Archive for education

24 Aug 2013

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 24, 2013 by spinoza1111

Workout

20 min first thing: 50 supine movements *sans* weights, 150 lowrise steps, walking, 50 dance movements with walking stick (the old soft shoe). No need for pain med at end of workout.

Kant Study

Trying to read Dieter Henrich’s seminal study of Kant’s arguments in the Transcendental Deduction: doubly difficult in that it’s a series of text-images and the only way of reading it is careful scrolling with the touchpad. Hard to believe that, according to Henrich, Heidegger simply took the 1781 arguments as definitive when (to my understanding) they have an oversimplified account of the transition from sensation to intuition-of-concept.

It’s quite possible that Heidegger never even understood the arguments of the 1787 edition. Many philosophers seem not to have understood them, including PF Strawson who bases his rather snotty opinion of Kant (in The Bounds of Sense) on 1781. Jiggered if I do which is why my “Johansen class” (a reading of Johansen’s “A HIstory of Ancient Philosophy”) is being delayed for ANOTHER read thru of the Transcendental Deduction material in the Critique.

To just use the first edition is like imagining that America’s constitution is its (1782!) Articles of Confederation and ignoring its (1789!) Constitution despite the clear statements of the Founders! Tea Bag quality stupidity!

Dream

D and I back together, found a flat. She didn’t like the fact that the bedroom was small and way in the back, but I was just relieved to find an apartment. I went to work at Northwestern University for my former supervisor at Princeton.

On my first day I was supposed to show for a meeting to discuss how Information Centers could support a student pizza initiative. You see, the new owners of Northwestern, a consortium of Indian billionaires (from India, that is) wanted the students to have pizza at registration, and a specific type of “fluffy red” pizza. Our job was to make sure the students got it.

At first, I couldn’t find the pizza restaurant in the student mall…a huge collection of shops just for Northwestern students, laid out confusingly. I finally found it after the meeting ended, and got what I needed to know along with some (cold) “Fluffy Red” pizza.

All This Useless Brutality, Continued

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 9, 2012 by spinoza1111

Here’s more on the “value added teachers help students succeed” study by Friedman, Chetty and Rockoff of Harvard referenced in my blog post “All This Useless Brutality”, below. Basically, using a lot of math which appears hard but which is easy as long as you have a computer programmer handy who knows his ass from a hole in the ground, they “prove” that “high value-added” teachers (teachers whose students do well on tests) have students who become high earners and live in fancy zip codes.

At significant points they simply refuse to consider things that might invalidate their thesis. For example, their high VA teachers were so by accident: they predate teachers’ being told to get high test scores, a consequence of No Child Left Behind. A teacher of high “VA prime”, or VA’, who was told to get high test scores and abused his students or cheated, might not produce the same results, but…who cares?

This is the “methodology” that drove Adorno batshit on the Princeton Radio Research project: a lot of genuine mumbo-jumbo which isn’t based on an honest theoretical basis. For my fat pal, Adorno, job one would be an investigation of the effect of a teacher who’s been told that high test scores are a condition of her job.

There might be a radical difference. As it happens, students taught by compassionate and liberal teachers who do anything but “teach to the test” since they live in districts where they are respected and not under threat, may have the same high test scores as students taught by cheap thugs, or perhaps not.

Ethics alone, for my guy Adorno, would demand that the study not proceed until this is resolved. Mathematically, he’d demand that we quantify the expense of spirit in a waste of shame represented by sitting in a “teach to the test” school and subtract that quantity from the quantification of living in a fancy zip code.

“Intelligence is a moral category” – TW Adorno

Additional Notes

I read the complete paper on the ferry. It’s basically just computer programming code-monkey stuff.

You know, my sociology majoring friends in the 1960s took it as a given that (somewhat on the analogy of medicine’s “not to knowingly do harm”) sociology would ALWAYS do good as part of studying a social phenomenon. For example, to study the positive effects of a Jobs Corps program on a community, it would create the program.

Bill Ayers and Kathy Boudin “studied” education by designing practical alternatives to the meaningless curriculum being pounded into students in Chicago of the 1960s and showing how these worked better than “English” classes where the homeboys zoned out in the back or didn’t attend.

[Hi Bill!]

What’s interesting is that business does this all the time. As software engineers in silicon valley we were loaded up with fabulous benefits.

But Friedman, Chetty et al. take society as a given. They assume that it’s “better” to attend a “good” school, pay into a 401K and have a conventional job inside the USA. It’s “bad” to attend Roosevelt University (because you’re fed up with racism at the tender age of 17), buy and hold gold, and flee to China to teach English, or (as ersatz for bad) “something we don’t have to worry about because it is statistically marginal”.

They define a “good” teacher as a “value added” teacher, and a VA teacher is one whose students get good test scores. They then prove the (quite possibly false) semi-tautology that such a teacher will continue to produce students who get good test scores and not blow her brains out, take to the bottle, or flee to Bora Bora.

Using a match of Social Security data and school records and a well-documented, well-designed matching algorithm that they probably got from some hard-working programmer at Harvard’s information center, they then prove that VA teachers produce nice little students who contribute to 401Ks.

This reminds me of a very disturbing photo in wikimedia of a Nazi medical officer sitting next to a Jew in freezing water. It fills me with rage and sorrow.

What would be the effect if all teachers were given a raise and office space in which to grade papers?

Isn’t the pressure on teachers a direct result of over-indulgence of children who aren’t expected to work hard anymore?

Why would a “bad” teacher enter the profession? Maybe she thinks she’s a good teacher.

Is “bad teaching” the controlling factor of poor outcomes, however defined? How about bullying? Perhaps a really bad teacher could have a dialectical effect. I had the worst French teacher in the world. But as a result of the fact that he pissed me off, I now speak French seulement in Paris.

Wouldn’t the best metric be whether or not homework assignments are complete?

All This Useless Brutality

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 7, 2012 by spinoza1111

Edward Hopper, “Automat”

See this New York Times article: and note, beyond all the phony science implicit in pure measurement of complex, self-reflexive and interacting systems, and even beyond the casual bureaucratic brutality in which the only solution for “bad teaching” is locating the “bad teacher” in a high-tech witch hunt, and then, in a fashionable Mamet way, firing her fucking ass, there is an elementary aporia.

Which is that the source of the bad teacher may be that she needs dental work that she cannot afford, or has been assigned a bunch of thugs, or is being systematically pecked to death in the good old barnyard.

Note, please, that when you fire somebody you have to replace them, and it’s very, very expensive to recruit and background-check while retaining substitute teachers, any one of whom could be the Archangel Michael or John Wayne Gacy.

Elvis Costello put his finger on the Thatcher era in another country, in “All this Useless Beauty”. Doesn’t scan the same way, but the anthem for Amerikkka today is All This Useless Brutality.

Philomoria

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 8, 2011 by spinoza1111

I guess there’s a market for his crap, but Alain de Botton’s ravings on the BBC today are worse than Ayn Rand, a form of love of foolishness as opposed to philosophy: a philomoria.

Ayn Rand addressed real philosophers (if sometimes she seems not to have read anything more than an encyclopedia article on some) and had a dedication to her perversion of the truth, but de Buffoon does violence to the truth in the service of the corporate state, if this article is any guide. Let’s take a look at some examples.

(de Botton is writing about Britain’s new “coalition” government of Tories and Liberal Democrats, and their cuts to education funding, especially arts and humanities. His words are in italics)

Speak to anyone working in the humanities within academia right now and you will hear that this country is about to enter a new Dark Age. The reason lies in the coalition government’s decision to impose swingeing cuts on almost all departments.

…except science, engineering and that sort of computer training that guarantees unemployability…

Philosophers, historians, classicists and literary critics feel especially badly let down. They fear a new age of philistinism, a moment when the nation finally gives up on serious culture and focuses instead on making money and inebriating itself on talent contests and celebrity chat shows.

You got that shit right, Alain.

If asked to apportion blame for what has happened to their departments, these academics do not have to search long for an answer, obviously “the government” is responsible. It is the government that has failed to appreciate the valuable work that the humanities do and it must therefore be scorned accordingly.

Well, it is: both Labour’s profligacy and the focus of Tory/LibDem cuts are government actions.

I want to try to respond to familiar stories of our times, with a little more analysis and opinion than is normally allowed in the media. I’d like to provoke thought, analysis – and the occasional disagreement.

And pick up a few shillings…

I’ll be looking at the way museums work, how people talk to one another, what a non-scientist can say about environmental catastrophe and why marriage is a spiritual discipline.

Gee, marriage used to be fun back in the day
Marriage was fun, and, in the old sense, rather gay
“Spiritual discipline” was for the monks and the nuns
Marriage was all about hot dogs and buns.
In your famous old Civil War, the Puritans
Were after Oliver’s fall, also-rans
But now they blight your green and pleasant land
Groaning like clock gods to the commuters in the Strand.

The dialogue with listeners through comments is also part of the pleasure of the exercise.

…until you see comments from a certain obstreperous and scurrilous Yank (me)…

It could seem unfair to knock someone when they are already down,

Not at all, Alain baby. It’s been the occupation of the bully since time, out of mind. Let’s blame the victim and feel all right.

but personally I can’t help but feel this approach and analysis lets academics off far too lightly. I have spent most of my professional life around and in the shadow of academics in the humanities, and have benefited hugely from the stored knowledge that they sit upon.

You cashed out, and like Lenin and many other “intellectuals”, you scorn the losers and the competition as semiotics of the inner contour of your own hidden weakness.

However, right now, at this difficult moment in the history of British universities, there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means “us” – the public at large.

Excuse me, sir. The public voted, narrowly, for the Coalition, which was formed because no one party received a majority. Under your Constitution, the resulting executive has broad and Royal policies to make radical changes in the name of your Queen, changes that in my own USA would have to be approved by Congress.

This is how your mad woman (Thatcher) destroyed popular local councils, including the Greater London Council that staged the Marathon I ran in London in 1983, against the wishes of the majority of Londoners, and many other communities. In the name of a mandate to reduce taxes, she reduced councils that were educating children but retained foolish military expenses such as Trident and the remilitarization of the Falklands as opposed to negotiating their handover to Alfonsin’s democratic Argentina.

She then, late in her term, instituted the medievally regressive poll tax.

These actions were taken without popular approval.

Your Coalition is doing the same thing with a far weaker mandate. And the resources “freed” up by this barbarism will indeed be poured into the rat-hole of popular culture.

Don’t you dare, don’t you dare mock the truth, you swine.

Who is “the public”? The man on the Clapham omnibus? You? And who voted for these cuts? Who voted for aircraft carriers without aircraft when one of these hulks would fund semesters of humanities?

They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to “think” or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important.

Here is why you are no philosopher, Alain, no lover of wisdom, but a philomorion, a lover of foolishness.

You did not think this through.

In a middle class existence as opposed to la vida loca, we do many things as part of what a mathematician would call a partial ordering.

Mum doesn’t gas up the car in the snow because she likes to: my kids enjoyed putting our USA self-service gas in Mum’s car for the direct experience but part of being an adult is learning to defer gratification, and do task A so that task B (getting the children to school) can be performed, as part of an overall mission of educating the children properly.

For each task, we might get direct satisfaction from its performance. Many people like driving cars, although few enjoy stopping for gas.

Or, we may take satisfaction in knowing that task A will allow us to perform a more pleasurable task later on. We go to a crowded mall at holiday time and buy gifts for the children in the aforesaid snow looking forward to the task/pleasure of giving them to the children.

Now, in this complex network of middle class anhedonia, there are moments that are pure gratification such as the love of the children. They are end points on what for a rather strange mathematician would be a graph from which no links emerge.

How does this relate to university education?

It relates because today, the widening of access to university education, unaccompanied by a sort of pre-WWI German nationalism or a single religious faith, has cheapened the experience. The poor and lower middle class regard university tasks as means to an end, and your idiotic radio talk is unreflectingly, unphilosophically, philomoronically infected by the universal acceptance of this narrative of university life…one that is simply not shared by its best faculty, whether in the sciences or the humanities.

Let me tell you a story, Alain. As part of an elaborate draft-dodging scheme during a time in which men my age were being sent to Vietnam to kill and die, I learned computer programming. A student in the humanities, I found it tedious at first. But in order to learn it I had to become passionately interested in programming, a common experience of computer geeks.

It became a ding an sich, a thing in itself, a for-itself, and remained so for thirty years. The science became my art in the sense that art and philosophy are best pursued as we pursue love, for their own sake.

Aristotle and the best faculty (the only worthwhile faculty) believe that one of humanity’s final ends is not home ownership, nor vacationing in Spain, nor swilling vintage Port wine, but Truth and Beauty, and your nation of poets and philosophers has come a cropper in the last two years not because your best university faculty were playing Soduku or jerking themselves off, but because the end of life was defined by politicians, corporations and the media as the cheapest kind of financial pseudo-prosperity.

One middle-class narrative admits as much, admits that The Higher Things might be ends-in-themselves, but must be deferred. If there are children, certainly, their needs take precedence; your boy Bertrand Russell was a good father because during his fathering years, he avoided the mental exhaustion caused by his earlier work on the foundations of mathematics.

But since Russell’s time, when children’s needs could be met for shillings and pence at the cornershop with a set of Britain’s Limited toy soldiers, the corporations have ensured that there is no “upper bound” on desire, and make sure the kids always have one more new product to lust, rage and nag after.

Which, along with the government’s preference for keeping labour in one place while capital runs all over the world, by over-encouraging home ownership, ensures that the parents can never pursue cultured pursuits. Their culture turns into its evil twin, entertainment, for by the time the children are abed, Mum and Dad need a program which does all their emotional work for them.

Aristotle’s Truth is eliminated, and while this assassination creates the pathologies you’d like the universities to address, it may not be able to cure them on return, especially if you wish it to be therapeutic.

Now they have learnt that if they couldn’t say in clear terms why they still mattered, then an impatient, harried government might just decide that they didn’t really, and a bored, stressed, stoical wider public wouldn’t bother to raise a hand in protest.

Today, “clarity” means telling people what they want to hear.

Don’t get me wrong, I care deeply for the humanities and believe they have a vital role to play in a healthy society. I just think that the way culture is currently taught in universities is a travesty of its real potential, and that the government cuts are an understandable, if not at all nice, consequence of the failure of current teaching methods and goals.

Here it comes…the public image of the academic, who slaves in fact to write acceptable peer-reviewed journal articles while grading half-literate papers and teaching year in year out, as a lazy and obfuscating sod. The Leninism of the “intellectual” telling the public that all those other intellectuals are lazy sods who write bullshit.

My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live.

Tolstoyan bread and salt, but it’s bullshit, Alain, for very precise reasons, reasons that you’d anticipate if you were a philosopher and not a philomorion.

First of all, the humanities should also help us to die…as you seem to know.

But far more important is that the very question, “do the humanities help us to live?” (and/or die) is not outside the humanities in the way that the philosophy of mathematics is not itself part of mathematics, and the philosophy of science is outside science.

Whether the truth helps us to live or whether it might actually be rather depressing is internal to the humanities, and your idiotically simple answer should be a question.

Hamlet’s learning the truth from his father’s ghost causes his depression to deepen, from “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” to the suicidal “to be, or not to be”. But when he learns another truth from Fortinbras’ Sergeant, that men can be motivated not only by comfort and pleasure but for pure recognition as seen in Hegel, his depression disappears.

The truth affects us different ways as does beauty. Seeing the paintings in the National Gallery might lead to frustration if one must return to a bedsit in Earl’s Court. Reading Hamlet might spoil the copywriter’s zippy style.

Or, the gallery goer might get new hope and a print for his bedsit at the National Gallery, and the copywriter may discover that ad copy in iambic pentameter has a great deal of oomph.

It depends on the person, not the subject.

We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.

This is what some Victorians certainly believed. But to put it into words does violence to the language…what are “suggestions about value”? Certainly, as a teacher, if I were bear-leading a flock of students through the Louvre, I might certainly explain Poussin’s Wedding of Orpheus by recounting the myth, and ask the students if it’s healthy to grieve a relationship as did Orpheus, or whether he should have paid more attention to Eurydice during the wedding ceremony, instead of riffing out on his lyre.

But this could be done with a print bought at the National Gallery. The whole point of ferrying a mob of urchins to the Louvre is to give them, not only Improving Lessons, but a sensory experience of painting: the smell of the aging varnish, the strange silence, the diffident guards.

This could in some cases become an end in itself outside the middle class rat race, one just as precious as the clamor of kids who’ve got what they wanted at Christmas.

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,

And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.

But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.

Louis Macneice is writing about personal gratification, which is frowned upon today as far as the downsized middle class is concerned. Complementary to the over-gratification of British and American children, such pursuits are frowned upon.

But the university might teach such pursuits, and under the Coalition’s attack lies the suggestion that time itself should reverse, and that gratification, for all but the upper crust, should not be sought in, but replaced by, Church, which deadens and endures.

And when you’ve lived long enough, as I have, and read enough, as I have, you ask with Auden, must we suffer it all again, must you English suffer it all again: the return, not of the repressed, but of repression, and its enforcer, the drunken brutality which is returning increasingly a feature of British life and a throwback to the 18th century.

The university cannot reverse this process but its downsizing is, if not a cause, an epiphenomenon of the overall trend. Basically, a society that defunds the humanities is one in which bullying increases.

It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.

Nothing wrong with this (apart from the fact that you forgot to mention that some of us would like to benefit ourselves by being more cultivated individuals for the sheer goddamn hell of it).

But: the elimination of the university, its down-sizing, will certainly cause more people to pursue low amusement, whereas we do not know if the down-sized university will be up to the neo-Victorian task.

You’re asking it to work harder and do more with less. You’re starving it of capital while expecting too much. That is like those cute K-12 experiments in which half the teachers in a school are laid off pour encourager. The results here in the States? Kids spending study hall watching kiddie slasher movies like Spawn of Chuckie, to mention one typical example.

You’re also forgetting brain drain. I met the eminent Cambridge mathematician John Horton Conway at our local convenience store when I was at Princeton…he was examining logic puzzle magazines. He’d been lured to Princeton with a princely salary. If British universities are cut, your faculty are going to flee…to the USA, and anglophone Asia such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

(Conway has since returned to Britain, but before the era of cutbacks.)

Do we learn more from Oprah Winfrey?

No. I admire her, but we don’t.

I’m certainly not the first person to express these hopes of education. You start to hear them in mid-19th Century Victorian Britain, when men like John Stewart Mill come out with statements like: “The object of universities is not to make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.”

Mill’s sunny optimism was belied by men like Eichmann, who told Hannah Arendt that he’d studied and admired Kant. Since for the most part, cultivation of the mind produces good people (Eichmann an exception that proves a rule), and the end of life is truth and perhaps beauty as opposed to tawdry hollow riches of the sort that produced 2008’s crash, we should just “do it”…fund the universities.

His contemporary Matthew Arnold sounded similar notes, expressing a view that a liberal education should help to inspire in us “a love of our neighbour, a desire for clearing human confusion and for diminishing human misery”. At its most ambitious, Arnold added, it should even engender the “noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it”.

These well-meaning, mid-Victorians wanted to use humanistic culture to replace scripture. They wanted universities to become our new churches, places that would teach us how to live, but without dogma or superstition.

Claims that culture could stand in for scripture – that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine’s City of God – still have a way of sounding a bit eccentric, or just insane in their combination of impiety and ambition. But I want to argue that we are wrong to be suspicious of such claims. Culture can and should change and save our lives.

John Stuart Mill did not argue that we should pursue Culture in order to be more effective in more tawdry pursuits such as business or putting up with Mothers In Law. Instead, he recognized that for Cultured gents, their pursuits were ends in themselves, and that these chaps were usually better ratepayers than the flash chaps, who would, in the absence of any lust for Truth and Beauty, ruin girls and waste family fortunes crying “bring in” or at the gaming table.

Arnold, writing about fifty years later, did make an argument of that form, and it is for that reason weaker. We Yankees say that you can lead a horse to water, and students, exposed to Higher Things strictly to avoid their spending their twenties, in Shepherd’s words from The Winter’s Tale,

…getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting…

usually get wenches with child, wrong the ancientry, steal and fight simply out of human nature, and in resentment at the burial of the very idea that it might just be droll to read Shakespeare.

Alan Bennett’s History Boys was about lessons in life
Though it was at first hoped by men like Arnold and Mill that universities might be our new churches, these centres of learning have never offered what churches invariably focus on – guidance. It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows.

It’s a detail, but one that should be noticed if you call yourself a philosopher: churches haven’t always focused on guidance. The Augustinian strain in Christianity preached “predestination”, and this meant that the reprobate could not be guided.

St Augustine and Luther realized, through a glass darkly, something that Baruch Spinoza put into words: “blessedness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself”. The good man doesn’t have to put out an effort (or go to university) to avoid wronging the ancientry, getting wenches with child, stealing, or fighting.

St Augustine and Luther thought this virtue was God’s election. Spinoza was more university-oriented in that his good man would desire knowledge more than wronging the ancientry. But in all three, it is an uncaused state, one that cannot be inculcated through guidance, whether secular or spiritual. Spinoza said, “needs must it be hard”, and “everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare”, and probably believed that it could not be inculcated, especially today, in a society in which parents insist on their children going to uni.

Now, it is true that universities of the Middle Ages and Reformation were founded and funded in a spirit parallel to, if different from, that of today. As Max Weber has shown, Capital jostled Religion aside, or joined it at the head table where they have sat uneasily together ever since, demanding that all institutions justify themselves in service to them, like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

A (the monastery before Henry VIII, the Lutheran seminary, the American land-grant college for the training strictly of ministers or teachers) was for B1 (religion). Then, in the 20th century, A became for B2 (the corporation). That was because otherwise, the old Reformation suspicion would arise in the popular mind that the clerisy were not carrying their own weight.

Which they weren’t, and it was a good thing, because sufficient numbers of the clerisy, disguised as far as Parliament or American state legislatures were concerned as servants of God or of Mammon, were actually pursuing a “higher”, or Millsian, form of pure self-gratification, writing poetry and discovering relativity for the hell of it. We all benefited, but that wasn’t the point.

The downsizing of the universities in Britain has to be viewed as a symptom, not even a false cure, of a general brutalization caused by global capitalism. This is because in 1946, in a Britain parts of which had regressed economically and in some respects to the fourteenth century owing to Britain’s two world wars, Labour was nonetheless able to provide National Health while maintaining the reputation of Britain’s private universities (which, I’d admit, received far less funding than they do today, although they did receive some on account of defence spending) and actually creating new public universities!

(Neil Kynaston’s excellent study of this period, Austerity Britain does point out that the expansion after the 1945 Percy report was “spasmodic”, receiving a lot of resistance from the private universities. However, the most significant fact is that investment was not cut back despite the far more desperate situation of Britain at the time.)

The contemporary guardians of culture have a habit of cudgelling anyone who might try to use culture for didactic ends or to open a subject up to a mass audience. When confronted by those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become very disdainful.

This is because the “lessons” of culture are not one size fits all. de Botton wants a “culture” of T shirts and baseball caps.

Many British youths do have a problem in containing sexual impulses, or as Shakespeare would say, getting wenches with child. Others have the older “British” problem that their own sexuality is too well contained, and they can’t express love, so they beat up queers as a result. These differences are best met by therapy.

Whatever the rhetoric of graduation ceremonies and the ambitious tone of prospectuses, there seems a strange and regrettable truth to confront about the workings of the modern university, that the institution has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills – how to love our neighbours, clear human confusion, diminish human misery and leave the world better and happier than we found it.

Nonsense on stilts. Multicultural education does help us love our neighbors. Many of the cutback advocates prefer a more traditional education which celebrates ethnic hatred, and might prefer the students to watch Branagh’s rather pornographically violent and somewhat over the top patriotic Henry V. The cutbacks tend to preserve the worst of the old.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

Eye roll. Crotch grab. For one thing, dying, relationships and self-knowledge cannot be separated.

Universities may well be teaching the right books but they too often fail to ask direct questions of them, declining to advance sufficiently vulgar, neo-religious enquiries because they are embarrassed to admit the true nature of our inner needs. They are fatefully in love with ambiguity, they trust in the absurd modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.

That’s not a modernist doctrine. Instead, the great modernist works (take Joyce), far from having no moral content, address the question of how to live with dignity in a society out of scale with human needs, in which it seems hard to live a decent life: you’re so responsible for your personal means and ends, and the ways and means are so deliberately opaque, that moral choice is obscured; you go to work for a financial firm only to discover when it’s too late that its investments or disinvestments are destroying the environment or people’s lives.

Joyce’s characters are trying to live in a society of bullshitters so clever at narration as to construct a fantasy land in which the “British” were responsible for everything bad, and the Church could not be questioned. Sure, modernism wasn’t about conformity, although that is what de Botton seems to be demanding: that we “contain” impulse and treat marriage like a job so as not to impose costs on a downsized government or damage our all important “performance” at work.

Prior to the current epoch, God and Mammon sat uneasily together despite Christ’s warnings. Today they seem to fuse and the result is monstrous. Spinoza’s, Luther’s, and St Augustine’s message was that the saint does exactly what he wants, not what’s expected of him, but what he wants is the good, which is trivially the only thing we want (the rest is consumerism and its evil twin, addiction).

We have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely dare to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possibly analysis of the human condition, but arguably, in my view, she asks many more of the right questions than the humanities’ professors at Oxford.

Philomoria. Oprah gets her books from professors, or from students inspired to love books by professors!

An insult to humanities teachers that have to, year in, year out, ask the most serious questions of the soul.

I had to teach The Painted Veil the other day. In preparing, I had to ask myself, am I Walter Fane? I asked my ex-wife during a period of half-reconciliation to come to China with me. During my marriage I’d “contained” my sexual impulses, and along with them, like Prince Charles, my ability to love.

I took only one class at Oxford, and that was online, and I left it because it was too dumbed-down and I didn’t want to overwhelm the teacher as I am carpet bombing Alain here. But I find it very hard to believe that in teaching, for example, The Painted Veil, Oxford professors have the students count words to measure Maugham’s vocabulary or treat the story as anything but profoundly about moral growth. But being responsible professors, they have to show how “moral growth” emerges from the nuts and bolts of character and dialogue.

And…if they are looking over their shoulder to see if they are on the chopping block, they will talk far less about the big questions, and instead teach the facts in a measurable way, in order to justify rehire.

Yes, de Botton is worse than Ayn Rand.

Toilet Monster

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by spinoza1111

I call “Toilet Monster” the phenomenon in Hong Kong schools, where one kid in English class says, “Teach-ahh! I gotta go to the toilet!” and soon, other children take up the cry, resulting in a general Clamour. In response to today’s Hue and Cry, I had the Little Hearts draw their Toilet Monster and write about it.

Then, on the MTR I wrote this edifying little poem:

Monkey See: Monkey Do:
The Toilet Monster will get you
If to the Lao Shih Teacher you tell a Lie
And dishonestly say with no reason Why
You need a Vacation in the Loo.

If you have to go, you have to go
This is something all Teachers know:
Some times to Poo and others to Pee
It is something we all do, naturally.

But woe unto the little Child
Who ill-bred and with manners Wild
Doth say I gotta when he don’t
The Toilet Monster will get him, see if he won’t!

And take you to his Poopy Lair
Where he’ll you frighten, and he’ll you scare
By serving Fruit Juice in cups of Hair
And pretending to be a scarey bear.

So, little Children, you must be Good
And always do that which you should
And eschew that which you’d better not
Or the Toilet Monster will put you in his cooking pot.

Edward G. Nilges 16 Dec 2010. Moral rights have been asserted nyah ha ha.

I Can No Longer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2010 by spinoza1111


Edward G. Nilges, “I Can No Longer Teach You Kids”, pencil and pen with Gimp modifications 12 Nov 2010, A4 size. Moral rights have been asserted by the creator of this work, so don’t start with me.

I can no longer teach you kids
It has something to do with privatization and bids
Today might be the first day of the rest of your life
But it’s my last day and the start of my strife.

I see Saturn,
Ascendant.

I hear the old giant come…fee fi fo fum,
He smells the blood of an Englishmun
He will crunch your bones to make his bread
Oh children close your eyes in holy dread.

Edward G. Nilges 12 Nov 2010. Moral rights have been asserted by the author, so up yours.

Reply to “Grover” on “Teacher’s Unions”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 24, 2010 by spinoza1111

At the discussion on New Jersey’s educational cuts at The Daily Princetonian, “Grover” writes:

The teachers’ union is the biggest obstacle to education in this country. It’s about time that a politician took it on. As someone pointed out in horror, the teachers who get pushed out from these cuts are the youngest ones. But why? In any other job it would be the worst teachers who were fired, but the union’s “last in, first out” seniority policy puts the interest of its members above the interests of students. Compensation is also decided primarily on the basis of seniority and the union puts up a huge fight against rewarding teachers based on the results they produce. Why? How does that benefit students? Or taxpayers? It’s damn near impossible to fire bad teachers (“rubber rooms” anyone?)–cui bono?

Add to these concerns the issues about neutrality, establishment, and accommodation, and note the fact that private schools can get better results while spending less money per student, and it becomes pretty clear that on pragmatic grounds alone we would ideally have no public schools at all. Obviously that ship has sailed, so the best we can do now is destroy the teachers’ union and implement a voucher system. The budget crisis can serve as an opportunity to move in that direction.

Of course teachers are going to complain about this because it hurts them. And it does look bad on the face of it: “Cut education spending? But think of the children!!!1!”. But (if you assume, contrary to fact, that government spending is usually cost-effective) cutting any program at all is going to look bad. “Cut spending on women’s health? But think of the women!!” “Cut spending on saving the environment? But think of the cute little baby polar bears?” The only place most Americans are willing to cut spending is on…foreign aid. But that’s not going to be enough, and education is something that could be more effective if less money were spent on it, making it a great place to cut spending.

Grover, firing teachers in and of itself means fewer, and not better teachers. News flash: if you fire teachers defined as “underperforming”, you still have to go through the expense of rehiring new teachers. This is a considerable expense, since certification requirements are strict, and added to this is the need to do background investigation to make sure the new teachers aren’t perverts.

Also, you seem to know who the underperforming teachers are. But it is widely acknowledged in corporations that “performance reviews” are highly subjective, and gamed by both sides. If on the other hand, you use test results, the teachers then teach to the test, neglecting most real educational tasks, and in some cases have helped the students cheat.

Of course, when you hear about this, Grover old buddy, your blood boils, and you say again, fire the bastards, écrasez l’infâme.

This is a non-lethal form of Jacobin terror, and it’s news to me that Robespierre did France any favors.

There is no queue of highly qualified, certified teachers out there who aren’t pervs just dying to teach, even if you increased salaries, which is not on in most districts. Most hot shots don’t have the patience or the temperament; many recovering Yuppies who have entered the teaching profession in recent years have difficulty with slow children.

Many other hot shots might talk anti-union talk, but themselves were educated permissively and read little, and therefore overuse lesson plans and abuse students who know more, or are more curious, than they.

And you’re right, hot shot. I do think of the children, the wasted lives, the violence and nihilism that comes in part from being unable to even think in, much less write, complete sentences such as “if I carry weed, or leap out of the car screaming at the cops, or ride with my woman when she’s mad at me, I will get my ass kicked by the cops” (cf. the very droll Chris Rock video “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police” on You Tube).

The talk radio nihilism of écrasez l’infâme has caused America to lose two wars, and treated safety in oil drilling as an unnecessary cost that we should “cut”.

Maybe I’m old fashioned: but for me, political de-bate conducted almost exclusively from the Right in mock-falsetto, in which you attempt to demonstrate that your opponents are girlie-men (and quell your own sexual anxieties), or from the Left in a mock deep voice which repeats the Right’s shibboleths in an attempt to show their absurdity, is not de-bate: it is duh-bate.

The problem is that the Baby Boom generation, including supporters of Christie’s cuts, are themselves moronized, half-educated and aliterate by design, since the cost-cutting started when they were still in school. Left-wing nihilism of the later 1960s compounded the problem. The coup de grace was the moronization of the media necessary to convince the electorate to accept Reagan and his successors.

This means that people who can neither write nor parse a complex sentence above a low upper bound of complexity expect children to do so on tests they cannot themselves pass. They then blame the teacher, naming an unenumerable set of supposed incompetents as if their destruction would cleanse the system.

As to “rubber rooms”. The New Yorker did an article on them, I hope you read it. The zeks in this gulag have been put there by means of undefined, Kafkaesque administrative procedures, and in the rubber rooms they are not permitted to use laptops or cellphones. Yes, they are not fired because of the teacher’s unions, but this cruel and unusual punishment is the school system’s idea.

Many of the zeks say that they are in the rubber room because of politics or speaking out. Funny how we believed Alexandre Solzenitsyn’s zeks but cannot believe these teachers.

You gonna cut cut cut, pal?
Is that the grand plan, Al?
Well, all I can say to you
Is,
Don’t take any wooden nickels,
Don’t eat no yellow snow,
And don’t run around with scissors,
‘Cause sooner or later, alligator,
You gonna cut yourself,
And for the first time in your life
You will see your blood.