Links from the last week

Think I will try to start this weekly post up again, again because there are too many interesting articles I come across I’d like to share, and because I myself enjoy so many blogs (including posts that are mainly collections of links).  So here we go…

1. First The Fall Of Alexandria, And Now Fidget Spinners

Via a Facebook friend, a post in which fidget spinners lead to philosophy.  I always appreciate articles that remind us of something obvious Americans like to forget – our ancestors may have lacked our technology, but they weren’t idiots.  If something as simple as a fidget spinner would have produced the dramatic educational benefits some claim, that fact would have been realized a very long time ago.  (I personally have seen a couple in class – and yes, they did seem to enhance distraction, not improve the learning environment.)

If a fidget spinner is no different than spinning a pencil, spin a pencil. The fact of the matter is a fidget spinner is nothing like a pencil, for a pencil is made for writing and a fidget spinner is made for distraction. “It helps me pay attention” is the same manner of specious moonshine I floated back in the fourth grade when I told my mother Nintendo would help me “improve my hand-eye coordination.” The claim is passed from sneaky adults to children so that children can defend themselves with Recent Studies Show balderdash against the common sense of the stodgy adults. Only in America would adults give children amusing, distracting, mind-numbing, addictive, easily-hidden little toys and tell them, “These will help you pay attention in school.”

2. Walker Percy’s Last Self-Help Book

One of many articles making the rounds again because of the recent death of the author, Peter Augustine Lawler.

Darwin was basically right until we showed up. He’s right to say that we’ve been equipped by nature to be who we are, but he slighted or ignored the ways we introduced a fundamental discontinuity into the process of evolution. Darwin was basically right until the creature with a self or soul showed up who could actually discover the theory of evolution and fail to locate himself in it.

Darwin didn’t reflect enough about who Darwin, the being who wonders and wanders, is, and to some extent his theory is a diversion from that personal question. Darwin wasn’t scientific enough when it comes to the strange and wonderful being who can be a scientist, but is never only a scientist.

3. The True Purpose of the University

A nice Heather Mac Donald piece that basically says… the president of Yale says education is about teaching students to recognize “false narratives”, and Yale faculty are a model of stubborn skepticism when it comes to such narratives.  Heather says this is ridiculous because…

  • Like most universities, Yale is hardly a bastion of mythbusting and skepticism when it comes to the important progressive cultural narratives of the day.
  • Education isn’t about recognizing false narratives anyway, primarily.  It’s about spreading knowledge.  Because students arrive at college not knowing much at all in a tremendous range of subjects.  You can’t start arguing about interpretation when you lack knowledge of the bedrock.

So Salovey’s claim that Yale resolutely seeks out and unmasks “false narratives” is itself a false narrative. But is the routing of “false narratives” even an apt description of what a college education should ideally be? It is not, even though that goal, in different iterations, is widely embraced across the political spectrum. The most urgent task of any college is the transmission of knowledge, pure and simple. American students arrive at college knowing almost nothing about history, literature, art, or philosophy. If they aspire to a career in STEM fields, they may have already picked up some basic math and physics, and possibly some programming skills. But their orientation in the vast expanse of Western civilization is shallow; they have likely been traveling on a surface of selfies and pop culture with, at best, only fleeting plunges into the past.

4. The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies

“The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.”

That’s how we began. We used this preposterous sentence to open a “paper” consisting of 3,000 words of utter nonsense posing as academic scholarship. Then a peer-reviewed academic journal in the social sciences accepted and published it.

Via Michael Shermer, Dr. Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsey craft a totally fake article with the title above, submit it to a peer-reviewed Gender Studies journal… and it gets published.  Lots of lessons here (read the piece), especially:

  • There’s nothing magic about peer-review.  It’s a good thing, it’s just not magic.  Oodles of flawed papers are published every year.  As I sometimes have to tell people, peer-review absolutely does NOT mean that someone reproduced your research and found it valid.  All it means is that someone, hopefully doing work somewhat like your own, read your paper, noticed no obvious flaws, and thought it important enough to publish.  (And perhaps offered some suggestions.)  That’s it.  That’s a good thing to have done, but it’s not magic.
  • Of course another one of the goals here was to poke fun at “Gender Studies” for being unable to distinguish utter nonsense from real work in the field – as I told a friend in the social sciences on Twitter recently, I feel like the social sciences on the whole are much, much less constrained by reality when it comes to what conclusions they may draw.  To me, they often feel much more like “just interpret this thing in some way nobody has interpreted it yet” – boom, publication.  The friend replied that the data in social science fields is just a lot more complicated, and that’s probably true too… but I still say the fields feel much less constrained by reality.  I am wary of commenting outside my field but there you go.

5. University Of Michigan Student Who Insists Wood Paneling Is Racist Gets It All Backwards

OK, I was charmed that this article was written by an undergraduate engineering major.  Also love the middle sentence.

The university describes the union building as “one of the University of Michigan’s most recognizable landmarks,” and if that is racist, sexist, and oppressive, then so is the entire existence of the University of Michigan—and maybe the existence of any college in America today. Civilizational progress is, in many ways, a making available to lower classes what once was available only to the elite. The changes of the modern age are always good when they take a wealthy man’s possession, like comfortable furniture, and allow the poor to have their own version of it.

6. Physicists discover mechanism behind granular capillary effect

Because I have to have some neat Physics in this line-up.

Dipping a tube into a container filled with water will make the water rise in the tube. This phenomenon is called liquid capillarity. It is responsible for many natural and technical processes, for example the water absorption of trees, ink rising in a fountain pen, and sponges absorbing dishwater. But what happens if the tube is dipped into a container filled not with water but with sand? The answer is – nothing. However, if the tube is shaken up and down, the sand will also begin to rise. Scientists have now discovered the mechanism behind this effect, the so-called granular capillary effect.

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This week’s post brought to you by “au revoir Montréal!”, a city we were vacationing in until yesterday.

Links I liked, 5/11/2015 – 5/17/2015 (Russia, Christianity, Cemeteries)

1. Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America

There have been so many stories taking this poll as their starting point that it was hard to know which to share.  But essentially churches that give in to the surrounding culture on the hot-button issues of the day are dying, and those that aren’t are stable-to-growing.  Also interesting to note that atheists have one of the lowest retention rates of their children – meaning their children are especially likely to convert to another religion.

2. In Detroit, Jewish cemetery survives within GM auto plant

Just an interesting story via Sarah Brodsky about a cemetery entirely enclosed by a GM plant.

3. The “least of these” are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist

While the Bible does emphasize care for the poor, they were *not* the subject of Jesus’ comment about “the least of these”.

4. Do Baltimore Schools Need More Money?

There is a graph you see around a lot showing (inflation adjusted) spending per student as a function of time since the 1970s, and test scores as a function of time since the 1970s – the former goes way up, and the latter barely budges.  Why that little fact rarely enters into discussion about education funding I cannot say.  This article does something similar but looks at funding across states and again finds very little correlation between funding and learning.

5. On conservative religious activism, the numbers speak for themselves

Everybody knows churches care more about the politics of sexual morality than they do about poverty – unless, that is, you actually look at how they spend their money.

6. Russia: Twenty Feet from War

We in the West think that using nuclear weapons in almost any environment would be crazy, and a full-scale war with Russia will probably never happen – at least rhetorically, Russia doesn’t seem to share those sentiments.

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Our find this year from the East Lansing Art Festival.

The coming college brokers?

We had our Arts & Sciences Division meeting this morning, and one interesting comment the dean made was that we might begin seeing the formation of what are essentially college brokers in the next few years.  These businesses would look at a student and say, ‘OK, you took these AP courses in high school, and these online courses from University of Phoenix, and these courses from your local community college, and you want a degree in X’.  Then they’d go make a lot of phone calls about transferability and try to find the best deal for the student.  ‘It looks like you could take these two online courses from the College of Maine and they’d give you a degree, or here is another option from Seattle University.  What institution would you like on your diploma?’. Interesting idea.

It’s just part of the decentralization of education that everyone seems to agree is happening.  Another idea I’ve heard suggested is the outsourcing of degree granting to third parties – as long as you can pass the right exams, it doesn’t matter how you gained your knowledge and skills.  (Think something like the bar exam for lawyers, but for all fields of study.). I could see this working for Associate and Bachelor degrees at least.  Above that level learning becomes more like a specialized apprenticeship and exactly where you studied is of increased importance.

You can imagine that both these ideas could increase competition among colleges, who would find themselves having to attract students to individuals classes as much as attracting them to the institution as a whole.  Fun times we live in.

A few thoughts about online learning

Last Wednesday, I attended an event that was part of a Mackinac Center series called “The Online Learning Revolution“. Speakers included William Skilling, Superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, Mike Flanagan, Michigan State Superintendent, and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia. “Online learning” was discussed both in terms of purely online learning, and in terms of “blended classrooms” that relied heavily on technology but still met in a building somewhere.

1. I think the biggest benefit to online learning is choice. I remember my own high school began offering Japanese when I was there via video conference – we would never have been able to offer Japanese otherwise. With online learning, a course developed by a university in California could be used by a rural high school in Maine. That’s awesome.

2. But, for traditional subjects taught by every school, I worry that we could get too obsessed with method. I think there is always this temptation to think that simply implementing some new method will solve all of our problems. But, I think a good teacher will find a way to be a good teacher even if all you give them is a blackboard and some chalk. A terrible teacher will still be a terrible teacher even if all their students have a $5000 computer.

3. One of the slogans tossed about was “any time, any place, any path, any pace”. I found it intriguing. For example, formerly all students had to spend a semester, say, in an algebra course, even if they got it immediately or never got it, and all students had to demonstrate their proficiency with an exam at the end. But we don’t have to teach that way any more – imagine instead a student sitting and learning at a computer, working at his/her own pace, demonstrating proficiency – and then moving on to the next subject! – whenever they were personally reading. And, of course, they needn’t learn in a classroom.

One of the problems in creating schools that follow this method is that schools in Michigan, my understanding was, are required to offer 180 days in classroom every year. With a full-online school, say, there would be zero days in classroom – that would be illegal! A waiver would be required. Bob Wise said it was a perfect example of how yesterday’s reform can be today’s impediment – the 180 day requirement was created to guarantee everyone a certain amount of education. Now it stands in the way of improving that education.

4. William Skilling said the recession was a great benefit to his schools because it forced them to innovate. I thought of another example of this phenomenon – the East Lansing Public Library, which recently installed a self-checkout in order to save money on staff. This technology has existed for some time, of course, and is beloved by patrons like me, but they never took advantage of it because they didn’t have to – eventually, lack of money forced them to. One more reason to vote against the next tax increase, I suppose.


That’s all! Sorry for the lack of blogging lately. I was sick for a time, and I’ve also been quite busy for someone who isn’t, at the moment, actively teaching.