society.

These are the concluding paragraphs of the paper and summarize very well what is documented in it. Many of us often wonder why the scientific method is falling into disrepute, and here is our documented answer. Do read it, and take it to heart, it will clarify many things.

Saturday Videos

This video is nearly viral this week, I think I may be the last conservative site to run it 🙂 That’s OK.

 

Preach it, Brother. Why? Here’s why!

Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky

This is interesting

These are fun in small doses, but it doesn’t make a hill of beans difference, really

As far as the founders were concerned, well, Tenche Cox who served under Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison said this:

The power of the sword, say the minority…, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for The powers of the sword are in the hands of the yeomanry of America from sixteen to sixty. The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress has no power to disarm the militia. Their swords and every terrible implement of the soldier are the birthright of Americans.

Note that phrase “every terrible implement of the soldier“, he was quite prepared to see private citizens own anything up to warships, as citizens did in those days, as well as artillery, and the founders thought the citizens should not have ‘military grade’ weapons, they should be better than that. Pretty clear to me.

Here’s a woman who lost her job in one of Canuckistan’s kangaroo courts. What for? She ran a tape of a debate (it had already been televised) in her class, and horrors, it had Jordan Peterson in it.

How about a little history, from Jordan Peterson? Good stuff.

The Hardest Course in the Humanities

Most of you know that while I’m appalled at what passes for the humanities today, I’m a huge supporter of the real teaching of them. Yesterday, at Powerline, Scott Johnson had some good news for us. This comes to us from Mark Bauerlein, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s out from behind their paywall, at least for the present. Do read it all.

For most of my professional life, the future of the humanities was a conceptual matter. That’s no longer the case. When enrollments are down, majors are down, funding and jobs are down, adjuncts are up, and departments are being closed, abstract debates over which new theory or interdisciplinary vision is on the rise don’t much count. When a formation as renowned as the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University is proposed for shutdown (it later was saved in modified form), we know that the prosperity of the humanities doesn’t rest with people at the top.

No, it depends on the people at the bottom, undergraduates who vote with their feet. If an English department’s chairman tells the dean, “We’ve got to hire someone in this new area of ____,” the dean replies, “But you can’t even get your existing courses half-filled.” If, however, a parent calls and grumbles, “I’m paying lots of money, and my daughter can’t get into any of the English classes she wants,” well, that calls for action.

It’s a situation that few humanities professors are equipped to overcome. Graduate school and assistant professorships don’t impel you to attract freshmen and sophomores. Instead you learn how to impress senior professors. But right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.

Hopefully, and their parents, at least indirectly, but it is true enough, it’s a somewhat competitive market. But what to do?

Nothing could be further from it than what W.H. Auden did at the University of Michigan in 1941. Auden had left England in 1939 and became for a time a visiting professor at Ann Arbor. He called his course “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” a timely theme in the days of mass killing and existentialist moods. Its syllabus resurfaced a few years ago and provoked much commentary on its mass of 6,000 pages of the most powerful and challenging literature in the canon: The Divine Comedy in full, four Shakespeares, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and TremblingMoby-DickThe BrothersKaramazovFaust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Auden even included nine operas. Opera in the 1940s was a popular art form, with millions of people tuning in each week to the Met’s Saturday broadcast, but it’s hard to imagine anything less consonant with millennials’ attention span than one of Wagner’s Teutonic enormities. Auden assigned three of them.

Sounds to me like a fascinating but quite difficult course, I’d have loved it, but it would surely cut into the time spent drinking and chasing girls. Continuing:

[..]  “Where on earth today would one find institutions or teachers or students so audacious as to attempt something similar?”

That question, in fact, appears on the syllabus of LTRS 3803, the first part of the two-semester, team-taught course at the University of Oklahoma that goes against all the conventional wisdom. It’s modeled on Auden’s course, with a few changes. The instructors — Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English — have spread it out over an entire year, and they’ve excised a few books (Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka). But they added The OdysseyThe AeneidBeowulfSirGawain and the Green KnightParadiseLostRobinsonCrusoePride and Prejudice, Nietzsche, InvisibleMan, and other 20th-century masterpieces such as Derek Walcott’s neo-Homeric epic Omeros. They dropped most of the operas but kept Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They speak frankly in the course description of taking “delight in the Western canon” and hold fast to themes of little currency in the research world: destiny, God and “the gods,” a meaningful life, authority.

When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.

Well, how about that!

[…]There, without the professors present, I asked the key question: Why did they sign up for Western-civ boot camp?

One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature. “This is what I came to college for,” another said. One more chimed in, “This class is changing my life.”

They acknowledged, too, the distinctiveness of the works they read, one student calling them a “foundation” for things they study elsewhere. They admired the professors, to be sure, but the real draw was the material. When I asked what they would change about the course, they went straight to the books: add The Iliad and some of the Bible.

Their attitude was enlivening. But the only thing that really matters is enrollment. “Will you sign up for next semester’s course?” I asked. “Definitely,” they replied, all of them. (This semester has 32 students enrolled, more than the original cap of 22 because many more petitioned to get in.)

(emphasis mine) The precise opposite of the bigotry of low expectations.

I advise the traditionalists to try the Oklahoma way. Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

I agree completely!!

Huzzah, Huzzah, Huzzah!

May this trend spread widely, and well. This is what the liberal arts are supposed to be all about.

Autonomous Mayhem, and Poor Advisors

Well, the autonomous automobile passed a milestone over the weekend. One of Uber’s autonomous vehicles struck a woman pedestrian and killed her. Here is the story from Gizmodo.

Last night a woman was struck by an autonomous Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona. She later died of her injuries in the hospital.

The deadly collision—reported by ABC15 and later confirmed to Gizmodo by Uber and Tempe police—took place around 10PM at the intersection of Mill Avenue and Curry Road, both of which are multi-lane roads. Autonomous vehicle developers often test drive at night, during storms, and other challenging conditions to help their vehicles learn to navigate in a variety of environments.

According to Tempe PD, the car—later clarified as a grey 2017 Volvo XC90—was in autonomous mode at the time of the incident, with a vehicle operator sitting behind the wheel. The self-driving vehicle had one operator and no passengers, Uber said.

I’m sorry for the woman, and her family, but it was going to happen someday, and there will be more.

Apparently, the car showed very little sign of slowing down

And here comes a major can of worms for the lawyers to sort. The car was running autonomously, but there was a driver in it. There is video from several angles that has not been released. So who is at fault here? Uber, whoever built the control system, the driver, or the victim. Interesting times, what?


This follows on from yesterday, from The American Spectator.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said of the prospect of being tarred and feathered that, “Except for the honor, I’d as soon skip it.” (Though with Twain you can never be sure. It may be in his case, as Yogi Berra put it, “I didn’t say everything I said.”) Except for the honor of having a (very expensive) sheepskin, young Americans today may find there are many more profitable ways to spend four years than idling at a dumbed down, overpriced, and highly politicized university.

In Friday’s edition of TAS, our Allen Mendenhall calls out a woman history professor for her exercise in misandry poorly disguised as an academic article in that progressive newsletter, the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The men-are-useless-at-best-and-swine-at-worst genre is popular among female academics just now. It mostly derives from free-floating hostility that unhappy women have decided to attach to an easily available and approved target, to wit: men. Annoying, but not to be taken too seriously. In her Chronicle rant, our complaining professor (no point in naming her, there are so many of her out there) rides the usual feminist hobby-horses, too dreary and predictable to enumerate here.

From Professor Discontent’s laughable survey, one cannot conclude, as she invites us to, that women academic advisors are competent and helpful, whereas men advisors are, well, just a bunch of men so what should we expect? But from personal experience I can assure TAS readers that slothful academic advising is hardly a new problem. Perhaps not even a problem at all. At the bachelor’s degree level I managed, not entirely by choice, to dispense with it altogether.

When I filled out an academic course schedule for my first semester at the University of South Florida in Tampa, it was with precious little help from my assigned academic advisor. He was a man with a string of degrees from a certain toney Ivy League University, the annual tariff to attend which now amounts to about what I earned in my first 10 years in journalism. This fellow was cordial enough, and was helpful to the extent that he gave me a sharp pencil to fill in my course schedule with. But it took me mere minutes to determine that on the basis of a quick browse through the USF catalogue, I knew as much about what courses I needed to take as he did, and was far more interested in the matter. (I’m sure other faculty members at USF, and elsewhere, took the advising chore more seriously.)

Keep reading it’s interesting.

I know the feeling, I did much the same thing. My advisor wasn’t from a fancy school, like his, well as far as I know. She was, however head of the department, and apparently had better things to do than advise undergraduates. So I did what he did, figured it out for myself, the information was all published, so it was merely a matter of looking it up, and marking the appropriate tick boxes.

So my experience says that a woman advisor is useless.

What the three of us writing these accounts have really done is demonstrate the weakness of anecdotal data, each of us generated a true set of data points, leading to entirely different conclusions.

That was rather fun, but what he really was talking about in the article (you should read it) is this, and yes, I think the same way.

I’ve no clue about the quality of advice currently handed out to college students, though some of my speculation is truly dreadful. The often daft news out of academe today — about what both professors and students are saying and doing — makes one wonder if perhaps the best advice for a brand new high school graduate today, unless he/she is aiming at medicine, engineering, or the hard sciences, is to not waste four years and a ton of money at one of the most anti-intellectual institutions in the republic. It will just take new degree-holders years in the real world after graduation to de-louse their thinking and to learn something useful. About as long as it will take them to dig out from under the enormous debt they accumulated in order to pay to attend today’s overpriced university.

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