Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

On becoming an educated person in this day and age

I think I've made it plain that I, like a lot of people, think higher education is in a sad state in this country, and overpriced to boot.

This applies mostly to the arts and humanities. The U.S. is still has two of the best scientific/technical schools in the world (CalTech and MIT) and a host of world class departments in other universities.

Trouble is, most of the high schools aren't teaching science and math well enough to prepare American kids for them.

And, even for kids who aren't going to become scientists and engineers, the laymen's courses in science don't impart enough knowledge of how science and math work to enable them to make rational decisions on public policy issues concerning science and statistics.

The arts and humanities have abandoned a historical/great books curriculum and are almost entirely devoted to indoctrination.

Even at the high school, and God help us, increasingly at the grade school level, a great many teaching positions are essentially make-work welfare.

Vo-tech at the secondary level shows encouraging progress, and for post-secondary ed there seems to be a move towards schools that teach stuff that might actually get you a job. This results in the decline of males enrolled in college that is such a matter of concern to the colleges.

It hasn't struck them that nobody's buying what they have to sell, because it's worthless.*

Now I'd like to direct your attention to Victor Davis Hanson's article, "Humanities Move Off Campus" here: http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson121008.html

Dr. Hanson is writing about how the free market reacted to decline of learning on campus. A number of companies have used audio/video tech to record lessons and lecture series for sale or rental.

He mentions some others, but I'd like to recommend the two I use.

Here: http://www.thegreatcourses.com/teach12.aspx?ai=34198

please find, The Great Courses.

The first one I got was "Argumentation: the Study of Effective Reasoning," with Professor David Zarefsky - glorious! Twenty-four half-hour lectures on how logic and rhetoric are applied to analyzing and constructing arguments. With lots of historical references.

Next I sweated through, "Zero to Infinity: A History of Numbers," with Professor Edward Burger.

That was tough for me, I'm not a math person, but well worth it.

It's about the history of the concept of number, number theory for non-mathematics people.

You probably know about cardinal and ordinal numbers. Did you know there are at least five kinds of numbers? (What the hell are p-adic numbers?) Did you know that infinity comes in an infinite number of sizes?

Now I'm going through, "Machiavelli in Context," with Professor William Cook. On the stack I've got a 12-lecture course in Game Theory, and "Jewish Intellectual History: 16th through 20th Centuries."

You can find: anatomy, art history, world history, chaos theory, string theory, anthropology, biology, literature...

The cost per course is proabaly less than the cost of the damn books for an equivalent college course. And, they have periodic sales where they slash prices to the bone, in what I believe is basically a loss leader strategy.

Now go here: http://smartflix.com/

I've commented that our intellectuals have become alienated from the skills that make a civilization work - here's the cure.

Want to know how to repair guns? Shoot them?

Music lessons, drawing lessons, woodworking, kayaking, welding... It's all there, for a reasonble rental.

Right now I'm going through the companion DVDs to the book "Attack Proof." I didn't have to buy an expensive DVD to check out whether it was useful or not (it is - definitely) nor do I have to own a DVD whose material I can absorb in one or two go-throughs. (I prefer to own The Great Courses.)

So this is by way of an unsolicited product endorsement. I don't have any professional connection with either of these - and you can bet that if I did I'd be too proud to keep it secret.

Dr. Hanson mentions other companies such as Knowledge Products, and Rosetta Stone (languages), but I haven't bought any of their stuff - yet.

Not to gush too much, but this may ensure that our civilization doesn't have to decay just because our educational institutions are failing us.

What's missing from the great courses, is interaction with a teacher and other students.

But with any initiative at all, one could form a book club/discussion group to view and discuss them, and perhaps real teachers could make themselves available online?

After all, "God will not do everything for us, in order not to deprive us of free will or that share of glory which is ours by right."**

*I'd like to point out that I live a few blocks away from one of the nations small but highly-regarded universities that seems to buck the trend. It's 1) a teaching university, if you sign up with a teacher, teaching is what he or she is supposed to do. And 2) they've got a set of good practical courses (including a really fine music department!) that actually relate to what you might actually need to know for a job.

**Machiavelli, "The Prince," last line.


  • At 6:13 AM, Blogger Bruce Oksol said…

    Thank you for providing recommendations for further reading.

    I can't argue with your comments on education -- that high schools do not prepare students for such schools as MIT and CalTech. I don't recall if you placed blame; you stated "make-work welfare" which may imply your biases (I use that word positively).

    I am a substitute high school teacher with a background in science and math (30-year US Air Force office, retired). The full-time educators I assist are first-rate. One can fault the curriculum at times, but the biggest obstacles to teaching lie (lay?) outside the classroom: parental involvement, parental support, societal mores (is that the right word?), sports and entertainment industry, and the list goes on.

    Having said that, the cream rises to the top. The system continues to provide top notch students; and, to some extent (don't take this out of context), most students are overtaught. Texas high schools require three years of a foreign language (in the same language, for example). That's nice and some will benefit from it, but at the end of the day, does it make that citizen more productive? (For me taking 1 - 2 years each of Latin, German, French, and Spanish -- in high school and college was better than 3 years of one language.)

    The focus on high school to get everyone into college is misplaced. There are some folks that would do better to go to vocational school instead. Do not take this out of context; too much to deal with in a "short" reply.

    I used to blame the educators; no more. Most are doing their best to survive in a highly dysfunctional environment.

    I really enjoy your posts. Good luck in your future endeavors.

  • At 5:27 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    And thank you for your reply!

    The best history teachers I had in high school (long ago) were retired Naval officers. There was some provision for getting them certified to teach relatively rapidly after retirement. I don't know if this is still possible.

    About language teaching I should probably write further. I was an ESL teacher for 13 years abroad, and I think the private language schools do a far better job than any language class in any high school I've ever heard about.

    That of course, depends on your goal. I speak a couple of languages (fair Polish, rusty Spanish - and enough German to talk to waiters) OK - but would miserably fail any written test.

    It depends on whehter your goal is reading a language, reading and writing, speaking perfectly - or communicating well enough to get around, make friends, chat up girls...

    About math, in my experience (i.e. in the district around the capitol) almost every Polish high school kid is 3-4 years ahead of his American contemporaries.

    Part of this is probably because the population is less mobile than ours. Kids commonly stay in the school distric their entire time in school.

    Another reason is, they have math teachers from 4th grade. Not a generic teacher.

    And, in the communist times first-rate minds were attracted to the sciences and math because, 1) there was the opportunity for foreign contracts, travel and funds, and 2) you couldn't get in trouble for your opinions.

    I should blog more about this in my copious free time ;)

  • At 3:13 PM, Blogger Patricia said…

    Hi. I just stumbled over your blog while searching for material for a grad school assignment. I have enjoyed reading your posts. That being said, have you heard of Hillsdale College? I read and studied the Great Books there. It's another school 'bucking the trend.'

  • At 4:22 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Welcome Patricia.

    I've heard of Hillsdale College, though I've never been there. I'd very much like to see it some day.

    Some years back in Lithuania I met Richard Eberling, who was teaching economics there at the time.


Post a Comment

<< Home