Overheard

The following conversation is purely fictional. Any similarity between characters in this dialogue and persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

The Scene: Rural Manners’ bedroom in a large city on the Midwest. We find Rural and his wife Patience in a heated conversation as they get ready for bed.

Rural: Oh come on, Patience, I really don’t care what your friend Sally told you about how her husband treats her. It’s none of our business.

Patience: But Sally is one of my best friends. I have seen her. She’s covered  with bruises and is near panic. I think we should do something to help her.

Rural: What about her husband? I’ve known Sacks for years and he is a good man — and a better assistant coach. He would never hit his wife. And if he did she probably had it coming. Anyway, it’s none of our business. Now go to sleep.

Patience: Sleep! How can I sleep when one for my best friends needs my help and I don’t know what to do? Sacks is an animal. He’s out of control. It’s just not right!

Rural: Not right? Who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?  Who are we to judge? You’re always saying we shouldn’t be judgmental, so let’s agree to just leave it alone! We have no idea what goes on in that house.

Patience: We have a pretty good idea what goes on in that house. This isn’t the first time and Sally is sure it won’t be the last. She’s seriously considering divorce.

Rural: Well then. That takes care of the problem, Sally will leave Sacks and the problem is solved.

Patience: It is not solved. It’s just hidden. The fact is that Sally has been abused, seriously abused. And that sort of thing just shouldn’t be allowed. You can do something about it as he is your friend and your assistant. At the very least let him know we know what’s going on and that you will go to the Administration at the University if it happens again. You might even threaten to fire him!

Rural: Fire him?? You must be kidding! He’s one of the best coaches in the country. Other universities would die to have him. I’m not going to say a damned thing. After all, he’s been loyal to me all these years and I feel a loyalty to him. He is, after all, one of my best friends. He’s one of OUR best friends. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, we haven’t walked a mile in his shoes, as they say.

Patience: Oh, Rural, this is all rationalization. And you know it. The man needs to be punished and we can’t just sit by and pretend nothing happened.

Rural: Oh yes we can. Just watch me!

Patience: I am really disappointed in you, Rural. You stand before the public as a pillar of moral rightness and the team looks up to you as an example of how to behave. You want to just ignore this whole thing and pretend it never happened when our good friend Sally’s life is in tatters and you might be able to do something to help her. You do realize if this comes out you could be in big trouble. Have you thought about that?

Rural: Nonsense! I’ve done nothing illegal. And as far as ethics is concerned, which you seem to be all caught up in, it’s just a matter of opinion. There’s no way I’m going to get in trouble and you know it. So just go to sleep, Patience. I need to be my sharpest for practice tomorrow.

In the event, the matter became public. There was a great bloody hue and cry and the general public wanted justice. Many wanted Rural Manners fired. A committee was formed and after several weeks it was decided that Rural would be placed on administrative leave for three games, without pay, and would not be allowed to coach Major University’s football team during that period. His large salary would, of course, take a slight dent, but the Booster Club was prepared to make up the difference. After all, Major University was in the picture for a National Championship that year and that would bring millions of dollars into the University’s coffers. They didn’t want to risk losing their coach! The university’s reputation would suffer a bit, but these things tend to blow over quickly as soon as another scandal beaks out. And that would be soon, as everyone knew. So, in the end, with a few exceptions involving the nay-sayers in the country, everyone was happy and things soon went back to normal.

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Computer Fix (Revisited)

I am re-blogging a slightly modified post I entered well over a year ago because it is still timely. In fact, our obsession with electronic toys has grown by leaps and bounds and those who keep “updating” our schools by supplying all the kids with computers are ignoring the facts. This was brought home to me recently when reading a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The story recounted the determination of the St. Paul School Board to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through high school. The district recently passed a referendum that allowed them to allocate $9 million a year for the next few years for its “Personalized Learning Through Technology Program.” I kid you not! $5.7 million will be spent this year and $8 million a year thereafter to make sure no students are left behind (as it were.)  According to spokespersons, this “would make learning more engaging, hands-on, and tailored to the needs of the students on their own digital turf.” I hasten to note that this person is speaking about “wants” and not “needs,” since it’s not clear that the students need to be met on their own digital turf. Rather, they should move from that turf and seek something higher, something that will actually make them smarter and not just indulge their current urges. What they need is better teachers who are paid a living wage. But a $9 million referendum that might be used to raise teachers’ salaries would surely fail to pass. Parents may agree to build more buildings, put toys in the hands of their kids, and expand the sports programs; they will never agree to pay the teachers what they are worth. And this explains a great deal about why America’s schools are in the dumpster at present.

But, the spokesperson, responds, “Our students are millennialists who have tremendous digital fluency and we must tap into that.” To which I simply ask “why?” Why should we tap into a fluency they already possess? Shouldn’t we seek to develop skills they do not already possess? How else can they grow? But of course, the name of the game these days is to lower the bar and meet the students where they are even though this means they will remain where they are. The point was made by a pundit in the same paper who agrees with me that this is a complete waste of money and totally wrong-headed.  Joe Soucheray points put that “First of all, iPads are not learning tools. They are toys. It is not plausible that the average kid handed a free iPad is going to do anything with it but play games and get deeper and deeper into the social media funk, while, meanwhile, perfectly good books are going unread and unknown and gathering dust on the shelves.”

It seems as though every photo we see showing a modern classroom puts the smiling kids in front of a computer screen: we have become convinced that these tools are indispensable and of unquestioned value to all students of all ages. But this is not the case. We are being sold a bill of goods. The good folks in St. Paul, Minnesota have been sold a bill of goods. And, I dare say, other communities will want to “keep up” and will soon decide that their kids need more technical toys as well. The problem, as Jane Healy pointed out years ago and which has been corroborated numerous times since, is that mounting evidence shows these devices leave the left hemisphere of the child’s brain undeveloped and they are subsequently unable to develop speech and thinking skills. There are a number of “windows of opportunity” that are open in the child’s early years. Once those windows are closed by replacing reading and story-telling with TV and other electronic toys, it becomes nearly impossible to open them again. This strikes me as a problem worth pondering again.

Professor Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon who knows whereof he speaks gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Parents and teachers have also found it a way to keep the kids occupied, and it appears as though they are a terrific aid to learning. They can be, but only if we equate “learning” with “collecting information.” Real learning requires good teaching and the asking of pertinent questions. Healy, in contrast with those who defend the toys, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. Listen up, St. Paul, Minnesota!!

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. Modern brain scan devices have provided us with mounting evidence of the damage these toys can do and that evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests. We should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they appear to be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely, though it’s a bit late for that in St. Paul.

Is there any better way for a child to learn than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens, asks questions, and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. It takes work and a devotion to what one is doing, but computer toys simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.

Computer Fix

Jane Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Healy on the other hand, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. I think this must be right because it is what I thought all along and, as I have said before, we tend to think those claims correct that fit in with our belief system. This one fits like a glove.

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. The evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests, that we should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they may be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely.

Is there any way to improve on the way a child learns than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. You simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.