Sunday, August 14, 2016

Introducing WordBrewery, a new language-learning website

This is the first update to Wide Awake Minds in several years, but I am touched to see that we still get a lot of search traffic from people discovering our content. As you have probably guessed, WAM has been on hiatus while I pursued other projects. But I wanted to write a quick post today to bring one of those projects to your attention: WordBrewery, the language-learning website and app I am developing.

WordBrewery teaches high-frequency vocabulary in context with real sentences from news sites around the world. It tests each sentence for its expected usefulness to language learners at different levels, so learners only see sentences that will introduce and reinforce the most important vocabulary. It can never run out of fresh content, and it is aimed at motivated learners as well as learners at or above the intermediate level. WordBrewery also has a blog (RSS) about language learning that Wide Awake Minds readers will find valuable.

Currently, WordBrewery users can browse curated sentences packed with high-frequency words, retrieve definitions and example sentences for any word, add words and sentences to study lists, and export those lists to CSV files to make flashcards using Anki or other software. We are gradually adding language courses, quiz games, native-speaker audio, and edited sentence translations.

I need your help spreading the word about WordBrewery so learners who would find WordBrewery helpful can learn about it and try it out. Please take a moment to do one or more of the following:
Thank you so much for reading and for helping me make this exciting project a success.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Albert Jay Nock on teaching college students

Albert Jay Nock reflecting on his experience of teaching college students - a useful reminder for students to (a) have some purpose or intention behind the course of studies they choose, and (b) make the most of their educational opportunities:

"What struck me with peculiar force was that only one out of the whole batch was taking work with me because he wanted to learn something about my subject. Most of them were taking it as a filler. They sat where they did because they had to sit somewhere in order to meet some requirement in an intricate system of 'credits,' and the most convenient place for them to sit happened to be in my lecture-room. Some were there for purposes connected with their prospective ways of getting a living. The majority, however, for all I could make out, were there because they were, at the moment, nowhere else; they put me in mind of the cheerful old drinking-song which we used to sing to the tune of Auld Lang Syne: We’re here because We’re here because We’re here because We’re here."

--Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (free e-book available here).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Core Knowledge curriculum "significantly" boosts reading comprehension, study finds

NYT: "Nonfiction [Core Knowledge] Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills in New York City Schools."

I have always been a fan of the Core Knowledge program, which is based on the idea that students should learn content rather than just abstract "skills - this idea might seem like common sense, but traditional content such as the names and ideas of historical figures, narratives of historical events, etc. is often dismissed by education scholars as "trivia" that can just be Googled anyway. E.D. Hirsch Jr., the creator of the Core Knowledge program, argues that the content of the traditional core subject areas serves as the building blocks of literacy.

From the NYT article: "Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of 'balanced literacy'.... The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools. It also tested children on their social studies and science knowledge, and again found that the Core Knowledge pupils came out ahead."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

National education standards will stifle innovation

My most recent education policy op-ed, "National education standards will stifle innovation," appeared today in the Michigan Education Report, a publication of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. In it, I write:

"Strict standards risk forcing students and teachers alike into a curricular straitjacket, alienating creative teachers and sapping the motivation of students. It is worth remembering that standards are nothing more than the products of committees of education “experts” quibbling around a conference table about which curriculum objectives to attach to each grade level. The term “grade level” is virtually synonymous with age, and any list of skills and knowledge all students must possess by a specific age is bound to be somewhat arbitrary.

It isn’t just “at-risk” students who have trouble moving through an arbitrary curriculum at an arbitrary rate; all students learn at their own paces, and individual students usually progress at different rates in different subjects. Most students do not fit the artificial mold of slow progress from “grade level” to “grade level,” accumulating skills and content knowledge at the same rate as the average child born in the same year.

Rigid, uniform and centrally designed curriculum standards make the curriculum less agile and flexible, less able to respond to the needs of students. The stricter the standards regime, the less schools are able to meet individual students where they are — a necessary first step to helping students grow academically."

The article also argues that the centralization of decisions about curriculum also risks making the teaching profession less attractive. You can read the entire article here.

If you enjoy the article, please pass it along to others who might be interested.  Thanks, as always, for reading.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Education-related excerpts from Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence"

(Note: I am posting additional excerpts, less related to education, from From Dawn to Decadence on my general-interest blog; you can find these here if you are interested.)

In a post I wrote a couple of years ago on Wide Awake Minds, I noted that "some books are an education in themselves" because of the breadth of topics they discuss and the seriousness of their insights about the world and about human life.  Historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present unquestionably meets that standard.

Barzun is one of the most erudite writers I have ever read. This New Yorker article describes Barzun's routine as he approached his 100th birthday in 2007, and comments on the range of his interests and knowledge:

"(Barzun's) idea of celebrating his centenary is to put the finishing touches on his thirty-eighth book (not counting translations). Among his areas of expertise are French and German literature, music, education, ghost stories, detective fiction, language, and etymology."

Here are a few excerpts from what I've read so far:


Anything that can be said about the good letters implies the book, the printed book. To be sure, new ideas and discoveries did spread among the clerisy before its advent, but diffusion of manuscripts is chancy and slow. Copying by hand is the mother of error, and circulation is limited by cost. ...Speed in the propagation of ideas generates a heightened excitement. ...To the modern lover of books, the product of the press is an object that arouses deep feelings, and looking Durer's charcoal drawing of hands holding a book, one likes to think the artist felt the same attachment. The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form.

...The first generation of international publishers did not merely make and sell books; they were scholars and patrons who translated the classics, nurtured their authors, and wrote original works. Their continual redesigning of letter forms gave rise to the new art of typography.

...People were now reading silently and alone. ...Books, books everywhere, like home computers today. ...Print brought a greater exactness to the scholarly exchange of ideas - all copies are alike; a page reference can kill an argument by confounding one's opponent out of his own words. A price is paid for this convenience: the book has weakened the memory, individual and collective, and divided the House of Intellect into many small flats, the multiplying specialties. In the flood of material within even one field, the scholar is overwhelmed. The time is gone when the classical scholar could be sure that he had 'covered the literature' of his subject, the sources being finite in number.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Interview: Polyglot and self-educator Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D. (Part 2 of 2)

(This is part two of my two-part interview with Alexander. The introduction and first part of the interview can be found here. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

Wide Awake Minds (WAM): Your educational accomplishments, style, and scholarly output seem to be quite different from those of most people in academia. For instance, it seems like you may have originally chosen your particular Ph.D. program (in History of Religions at the University of Chicago) because of what you wanted to learn and know rather than because of your desire to join that particular field as a scholar. Is that true?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): Yes, it is true that I never aspired to join the particular field of history of religions as a scholar. Right after college I did have some other reasons for ending up there, but the main one was that I believed I could do more comparative historical philological work there than I could anywhere else, and I think I was right in that. Quite frankly, I don’t see a Ph.D. as a certificate to be a specialist expert in the narrow realm where it was minted, but rather as a license to learn, and as proof that one has completed the whole formal schooling process. That’s what going there meant to me – completing the schooling process. I discovered when I was quite young that getting good grades was easy and brought many rewards (such as scholarships) in terms of both being taught some things and being given the freedom to teach oneself even more, so that is what I kept on doing as long as I could.

Unfortunately for me, my concept of what a Ph.D. represents is rather rare, and as a result my own academic career has definitely suffered. I was happy to head out into the wider world to get actual exposure to languages when I was a bit younger, but now I would be quite content to go “home” and have an office on the Quads or in Morningside Heights or any other Ivy League town. It doesn’t seem I’ll ever get one, though. I’ve applied for a fair number of professorships advertising for people with international experience and innovative approaches to foreign languages, but I’ve never been gotten any interested responses. It appears I have published in the wrong way – I’ve been told that full-length books like my multilingual dictionary and my analytical guide to Korean verbal conjugation - which I think are far more scholarly than my dissertation and which certainly took a lot more time and energy – are “just reference works” and that they “don’t count” – the only thing that counts being articles in scholarly journals.

I clearly remember my first advisor at the University of Chicago telling me to enjoy my graduate school years because, once I was a professor, I wouldn’t have nearly as much time to continue to explore and learn new things. As I’ve since had occasion to observe, he was all too often right. Many of my colleagues, instead of continuing to widen their horizons throughout their careers, only have time to delve deeper into their specific area of specialization. I think that is a shame, for I believe the primary duty of a scholar ought to be to continue to learn and study new things throughout life. Particularly in the area of foreign language learning, I think it is a travesty that linguists conduct research by theorizing and by testing on and observing others rather than by learning languages themselves so that they know first-hand what works and how that process works.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interview: Polyglot and self-educator Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D. (Part 1 of 2)

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Alexander Arguelles, Ph.D.

Self-educator’s position: Language Specialist, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization

Date: 21 December 2010

A "polyglot" is a person who knows many languages, and Alexander Arguelles is one of the foremost self-taught language learners in the world. In many ways, Alexander embodies the ideals of self-education and liberal education that are promoted on Wide Awake Minds. He has spent countless hours over the years on self-directed education with the aim of developing an "encylopedic mind," and he sees the learning of languages as his "passport" on a lifelong educational journey.

Alexander grew up hearing his father, another self-taught polyglot, teach himself languages by reading aloud from foreign language texts. By the time he was completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Alexander had been exposed to the "Great Books" method of liberal education and had "obtained a solid foundation in six languages: French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit."

After graduating from Columbia, Alexander pursued a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on Old Norse and developed his abilities in a number of other ancient and modern languages while making the decision to work systematically at becoming a polyglot later in life. After graduate school, Alexander gravitated away from traditional academic research and toward a career of language learning and teaching. During one five-year period, Alexander devoted himself nearly full-time to the study of languages.

Alexander's website reports that he has achieved his goal of being able to comfortably read classic books in their original languages with little or no use of a dictionary in over 30 languages, but he has a considerable knowledge of many others as well. He has managed to build a personal library of language learning resources for over 150 languages, and he has reviewed different language learning materials in a series of YouTube videos. His published books include a multilingual dictionary as well as reference materials on Korean, German, and French. His website,, is a treasury of resources on language learning, great books, and liberal education, and self-education.

Here is a video of Alexander demonstrating some of his language learning routines to Michael Erard, a writer who profiles polyglots (among many other fascinating projects); my interview with Alexander begins below the video:

(This is part one of my two-part interview with Alexander. The second portion of the interview will be posted in the next few days. Thank you, as always, for reading.)

Wide Awake Minds (WAM): When did you first take an interest in learning? Why did you decide to make it your goal to "develop an encyclopedic mind," as you put it - and what do you mean by that term?

Alexander Arguelles (AA): I have always loved learning. I have been an inveterate reader from my earliest years, and from boyhood onwards I have always carried several books around with me wherever I go, together with a notebook for writing down quotes as well as my own observations and reflections. By early adolescence, I had developed a taste for both serious literature and for histories of all sorts: chronicle-type (important names, dates, battles, events, dynasties, etc.), historiography, the history of ideas, histories of philosophy, histories of literature, other cultural histories, etc.

I don’t remember just when I first consciously articulated the desire to develop an encyclopedic mind in those precise terms, but it was certainly a long time ago, and even before that I was working in the same direction.

What do I mean by the term? There are three main components: first and foremost, I want to have a wide ranging and well organized knowledge of facts; second, I want to have a deep understanding of both the true connections between those facts that are actually related and also of the patterns that are represented by those that are merely parallel phenomena; third, I want to digest all of this, to have it available for immediate access right inside my head.

Why? Well, I suppose I am simply enamored of the idea of making my brain a repository of knowledge, a primary reference source that goes with me wherever I go and in which I have facts ready at hand without needing to look them up in external sources. What do you do with all the footnotes at the bottom of the pages of an annotated scholarly work? I suspect most people tend to skip them altogether, but if you do read them the first time you read the work, and you then read it again, it is simply a much richer and more meaningful experience upon that second reading because you already know the content of the explanatory footnotes. Going through life with an encyclopedic mind is rather like that, that is, a more satisfying experience when you know most of the context that you otherwise have to get by reading footnotes if you even bother to look at all. Conducting yourself in the conscious light of what others have done and thought is more fulfilling than living without that awareness.

There is so much to know that there is always something new to learn, and while it is always wonderful to do so, still it is somewhat mortifying to first realize that you are completely ignorant of something. I mean, when I first learn the name of an important historical personage or of an ancient civilization, I am excited to add that information to my encyclopedia, but I also feel a twinge of shame that I knew nothing about it before.

In reality, whenever I move around the world I ship a large physical library around with me, but I really like the idea of having no possessions, and I think it would be nice to have nothing physical, but to still have a full rich world of knowledge inside my mind. I haven’t written it yet and maybe I never will, but I have a fleshed-out dystopian novel in my head in which exactly that is all that is left – what is inside our heads. I fear that for most people that would leave them with very little indeed, but I think it would be magnificent to be able to sit down and write out an encyclopedic work such as Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum Maius.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In schools, don't place form above function

My latest op-ed, "In schools, don't place form above function," appeared today in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and online at

In it, I tell the story of Bachar Sbeiti, a student who finished eighth grade three years ahead of schedule, but whose school district refused to allow him to advance because of his age. I argue that it is time to abandon the practice of sorting students according to age and imposing a near-uniform curriculum on every student in a particular age cohort.

You can find the article at If you enjoy it, please consider passing it along to others who might be interested.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Highly qualified teacher" rules protect the status quo

My most recent education policy op-ed, "The myth of the 'highly qualified' teacher," appeared today in the Michigan Education Report, a publication of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  In it, I discuss No Child Left Behind's mandate that all public school teachers be labeled 'highly qualified,' and illustrate how this mandate operates in practice.  I argue that this is yet another example of the triumph of show over substance in education policy.  You can read the article here.

If you enjoy the article, please pass it along to others who might be interested.  Thanks, as always, for reading.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Books received: Charles D. Hayes, "Existential Aspirations" and Jennifer Ouellette, "The Calculus Diaries"

I received two books on self-education for review last month: Charles D. Hayes' Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher (Autodidactic Press, 2010) and Jennifer Ouellette's The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (Penguin, 2010).

Hayes' Existential Aspirations is a manifesto for self-education - particularly in philosophy, politics, and other fields in the humanities and social sciences - written in an urgent tone.  For Hayes, self-education through reading, writing, thinking, and exploring is an essential part of making the most of one's limited leisure time on Earth.  Self-education is not solely about self-improvement, though that is a worthwhile goal; it is also about fulfilling our responsibility as citizens of a fragile world.

The more we learn, the more we realize how much we do not know.  Accordingly, even as education empowers us by deepening our understanding of the world and of ourselves, it is also humbling.  As such, education is an antidote to the tempting but destructive certainties of egotism, jingoism, and fundamentalism.  Like Hayes' other works, Existential Aspriations can broaden readers' exposure to the world of ideas: Hayes generously shares excerpts, quotes, and ideas from his voluminous reading, and he effectively communicates his own ideas and opinions as products of a lifetime of serious reading and thinking.


I have not yet had a chance to review Ouellette's The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse (Penguin, 2010), but it may interest readers who would like to read more about self-education in mathematics - a topic I haven't written much about. It has always seemed to me that those students who approach math from the perspective of self-educators have more success than those who go through the motions of math classes without becoming personally invested in the subject or committing to working through problems and concepts independently.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Excerpts from Jacques Barzun's "Begin Here"

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, one of my favorite books on education:

From "Schooling No Mystery":

Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and Learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it.
As for the means of learning and thinking, that is to say, reading and writing, the colleges are at the same point as the grade schools - helpless in the face of illiteracy. The exceptional teacher is still trying in graduate school to get decent writing and intelligent reading out of his bright students.
Learning to read, write, and count meant equal opportunity. Lincoln, as everybody knows, had to teach himself.
In the name of progress and method, innovation and statistical research, educationists have persuaded the world that teaching is a set of complex problems to be solved. It is no such thing. It is a series of difficulties. They recur endlessly and have to be met; there is no solution.... Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science.
...Knowing a subject and wanting to teach it are the chief prerequisite to success in the profession....

From "Teacher in 1980 America: What He Found":

The manifest decline is heartbreakingly sad, but it is what we have chosen to make it, in higher learning as well as in our public schools. There, instead of trying to develop native intelligence and give it good techniques in the basic arts of man, we professed to make ideal citizens, supertolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars. In the upshot, a working system has been brought to a state of impotence. Good teachers are cramped or stymied in their efforts, while the public pays more and more for less and less. The failure to be sober in action and purpose, to do well what can actually be done, has turned a scene of fruitful activity into a spectacle of defeat, shame, and despair.

From "The Alphabet Equals the Wheel":

All children can learn and do learn. By the time they first go to school they have learned an enormous amount, including a foreign language, since no language is native to the womb.
A teacher must believe in the capacity of those he is teaching; it is defeatism to start out with the opposite assumption.
Teaching is a demanding, often back-breaking job; it should not be done with the energy left over after meetings and pointless paperwork have drained hope and faith in the enterprise. Accountability, the latest cure in vogue, is to be looked for only in results. Good teaching is usually well-known to all concerned without questionnaires or approved lesson plans.
When good teachers perform and pupils learn, the sense of accomplishment produces a momentum that lightens the toil for both. Discipline is easier to maintain and failures become exceptions instead of the rule.
...Reform must bear directly on what is wanted, not try roundabout ways next door. The Army is not considered the most efficient of institutions, but when it finds a deficiency in fire power it does not launch a "Right to Shoot Program" or a "Marksmanship Recovery Project." It gets the sergeants busy and the instructors out to the rifle range.

From "The Centrality of Reading":

There excuse for allowing the exercise of reading to be less certain in its results than the exercise of listening and remembering. To tolerate reading that proceeds by guesswork, as if at a later time some one would surely tighten the screws of the loose mental structure and make it solid and precise, is to commit an injury against the growing mind. To allow the written word to be indefinite is to undo the incalculable technical advance that turned sounds into signs.

On this pedagogical ground alone, it could be said that no subject of study is more important than reading. In our civilization, at any rate, all the other intellectual powers depend upon it. No one can compute very far without reading correctly; no one can write decently without reading widely and well; no one can speak or listen intelligently without the mass of workaday information that comes chiefly through reading. As for acquiring some notions of history, government, hygiene, philosophy, art, religion, love-making, or the operation of a camera, they are all equally and pitifully dependent on reading.
Imagine the art of reading lost - and with it writing, study, and verbal recovery - and it is hard to see how civilized man could survive the shocks and anxieties of his state, let alone serve his multitudinous desires.
The linguists who affect to scorn all utterance but the spoken word, the teachers' group in the Midwest that has discovered the uselessness of reading and asks that it no longer be taught in the schools, the zealots who sidestep the issue but sell futures in a world where only the voice and the image will have currency - all appear deficient in imagination, the imagination they would need still more under their wayward scheme. In any case, their prophecy of the end of reading leaves me unmoved, for prophecy concerns the future, and to reach any future we must somehow get from here to there, and that will require reading.
...Reading and its necessary twin, writing, constitute not merely an ability but a power. I mean by the distinction that reading is not just a device (in jargon "a tool") by which we are reached and reach others for practical ends. It is also a mode of incarnating and shaping thought....

Monday, July 5, 2010

Making the most of your commute through self-education

My work and travel over the past few years have made me spend a lot of time on the road: commuting to and from different jobs and classes, driving between cities to see family and friends, etc. Many Americans spend a great deal of time commuting to and from work on a daily basis, and some of the recent research on happiness (discussed in countless books such as Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth) indicates that a long daily commute is one of the surest paths to a stressful and unhappy life.

Anyone who has been stuck in standstill traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago (to give one example) will probably intuitively understand the truth behind such research findings. But many of us have no choice but to drive a great deal for work - and for home-owning commuters in many areas, the collapse in home prices in recent years has made it impractical to sell one's house to move closer to one's workplace.

But this is one area in which approaching life as a self-educator can make a person more happy and fulfilled. To the self-educator, the day-to-day "grind" of commuting, work, waiting, and errands can be at least partially transformed into a set of opportunities for learning and growth. Our daily schedules, which often seem so packed and overfilled with tasks and obligations, usually contain "hidden moments"* - or even hidden hours - that we are accustomed to wasting, but that can be put to work in the service of learning, goals, and growth.

Here are a few ways in which I have put my commute to use in the past or hope to put it to use in the future. If any of these ideas appeal to you, I encourage you to think about how you can modify it to suit your own tastes, interests, and circumstances.

-Visit your local public library and browse the audio book collection. Skip the latest bestsellers and challenge yourself with something you know will be valuable and cause you to grow and broaden your mind: a classic work of literature or a book of history, for example. Listen to these on the road. (Audio books I've listened to this year: James Joyce, Dubliners; Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft; Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged; Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers; Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam; Bob Woodward, State of Denial). Also, many libraries have some sort of interlibrary loan system that you can use to borrow audio CDs (as well as books and other materials) from libraries around your region. (See also: The case for reading good books and Self-education and language learning).

-Find out what your local NPR news station is, and listen to it. NPR has five minute news summaries every hour, and many of their daily programs offer incredibly valuable and in-depth interviews, commentaries, and features. Nothing else on the radio can compare. NPR programs regularly interview and profile people of all political persuasions, and the vast majority of NPR programming consists of informed debate and informative reporting, not opinion pieces.

-If you have an auxiliary audio jack with which you can attach an iPod, smartphone, or other mp3 player to your car stereo, download high-quality podcasts or audio files to your mp3 player and create a playlist to listen to in the car. Great podcasts with high educational value are put out by NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other websites and media outlets. (Browse the iTunes Store's podcast collection here - nearly all podcasts are free.)

-Consider subscribing to audio versions of high-quality, educational magazines and newspapers. You can arrange to have these automatically downloaded to your digital audio player every morning in time for your commute. I particularly recommend the Economist, every article of which is made available each week in podcast/audio format for subscribers. Regularly reading the Economist over a period of years is, in my opinion, the single best way to gain a broad knowledge of current events around the world. And the Economist is not, its title notwithstanding, primarily a business magazine; its pages include news from around the world, in-depth special reports about a wide range of topics, business and economics news, science news, book reviews, and more. also offers audio subscriptions to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the U.S.'s top two newspapers.  The Times is better for in-depth investigative reporting about politics and international affairs, and its opinion pages are mostly liberal; the Journal has a business and finance focus, and its opinion pages are mostly conservative.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ibn Sina (980-1037), 11th century self-educator and polymath

From "Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina [Avicenna], The Ideal Muslim Intellectual (eleventh century)," in Gettleman and Schaar, The Middle East and Islamic World Reader. Original source: A.J. Arberry, "Avicenna: His Life and Times" in G.M. Wickens, ed., Avicenna: Scientist and Philosopher (London: Luzac & Company, 1952), pp. 9 and 11-17:

When the Abbasid empire broke into small competing states, brilliant intellectuals such as Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (980-1037) found many rulers willing to patronize their scholarship. The political instability resulting from the weakening of Abbasid authority did not stifle the tradition of cultural and intellectual exchange among Islamic cities and centers of learning. Born in a village near the Central Asian city of Bukhara, ibn Sina continuously traveled in search of knowledge and work. In the course of his voyages he distinguished himself as one of the most famous physicians, intellectuals, and men of science in the world, and Europeans continued to teach from his celebrated writings on medicine up to the eighteenth century. Not only did he master the many texts of ancient thinkers in Arabic translations, but he also added to knowledge in the fields of law, theology, philosophy, optics, astronomy, medicine, poetry, and philology.

[The following selection is from ibn Sina's autobiography]:

By the time I was ten I had mastered the Koran and a great deal of literature, so that I was marveled at for my aptitude.
(My father and my brother would discuss theology) while I listened and comprehended all they said; but my spirit would not assent to their argument...[T]hey began to invite me to join...rolling on their tongues talk about philosophy, geometry, Indian arithmetic; and my father sent me to a certain vegetable seller who used the Indian arithmetic [and algebra], so that I might learn it from him.

Then there came to Bukhara a man called Abu Abd Allah al-Natili who claimed to be a philosopher; my father invited him to stay in our house, hoping that I would learn from him also. Before his advent [arrival] I had already occupied myself with Muslim jurisprudence, attending [studying with] Isma'il the Ascetic; so I was an excellent inquirer, having become familiar with the methods of postulation and the techniques of rebuttal according to the usages of the canon lawyers. ...He marveled at me exceedingly, and warned my father that I should not engage in any other occupation but learning; whatever problem he stated to me, I showed a better mental conception of it than he. So I continued until I had read the straightforward parts of [Aristotle's] Logic with him; as for the subtler points, he had no acquaintance with them.

From then onward I took to reading texts by myself; I studied the commentators until I had...mastered...Logic. Similarly with Euclid['s Elements of Geometry] I read the first five or six figures with him; and thereafter undertook on my own account to solve the entire remainder of the book.

I now occupied myself with mastering the various texts and commentaries on natural sciences and metaphysics, until all the gates of knowledge were open to me. Next I desired to study medicine, and...[proceeded] to read all the books that had been written on this subject. Medicine is not a difficult science, and naturally I excelled in it in a very short time, so that qualified physicians began to read medicine with me.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debate: Will standards save public education?

I recently read Deborah Meier's Will Standards Save Public Education?  The book is a "New Democracy Forum" debate produced by the fantastic Boston Review (

It includes contributions by Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Ted Sizer, Gary Nash, Linda Nathan, Abigail Thernstrom, Richard Murnane, William Ayers, and Bob Chase (former NEA President). The book was published in 2000, but it is more relevant than ever because of the Obama administration's push for national standards, the recent release of the Common Core standards in reading and math that are likely to serve as the basis of these standards, and the ongoing debate about the future of No Child Left Behind, a piece of standards-and-accountability legislation that has transformed the educational landscape in ways positive and negative, expected and unexpected.

Here are excerpts from a few of the essays to give you a sense of the debate:

From Jonathan Kozol, "Foreword":

Education writing, as John Holt observed when he and I were teaching high school English in the summer at the Urban School in Boston more than thirty years ago, is frequently a way of speaking indirectly of our own biographies and longings and unveiling our own souls. In speaking of "the aims of education" for a city or a nation, even for a neighborhood, we draw to some degree on who we are, and what we like (or don't like) in ourselves, and what we wish we might have been.

So when I listen to debates on education - whether about standards, pedagogic styles, or objectives, or "assessments," or whatever else - I listen first to voices. Before I pay attention to ideas, I want to gain some sense of character and value - lived experience - within the person who is telling us what he or she believes is best for children.

I do think...that there's such a thing as "bad" and "good" and "better" when it comes to books for children or to any other facet of our cultural endowment. ...So the question, for me, isn't if we ought to have some "standards" in our children's education. It is, rather, how and where they are determined, and by whom, and how we treat or penalize (or threaten, or abuse) the child or the teacher who won't swallow them.
Many of the teachers that I know in the South Bronx could teach in universities but choose to teach in elementary schools because they love the personalities of children and they also have a moral vision of a good society and want to do their part in bringing incremental bits of justice to an unjust city and an unjust world. They come with all the treasures they have gleaned from their own education. They want to share these treasures with the children, but they also want to find the treasures that exist already in those children, and they know they cannot do this if they're forced to march the kids in lockstep to the next "objective," or, God help us, the next "benchmark," so that they'll be ready - and God help us, please, a little more - to pass the next examination.

They worry about scripted journeys where there is no room for whimsical discoveries and unexpected learnings. They worry about outcomes that are stated in advance. ...These are teachers who have standards; but their standards may resemble those of Thomas Merton, or Thoreau, or Toni Morrison, more than of a market analyst or business CEO. The best teachers of little kids I know are poets in their personalities: they love the unpredictable. ...If we force them to be little more than the obedient floor managers for industry, they won't remain in public schools. The price will be too high. The poetry will have been turned into prose: the worst kind too, the prose of experts who know every single thing there is to know except their own destructiveness.

In this way, we'll lose the teachers who come to the world of childhood with ministries of love and, in their place, we'll get technicians of proficiency.

So the question, again, is not if we "need" standards in our schools but with what sensibilities we navigate between the two extremes of regimented learning with destructive overtones, on one hand, and pedagogic aimlessness and fatuous romanticism on the other. Somewhere between the world of Dickens's Gradgrind and John Silber and the world of pedagogic anarchy, there is a place of sanity where education is intense and substantive, and realistically competitive in a competitive society, but still respectful of the infinite variety of valued learnings and the limitless varieties of wisdom in the hearts of those who come to us as students.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Evolving thoughts about technology and education

This morning, I am writing from the MACUL (Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning) education technology conference in Grand Rapids, MI.

A couple of thoughts and takeaway lessons from my experience at the conference so far:

First, the profession of education is exciting, and it is important for teachers to be able to step back from the daily grind of teaching once in a while to participate in conferences like this. Not every "professional development" experience is valuable, but academic conferences like these provide an opportunity to gain quick exposure to a wide range of new ideas that can expand teachers' visions of what is possible in the classroom and of what it means to be an educator.

Second, I have a lot to learn. I thought I knew quite a bit about technology and the Internet - but I already feel behind the curve with things like digital audio and video technologies, and new tools are springing up every day. Even those of us who are "plugged in" and who read and/or write blogs, get our news from RSS feed readers (like Google Reader), and communicate by means of email and Facebook can easily fall behind the times, because the times are rapidly changing.

Keeping up with technological innovations in a well-informed way is a very real challenge that does not happen automatically; it has to happen through self-education, on one's own initiative. This does not necessarily mean adopting every new gadget that comes along; instead, what is important is to be knowledgeable about the tools that are out there so that you can make informed decisions about which to use and which to bypass.

(A key word here is "tools" - I do not believe that technology should lead us around by the nose and cause us to drop the traditional academic curriculum and give up the aim of real literacy - the ability to read and converse with challenging, idea-rich texts - in the name of new "literacies" which may, after all, be fads. I see more value in using educational technology as a means of delivering a traditional, rigorous liberal arts education in a more exciting, individualized, and self-paced way than has been possible to this point.)

Live blog: MACUL education technology conference, Grand Rapids, MI

Saturday, March 6, 2010

First thoughts about Diane Ravitch's changes of heart on school reform

I'm planning to purchase Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System as soon as possible - it sounds like a fascinating and heartfelt book about a great educator's rethinking of long-held positions on school reform. The reviews have been mostly glowing. (For a kind but critical review, check out Chester Finn's take in Forbes:

However, the tone of many of the stories about Ravitch's change of heart suggest to me that the politicization of education and school reform has become a serious problem. We need to refocus on whether a particular idea or a particular reform will strengthen student outcomes, and we should be less concerned about whether the proposal comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.

School reform is not just another political issue: it is an issue that directly affects the lives of millions of students and their communities. It affects the social and economic future of society and the health of democracy.

Those who wade into these debates bear an especially heavy burden, and to handle that burden responsibly, we should read widely and listen with an open mind to ideas and proposals from as many perspectives as possible.

It seems to me that there may be more common ground than the current political lines-in-the-sand suggest. For instance, the progressive vision of small, personal, relationship-driven schools (advocated most prominently by Deborah Meier) seems more compatible with a flexible and choice-driven school structure than with large-scale, one-size-fits-all models of schooling.

Above all, perhaps, our education policy debates might become more sane if we stood back for a moment from debates about means - how and by whom education services are to be delivered (by public or private schools, charter schools, virtual schools, home-based schools, etc.) - and agreed first and foremost that educational outcomes (what knowledge, skills, habits, and dispositions students walk away with at the conclusion of their schooling) are what matters most.

It seems silly and shortsighted to pick a fight with a school that is truly serving its students and community well just because it is a particular type of school. Likewise, it seems wrong to stand up against any and all reform measures that target schools that are clearly not serving their students and community well simply because one is concerned about the broader implications of the reform or the political affiliation of those who are promoting the reform.

The simple reality is that there are excellent public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools, and there are extremely poor public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools. The means of schooling are less important than the outcomes.

(Image sources: Education Week ( and Barnes & Noble (

Further reading:

Diane Ravitch's homepage:

Diane Viadero, "In New Book, Ravitch Recants Long-Held Beliefs,", 3/5/10.

Steve Inskeep, "Former 'No Child Left Behind' Advocate Turns Critic,", 3/2/10.

Chester E. Finn, "School's Out: On Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System,", 3/3/10.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview: Self-educator Hoossam Malek

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Hoossam (Sam) Malek

Self-educator’s location: Baltimore, Maryland

Date: 4 March 2010

I met Sam Malek three summers ago, when the two of us were summer interns at Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, in Chicago. Sam has one of the most incredible minds I have ever encountered: his worldview is informed by a deep understanding of mathematics and economics as well as an insatiable curiosity and drive for growth, understanding, and academic and professional excellence.

The son of first-generation Syrian immigrants, Sam is proficient in Arabic, English and French. After earning a B.A. in Economics at Princeton, Sam spent a year working with the American Red Cross through AmeriCorps VISTA in West Baltimore City. He then worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, VA for three years while taking advanced courses in mathematics. He enrolled in the full-time M.B.A. program at the Chicago Booth School of Business and graduated towards the top of his class while also earning an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. He began a career as an emerging markets bond analyst at Lehman Brothers in the turbulent late summer of 2008, and has since moved on to another firm where he focuses on high-yield Middle Eastern bonds.

WAM: On Wide Awake Minds, I promote a vision of education as a lifelong process in which certificates and degrees are important thresholds or signposts, but not signals that we have become "educated" persons with no need of further intellectual growth. You are someone who has gone far beyond the requirements of your profession and continued to pursue new learning opportunities at every stage of your life.

SM: What you are saying about thresholds - that you don't just cross a threshold and then be done - is, I think, very important. Human beings, especially here in the United States, are sometimes encouraged (unfortunately) to see life as a series of doors that you go through for whatever reason. Even that - to stop and think about that and reassess it may be very uncomfortable for some people.

Why learn? Why have a job? We have to put food on the table, we need to exist. We need knowledge to do our work as human beings. God puts you on this planet, and if you're lucky you have health - but education is supposed to take us beyond that and help us thrive in a difficult world. We don’t just get an education to check it off the list, but to survive and thrive.

It's kind of like the saying: "The truth can set you free." Life can be pretty oppressive at times. But education can prepare us for that by giving us foresight, the ability to be proactive, the ability to manage our passions, and the ability to see clearly in spite of whatever is going on around us. We are sentient people, not just rational creatures that see everything clearly - education can help us channel our emotions and not be slaves to them.

For example, you and I both do some of our work remotely, over the Internet, and I sincerely believe that that's the future of a lot of labor markets. This idea of making a living without waking up and going to a physical office building will be very uncomfortable for a lot of people. But there are ways to make the prospect of an uncertain future and new work environments more manageable and exciting; some of these ways include being aware of the world, seeing things, reading things, knowing things - in short, education.

And some people seem to be driven to go beyond the basics of what they need to know. Earlier tonight I was reading a friend's blog - he is in the field of bioengineering, but he really wants to be a philosopher. His post was explaining to his readers what an "axiom" is. Not everyone wants to be that thoughtful about the world around them, but some people need to - for these people, learning itself is a powerful need.

WAM: What you said about your friend's blog is very interesting - do you see anything significant about the fact that he was using the format of a blog? For example, was he "working" as a philosopher or exploring his identity as a philosopher? Was he self-educating by clarifying his thoughts on an issue and distilling these thoughts into a blog post? Was he performing the function of an educator, teaching his readers about a topic important to him?

SM: Absolutely, his use of the blog format is very significant. He has 800 friends on Facebook and seems very Internet-savvy - not only can he test the waters as a philosopher or public intellectual, but he can try to create a market for his ideas and attract a readership for his views. If readers with limited time feel compelled to go to his blog and read his writing, then he may be on to something that he can use to build new opportunities.

One good thing about technology is that it creates these marketplaces of ideas - not just for testing ideas, but for communication. If you feel passionate about something, you can go online and talk about it with others. Passion and sincerity are contagious - people will sense them in your writing and respond. My friend is lucky because the invention of blogs and the Internet gave him the opportunity to experiment and branch out beyond the narrow function of his career.