Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

Beacon?

On one of my favorite shows on ESPN recently there was a discussion around the table about the new football coach at the Arizona Cardinals who has announced that he will take a break every so often in team meetings to allow the players to check with their phones. There were about a half-dozen people around the table and all of them, except for the main man (a graduate of Northwestern University I am ashamed to say), pilloried the coach calling the move “childish,” or “foolish,” and simply stupid –an attempt to prove his coaching methods are “cutting edge,” an attempt to draw attention to himself, perhaps.

The main man at the table (whom I generally agree with) disagreed heartily with the entire group saying that the younger generation are wedded to their phones and coaches generally need to tailor their approach to the generation they are dealing with. These young men have shorter attention spans so we should give them time to check their phones and they will return to the meeting with renewed attention. This is a younger generation (one of the group actually used the correct term “millennials” to describe them) and we need to adapt.

In itself this is a trivial discussion, but looking at the larger picture, as a reflection of the attitude among teachers, coaches, and parents generally  it is just a bit alarming. What it suggests is that we need to tailor the material we teach, coach, or hope our children to learn to the children themselves. In a word, we need to teach down to the kids. This translates into “dumbing down the curriculum” in the schools, which, of course, is what has occurred across the nation at all levels.  If we set the bar low enough everyone can get over it and will feel good about themselves. No child left behind. Don’t ask them to try to do too much.

To which I say “BOLLOCKS!” The young need to grow and learn and the only way they can do so is by their parents, teachers, and coaches demanding that they reach a little higher. As John Stuart Mill once said, we don’t know what is possible for a person until we ask them to do the impossible. The effort will cause occasional failure, but that in itself can be a valuable lesson. In the end they will realize that what is worth doing may not be altogether pleasant or provide an immediate reward, none the less it may prove to be very rewarding.

In the instance of education, Robert Hutchins said it well many years ago: “education is supposed to be a beacon, not a mirror.” We have turned our schools and homes into mirrors. We don’t ask the students or children — or now young adult professional footballers —  to do what they don’t want to do. Worse yet, we ask them what they want and then attempt to give it to them — hence the mirror analogy. This, of course, is the business model that has impacted our culture at so many levels: find out what the customer wants and then sell it to him.  We enable them and thereby cripple them. Instead of reaching higher and growing in the process, they find things made simple and the rewards instant and universal: everyone succeeds; no one fails.

As I say, this is bollocks.  We rob the young and we cheat them all in the name of making life easier and lowering the bar so everyone can skip over easily with no effort whatever. The footballers want to clutch their phones to see how their social networks are doing so we allow that and in doing so we tell them that what they want is more important than what their coaches know damn well they need. In this case, finding out how many “likes” a man receives is more important than learning the game plan for Sunday’s game.

Make the players turn their phones off and pay attention for a few hours. Man up! A football game doesn’t really matter, of course. But as far as life-lessons are concerned this is a serious problem. This is a formula for failure, pure and simple.

The group was right in this case: the coach’s move is stupid, to say the least. And the Northwestern alum who led the group and who should know better (and who based his weak argument on his own experience with his teen-age children) was wrong. Sorry about that.

Teaching The Kids

One of my fellow bloggers who calls himself “Mindful Stew” has been involved in a most interesting discussion of academic discipline — teaching the kids the right way. Most of the comments on his blog have come from teachers, or former teachers, and they have some very interesting things to say about how best to teach the young. The hard nut to crack that lies at the center of the discussion is the question of discipline. As I read these comments I admire the teachers who have a very tough row to hoe with little pay and no thanks. But it also occurs to me that there are two sorts of discipline and we don’t always keep them separate.

To begin with there is what we might call “behavioral discipline” which focuses on keeping order in the classroom so that teaching can take place. As parents increasingly shunt their spoiled kids off to the schools, this is becoming an increasingly difficult problem. It is no longer acceptable to use corporal punishment and, in fact, if a teacher so much as lays a hand on the child there will be serious repercussions — as perhaps (allowing for over-reaction on the part of parents and authorities) there should be. One of Stew’s contributors, Chris Corrie, had a lengthy comment on the subject and he is clearly attempting to find a middle ground between harsh, sit up straight and shut your mouth discipline, and fawning, raise their self-esteem entitlement where the child is told that nothing he does could possibly be wrong. Indeed, “wrong” is a word that we simply don’t use any more. In any event, a portion of Chris’ comment is worth pondering:

Key to all this is to understand that, for some kids at a particular point in time, it may be more important to talk to them about their personal problems than to try to force trigonometry into their brain. It is also important to realize that they are subject to news and social interaction 24 X 7. Think back to what you dealt with growing up and how you would deal with the issues these kids face today.

I cannot quarrel with Chris except to point out that we all had problems growing up and it is not clear that today’s youth have any more than we did — especially given the fact that they have so many ways to divert their attention from the serious problems that their parents and elders all face daily. It is not clear, from what I have read and seen first hand, that these kids are deeply troubled about the state of the economy or the future of the planet, for example. We may simply assume that since there are so many problems the kids must be aware of them. This is a highly debatable assumption. But in any event, there is another sort of discipline that gets overlooked in this discussion and I attribute that to the shift in the thirties of the last century from subject-oriented teaching to child-oriented teaching, the birth of “progressive education.” That sort of discipline is mental discipline and I found a very nice statement of just what that is in a Japanese novel (of all places) entitled Naomi by Junicherio Tanizaki. In that novel the hero a 26-year-old man who is attempting to teach a young girl English is having troubles and finally decides it is not worth his time. In reflecting on the problem, he has the following suggestion:

“Why do boys study geometry and algebra in middle school? The objective is not so much to provide them with a practical tool, as it is to cultivate their ability to use their minds with precision.”

Indeed, this is the heart of the situation: in our preoccupation with behavioral discipline we have lost sight of mental discipline which, I would argue, is what education is all about. Education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds, enabling them to use their minds to think and speak coherently, to “use their minds with precision.” But, as Chris and others remind us, we must never forget that these kids are children and bring emotional baggage to school with them and in order to help train their young minds we must first get their attention. There’s the challenge!

Is SOLE The Answer?

A curious article turned up on HuffPost recently, written by a man named Sugata Mitra. The man advances a thesis about education that sounds awfully familiar, though it pretends to be brand, spanking new. In fact, it is “Summerhill” on steroids — or computers, which amounts to the same thing in this case. And A.S. Neill’s Summerhill  is as old as the hills. Mitra stresses creativity and turning kids loose with computers to become self-learners, which is precisely what Neill proposed (without computers) in the early 1900s. After a brief history lesson in which he claims that the traditional educational system came out of Victorian England where it was designed to turn out factory workers (wrong!), Mitra tells us that

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

For one thing, phrases like “outdated pedagogy” beg the question, which is precisely whether or not traditional teaching methods can be effective. The answer, contrary to Mr. Mitra, is that they can —  they have been and they continue to be. And the Victorian educational system that he claims was designed to turn out factory workers produced people like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that students today are not rewarded for “imagination or resourcefulness,” and, heaven knows, they are asked to memorize very little. Mr. Mitra’s claims are rife with errors.

The main issue here, aside from the fact that Mr. Mitra is actually selling a package he designed himself and which he calls “Self Organized Learning Environments,” or “SOLE” (a bit of a conflict of interest there!), is that he reduces education to “salient points” which is another word for “information.” It is clear that the internet is full of more information than one can assimilate in a lifetime — even if they spent all of the time sitting down staring at the screen. And that is the key: assimilation. Education is a complicated process that takes information and translates it into action by means of thought. And it is precisely thought that is missing in Mitra’s equation. One cannot teach young people how to think by sitting them down in front of a computer, and education is more about thinking than it is about the information they may or may not download from the computer.  Information is merely a means to an end.

One is reminded of Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein who is supposed to have learned to read by staring at a newspaper day after day: it is absurd. There needs to be interaction, give and take. In a word, there needs to be a teacher to ask key questions and guide the students through the impossibly confused jumble of information on the internet to that information that is relevant — another key word. How does one determine unguided what is and what is not relevant by simply staring at a computer screen? Answer: you can’t. Relevance and the ability to assimilate information require interaction with teachers.

To be sure, we live in an electronic age and it makes sense to incorporate electronic equipment, such as computers, into the curriculum. But as Jane Healy has shown, excessive reliance on these gadgets can actually stunt the growth of the left-hemisphere of the child’s brain thereby making future learning nearly impossible. What is required is a selective use of electronic toys and a lively imagination on the part of the gifted teacher to draw young people from the frantic rapid-fire world of electronic toys into the world of words and ideas where real learning takes place. And let’s not burn the books quite yet. SOLE is not the answer: good teaching is the answer, and teachers are precisely the ones who would be shoved aside by Mr. Mitra’s plan — known as “the bad plan.”

On-Line Hokum

There must be many school administrators who have too much time on their hands. They keep trying to come up with new ways to teach and learn forgetting that the best way to do that is to get the brightest teachers you can by paying them a decent salary and then turning them loose in the classrooms. Instead, they have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the electronic toys that have been incorporated into schools at nearly every level. This is part of the common educational practice of bringing the subject matter down to the level of the student rather than to have the student stretch and grow to reach a higher level. Give ’em what they want. The kids play with electronic toys, let’s incorporate them into the curriculum. Somehow. The latest educational fad in “higher” education is to make learning even easier and less painful: let the students stay at home where they can sit in front of a computer screen as passive vessels instead of in a classroom where they might accidentally interact with each other or, worse yet, the instructor.

I’m with Albert here: led by a purblind educational bureaucracy we are rapidly turning out idiots who cannot interact with one another and cannot use their minds except to turn things on and off. Socrates was never “certified” to teach, and he didn’t use the latest electronic gadget, either. Plato’s Academy also did rather well without the latest electronic toy, thank you very much. After all, Plato was able to turn out people like Aristotle without a huge cadre of administrators looking over his shoulder, a committee of well-meaning board members to answer to, or a single computer.

Our addiction to electronic toys has seriously inhibited human interaction as we see people walking down the street holding electronic devices to their ears or looking down at the device they are sending text messages from: they don’t talk to one another any more, they talk at one another — in broken English. As suggested above, the latest fad in higher education is the trend toward on-line learning, which is simply another way to guarantee that students will learn very little. I dare say it will soon catch on at the high school level as well.

However, studies have shown repeatedly that the lecture method — in the classroom or on-line — is the worst way to teach a subject for most students. In addition, the drop-out rates in on-line education are off the charts. Real learning takes place when people interact with one another. On-line lecturing is simply multiplying the lecture-system mistake by making it easier and faster — and cheaper. And there’s the rub. Education has become so costly that students are turning to on-line “universities” like The University of Phoenix, and the other colleges and universities realize they must either join the party or sit by as their high-paid faculty lecture to empty halls. It’s sink or swim. We are now told that a group of so-called “prestige” universities want to join the fray:

Now 30 Under 30 alum 2U, which has previously focused on online graduate degree programs, has decided to throw its hat into the ring. This week, the company, formerly known as 2tor, announced a partnership with a consortium of 10 universities to offer undergraduate courses online. The company’s new program, Semester Online, will launch in September 2013 with a catalog of about 30 courses offered by Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Whatever the reason, we insist on embracing the latest fashion even when the evidence proves that it not only fails to deliver the goods, but it actually inhibits the results — teaching and learning in this case. Electronic gadgets do not enhance learning; as Jane Healy has shown, they actually inhibit learning. Their use has led to the incapacity of parts of the brain to function as they should, thereby making thought and coherent speech more and more difficult for growing numbers of students. Instead of embracing the latest fad, we might be better advised to simply reflect on the goal of education which is to enable young minds to grow and develop. We need to stop worrying about what is latest, or cheapest and easiest, and start to recall what is most effective: a good teacher in a room interacting with interested and curious students. Preferably they should sit in a circle.

Hands-On?

There can be no doubt that the current stress on job training in the schools and colleges is simply the latest face of the anti-intellectualism that has always plagued this country — as noted in the 1830s by de Tocqueville and studied at great length in 1964 by Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism and the American Life. Tocqueville, for example, noted that in America “the spirit of gain is always eager, and the human mind, constantly diverted from the pleasures of imagination and the labors of the intellect, is there swayed by no impulse but the pursuit of wealth.” But Americans didn’t simply turn their collective backs on things intellectual, they also have tended to belittle those who embraced the life of the mind — as Hofstadter showed in great detail.

One of the more insidious features of our anti-intellectualism is the claim that life in the classroom is “unreal.” The real world, it is said, is the workplace where we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We hear people increasingly urging the schools to take the kids out of the classroom and give them “hands-on” experience. This, of course, is nonsense since the “real” world is the one we live in (unless we are demented) and this even includes the ivory tower. We tend to forget that adults need “down time” to reflect and try to figure out what went wrong. And kids need time to learn how to use their minds before we throw them into the turbid waters of the “real world.” We should admire and respect those few in this society who take that time to think before they act. And we should allow that thought and action when properly engaged in may well be two sides of the same coin. Our notions of the “pragmatic” and the “real” are stunted and lead necessarily to mistakes — like global warming or unburied nuclear waste.

A friend of mine has thought about this trend toward the “pragmatic,” the need to get “hands-on” experience in the “real world,” that seeks to take the students out of the classroom where they are supposed to learn to read, write, and figure  and puts them in the workplace where they learn to apprentice a locksmith or a bank manager. He realizes, as I do, how short-sighted this is and how narrow is the notion of “hands-on” that would exclude such things as reading, writing, and mathematics — which are not only necessary for success in a complex world, but are also necessary to succeed as a locksmith or a bank manager. They are also eminently practical. The tendency to see two things such as thought and action as mutually exclusive when, in fact, they are compatible and even mutually complementary is what logicians call “bifurcation.” It is an example of fallacious thinking. Learning to use one’s mind is decidedly practical, and it should not be regarded as something apart from action — certainly not less important.

As my friend says in a note to me,  People who chant “hands-on learning” really mean physical training. And except for very simple procedures, such training can not be divorced from its written guidelines. Can a mechanic reliably recall all tolerances and specifications for all the engines she repairs? No. Can a nurse remember all dose conversions between different measuring systems? Not likely. Can a professor of literature remember every word of all the literature he teaches?” I don’t think so.

Taking the child out of the classroom to give him or her “hands-on” experience implies that classroom time is wasted and that is patently false: it is essential to learning how to cope and how to succeed. We need to consider what it means to place the young among the trees where they will never see the forest while we also discourage them from reflecting on where they are, why they’re there, and where they need to go. “Hands-on” experience makes sense only when it is coupled with time for reflection and a tolerance for what has no immediate cash value. As I have said before, it is precisely the “useless” subjects that are most valuable in the long run. And the time spent in the classroom learning the rudiments of literature, history and mathematics have rewards that go beyond merely making a living.

Effective Teaching

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article about a conference at Harvard on teaching and learning. This was apparently newsworthy because it happened at Harvard. I have attended such conferences over the years that never made the Chronicle. But it raises questions about what on earth Harvard has been doing for the past century while other, lesser, institutions have been holding conferences to try to improve teaching and learning “delivery systems,” as we like to call them. The article begins with the following paragraph:

A growing body of evidence from the classroom, coupled with emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, is lending insight into how people learn, but teaching on most college campuses has not changed much, several speakers said here at Harvard University at a daylong conference dedicated to teaching and learning.

Impressive, no? You bet. “Emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.” Big words. Must be earth-shattering. Not really. What these people conclude in the end is that lecturing is not an effective method of teaching. This is especially the case since today’s students are less curious than previous generations of students. THAT I didn’t know! But I have always known that the lecture, where students sit passively and take notes only to regurgitate the information on a test and then forget it is not all that effective. For most people. My wife learned that way and still remembers most of what she was taught. It works for some who listen carefully and take good notes — and have exceptional memories. But studies done years ago showed that the lecture is the worst method to use in teaching. The student is passive and misses the majority of the material, as a rule. We didn’t need Harvard to tell us that.

So for the majority passive learning really doesn’t work. Consequently, conferees at Harvard recommend having the students write a good bit. This would work for large classes if the professor is willing to read what has been written and then engage the writer in a dialogue about the subject written about. Verbal exchange is essential. In small groups there is no substitute for the Socratic method — dialogue among students and faculty, with the faculty member(s) simply trying to move the discussion along rather than taking over and filibustering. The temptation to filibuster is strong, because those on the teaching end are convinced they know so much more than their students. But it’s not all about what we know. It’s about what happens in the student’s head. In order to get the thinking process started (especially in students who are not overly curious) one cannot beat the provocative question.

The best man I ever taught with — in a team-teaching situation — was very good at this. He asked his question and then just sat quietly waiting for the students to respond. If students are not familiar with this approach, it can take some time for one of them to speak up. The leader’s temptation is to jump in and answer the question himself. But that defeats the purpose and accomplishes nothing. Further, it’s what the students come to expect, since all their lives the teachers have done all the talking. But when they know they must say something, they will finally jump in. If necessary, the leader can ask a specific student a direct question related to the opening one. It’s all about asking questions and waiting for the students to respond. It can take time, and it takes patience and a willingness to keep quiet. But it works, though it is certainly not new, and hardly requires a conference at America’s “leading” university. Socrates knew all about it centuries ago.

Must Reading

A book I highly recommend for all parents and teachers of students at all levels is Jane Healy’s “Endangered Minds.” Healy draws on her many years of experience as a teacher and parent, not to mention the latest in brain research, to explain why our young people have so many problems in school. In a word, the left hemisphere of their brains is seriously impaired by the upbringing that is now prevalent. They watch too much TV and play video games instead of hearing stories and carrying on normal conversations with their elders.  The latest assault on language and intelligence is, of course, texting where even the simplest words are butchered. The language they learn is simplistic, she calls it “primitive,” even on shows like “Sesame Street.” What they need is greater facility with more complex vocabulary and syntax, more reading and listening to adult conversation. Having stories read to them and told to them and reading stories themselves, especially at a young age. This is necessary because we think in words and sentences;  language is essential for discursive thought and thought is essential for success in school and in the “real” world after school.
Many teachers complain that their students have short attention spans (ADD is a growing blight in our culture) and are unable to express themselves except with a few words and many gestures substituting for sentences. They are not stupid, but they are illiterate and as a result the schools have to “dumb down” the curriculum and entertain rather than instruct.
It all starts in the home and at an early age. And it needs to be enforced in our schools with more (not less) reading, and a return to teaching grammar and even, perhaps, a foreign language. This is a terrific book, but not for the squeamish. It can be bought at Amazon and, no, I don’t get a commission.