Constricting the modern mind

I will be brief and rambling today.

As I was wasting a few minutes on “social media” I noticed post after post where a meme–often a very clever one–was offered as evidence for a political opinion. You know what I mean “X destroys opinion Y with one example” blah blah blah. I find it both irritating and a bit frightening.

I find it frightening because more and more it appears that memes are displacing newspapers and news broadcasts as the fundamental information for voters. I see memes blaming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for Trans Canada Pipeline’s corporate decision not to further pursue the Energy East pipeline. I see local mayors tarred and feathered over I’m not sure what. I see that “the left” all agree on everything, and it’s all stupid. I see the “the right” all agree on everything, and that it’s all racist.

And I fear for the future of democracy.

One of the strongest responses could come from education. But I’m not sure that the will is there.

As I sadly looked at my Facebook page, a line from JS Mill’s On Liberty came to mind.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859).

Mill knew better.

People who disagree with us are not all fools, nor are they all morally defective. (Some may be, of course.) For virtually any position worth fighting over, reasonable people can disagree on the details, and sometimes the fundamentals.

But do we take other people’s disagreements with us seriously enough?

What are the real issues behind athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem? They are not all fools; they are not all anarchists hell-bent on destroying a nation. You don’t have to agree with anyone to take him seriously. But you do have to have some intellectual and moral courage.

Can we teach students to take others seriously? I think we can. I don’t think we do it well enough. Classroom debates rarely get to the heart of the matter. Debates tend to quickly degenerate into glib contests of verbal cleverness.

Student writing (or oral, or visual representation, or film, or whatever) should always consider the strongest opposition to the point being argued. In fact, this should be one of the main points of assessment in the scoring rubric (that’s scoring guide, or rules, for non-teachers). Perhaps as much as 30-40% of the student’s grade should be contingent on whether she takes her opponents seriously and gives them fair and honest voice.

I’ll stop here. I’ve given this much thought over the years, but I’ve never tried to articulate it until now. Hopefully, you’ve noticed that I haven’t given fair voice to someone who disagrees with taking opposing views seriously. It’s a dilemma.

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Gilded Monuments and History

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, controversy over the proposed removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis has been quietly brewing for nearly four decades.

300px-CornwallisStatueHalifaxNovaScotia[1]Cornwallis was a British military man, who was given the task of establishing the city of Halifax, and  was Governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-1752, after which, he retired back in England. At the very least, the statue is a tribute to colonialism, to the “conquering” of the new world and its first inhabitants. In short, the statue symbolizes the beginning of the modern Canadian nation-state, as well as the beginning of the decimation–some would say genocide–of indigenous Canadians.

We are hearing similar debates in the USA this year, with discussions about public commemorations of Civil War leaders. As in Canada, one side wants the statues to celebrate “glorious history” and the other wants to put an end to the public display of the vile politics of an earlier era.

There really isn’t much to say about the issue in general, apart from the observation that every public monument is different. Staying within Canada, consider Mt. Stalin. After the end of the second World War, the Canadian government honoured our great allies by renaming three peaks in the Rockies after Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin. Since the war, we haven’t learned much to make us regret the first two, but as the realities of Stalin’s rule of terror became known, Mt. Stalin became a public embarrassment. But it took a fair bit of debate before the mountain was renamed Mt. Peck  in 1987. The fact is that Stalin was a major contributor to victory in the War. Yet, this wasn’t enough to outweigh his atrocities. Canada chose to stop honouring Josef Stalin. And rightly so.

Cornwallis will be a more difficult case. He was, undoubtedly, a man of his time, and we can’t hold that against him. On the other hand, we are acutely aware of the pains of colonialism and its legacy. The people of Halifax will have to weigh three things:

  1. Cornwallis was founder of the city.
  2. The statue celebrates the colonial imbalance of power that was instrumental in the decimation of First Nations.
  3. The statue itself has been a part of the civic culture for almost a century.

I have no pony in this race, and I leave it to the good people of Halifax to figure this out.

 

But what about history? What are we to make of the claim that the removal of statues is the destruction or denial of history.

It’s nonsense.

These statues are not history. They are public markers of admiration. When they were installed, the admiration was undoubtedly real. But it’s our world now, and we have both the right and the duty to carefully consider and reconsider who we choose to display publicly. Do the people of Halifax value the British presence and dominance in Nova Scotia more than they decry the destruction of indigenous peoples? Does the civic pride in looking at a depiction of a dead general outweigh the personal anguish of the victims of colonialism and their descendants?

Weigh carefully, my friends.

Finally, let’s think about historical precedents. Often after revolutions or even after minor insurrections, zealous crowds have toppled statues. I’m talking about something different. Let people use the wisdom of public assembly to guide decisions of public policy.

In the end, though, time will be the judge. All these dead guys displayed in bronze remain in the historical record. And the judgment of historians–and history students, will continue to evolve as do our collective beliefs of justice and goodness change. Time gets the final word.

Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

 

Dilbert on Amusing Ourselves to Death

Dilbert amusing
http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-04-30

 

Like all good humour, the strip is a minor exaggeration of reality.

 

Weapons

 

The strip serves as a segue from my concerns about the continuing relevance of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, to my next entry, which will look at Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.

As we move more deeply into the connected world, we have no choice but to surrender personal data. As we surrender data, market managers are able to tailor-make a world of consumption for us–whether we want it or not. The upshot is that the world of big data is relentlessly conservative–it makes a model of “you as you are” and works to market at you from that position only. The poor are set up for predatory loans and exploitative “opportunities”, while the affluent are guided toward status-enhancement.

Tighten your seatbelts; things are looking bleak.

Geography

 

doonesbury
http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2017/04/25

A brief entry today. A number of my recent postings have been about brevity (whether anyone has noticed, I’m not sure.) The point I’m trying to make is that understanding is hard work. We can’t just watch a 4 minute video, or visit a few websites, or scan a news item and actually know very much about anything. This is a longstanding educational problem. I’ve pointed out Neil Postman’s arguments about TV culture, and I’ve suggested that internet “knowledge and understanding” are another species of the same problem. I will continue to provide bits and provocations, and will attempt to write  a longer, more coherent position some time in the near future.

The Doonesbury cartoon points to a longstanding problem. People think they can say something about world affairs, while simultaneously knowing very little about the world. The geography of Syria or Crimea are deeply relevant to understanding the ongoing conflicts in those lands. So are their histories, political economies, language, and culture.

Who among us knows enough to keep our politicians honest on these issues?

We can include anything and everything in mandatory education. But surely a deeper knowledge of the physical shape of the earth, and the main political divisions would greatly help to inform political dialogue.

Here’s a question for you. How many current heads of government can you name? (I mean presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, etc. not mayors and governors.) Have you got 20? 10? 5 at least?

While we’re at it, see if you can find Syria and Crimea on an unmarked map.

middle-east-map

 

 

 

Postman: “Teaching as an Amusing Activity”

As I noted previously, Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business seems oddly appropriate in the connected world of the early 21st century.
Chapter 10 of this book, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity” looks at the role of television in shaping 1980s educational thinking and practice. My goal today is to briefly review what Postman had to say, and think about today’s connected classrooms in light of this.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of Postman, TV and prose have very different structures, giving them very different relationships to knowledge. (Postman says that different media have different epistemologies; this, I think, goes too far.) Postman begins with a discussion of “Sesame Street”, then reflects back to the classroom.

As for educators, they generally approved of “Sesame Street,” too. Contrary to common opinion, they are apt to find new methods congenial, especially if they are told that education can be accomplished more efficiently by means of the new techniques. (That is why such ideas as “teacher-proof” textbooks, standardized tests, and, now, micro-computers have been welcomed into the classroom.) “Sesame Street” appeared to be an imaginative aid in solving the growing problem of teaching Americans how to read, while, at the same time, encouraging children to love school.
We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Whereas a classroom is a place of social interaction, the space in front of a television set [is not.] (p. 143)

There are two big ideas here. First, we have the displacement of responsibility from human teachers to an entertainment medium. Second, we have the displacement of a social setting—the classroom—to a private setting—in front of a screen. 30+ years later, the issues have not changed.
After some reflection, Postman continues:

This does not mean that “Sesame Street” is not educational. It is, in fact, nothing but educational—in the sense that every television show is educational. Just as reading a book—any kind of book —promotes a particular orientation toward learning, watching a television show does the same. “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Cheers” and “The Tonight Show” are as effective as “Sesame Street” in promoting what might be called the television style of learning. And this style of learning is, by its nature, hostile to what has been called book-learning or its handmaiden, school-learning. (p. 144)

Now we’re getting to the main issue: by changing the media of education, we change not only the content of education; we also change our notions of what is educationally valuable. Whatever it is that students get out of television learning, we have to be prepared to understand that it is different from what they get out of reading, writing and socially interacting. Watching the movie is not the same as reading the book. Not only do we need to understand it, we need to be prepared to challenge our values. What is important in education?
In the connected world, we often hear bland generalizations about the modern “knowledge economy” and “21st century skills” and “21st century literacies” and so on. But are we really aware of the price we are paying? Postman lays it out with what he calls the three commandments of television-based education.

Thou shalt have no prerequisites
Every television program must be a complete package in itself. No previous knowledge is to be required. There must not be even a hint that learning is hierarchical, that it is an edifice constructed on a foundation. The learner must be allowed to enter at any point without prejudice. This is why you shall never hear or see a television program begin with the caution that if the viewer has not seen the previous programs, this one will be meaningless. Television is a nongraded curriculum and excludes no viewer for any reason, at any time. In other words, in doing away with the idea of sequence and continuity in education, television undermines the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself.
Thou shalt induce no perplexity
In television teaching, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied or, worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth, of the learner is paramount.
Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt
Of all the enemies of television-teaching, including continuity and perplexity, none is more formidable than exposition. Arguments, hypotheses, discussions, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse turn television into radio or, worse, third-rate printed matter. Thus, television-teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music. This is as characteristic of “Star Trek” as it is of “Cosmos,” of “Diff’rent Strokes” as of “Sesame Street,” of commercials as of “Nova.” Nothing will be taught on television that cannot be both visualized and placed in a theatrical context.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Whew! This is strong stuff. I can’t help but agree. And, again, the issues have not changed. Indeed, many educators have taken these three commandments to heart, merely by being part of the 21st century.

I hope to return to this later.

Back to the 80s #4: Amusing ourselves to Death

No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today w71ew4kattblere on the agenda 30 years ago
I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is an important chapter dealing with education, but I’ll put that aside for today and focus on the introduction to the book, which has become a deep insight into our currently connected world.

Postman famously reflected on two important works of political science fiction from the early part of the 20th Century: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (and a tip of the hat to Brave New World Revisited).
Briefly, 1984 describes a totalitarian world in which people are controlled through censorship, surveillance and the systematic destruction of language. Ultimately, a people without the means for self-expression are incapable of creation and are doomed to servitude. Brave New World offers a contrasting picture of the future, in which those with the cognitive capacity for freedom are constantly deflected from its exercise, through drugs, sex, virtual reality and comfort.
Both books agree that freedom is threatened by the destruction of language and the motivation to apply it meaningfully; but each gives a radically different mechanism by which this might be accomplished. Postman’s great insight was precisely this point.

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This is chillingly appropriate for the connected world. We are offered websites, apps, music, video, games and more for the simple price of our privacy. And we are throwing ourselves with zeal into every imaginable distraction. Who hasn’t noted the trend of people walking down the street with their faces buried in their phones? What teacher has not noticed that students are drawn to the siren call of social media: even with the phone out of sight, there is the constant thought of “what am I missing?” Drivers are apparently unwilling to pocket their phones while on the road, preferring the risk of smashing a ton of steel into a stranger to the risk of missing out on snapchat.
But are we being controlled by all this? Postman thought so. (To be clear: he was speaking of television culture in the 1980s, but the phenomenon is similar. In fact, I believe that the phenomenon is the same, but is considerably amplified by the ubiquity of social media.) We’ve heard the talk about post-truth, and the connected world is the main driver behind our increased reliance upon quick decisions. Headlines matter more than articles, because we are not willing to put aside our distractions long enough to read.

post truth graph
Marvelous graph from social media. I don’t know who to credit. If you do, please let me know and I will do so.

I don’t believe that people don’t want to know the truth, or the details, or the arguments. It’s just that the pull of our amusements is stronger than our desire to know.
Postman would likely be pleased to see that his book and its arguments still apply more than 30 years after the book was first published. And he’d likely be horrified too.

Only for geniuses, eh?

As regularly as the spring rain, memes of the following sort show up on social media.

sevens
As a math teacher, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Adults—sometimes hundreds or thousands of them—argue about the correct answer to this “problem” and others like it.
Let’s be clear: this is a question about the order of operations in arithmetic. In the Province of Alberta (my home) this is expected of all Grade 6 math students. So, Facebook is clogged with adults working below 6th grade in basic number sense. Ok I do know. It’s cry, not laugh.
What sense can we make of this? Do adults not remember their elementary-school arithmetic? Apparently many do not. But some of the comments are also telling. It appears that many were taught methods that almost work, but don’t quite.
The acronyms BEDMAS or BODMAS are often taught to children.

Brackets
Exponents (or pOwers)
Division
Multiplication
Addition
Subtraction

If you follow BEDMAS, you’ll be right most of the time. It’s fine for the above problem. There are no brackets or exponents, so you divide 7/7 and multiply 7×7, turning the problem into 7+1+49-7=50. But there is a problem with BEDMAS/BODMAS and that is that the acronym suggests that division has priority over multiplication and that addition has priority over subtraction. This is not true.
Once brackets and exponents are cared for, you work left to right. If you come to a multiplication or division, do that before continuing with the addition or subtraction. Schematically, the problem above simply becomes 7+(7/7)+(7×7)-7, which is pretty easy mental arithmetic.
Even calculators can make errors.

calculator-god

If you’re not working left to right, you run the risk of making the error on the left.
Regardless, what am I on about here?
First, order of operations is elementary school arithmetic. It should not pose a problem for adults. But it does. This points to a serious educational deficiency—for the adults. This is not a problem of “new math” or “constructivism” or “Common Core”. The people getting it wrong online are, by and large, from earlier generations of failed arithmetic education.
But it’s clearly a problem, and I think I know why. It’s a problem of assessment. You see, if students (in any generation) get most of the questions right, they get a good grade. I suspect that the adults who can’t solve simple order of operations problems never could do it well. But they got all the easier questions right, so no one bothered to dig deeply into their failure on the one or two harder items on the test. Yes, this is just speculation on my part, but I’m willing to bet that it explains a good deal of the problem.
But there is a positive note to all this. Adults are arguing about math in their spare time.

They care. And that’s encouraging.