Overconfident

How often have we witnessed the following scenario in sports? Our team is on a winning streak and have been playing well, winning seven out of the last nine games. They are starting to believe in themselves and their confidence is high. Today they play a team with a losing record they have beaten five times already this year.  No sweat! This is a piece of cake. We have our “ace” pitcher going for us, he is pitching well, and he has beaten this team three times already this year. In addition, the opposing pitcher is known to give up home runs and our team has been hitting homers at a record pace. As I said. Piece of cake.

Only the cake is spoiled by the fact that the other team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning by a “walk-off” single scoring a man from second base for the winning run. Our team hit only one home run and our ace pitcher had a bad day. Another one got away.

The gods on Mount Olympus are watching with broad grins on their collective faces. This is, for them, just another example of humans’ over-confidence. The Greeks called it “hubris,” but the name is less important than the fact that another sports team has been hoist by its own petard. The team that should have had a cake-walk fell on its face and slinks to the locker room to shower, make excuses, and forget the loss over a beer or two. Or three.

This scene is not all fiction, of course, though the team will not be mentioned in order not to embarrass the Minnesota Twins. But the point is that this sort of thing happens on a regular basis in sports and yet we fail to see the broader implications. I am here to point them out.

They have to do with the smug self-assurance that seems to infect those “winners” in power who see only success in imagining conflict with other nations they regard as their inferiors. After all, we have the weapons, including nuclear weapons, and armed forces around the globe waiting for orders to attack. No one is as sure of themselves as we are and the swagger is visible as is the sound of the bloat and rhetoric that spews from the mouths of our leader(s) as swords are rattled and chests puffed out.

The Athenians had the same sort of swagger when they sent the major part of their remaining forces to do battle with Sparta and her allies in Sicily toward the end of the very long, protracted Peloponnesian war. Thucydides described it for us in detail, as he lived through it, and he saw it as a tragedy, just like the tragedies the Greeks loved to sit and watch and agonize over in the theaters. One more example of hubris, one more victim of over-confidence, or excessive pride. But, surely, tragedies happen on the stage and in books. Not in real life? Right? Wrong.

We see it every day in our sports teams, and the results are predictable. In fact when I was watching the hype prior to the game described above I sensed that my team was about to lose. And they did. “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs. And yet we ignore this truth when we look around outside the sports arenas because, perhaps, we lack critical acumen and are ourselves caught up in the hype and fail to realize that the swagger on the international stage by those in power can only result in one thing: tragedy. Losing a baseball game is no big deal. War is a very big deal. And given today’s advanced technology and the stupidity of those who push the buttons, no one will win the next one.

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Three Favorites

My blogging buddy Keith suggested that his readers list the three most popular posts each of us has written since we started writing them and I thought it might be fun. I note, however, that mine are not as uplifting and positive as are Keith’s. But I will list them and comment anyway.

I will start with my personal favorite, as far as I can recall, and that is “Lincoln’s Hope,” which had a number of “hits” but not as many as the top three.

The top of the list, by far is a post I wrote about Freud and Violence which I wrote in February of 2013 and which continues to get 20-30 hits a week. It has had 1,990 in all and that amazes me. The only thing I can figure is that a great many college students are copying the post and submitting it to their psychology professors for class credit! I hope they received the grade they deserved! On a more serious note, I expect there are a great many folks who, like me, seek to understand a phenomenon that has become all-too-common of late. I hope the post helped. I know that, like my posts generally, it helped me sort out some stray ideas and make some sense of a topic that I seek to understand better.

The next one is “The Big Bang, Science and Ethics” which I wrote after a particularly interesting and funny eposiode of my favorite “sit-com.” It addresses the question of just what science is at a time when so many people reject the findings of science when it shakes their favorite convictions and when so many confuse science with technology — which it is not.

The final one, also written in 2013,  is “Road Rage” which I wrote after a particularly nasty confrontation with a driver of a red pickup on a county road nearby when my wife and I were stopped admiring the wild turkeys in a field nearby. It made me think of all the rage there is on the roads and, indeed, in the world at large. This is a particularly disturbing fact at this time of the year when we like to think that we all hope for peace on earth and good will among all human beings. In any event, that’s what I wish to my readers, rage or no rage.

 

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.

“The Big Bang,” Science, and Ethics

I have blogged before about our need to make distinctions to be clear about what we say and there is a key distinction that we frequently fail to make. That’s where I am going now with the help of a popular sit-com.

Science is not technology. Sheldon Cooper — of “The Big Bang Theory” — is a theoretical physicist. He is a pure scientist (or the character is). Like Einstein, he doesn’t care a whit for applied science (note in the show Sheldon’s low opinion of Leonard because the latter is an experimental physicist. The suggestion that he needs to conduct experiments to prove his theories makes Sheldon laugh….or snicker. As a general rule, however, scientists do not eschew experimentation. Indeed, there is an episode of “Big Bang” where Sheldon and Leonard collaborate and are asked to deliver a paper together. In any event, experiments are routinely conducted to verify theories in science, though at the highest levels of theoretical physics mathematics sometimes can suffice. Einstein didn’t need to conduct experiments to establish his theory of relativity, for example.

But there are other sciences, of course, both exact (like physics and chemistry) and inexact (like geology and biology) which rely on mathematics to a greater or lesser degree. And there are social sciences that mimic the exact sciences by using mathematics in the form of statistics — though their experiments and even their calculations are notoriously inexact, dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. But all of these sciences, exact or not, rely on the empirical method — looking and recording — and some sort of calculation. And all are desirous of knowing why things happen as they do. Why do objects tend toward the center of the earth?  Why do blond parents have red-headed children? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Scientists want to know. That’s what they do: they look and they record, and they draw tentative conclusions that lead to theories that are in turn verified — or falsified — by experiments or new empirical data.

Technology, on the  other hand, is not science for a number of reasons. Technology is all about “How?” and not “Why?” On “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz is the designated technologist. Because Howard has “only” a Master’s Degree from M.I.T. in engineering — which involves considerable math and physics — he is relegated on this show to designing toilets and telescopes for NASA –merely technical tasks. In a word, he figures out how to do things and he does them without asking why. In the case of toilets for the space station, the “why” is fairly obvious, but what about the “why” question as it regards the entire NASA endeavor? Few of us question that at all. In any event, the difference between science and technology was made clear in an episode of “Big Bang” when Penny’s car engine failed but the scientists could not fix it even though they knew all about how internal combustion engines work — in theory.

As Jacques Ellul said many years ago, ours is a technological age: we tend to denigrate theory. We laugh at Sheldon, not just because Jim Parsons is a superb comic actor and the writers have given him some juicy lines, but because he is a theoretician in a world in which, strange to say, Howard Wolowitz is much more at home, much more like the rest of us. Like Howard, we don’t seem to care about why things happen as they do, we just keep doing what we are doing and worry about the consequences later on when they become another problem to be solved. And we are convinced someone can solve it regardless of how complicated it might be — a dangerous assumption indeed.

Interestingly, what neither the scientist nor the technologist ventures into are the ethical implications of what they do. Thus, we have theoretical physicists who work together to develop the Atom bomb. Or we have medical technologists who conduct experiments to determine whether certain cosmetics will blind rabbits without asking whether or not this is the right thing to do. We have medical researchers who give placebos to cancer patients as part of an experiment. There’s a wonderful scene in one of the “Big Bang” episodes where Penny asks the guys why they rigged their computer so it could turn on the light by sending signals around the world; they respond in unison: “because we can.” Note that even Sheldon chimes in. Indeed. That is our society’s answer, and we are content with it — until a crisis arises that we simply cannot fix because we failed to look deep enough or far enough — or ask “why?” As Ellul suggests, it is precisely the failure to inquire into the moral and theoretical implications of what we do that gets us in trouble. And some of it is deep trouble indeed.

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.