Matt Cardin: What I read in 2009

I was just now checking out Matt Cardin’s blog The Teeming Brain.  He had some new posts since the last time I visited.  I was impressed by one in particular: What I read in 2009.  He listed a wide variety of reading material.  Some I was already familiar with, but there was much I hadn’t come across before.  I particularly appreciated his listing of articles.  The following are a few that caught my attention.

Whose Country?
By Andrew Sullivan

Buchanan, of all people, should know better than these tedious recurring explosions of racial panic. And, of course, he does know better. He has read more history than most pundits. He is personally a civil and decent man. But he feels these things in such a profound and tribal way that what he knows is submerged by tribal fear and expressed as hateful hackery. But this much is true and deserves restating:

Black Americans have shed blood in every American war since the Revolution. This country, even the very Capitol building in which today’s legislators now demand to see the birth certificate of the first black president, was built on the sweat and sinew of slaves. Before we were people in the eyes of the law, before we had the right to vote, before we had a black president, we were here, helping make this country as it is today. We are as American as it gets. And frankly, the time of people who think otherwise is passing. If that’s the country Buchanan wants to hold onto, well, he’s right, he is losing it.

And about time too.

I couldn’t agree more.

Rand’s Atlas Is Shrugging With a Growing Load
By Amity Shlaes

Some assumed the libertarian philosopher would fall from view when the Berlin Wall fell. Or that at least there would be a sense of mission accomplished. One Rand fan, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, wrote in his memoir that he regretted Rand hadn’t lived until 1989 or 1990. She’d missed the collapse of communism that she had so often predicted.

But “Atlas Shrugged” is becoming a political “Harry Potter” because Rand shone a spotlight on a problem that still exists: Not pre-1989 Soviet communism, but 2009-style state capitalism. Rand depicted government and companies colluding in the name of economic rescue at the expense of the entrepreneur. That entrepreneur is like the titan Atlas who carries the rest of the world on his shoulders — until he doesn’t.

Yeah, this is true to an extent.  I, however, think it misses a major issue. 

The companies colluding with the government once were entrepreneurs themselves.  The entrepreneurs became successful by beating out the other entrepreneurs.  As history shows, many successful entrepreneurs became powerful by fighting dirty which included using political influence when it was convenient.  The problem is that many of these pro-capitalists use Rand’s capitalistic mythology to support their views of state corporatism. 

Sadly, Rand’s vision of honest, hardworking entrepreneurs are the exception to the rule; and they aren’t the ones that get filthy rich.  In reality as it is, entrepreneurs are as devious as any other group of people including politicians.  There is a very good reason that Rand is most popular for her fiction that reads like Romance novels.  She does tell a good story.

Critical thinking? You need knowledge
By Diane Ravitch

Just a couple of years later, “the project method’’ took the education world by storm. Instead of a sequential curriculum laid out in advance, the program urged that boys and girls engage in hands-on projects of their own choosing, ideally working cooperatively in a group. It required activity, not docility, and awakened student motivation. It’s remarkably similar to the model advocated by 21st-century skills enthusiasts.

This article does make some good criticisms.  However, the traditional method of teaching is problematic in its own way.  Traditional rote memory does have its merits, but it has its weaknesses in a world of such vastly increasing amounts of knowledge.  It is true that the hands-on approach doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of helping kids to really understand.

This article isn’t criticizing critical thinking.  Neither the traditional rote memorizing nor the modern hands-on methodology teaches critical thinking skills to any great degree.  I personally think that education should include the best of both of these methods all the while teaching actual critical thinking skills.  I don’t have any solutions to offer, but I’m always irritated by the attitude that the past was better.

The problem, for certain, isn’t that good teaching methodologies don’t exist.  The problem is that teachers have little motivation to take risks by stepping outside of pre-packaged curriculum.  Most parents aren’t wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools that offer the best of education and most politicians aren’t interested in encouraging public schools to offer the best of education.

Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students
By David Glenn

If you’ve ever sat through a teaching seminar, you’ve probably heard a lecture about “learning styles.” Perhaps you were told that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and others are kinesthetic learners. Or maybe you were given one of the dozens of other learning-style taxonomies that scholars and consultants have developed.

Almost certainly, you were told that your instruction should match your students’ styles. For example, kinesthetic learners—students who learn best through hands-on activities—are said to do better in classes that feature plenty of experiments, while verbal learners are said to do worse.

Now four psychologists argue that you were told wrong. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the “matching” idea, they contend in a paper published this week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt it in the classroom.

I was prepared to be critical of this article, but it turns out to have been a fair analysis of a complex topic.  Basically, the conclusion is that there needs to be more research.

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor
By W.A. Pannapacker

The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often “purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing,” Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that “anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself.”

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of “greatness” than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.

As Beam concludes, “The Great Books are dead. Long live the Great Books.” And, I might add: Long live middlebrow culture.

I’m always of a mixed opinion about The Great Books.  I do think that many of them are great for a reason, but I’m also a fan of lowbrow philosophizing and counterculture thought.  I want the best of both worlds.  What I dislike is ignorance.  I don’t like the populist ignorance of intellectual knowledge and I don’t like the intellectual elite ignorance of anything that exists outside of their specialization.

This middlebrow perspective seems admirable in that it’s taking a broad perspective.  It was originally the purpose of a liberal arts education.  It’s at the heart of the ideal of meritocracy.  It feels like the reality of meritocracy is dead, but the ideal is still lovely.  This article relates to another article (Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?) which I wrote about in another post (Interesting Stuff on the Web: 1/13/10).

Please Save This Nation From the Birthers
By Laurie Fendrich

Instead, I’d like to ask everyone involved in education–at any level–the following question. Where did we go wrong? Why did we end up with so many citizens who have been through our schools who don’t know how to distinguish between fiction and fact, or rumor and truth?

Some, like Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, blame the Internet. Would that it were so simple. True, it takes only a few bucks to get yourself a Web site where you can post whatever slimy hogwash you want. And even the dullest crayons in the box can stumble their way to that post. But posting hogwash and mustering passionate followers is an entirely different matter. “True believers” (as opposed to people using their reason) frequently morph into an ugly mob. (Shouting down your Congressional representative, for example, constitutes ugly mob behavior.)

Scariest of all is the “mainstream media,” which keeps stoking this stinky fire–especially Lou Dobbs at CNN, and with the implicit approval of CNN. After giving credence to “Birthers” by saying, “Well, perhaps, maybe, blah, blah, blah,” Dobbs wasn’t even chastised. Instead, CNN’s president Jonathan Klein hid behind the wretchedly abused excuse of “freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech! That lofty idea, born of the Enlightenment, now used as a smokescreen for a major news organization to deliberately spread malicious rumors? (If you’re wondering about the reason for CNN’s behavior, you don’t need to look far. Hint: money.)

The Birther movement reflects our failure as parents and teachers to educate our children. We no longer seem to care if they become rational adults. This absurd movement reflects a wholesale abandonment of the original American idea of an educated, democratic citizenry.

Three definitely is a failure somewhere.  If it isn’t the education system at the root of the problem, then I don’t know what is.  There will always be an irrational element to society, but it’s perplexing how it becomes mainstream in a society that has so much educational opportunities.

The Rural Brain Drain
By Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas

What is going on in small-town America? The nation’s mythology of small towns comes to us straight from the The Music Man’s set designers. Many Americans think about flyover country or Red America only during the culture war’s skirmishes or campaign season. Most of the time, the rural crisis takes a back seat to more visible big-city troubles. So while there is a veritable academic industry devoted to chronicling urban decline, small towns’ struggles are off the grid.

And yet, upon close inspection, the rural and urban downturns have much in common, even though conventional wisdom casts the small town as embodiment of all that is right with America and the inner city as all that is wrong with it.

I’ve been thinking about this recently.  It’s from these rural areas that much of the outrage arises.  Combined with how electoral colleges represent underpopulated areas, this creates a weird political dynamic.  The problematic part is that the media pays a lot of attention to the outrage that results but little attention to the social context that creates that outrage.