Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The reading habits of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Where do the allusions, ideas, images, and thought-fragments that populate the mind and the writings of a great thinker come from? We can often find out by consulting a biography:

From John Livingston Lowes' The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination:

How did Coleridge actually read books? Few more significant questions can be asked about any man, and about Coleridge probably none. Coleridge...was reading Maurice, but he was doing more: he was also going back at first hand to the sources of Maurice's information. He made, accordingly, a memorandum of another book to read.

Coleridge (at least during the years of the Note Book) read with an eye which habitually pierced to the secret spring of poetry beneath the crust of fact. And this means that items or details the most unlikely might, through some poetic potentiality discovered or divined, find lodgement in his memory.
Coleridge not only read books with minute attention, but he also habitually passed from any book he read to the books to which that book referred. And that, in turn, makes it possible to follow him into the most remote and unsuspected fields. And his gleanings from these fields, transformed but recognizable, will meet us again and again as we proceed. For to follow Coleridge through his reading is to retrace the obliterated vestiges of creation.
When Coleridge once started on a book, he was apt to devour it whole.
We have to do, in a word, with one of the most extraordinary memoires of which there is record, stored with the spoils of an omnivorous reading, and endowed in to the bargain with an almost uncanny power of association.
Even you and I, at vivid moments, know the sudden leap of widely sundered recollections, through some flash of association, into a new and sometimes startling unity. And that, assuredly in no less degree, is also the experience of poets.

John Livingston Lowes
--The Road to Xanadu - A Study in the Ways of the Imagination

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A glimpse into a great mind: Jonathan Z. Smith

[Editor's note: One of my purposes in writing
Wide Awake Minds is to publicly recognize and draw attention to intellectual and academic achievement. In the coming months, I hope to highlight the achievements of many thinkers and self-educators by sharing excerpts from their books and interviews that highlight their love of learning, their commitment to education, and their individual learning styles and research methods.]

Jonathan Z. Smith is a historian of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(Via his faculty website:) Smith's research has focused on such wide-ranging subjects as ritual theory, Hellenistic religions, nineteenth-century Maori cults, and the notorious events of Jonestown, Guyana. Some of his works include Map Is Not Territory; Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown; and To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual.

From Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion:

All of these inchoate musings became clearer when I accidentally came across a copy of a journal with (Ernst) Cassirer's 1945 article, "Structuralism in Modern Linguistics," in a 10 cents barrel in a Fourth Avenue used bookstore. ...I don't think I had ever been as impressed with a mind at work as I was with Cassirer's.
The more than thirty years I have spent teaching at the University of Chicago has defined my work. ...The University's commitment to letting a mind go where it will resulted in a diversity of appointments, until the ultimate freedom, granted in 1982, of being without departmental affiliation as the Robert O. Anderson Distinguished Service Professor of the Humanities.
Moving to Chicago in the late 60s was to enter into Mircea Eliade's orbit at the height of his influence. Eliade had been, for me, a model of what it might be to be a historian of religion. He seemed to have read everything to be able to place the most variegated data within coherent structures. While a graduate student, I set out to read nearly every work cited by Eliade in his extraordinary bibliographies in Patterns in Comparative Religion, hiring tutors to teach me the requisite languages. These readings constituted my education in the field.
It was during this period of "playing in the stacks," supported by a Yale Junior Sterling Fellowship, that, having read John Livingstone Lowes's description of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's reading habits (Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination [1927; reprint, New York, 1959], 30-36), I developed a set of reading rules I have followed ever since. These include: always read the entire chapter of a book in which a reference you are looking for occurs, then read at least the first and last chapters; always skim the entire volume of a journal in which you are seeking a particular article, then read the tables of contents for the entire run of the journal; after locating a particular volume on the shelves, always skim five volumes to the left and to the right of it; always trace citations in a footnote back to their original sources. ...Later, I added: do not teach or discuss a figure unless you have read the total corpus of their work as available to you.
The label 'historian' is the one I am most comfortable with.... Whether global in their reach or preoccupied with one limited segment of human activity, historians share an uncommon faith in the revelatory power of a telling detail, a small item that opens up a complex whole and that thereby entails a larger set of intellectual consequences.

From Smith, "The Necessary Lie: Duplicity in the Disciplines":

When we conceal from our students (the hard work of academic research), that which is actually the way we earn our bread and butter, we produce a number of consequences. I remember testifying once before the California state legislature and facing a legislator who wanted to know why professors should be paid to read novels, when the legislator himself read novels on the train every day. Well, that was the price of our disguising the work that goes into things.

There are, I think, more serious educational consequences. If we present the work as perfect or as work without a revisionary history, then we present a work that no student could hope to emulate. Indeed it serves, if it serves at all, as a standard for how far below that standard the student falls. If we present the material without displaying the effort that goes with it, students tend to conclude that things are true or false, or alternatively, that it's entirely a matter of their opinion whether the object is exemplary. In that case, what we have is a contrast between his or her feelings and my feelings. Thus, in the name of simplification, what we really end up doing is mystifying the objects we teach at the introductory level.

Excerpts from an interview with Smith conducted by Chicago Maroon reporter Supriya Sinhababu on 6/2/08:

SS: How about e-mail?

JS: I've never used a computer.

SS: Never?

JS: No.

SS: So do you typewrite all your papers?

JS: Yup. Or handwrite them. ...I take Marx very seriously, I think [the computer] alienates the worker from his production.... With a typewriter, I hit a key, and it goes bam. I understand that: I made that letter happen.

SS: What got you interested in the religions that you study?

JS: Because they're funny. They're interesting in and of themselves. They relate to the world in which I live, but it's like a fun house mirror: Something's off. It's not quite the world I live in, yet it's recognizable. So that gap interested me. And so I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, "That's not what I heard last Sunday!" Everybody's dead. And I like that. Now, I sometimes have to deal with religions that keep going. And they're more problematic because then you deal with people who believe things.
I also think that whether you like it or you don't like it, (religion has) been a part of the world, and remains a part of the world that has a lot to do with what people do. And so I think if you think it's a worthwhile task to try to understand other people, then you probably haven't given up on trying to understand yourself. ...Whether (or not) an individual sees themselves as religious, there is still enough embedded in the culture in which they live (that), to some degree, the eyeglasses through which they look at the world are shaped by those religions.

SS: You mentioned that your teaching style is peculiar. Can you describe what you mean by that?

JS: ...I try, I suppose, very hard — someone once said religion is a topic you have to un-teach before you teach, because in some sense, everybody comes in with an idea in their head, so they're obviously sure that they know something about it. Your job is to suggest, without being incredibly in their face, that they don't. So you have to take it apart, respectfully, but nonetheless take it apart.
For (students) the word belief means only religious. I'd never quite realized this before. They don't have beliefs about science, or beliefs about Obama or beliefs about War and Peace. They only have beliefs about religion. If you say "what do you think about..." that's not beliefs! So somehow beliefs isn't about "thinking about," first of all; that's the first thing I learned from my students.
SS: So do you consider yourself one of those people who's in-between [in terms of religious belief]?

JS: Oh, I would hope so. In between is where you always are. If you want one word from me I'm a translator. That's what I do. I translate in both directions.
Martin Luther says, "What think you of Jesus Christ?" is the only question! Well that's the only question, but what hundreds of questions are wrapped up in that question?
SS: I don't know if you if you've heard of this website — probably not, but it's called Ratemyprofessors.com, and your reviews are glowing.

JS: I've never heard of such a thing. And I don't like the idea. ...

Well I think [Ratemyprofessors.com] is an awful idea. And what good does it do? I mean, I've been married for nearly 50 years, I'm not on the market. What other reason would one have for such a thing? ...

No, I've been spared much by never—I've never seen the Internet. And my son endlessly explains to me that I should say that rather than "I've never seen the Web." I haven't seen that one either! He says I sound very ignorant if I say I've never seen the Web....

One (college) major is bad enough. I would like to abolish majors altogether. So two is unbelievable. ...Majors I think are of no use to anybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview: Texas A & M Neuroscientist and Self-Educator Dr. Bill Klemm

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Dr. Bill Klemm

Self-educator’s location: Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Date: 15 December 2009

Dr. Bill Klemm calls himself the "memory medic," and the label is emblazoned on the lab coat he wears as he goes about his business as a semi-retired - but quite busy - Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. Dr. Bill's extraordinary CV, learning and memory blog, and faculty website reveal not only a scholar who is deeply concerned with adding to the sum of scientific knowledge about all things related to the brain, but also an educator who is committed to taking that knowledge and acting on it by sharing his discoveries with others.

WAM: Over the years, your activities have included writing (12 books and countless articles), teaching, mentoring, obtaining over $2 million in grants for your research, speaking at hundreds of engagements, and serving in and then doing research for the Air Force. What are you up to now that you are "semi-retired?" What activities and organizations do you dedicate the most time to these days?

BK: First, I keep up with the memory research literature and am always on the lookout for reports that have practical applications for everyday memory. When I find such publications, I summarize the "take home" lessons in my "Improve Your Learning and Memory" blog. My other main activities include working with school districts and teachers to improve science education and writing books (my current one, being shopped now by an agent, attempts to explain thinking in terms of biology: The Ghost Materializes: How The Brain's Three Minds Think. So much for "retirement!"

WAM: How did all this begin? How did you become so interested in the brain and in learning and memory?

BK: My late wife always said she noticed that many scientists work in areas where they have a personal medical problem. Well.... But I think I picked brain research because it is the ultimate intellectual challenge.

WAM: Your blog on learning and memory is filled with useful tips and strategies for learners. If you could pick out a few "top tips" for Wide Awake Minds readers - for self-educators to use in their own lives and for educators to share with their students - which would you choose? What are the most important things we can do to improve our ability to learn?

BK: 1) Avoid interferences of any kind immediately after the time you are exposed to new information you want to remember (this especially means don't multi-task). Rehearse that information several times (at least) before you move on to something else. 2) Wherever possible convert words or numbers into mental images. 3) Stay healthy, reduce stress, and get enough sleep.

WAM: Your writings about how to improve one's memory and learning ability are aimed, naturally, at those who are inclined to care about their own memory and learning; the people most likely to read your blog and your books are self-educators. But educators working in K-12 settings - and even in undergraduate settings - must constantly confront the question of motivating students. How do we turn students into self-educators? How can we get them to want to learn - both in their school years and throughout their lives? How can we help students overcome what you have termed "mental laziness"?

BK: Motivation is everything when it comes to learning. If you want to learn, you will. Nobody can force learning down your throat without your active support.

WAM: Are there any particular experiences or accomplishments in your life that stand out as particularly meaningful to you, or that had a particularly significant impact on your growth as a scholar, intellectual, educator, and human being?

BK: Most basically, my father was very demanding when I was a child. He expected nothing less than my best, and within certain limitations of being a normal child, I tried to accommodate him. Finally, I realized I needed my own goals and needed to live up to standards that I constructed, many but not all of which were similar to his. In later life, I learned to be more introspective and better at taking responsibility for my weaknesses. This led to my recent book: Blame Game. How To Win It."

WAM: You are currently writing an essay on the effects technological immersion is having on young people. What are your thoughts on that? What role should technology play in K-12 schools? Do you have any advice for parents who are trying to understand and monitor their kids' passion for cell phones, social networking, online gaming, and similar technology?

BK: I wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle pointing out that many modern technologies have the power to seduce youngsters into self-absorption. Once seduced, such children can acquire delusions about their self-importance, a sense of entitlement, a false sense of merit, illusory optimism, disrespect for others, short attention spans, mental laziness, sound-bite thinking, superficial interests, and a big waste of time. I received phone calls and e-mails from older people who thought I was a sage. Youngsters thought I was out of my mind.

WAM: Should adults be concerned about the role of technology in their own lives? It seems to me that the Internet has had both very positive and very negative effects on education, productivity, interpersonal interaction, and social norms. As a neuroscientist who is active both on the web (with a blog and several websites) and in "traditional," community-based organizations such as your local church and many scholarly organizations, I wonder whether you might have particularly interesting insights on these issues.

BK: Technology should always be thought of as a tool. Only use it to the extent it works for you. It is very easy for even adults to get caught up in wasting time with communications technology.

WAM: Thank you, Bill, for your time and for the good work you do.

If you enjoy the interviews, commentary, and profiles you find on Wide Awake Minds, consider helping to build an online community of people passionate about learning, teaching, and self-education.

On the sidebar of this blog, you'll find an option to "Follow" the blog using Google Friend Connect - anyone with a Google account can become a follower with one click. It's an easy way to show your support and interest.

And, if you have a Facebook account, here is a link to our Facebook page, which you can "become a fan" of to show your support, discuss issues related to education and self-education with others, and receive updates in your Facebook newsfeed. Thanks, as
always, for reading!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Excerpts from Mortimer J. Adler's "The Paideia Proposal"

Equality of educational opportunity is not, in fact, provided if it means no more than taking all the children into the public schools for the same number of hours, days, and years. If once there they are divided into the sheep and the goats, into those destined solely for toil and those destined for economic and political leadership and for a quality of life to which all should have access, then the democratic purpose has been undermined by an inadequate system of public schooling.
We are politically a classless society. Our citizenry as a whole is our ruling class. We should, therefore, be an educationally classless society.
Vocational training, training for particular jobs, is not the education of free men and women.
There are no unteachable children. There are only schools and teachers and parents who fail to teach them.
Education is a lifelong process of which schooling is only a small but necessary part. ...Learning never reaches a terminal point. As long as one remains alive and healthy, learning can go on - and should. The body does not continue to grow after the first eighteen or twenty years of life. In fact, it starts to decline after that. But mental, moral, and spiritual growth can go on and should go on for a lifetime.

The ultimate goal of the educational process is to help human beings become educated persons. Schooling is the preparatory stage; it forms the habit of learning and provides the means for continuing to learn after all schooling is completed. ...Schooling, basic or advanced, that does not prepare the individual for further learning has failed, no matter what else it succeeds in doing. ...Schooling should open the doors to the world of learning and provide the guidelines for exploring it. ...Every child should be able to look forward not only to growing up but also to continued growth in all human dimensions throughout life. All should aspire to make as much of their powers as they can.
The reason why universal suffrage in a true democracy calls for universal public schooling is that the former without the latter produces an ignorant electorate and amounts to a travesty of democratic institutions and processes. To avoid this danger, public schooling must be universal in more than its quantitative aspect. It must be universal also in its qualitative aspect.
Specialized or particularized job training at the level of basic schooling is in fact the reverse of something practical and effective in a society that is always changing and progressing. Anyone so trained will have to be retrained when he or she comes to his or her job. The techniques and technology will have moved on since the training in school took place.

Why, then, was such false vocationalism ever introduced into our schools? As the school population rapidly increased in the early decades of (the 20th) century, educators and teachers turned to something that seemed more appropriate to do with that portion of the school population which they incorrectly and unjustly appraised as being uneducable - only trainable. In doing this, they violated the fundamental democratic maxim of equal educational opportunity.

As compared with narrow, specialized training for particular jobs, general schooling is of the greatest practical value.
Electives and specialization are entirely proper at the level of advanced schooling - in our colleges, universities, and technical schools. They are wholly inappropriate at the level of basic schooling.
Participation in the creation of works of art is as important as viewing, listening to, and discussing them.
The idea behind the Head Start experiment was, indeed, a sound one. Preparation for schooling is not a dispensable accessory to the reform we are proposing. It is an essential ingredient....
Our future teachers should...follow a course of study that is general, liberal, and humanistic. That course of study will add to their knowledge, develop their intellectual powers, and enlarge their understanding beyond the level of attainment set for basic schooling. ...

The course of study here proposed for the preparation of teachers does not include most or much of what is now taught to college students who plan to teach and specialize for it by taking their majors in departments of education or in teachers colleges.
"The goal at which any phase of education, true to itself, should aim," John Dewey declared, "is more education. Other objectives may surround that goal, but it is central."
Our concern is double-edged. We have two fundamental goals in view. One is equipping all the children of this country to earn a good living for themselves. The other is enabling them to lead good human lives.
A basic human right is the right to obtain a decent livelihood by working for it under decent conditions. Those whom the economy leaves unemployed through no fault of their own are unjustly deprived of an essential human right which is indispensable to their pursuit of happiness.
You may be skeptical about the efficacy of your own involvement in political affairs. But you cannot love your country and at the same time be indifferent about the future of its free institutions.
Human resources are the nation's greatest potential riches. To squander them is to impoverish our future.

Mortimer J. Adler
--The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto

Friday, November 13, 2009

Building the educational infrastructure

Learning experiences occur not just in schools, but everywhere - in discussions with others, on the Internet, on television, in museums, in bookstores or libraries, and in the home. And so those of us who believe in the importance of education must work not only to improve schools, but also to improve the overall educational infrastructure and intellectual climate of our communities.

This can mean deepening our connections with our neighbors by starting or participating in social organizations (learning often occurs through meaningful interaction with other people, and organizations like book clubs or religious discussion groups can create the context for high-quality conversations and activities); it can mean becoming more civically engaged by running for office, volunteering for a campaign, writing letters to the editor or op-eds, fundraising for a non-profit you support, or speaking up at school board meetings; and it can mean donating resources to schools and libraries.

Above all, everyone interested in promoting education should strive to publicly model their vision of the "educated person" or person concerned with education. They should make reading a part of their lives and get engaged with ideas, people, and community organizations; they should upgrade their choice of media from tabloid news and talk shows to high-quality local and national journalism; they should vote to fund new and existing educational resources such as libraries, schools, universities, scientific research, orchestras, theaters, museums, and parks; and they should participate as much as possible in the education of their children, attending open houses and school performances, and volunteering at school functions.

Practically everyone agrees at some level that education is important and worth investing in. But those of us who consciously believe in the importance of education must work to act on that belief in every sphere of our lives.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Compiling a list of reading suggestions for high school students

In many of the conversations I have had with educators over the past few months, a recurring theme has been the difficulty of providing challenging instruction to the most advanced students in a particular high school class. In the United States, test scores and other evidence show that the gap between the most and least academically able students in a given classroom widens as the students get older, so it is particularly difficult to design instruction for high school students. You risk teaching above the heads of the students who are behind, on one hand, or boring your advanced students with work that seems remedial or superficial, on the other. And you risk boring everyone by trying to steer a "middle course" by aiming your instruction at the average student.

I believe that one of the ways we can address this challenge is by equipping our best students to be self-educators through independent study. As a high school senior, five of my six classes were independent study. In the high school where I currently teach, one student I know studies Japanese independently in the library every morning, and another plows through massive books and watches as many classic films as he can get his hands on. We have to offer our support to these students, encourage their curiosity, and do what we can to point them toward the broader world of ideas and the academic disciplines.

To that end, I am currently in the process of compiling a list of reading suggestions - fiction and non-fiction - for high school students, and I would love to hear everyone's input. I have heard quite a few great suggestions so far.

I plan to label each book as a "circle," "square," or "diamond" - relatively easy, intermediate, or difficult - in the manner of ski slopes. If you find that helpful, please feel free to label the difficulty of the books you suggest.

Feel free to leave your suggestions as a comment to this post, share them on the Wide Awake Minds Facebook page, or send them to me via email. I'll post a draft list on this blog over the weekend.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Readings from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s "The Knowledge Deficit"

"One of the major contributions of psychology is the recognition [that]...much of the information needed to understand a text is not provided by the information in the text itself but must be drawn from the language user's knowledge of the person, objects, states of affairs, or events the discourse is about."

T.A. Van Dijk and W. Kintsch
--Strategies of Discourse Comprehension (quoted in E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Knowledge Deficit.)

We can greatly accelerate the achievements of all students if we adopt knowledge-oriented modes of schooling that use school time effectively, and if we abandon process-oriented notions like "reading comprehension strategies" that waste precious school time.
If we had a choice between offering each child a computer and imparting to each the broad knowledge that enables a person to use a computer intelligently, we should unhesitatingly choose knowledge.
Reading ability correlates with almost everything that a democratic education aims to provide, including the ability to be an informed citizen who can actively participate in the self-government of a democracy. What gives the reading gap between demographic groups a special poignancy is the dramatic failure of our schools to live up to the basic ideal of a democratic education, which, as Thomas Jefferson conceived it, is the ideal of offering all children the opportunity to succeed, regardless of who their parents happen to be. Reading proficiency is at the very heart of the democratic educational enterprise, and is rightly called the "new civil rights frontier."
Being trained in the history of ideas, I had become familiar with the way in which unnoticed metaphors like "growth" and "development" unconsciously govern our thought - and continue to do so, even when scientific evidence clearly shows that reading and doing math are not natural developments at all.
Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson. Henry Ford's famous "History is bunk" is a succinct example. Since the nineteenth century, such anti-intellectualism has been as American as apple pie, as the great historian Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, and it came straight out of the Romantic movement into our schools.

In our pre-romantic days, books were seen as the key to education. In a 1785 letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, aged fifteen, Jefferson recommended that he read books (in the original languages and in this order) by the following authors: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Anabasis, Arian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin. On morality, Jefferson recommended books by Epictetus, Plato, Cicero, Antonius, Seneca, and Xenophon's Memorabilia, and in Poetry Virgil, Terence, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Milton, Shakespeare, Ossian, Pope, and Swift. Jefferson's plan of book learning was modest compared to the proper Puritan education of the seventeenth century as advocated by John Milton.
Today our schools and colleges of education...are still the nerve centers of an anti-intellectual tradition. One of their most effective rhetorical tics is to identify the acquisition of broad knowledge with "rote learning" of "mere facts" - in subtle disparagement of "merely verbal" presentation in books and through the coherent explanations of teachers. Just like Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Dewey, our schools of education hold that unless school knowledge is connected to "real life" in a "hands-on" way, it is unnatural and dead; it is "rote" and "meaningless." It consists of "mere facts." But nobody advocates rote learning of disconnected facts. Neither Milton nor Thomas Jefferson nor any of their more thoughtful contemporaries who championed book learning advocated rote learning. What they did advocate was the systematic acquisition of broad knowledge. And such knowledge is precisely what it takes to become a good reader.
American ed school ideas march under the banner of continual reform, but the reform, given different names in different eras, is always the same one, being carried out against the same enemy. The enemy is dull, soulless drill and the stuffing of children's minds with dead, inert information. These are to be replaced by natural, engaging activities (naturalism). A lot of dead information is to be replaced by all-purpose, how-to knowledge (formalism). These are the two perennial ideas of the American educational world. These two principles together constitute a kind of theology that is drilled into prospective teachers like a catechism.
Many specialists indicate that a child or an adult needs to understand around 90 percent of the words in a passage in order to learn to understand the other 10 percent of the words. Moreover, it's not just the words that the student has to grasp the meaning of; it's also the kind of reality that the words are referring to. When a child doesn't understand those word meanings and those referred-to realities, being good at sounding out words is a dead end.
If we do not spend large amounts of time reading aloud and discussing challenging material with children - material that is well beyond their ability to decode with understanding - we miss a critical opportunity to increase their knowledge of language and of the world - the kind of knowledge that will prove decisive for reading in later years.
[In a section entitled "Reading Strategies: A Path to Boredom:] I have observed that American educational theory has been transfixed by the idea of all-purpose how-to strategies, such as "critical thinking" and "inferencing," using as an example Linda Perlstein's account of a school where young students were being subjected to formal reading strategies in an unsuccessful attempt to make them proficient readers when the time would be better spent teaching useful background knowledge. Kate Walsh, in an analysis of existing reading programs, has found that they continually emphasize teaching these conscious formal processes to children from kindergarten through eighth grade, year after year for nine years, classifying, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and predicting outcomes. So much time is being wasted on these misguided activities throughout the nation that if this book manages to persuade even a few teachers and administrators, it will have justified its existence.
There is little scientific reason to expect that expertise in reading can be more quickly and effectively learned through the explicit methods employed in these reading programs, or that the "metacognitive strategies" used by experts are abstract, transferable abilities that can be detached from substantive knowledge of the subject matter of the text.
It is not mainly comprehension strategies that young children lack in comprehending texts but knowledge - knowledge of formal language conventions and knowledge of the world.
We learn words up to four times faster in a familiar than in an unfamiliar context. ...An optimal early reading program will exploit this characteristic of word learning by ensuring that the topics of reading and discussion are consistent over several class periods, so that the topic becomes familiar to the students and thus accelerates word learning.
Other things being equal, the earlier children acquire a large vocabulary, the greater their reading comprehension will be in later grades. ...The biggest contribution to the size of any person's vocabulary must come from the printed page (whether it is heard or read), because print uses a greater number of different words than everyday oral speech.
Even when teachers spend up to thirty minutes a day in explicit word study, the maximum number of new words they can teach this way during a school year is about four hundred. Compare that to the average of two thousand to five thousand words per year that an advantage child will have learned from age two to age seventeen. It is clear from these ballpark figures that most of our word learning occurs indirectly, through hearing, reading, and understanding a lot of text and talk. The consensus of all researchers is that indirect, implicit learning is by far the main mode of increasing one's vocabulary. ..It appears that we have a remarkable innate faculty for learning word meanings in context.
Only a person with broad general knowledge is capable of reading the New York Times and other newspapers. This fact has momentous implications for education, and for democracy as well. A universal ability of citzens to read newspapers or their equivalent with understanding is the essence of democracy. Jefferson put the issue unforgettably: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newespapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
The second- and third-rate fictions that are too often presented to children in the early grades are far less stimulating to their imaginations than classical stories and well-presented narratives about the real world.
Those who develop language arts programs at the school level or in publishing houses must understand that the skills they wish to impart are in fact knowledge-drenched and knowledge-constituted.
When James Coleman, the great sociologist of education, analyzed the school characteristics that had the greatest impact on educational achievement and equity, he found that effective use of time was a chief factor. Most important was "intensity," a persistent, goal-directed focus on academics that caused classroom time to be used productively. Schools with greater academic intensity produced not only greater learning but also greater equity.
Tests of academic progress are the only practical way to hold schools accountable for educating all children and are therefore essential to the twin aims of equality and fairness.
A student's actual ability to find the main idea of a passage is not a formal ability to follow procedures that will elicit the main idea but the ability to understand what the text says.
It takes the mind much longer to process meanings of a text on an unfamiliar topic.
Some have argued that these supposedly neutral (reading) texts are culturally biased, which is certainly true. While the test-makers attempt to be fair by making the tests knowledge-neutral, they do not succeed in this aim. Language can never be knowledge-neutral. A more accurate way of perceiving the inherent unfairness of those tests is to concede that although they cannot possibly be knowledge-netural and therefore fair to students who don't have the needed knowledge, they are perfectly appropriate as tests of reading ability. That is, their unfairness resides in the pretense that formal reading skills are being tested when in fact relevant background knowledge is being tested. Ultimately, the unfairness resides in the failure of schools to impart to all chldren the background knowledge they need to understand the passages on the test and similar passages in real life.
The state standards for reading comprehension describe empty processes. These abstract, knowledge-evasive criteria do not reflect the knowledge-based character of reading comprehension.
If schoools wish to meet the adequate-yearly-progress requirement, they should systematically teach and then test for the general knowledge that leads to proficient reading comprehension.
Breadth of knowledge is a far greater factor in achievement than socioeconomic status.
The percentage of economically disadvantaged students who migrate during the school year is appallingly high, and the effects are dishearteningly severe. ...Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.
According to the most recent census, every year 45 percent of Americans change their residence. Among these domestic migrants are over 20 million schoolchildren between the ages of five and fourteen. Those in the lowest income brackets move most frequently. Few caregivers are able to time their moves to coincide with the beginning and end of the school year.
The tacit, taken-for-granted knowledge needed for general reading and writing in a speech community is by definition traditional knowledge.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
--The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In defense of generalists and polymaths

Many of the most innovative thinkers and writers in history have been polymaths, individuals who were well-versed in several fields of study rather than focused on a single one. There is a long tradition of respect for the contributions of generalists to human knowledge: generalists have been called - forgive the gendered language - "Renaissance men," "men of letters," "humanists," "philosophes," "essayists," and "public intellectuals (or simply "intellectuals")."

Individuals in this tradition have included, to list only a few, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and other leading lights of the American Revolution, philosopher Bertrand Russell, essayists Michel de Montaigne, Susan Sontag, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Mann's fictional character Settembrini. I have listed a few others on the sidebar of this blog, in the section "Self-educators, polymaths, and lovers of learning." The list is potentially endless, and it includes many religious and conservative as well as secular and liberal individuals. The work of many generalists and public intellectuals in recent centuries has been rooted in Enlightenment values of reason, inquiry, the exchange of ideas, and a belief in the power of education, communication, and the written word.

Even in an era in which scholarly labor is divided and academic and economic specialization is the norm, generalism lives on in the form of the traditions of liberal education, of opinion columnists (David Brooks, Chris Hedges, Christopher Hitchens) who draw on resources from many disciplines, of scholars like Cass Sunstein, Peter Berkowitz, and Martha Nussbaum whose work moves fluidly across disciplinary boundaries, in broad-minded publications like the Economist, the New Yorker, and the American Scholar, and in institutions like the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

There is a close relationship between generalism and self-education. Those of us who are interested in several or many subjects cannot realistically get an academic degree in each area that we want to pursue, so we have to pursue most of our learning on our own initiative, for no grade or diploma.

Personally, I am interested in disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, including politics, literature, history, philosophy, religion, education, and law. I also hope to read as many "great books" (and good books, as I like to call deserving works that have not made their way into the canon) as I can manage, and I enjoy studying languages.

Is this realistic - or is having too many interests a surefire path to dilettantism and amateurism? Reasonable minds will decide differently. Certainly, you can't be an expert in everything, but is it possible to be a competent generalist? I think that the individuals and traditions I mention above suggest that it is possible for generalists to contribute effectively to the human conversation.

None of this is intended to denigrate specialists in any way. Academic specialists, regardless of their level of public engagement, are called to increase the sum of human knowledge through rigorous, methodologically-sound inquiry into their academic fields. They do the difficult, often lonely work of building the disciplines themselves through extensive research, writing, and discovery. And the disciplines they build are what we know. All I am suggesting is that specialization is not the only way to make a real and meaningful intellectual contribution to the world.

The way to pursue a variety of interests at once is as a self-educator committed to taking advantage of learning opportunities wherever they occur, reading a wide range of high-quality material in one's areas of interest, and engaging with the worlds of scholarship, journalism, and the arts.

But why bother? The self-educators I have been interviewing on this page have offered their own reasons, but speaking personally, I want to see the world through as many lenses as possible. I want to be able to draw on many diverse sources from across times, places, cultures, and disciplines in my writing and teaching. And I want to engage fully in the humanist project of "cultivating our garden" and creating a better, happier, freer world through political and social engagement and the spread of good ideas.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview: Self-educator Peter Behr

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Peter S. Behr

Self-educator’s location: Chicago, IL

Date: 15 October 2009

On his website, Peter Behr introduces himself by saying: "I'm Peter Behr, and I like to make things." That's an understatement. He is a computer programmer, artist, photographer, language learner, and translator. He maintains a website at http://pbehr.com/, and his recent artwork can be found at Stemleaf Studio: http://stemleafstudio.com/.

WAM: You have a lot of interests and activities, professional and personal. What are your currently "active" projects? How are you spending your days and evenings this fall?

PSB: Recently I have been programming more and doing a few web applications as a motivation to learn Python, which has been fun. I've also been renewing my efforts in learning Chinese in anticipation of a possible return to China, and developing my design and art skills by learning digital techniques and delving into photography. I have trouble focusing, I suppose, so I try to make that a strength.

Like a lot of people, I've also been looking for a new job since I returned to the states after a few months in Europe. It's an odd process but also a fascinating problem to solve, the whole idea of packaging yourself up into small, polished bits and sending them to people you don't know in an effort to get them interested in your work. My goal is to find an opportunity in China or on the West Coast involving one or both of my two main interests: language and technology.

WAM: Your projects include creating works of art, designing new web applications, and learning languages, among other things. What makes you decide to undertake these projects? Why not just watch television?

PSB: It's funny because a few weeks ago we got a huge TV with cable, so I've actually been spending time getting into football and also the Food Network. It's a guilty pleasure, I guess. But it is true that I always have a long list of projects to work on, and to be honest I'm not sure where that comes from.

WAM: What is the source of your creativity? How long have you been interested in "making things"? How did this habit of yours manifest itself in your childhood and in high school?

PSB: I've wanted to find things out and create new things since I was little, and I'm sure that has more than a little to do with my upbringing, in which I was always encouraged to read books and be creative. Actually, I think when I was much younger my parents tried to limit me in that somewhat, because I'd have a tendency to get absorbed in my own little bubble and never interact with people. Now I suppose that I'm in the process of learning how to balance the practice of creativity, which in my opinion is fundamentally independent process, with collaboration. The two feed off each other, but are also opposed in some ways; to develop some ideas you need time for uninterrupted focus, but you also need time out from that focus so that the idea can interact with those of other people. Making that distraction come neither too early nor too late is a challenge for me, and that's what I'm working on right now.

As for the source of creativity, I don't think I have an interesting philosophy on that. What matters to me is that it's there, and that something needs to be done with it. But I do like what Elizabeth Gilbert says in one of my favorite TED talks, which is that it might be a good idea to think of it as a kind of external and inscrutable force which you do not have complete control over, something which was prevalent before the Renaissance.

I'm trying to take that idea and merge it with the knowledge that improvement in technique requires no inspiration, only consistent effort. I am making an effort to find a point of view which makes me feel more at peace with the whole idea of striving to create new and original things, an incredibly hard thing to do, much less understand.

WAM: You are fluent in Mandarin Chinese and have worked as a freelance translator, but you just started learning that language in the summer of 2006. What made you decide to start learning Chinese? What methods did you use to study it? Are you still working to improve your ability, or have you moved on?

PSB: The whole process started when my brother and I visited China in 2006, knowing practically no Chinese. We had both wanted to start learning a language and Chinese became our choice because of how different it is from other experience, and its utility. My brother also needed to learn a non-Indo-European language for his linguistics major, so it all came together that we'd compress a year's study in a summer, then take the 200s back in Chicago. This worked out, and I went back the next year. Since then I've done what I can to keep my efforts alive, including studying with tutors and doing translation work. Recently I've gotten more work in translation, which is nice, and of course my goal is to go back to China again so that I can be back in the immersive environment. There's really no substitute for that.

You could say I just can't let go of the language, so yes, I've been trying to maintain and improve my reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension, but it's tough work on the side. Reading and writing inevitably get the focus, but I'm still not at all at the level where I could do professional work from English to Chinese. Eventually, I'd like to have that level, but time will tell if I'll succeed in finding the necessary environment. My fingers are crossed.

WAM: You do work in advanced computing, including programming, web design, and graphic design. Why are you interested in computers and the Internet? What would you say to traditional types who believe that we should focus on book-based education and keep computers out of classrooms? What can the average person do to learn more about computers and the Internet and grow beyond their computing comfort zone?

PSB: I don't know how much traction such traditionalists have, but I agree with the idea that skills such as reading and writing and mathematical ability or not drastically improved by teaching digitally rather than from books. But I don't think they're worsened, either, and eventually I think digital media will form the backbone of curricula. That doesn't bother me because of the added convenience, portability, and the fact that books will no longer require such quantities of physical resources. And we'll be able to take advantage of the fact that suddenly all of our information at hand is truly at hand, instantly accessible and capable of being processed by machines.

Keeping that trend in mind, I think what is missing in curricula is instruction in technology at a depth that will allow us to not be overtaken by the transformation of (parts of) our lives into a digital medium. The transformation opens up all sorts of possibilities of using programming to augment the speed at which you can manipulate massive quantities of information. The longer we wait to teach children how to control computers 'under the hood,' the further behind we get. Kids are curious and if you show them a system they'll play with it and learn it, and that's why I think it's important to get them interacting with computers in a direct way, not just with the layer that allows computers to emulate what books and televisions and mail are able to.

WAM: Your art portfolio includes both traditional and computer-assisted works. What do you see as the proper relationship between computers and art? Why does art matter, and what role can art play in a person's education and growth?

PSB: Heh, I don't have a very strong belief in that word, 'proper.' If it's a medium, art will be made in it, and there will be the possibility of that art being done well or being done poorly. I like to be a generalist and explore both kinds of media, but some people like to focus. That's okay, it's the effort that matters to me.

Art's role can be anything. I feel very anti-prescriptivist here, and can only say that it's important to realize that though taste and art in general have subjective facets, they are also very concrete areas of endeavor where effort and attention to detail really matter. If someone has the desire to express themselves and to be devoted to it, they should be encouraged. And I also think that it's harmful when people view the natural human inclination towards beautiful things and good art as an indulgence.

WAM: Wide Awake Minds highlights the work of self-educators and lifelong learners. Is it fair to say that many of your educational accomplishments have resulted from your own initiative? Do you consider yourself a self-educator or lifelong learner?

PSB: I would say that most education relies on personal initiative, though it can really be influential when somebody with certain interests and skills sees you have a shared interest and can closely encourage it to develop.

But when it comes to labels such as 'lifelong learner,' I hope that I don't sound facetious here when I say that every human can be called that.

WAM: You majored in mathematics at the University of Chicago. Why did you choose math? What would you say to the otherwise talented and motivated high school student who sees math as a pointless stumbling block? What are some of the benefits and pleasures of studying high-level mathematics, mathematics beyond basic calculus?

PSB: Mathematics is a rigorous and logical way of thinking. I think everyone should be shown the mechanisms of mathematical proof and encouraged to study it, because it sharpens and expands your ability to solve logical problems. That said, if someone doesn't (and I consciously used that word instead of 'can't') see the utility or beauty of mathematics, that's okay. But acquiring facility in fundamental arithmetic, geometry, combinatorics, and statistics are necessary for functioning fully in society. I think that's obvious, even though my mind is yelling at me, 'Prove it!'

The vast majority of people are never even exposed to logical proof. I certainly wasn't impressed with its significance until college, which made for an enormously uphill battle in studying math. I think math was what happened when I found physics too full of approximations and almost sloppy, also there was certainly familial influence involved since my dad, aunt, and uncle are all mathematicians. Even though I finally came to the conclusion that I don't want to be a pure mathematician, I still don't regret having committed to learning what I did, even though I could have gone in may other directions. If I could do it again, I would only want to do it better and with more depth.

WAM: Any advice for current and future college students?

PSB: This certainly doesn't apply to everyone, but I think that a lot of people with strong creative tendencies get paralyzed sometimes when presented with something like college. It's a huge opportunity for creative work, but there are so many possibilities and the whole structure and time period is vaguely defined. You can only understand it backwards, and not forwards. If I were giving myself advice, I would say to never forget to look for what I like to do, seek out smart people, ask lots of questions, and to study and work when in doubt. Repetition is so valuable not only because it makes you better at whatever activity you're targeting, but because each time around you understand what you're doing in a different way, and you might suddenly see a different path.

Instead of trying to cover a thousand things, which it sometimes seems you're forced to do, fight that and maybe pick a hundred to do at least once and ten to do a hundred times.

WAM: Any other thoughts, observations, or advice for others who love to learn, think, and make things?

PSB: There are many places I could crib from, but a modified Zen saying might do: 'When you are hungry, eat; when you are thirsty, drink; when you are sleepy, sleep; when you are curious, learn.'

WAM: Thank you, Peter, for your time and for the good work you do.

PSB: Thank you Ryan, best of luck to you.

If you enjoy the interviews, commentary, and profiles you find on Wide Awake Minds, consider helping to build an online community of people passionate about learning, teaching, and self-education.

On the sidebar of this blog, you'll find an option to "Follow" the blog using Google Friend Connect - anyone with a Google account can become a follower with one click. It's an easy way to show your support and interest.

And, if you have a Facebook account, here is a link to our new Facebook page, which you can "become a fan" of to show your support, discuss issues related to education and self-education with others, and receive updates in your Facebook newsfeed. Thanks, as always, for reading!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Readings from Robert M. Hutchins' "Education for Freedom"

The complexity of the modern world makes lifelong learning imperative. The relative leisure and opulence of the developed countries make lifelong learning possible.
Education provides the great peaceful means of improving society.
It is probable that the most "practical" education will prove to be a theoretical one. Habituation to routine will be valueless, or even a handicap. What is wanted is the ability to face new situations, to solve new problems, and to adjust to new complications.
It is a basic right of the individual that his mind should be developed as far is it proves itself capable of expansion. It is also a basic necessity of the community that this should be done. The ideal is that everybody should have a basic education. Opportunities to provide this will vary with circumstances. Within the resources of the community, nobody should be excluded. It should not be assumed that anybody is incapable.
In the advanced countries, the aim of education for all and the superficiality and mediocrity that may accompany it may produce an educational system largely devoid of content, emphasizing time spent, amounts memorized, credits acquired, and certificates, diplomas, and degrees received. Under these circumstances, education becomes a personnel system, sorting our prospective employees for employers.
In some places the solution has been to let (students) do what interests them. Since the pursuit of their interests can only accidentally be equivalent to education, the result has been irrelevance and triviality.
It is impossible to tell whether the attempt to educate everybody can succeed. It has never been tried. In the United States, the attempt has been, not to educate everybody, but to get everybody into school and keep him there as long as possible.
In the last fifty years the hours of labor in the United States have been reduced by about a third, and the working life has been shortened at both ends. The time thus set free has been transferred, with almost mathematical exactitude, to commercial television programs, the quality of which is appalling. [ed.: this essay was written in 1963]
Two things are missing in the United States, both of which are essential to education for freedom. They are liberal education and centers of independent thought and criticism. Both of them require that education should be taken seriously. It cannot be regarded as a means of accommodating the young until we are ready to have them go to work. It cannot be looked upon as a means of certifying neophytes for trades or professions. It must be thought of as the prime preoccupation of the community, the only way in which the community and the individuals who compose it can come to understand and achieve the common good.
The liberal arts are the arts of freedom. To be free a man must understand the tradition in which he lives. A great book is one which yields up through the liberal arts a clear and important understanding of our tradition.
We have been so preoccupied with trying to find out how to teach everybody to read anything that we have forgotten the importance of what is read. Yet is obvious that if we succeeded in teaching everybody to read, and everybody read nothing but pulp magazines, obscene literature, and Mein Kampf, the last state of the nation would be worse than the first. Literacy is not enough.
When we remember, too, that it is only a little more than fifty years ago that the "average man" began to have the chance to get an education, we must recognize that it is too early to despair of him.
The President of Dalhousie has correctly said, "Over most of Europe the books and monuments have been destroyed and bombed. To destroy European civilization in America you do not need to burn its records in a single fire. Leave those records unread for a few generations and the effect will be the same.
We must, by reconstructing our own lives, begin the reconstruction of economic, social, and political life. This means that we must reconstruct education, directing it to virtue and intelligence. It means that we must look upon economic activity, not as the end of life, but as a means of sustaining life, a life directed to virtue and intelligence.
The standard curriculum still rests on reading. It is probably fair to say that most of the pupils who have failed up to now were pupils who could not read. ...It is doubtful whether they should rush into a vocational curriculum as an alternative to one that requires reading.
I suggest that the cultivation of the intellectual virtues can be accomplished through the communication of our intellectual tradition and through training in the intellectual disciplines. This means understanding the great thinkers of the past and present, scientific, historical, and philosophical. It means a grasp of the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and mathematics; reading, writing, and figuring. It does not, of course, mean the exclusion of contemporary materials. They should be brought in daily to illustrate, confirm, or deny the ideas held by the writers under discussion.
In a university we should have students interested in study and prepared for it. ...Nobody has ever complained that college students work too hard. On the contrary, it is supposed that football and fun have consumed a large proportion of their waking hours. It has even been suggested that the course of study places so slight a strain on the energies of students that they are compelled to fill up their time with diversions which, if not intellectual, have at least the merit of being strenuous.
The proper task of education is the production of (free) minds. But we can now see that we are not likely to produce them by following the recommendations of the more extreme of those called progressives in education. Freedom from discipline, freedom to do nothing more than pursue the interests that the accident of birth or station has supplied may result in locking up the growing mind in its own whims and difficulties.
Candid and intrepid thinking about fundamental issues - in the crisis of our time this is the central obligation of the universities. This is the standard by which they must be judged. This is the aim which will give unity, intelligibility, and meaning to their work. This is the road to wisdom.
With the whole world in flames we must raise a standard to which all honest and right-thinking men can repair, to which embattled humanity can rally. It is the standard of freedom, truth, and reason. To the forces of brutality, chaos, and ignorance the university opposes the power of righteousness, order, and knowledge. Upon the triumph of that power the survival of Western Civilization depends.

Robert Maynard Hutchins
--Education for Freedom

Friday, October 9, 2009

Self-education and language learning

For most Americans seriously attempting to learn a second or third language, adopting the mentality of a self-educator or self-directed learner is mandatory, even if it is unconscious: most school districts and colleges do not insist that their students become genuinely proficient in a world language, so students themselves must take the initiative to enroll in classes, study abroad, and otherwise create their own opportunities for language study. Language study is not for everybody. But it is much more fun, interesting, and feasible than most people think.

My own interest in self-education began as an interest in world languages. I started learning Japanese through books, audio, Internet resources, a summer abroad in the Tokyo area, and friendships with native speakers in middle school and high school. My experience learning Japanese and gaining access to Japanese culture was so exciting and opened so many doors that I decided, as I was entering my junior year of high school, to learn French and Spanish as well. I completed eight "years" of the high school language curriculum - French 1 through 4 and Spanish 1 through 4 - in two years, a fact that suggests that highly-motivated high school students can learn languages much more quickly and effectively than the standard curriculum expects them to. In college, I took classes in Japanese (advanced), Italian (high-intermediate), Norwegian (high-elementary), German (reading/translation), and Latin (elementary).

Language study continues to play an important part in my self-education. My current focus is on advanced Japanese, intermediate Chinese, and beginning Polish. I am reading Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, a classic of Japanese literature, one paragraph at a time with help from an online dictionary. I plan to do the same in Norwegian with Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.

There is a large, vibrant, and growing online community of language learners - self-educators who have decided, for whatever reason, to take up the study of foreign languages as a hobby, an academic interest, or a career decision. Two particularly recommended websites are Unilang and How to Learn Any Language; I also give the highest recommendation to Barry Farber's book How to Learn Any Language, which was a major inspiration for me. In the near future, this blog will be interviewing Professor Alexander Arguelles, one of the world's foremost language learners - you can read about Professor Arguelles' astonishing accomplishments on his website.

I have always enjoyed reading arguments for learning particular languages, so I've put my own list together of suggested languages for English-speaking high school students, college students, and self-educators of any age who are considering taking up a second or third language.

These are in a very rough order according to how strongly I recommend them for most English-speaking Americans. Should you choose to begin studying another language, your personal needs and interests should be the decisive factors in your decision. The absence of a language from this short list should not be taken to mean that that language or its people and culture are unimportant.

-Chinese. It's by far the most-spoken language in the world; it's not quite as difficult as it looks and seems, as its grammar is fairly simple; and Chinese speakers are spread across the world, with their voices and influence growing very rapidly. From a career perspective, the work opportunities for Americans fluent in Mandarin Chinese are limitless. The economic, political/military, and cultural growth of China has been arguably the single most important historical development of the last few decades.

-Spanish. It is probably the easiest language for native English speakers to learn; the number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. is outpacing the number of native English speakers; the literary achievements of the Spanish-speaking world are incredible and growing; learning Spanish can help non-Spanish-speaking Americans build their empathy with and connections to the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.; and students can travel cheaply and easily to Latin America to study, work, and serve as they work to become fluent.

-Arabic. The primary language of the Arab peoples of the Middle East and North Africa as well as around the world, and the language of the religion of Islam. Of enormous importance in the realms of business (think Dubai and oil), religion, and, above all, global peace, understanding, tolerance, and security. Arabic is also the most-spoken language in Africa, followed by Swahili.

-German and French. The languages of many of the most important and impressive works of scholarship, literature, and culture of the Western world. Germany and France, along with the U.K., are also the powers at the heart of the European Union, a major and growing force in world politics and business.

-Russian. The language of the world's largest country, of enormous consequence in the worlds of politics and global security, literature and culture (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tchiakovsky, Shostakovich, and so many others), and business (Gazprom, etc.).

-Hindi/Urdu. The primary language of India and Pakistan - a region of massive and growing importance in the worlds of business (IT and so much else), culture (Bollywood and literature), religion (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism), and global security (India/Pakistan, India/China, Kashmir, nuclear weapons and proliferation).

-Japanese. My adopted second language and the language of one of the most influential countries of the world, especially in the realms of business (automobiles, electronics) and culture (manga, movies, music, literature, food).

-Portuguese. The language of Brazil, home to the 2016 Summer Olympics, the heart of South America, and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. As Brazil continues to grow, the importance of Portuguese as a world language will grow as well.

-Korean. Don't be fooled by Korea's size: visit any U.S. university town or major city, and you will a vibrant community of Koreans. The ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and brilliance of the people of South Korea has made them a major force in global business (automobiles, electronics), scholarship, and culture. Korean history and literature are incredibly rich areas of study that most Westerners remain entirely unaware of. And North Korea continues to present one of the most pressing global security and human rights challenges of our time.

-Italian. One of the most beautiful languages in the world, and the language of an incredibly rich culture. Italian literature and film help to constitute one of the most important cultural traditions in the world. Dante is only the beginning - think Primo Levi, Eugenio Montale, Umberto Eco, and Federico Fellini, for starters.

-Swahili. The primary language of eastern Africa, and an important language to learn for those wishing to connect with, work with, and assist some of the most destitute and voiceless communities on Earth, including the people of Rwanda and the Congo.

-Hebrew, Biblical and modern. The language of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the "Old Testament") and of the state of Israel. Of enormous importance in politics and peace, culture and literature, and religious studies.

-Norwegian or Swedish. These Scandinavian languages are not too difficult for English speakers to learn, and each of them has a rich and underappreciated literary tradition waiting to be discovered by the curious reader. These countries are also famous for their political systems; they are regularly cited as the countries with the highest standard of living in the world.

-Polish. Polish is very difficult, but Polish literature is one of the most important and least-appreciated literary traditions in the world. I study Polish in the hopes of reading the work of Czeslaw Milosz, my favorite writer, in the original.

-Farsi/Persian. The language of the people of Afghanistan and Iran. Of enormous and growing importance in the world of global security and peace, of culture, and of religion. If the U.S. and the West can achieve a comprehensive peace with Iran, the role of Persian as a world language could grow considerably. In the meantime, studying the language and literature of Iran can serve as a reminder of the common humanity we share with the Iranian people.

-Greek (Attic, Koine, and Modern) and Latin. These "classical" languages were the heart of the education of well-read Westerners for centuries, and they remain popular among high school and college students interested in the humanities. Arguments for learning them include the ability to understand English word roots and the ability to access the classical literary and philosophical traditions (Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Virgil, Cicero, etc.), the New Testament, and the language of Europe and the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in their original language.

-Turkish. Turkey is in many ways the bridge between the West - the U.S. and Europe - and the Middle East. It is an important and often overlooked part of the "equation" of peace and security in its region. And economic growth has elevated Turkey's importance in the global economy.

Feel free to create your own lists, or link to alternative lists, in the comments - I would love to hear others' thoughts.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kristof and WuDunn's "Half the Sky" on girls' education

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide will almost certainly be judged one of the most important books of the year. Kristof and WuDunn argue that improving the situation of women in the developing world is the key to solving a host of problems in international relations and development. I've excerpted a few of the book's comments on education below.

You can purchase the book here or at your local bookstore - I recommend buying it in hardcover to move it up the bestseller lists, show your support for Kristof and WuDunn's efforts, and pass the book to a friend or two when you have finished reading.


Consider the costs of allowing half a country's human resources to go untapped. Women and girls cloistered in huts, uneducated, unemployed, and unable to contribute significantly to the world represent a vast seam of human gold that is never mined. The consequence of failing to educate girls is a capacity gap not only in billions of dollars of GNP but also in billions of IQ points.
We've repeatedly described educating girls as the single best way to lower fertility, improve children's health, and create a more just and dynamic society.
(We should promote a) $10 billion effort over five years to educate girls around the world and reduce the gender gap in education. This initiative would focus on Africa but would also support - and prod - Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan to do better. The aim would be not just to fund new schools, with DONATED BY THE AMERICAN PEOPLE written on the sides, but to experiment with finding the most cost-effective ways to support education. In some countries that may be providing school uniforms to girls from poor families, or deworming communities, or providing scholarships to the best-performing girls, or helping girls manage menstruation, or supporting school lunches, or extending Mexico's Oportunidades program to Africa. These approaches should be rigorously tried on a randomized basis, and assessed by outside evaluators, so that we can determine which are most cost-effective.

The second initiative would be for the United States to sponsor a global drive to iodize salt in poor countries, to prevent tens of millions of children from losing approximately ten I.Q. points each as a result of iodine deficiency while their brains are still being formed in the uterus.
One study after another has shown that educating girls is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty. Schooling is also often a precondition for girls and women to stand up against injustice, and for women to be integrated into the economy. Until women are numerate and literate, it is difficult for them to start businesses or contribute meaningfully to their national economies.
One of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance is to deworm students. Intestinal worms affect children's physical and intellectual growth. Indeed, ordinary worms kill 130,000 people a year, typically through anemia or intestinal obstruction, and the anemia particularly affects menstruating girls. When deworming was introduced in the American South in the early twentieth century, schoolteachers were stunned at the impact: The children were suddenly far more alert and studious. Likewise, a landmark study in Kenya found that deworming could decrease school absenteeism by a quarter.
Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not equal docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
--Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prof. Daniel Willingham: "Reading is not a skill."

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia who is "interested in the application of what's known about the mind to K-12 teaching," as he puts it on his YouTube channel. Prof. Willingham created quite a conversation in the online education community with his most recent column in the Washington Post: "Reading is not a skill," as in, reading cannot be taught as a skill in isolation from content.
Teaching content is teaching reading, Willingham claims:

I often share interesting perspectives from other education writers on this blog without necessarily endorsing those views. But I think I'm more or less on the same page as Willingham on this issue. Countless people complete their P-12 schooling unable to competently and confidently read a newspaper or a good book. I suspect that one reason for this is that these individuals lack the vocabulary (including specialized, disciplinary vocabulary) and the content knowledge to make sense of what they find in unfamiliar writings.

A major counterexample, however, is the case of students reading in a foreign language - including English language learners and English native speakers learning another language. I remain unable to fluently and quickly read a newspaper or novel in Japanese despite 10 years of study - but that doesn't reflect my content-area or disciplinary knowledge. It does, however, reflect my limited vocabulary in that language.

Friday, September 25, 2009

If you enjoy Wide Awake Minds....

Wide Awake Minds has turned into a truly unique project over the past few months. It is one of the few sites on the web that advocates lifelong learning for learning's sake while placing a very high value on formal schooling and the work of teachers and other educators.

If you enjoy the interviews, commentary, and profiles you find on Wide Awake Minds, consider helping to build an online community of people passionate about learning, teaching, and self-education.

On the sidebar on the right-hand side of this blog, you'll find an option to "Follow" the blog using Google Friend Connect - anyone with a Google account can become a follower with one click. It's an easy way to show your support and interest.

And, if you have a Facebook account, here is a link to our new Facebook page, which you can "become a fan" of to show your support and receive updates in your Facebook stream. I'll use that page to update readers on recent posts, post links and media related to education and self-education, and host discussions and debates about challenging issues in education and self-education.

Finally, you can follow me on Twitter - my Twitter feed includes some political and social commentary not directly related to education, but I try to always post interesting and educational links and stories as I find them online.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview: Educator and self-educator Deven Black

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Devin Black

Self-educator’s location: Bronx, NY

Date: 21 September 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me. Thanks for reading!)

Deven Black is a special education teacher in the Bronx. After dropping out of two high schools and a college, Black discovered alternative education and the work of radical education critics such as John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, and Ivan Illich; this experience led him to begin a lifelong journey of thinking about the education system and its relationship to students who struggle in traditional classroom environments. He maintains a blog and a Twitter feed.

WAM: What is your profession?

DB: I am a middle school special education and social studies teacher. I started teaching when I was 50 years old.

Teaching is just the latest of a long chain of careers. I have also been, in no particular order, a radio newsman, a bartender, a newspaper reporter, a political campaign operative, an advertising copywriter, a restaurant manager, a restaurant critic, and a voice-over artist.

Other than going to grad school to get a teaching degree, none of the job-specific knowledge used in any of those careers came through what might be considered normal channels.

While I had some success in all those careers, particularly in radio and restaurant management, I failed in many, and it is those failures that taught me the most. Failure necessitated trying something new, whether a new approach or methodology or a totally new career.

I am a great believer in the value of failure. Of course there are a lot of reasons people fail, but generally never failing means you just haven’t been challenged enough and you haven’t grown nearly as much as you could. My biggest problem with schools is that they don’t value failure. They teach that failure is bad and something to be avoided instead of how to use failure constructively.

WAM: You teach special education classes in the Bronx. What are some of the special challenges you confront as an educator? How have these challenges affected you as a professional as well as your view of formal education in the U.S.?

Special education is a very strange field. It is very broad and includes students with a wide range of abilities. (That is not a typo). Special education at its best is about maximizing the abilities of our students.

I teach students who are said to have learning disabilities. The first challenge I face as a middle school special education teacher is usually to try to convince my students that they are not disabled any more than anyone else. Everybody has things they are particularly capable of doing and other things in which they have no talent to develop. I can’t dance or play a musical instrument. If those skills were valued as much as multiplication or reading, I would be labeled learning-disabled. My students are in the unfortunate situation of having talents that are different from those valued in school, and they get labeled.

My being a special education teacher has reinforced and focused my belief that school is not the right venue for everyone. School is a particular setting with particular procedures, values and demands. It is a perfect fit for many students, but for those of us on either end of the bell curve it is not. For us, school is either a neutral or negative environment that doesn’t meet our needs. Much of the undesirable behaviors seen in schools are inarticulate statements of unmet needs.

WAM: You dropped out of high school twice and college once. Why did you make those decisions? Would you decide differently today? How has the environment changed in recent decades for those who do not complete high school or college?

DB: I think the situation for high school and college dropouts today is much the same as it was almost 40 years ago when I did it. There are some people who have some exceptional abilities and they may succeed in spite of dropping out and there are some people whose lives are compromised in some way by the lack of high school and/or college credentials.

There have been some changes in the landscape. Homeschooling is more prevalent and recognized as are online classes, but those recognitions are not universal. So, while there are more alternatives to traditional brick, mortar and tassel schools, there is still a long way to go before everyone has a real choice.

WAM: What do you understand the term “self-education” to mean?

DB: First and foremost, self-education is an almost universally practiced method of learning. Everyone who pursues a hobby or takes steps to follow a particular interest is practicing self-education, though they may not realize it unless it is made explicit to them.

WAM: Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you? Why?

DB: I am aware that I am constantly learning even though what I am learning at any given moment or collection of moments is not necessarily clear to me. If I attend a lecture about baseball I will surely learn something about baseball that was purposefully taught to me, but I will also learn so many more things about my feelings about baseball; how to or how not to present a lecture; a new style of dress; new technology or new uses for old technology as used in the lecture; and so much more.

WAM: Why should we be curious? What ought we to be curious about? What forms does your own curiosity take? If you are curious about something – say, an academic subject or the way something works – do you follow up on that curiosity by studying?

DB: Being curious is not something we do, it is how we are born; we can hardly take a rest from our curiosity.

I am curious about so many things, big and small, and almost every time I look at a newspaper or the Internet I find something new to be curious about. Sometimes all I do is read the article or what’s on the website, but other times I dig deeper and, depending on what I discover and the amount of time I have, deeper again. Today I learned about the relative amount of meat in the diet of the ten most and ten least carnivorous nations, shifts in religious identification in the US by state, Gasworks Park in Seattle, and how Justin Buck is now thought to be the best defensive player on the football Giants.

WAM: What role do you see for the arts in education

DB: As a special education teacher I see the visual, musical, and performing arts as requiring different skills than the academic classroom and as places where my students typically have a chance to shine in ways not available elsewhere in school. The arts allow visual and kinesthetic learners opportunities that cater to their learning style.

WAM: What are your past and present methods of self-education? Which have you found most effective? Do you use the Internet or other technology to self-educate or expand your intellectual horizons?

DB: I am fortunate in that I grew up in New York City and my earliest self-education experiences involved wandering around the city. While I was learning a tremendous amount about a great many things, that was not my purpose. The learning occurred because I have an inquisitive mind, talent for noticing patterns and making connections, and a relatively open mind, and I am generally at ease in new situations.

I did not become aware that I was self-educating until a few years later when, living on Cape Cod and working as a news reporter and talk-show host for a local radio station, I got invited to speak at the career day of the alternative program that was part of and housed at the local high school. I ended up getting very involved with that program. I was 21 years old, had dropped out of two high schools and college, and was intrigued by this program that was operating in a way totally alien to my high school experience. I asked a lot of questions and the four teachers in the program turned me on to education critiques, writers and books. That was the start of my self-awareness of my self-education.

I don’t use any particular method in my self-education. I use whatever is available. I read books or articles; I listen to lectures, discussions or music; I seek out experts to interview; I use the Internet or anything else. Education has been my main interest for 30+ years, and it is about the only topic that I have any kind of systematic approach to, but it is such a broad and growing topic that the deeper I get into it the less systematic I am about it.

I have almost no academic discipline. When, at the age of 36, I decided to return to college because I found a school, Empire State College, a part of the State University of New York system, that fit my needs. Empire State uses a mentor system, independent learning, study groups, and almost any other form of education other than large classes and lectures. It also gives credit for demonstrated prior learning. Their application had twelve general topics one could choose from and you were supposed to pick the one that interested you. I picked all 12 and wrote an essay explaining my holistic approach and my sense of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.

It was wonderful to have a school that appreciated that not everyone learns the same way and that let me have a very broad focus.

WAM: Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

DB: I have so many. My parents taught me about responsibility for myself and for the world. I am a religious agnostic who has taken moral guidance from all the major and quite a few of the minor religions. I embrace nonviolence, which I learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Intellectually I’m influenced by my college mentor, Miriam Tatzel; Douglas Hofstadter; John Taylor Gatto (who was one of my teachers in middle school); and so many others.

WAM: What is your formal educational background? How did you feel about your formal education? Did you in some ways benefit from the constraints and parameters it provided?

I dropped out of two high schools, one considered one of the nation’s finest and requiring a competitive exam for admission, and the other my local neighborhood high school. I then dropped out of college. All this happened before I was 17. These schools had many strengths and have successfully educated hundreds of thousands of students. They just didn’t fit me at that time.

I had an amazing middle school experience. I was in an accelerated program in which we would do three year’s work, 7th, 8th and 9th grades, in two school years. My teachers included a masterful teacher, Elizabeth Novad, in her last years before retiring, and John Taylor Gatto, then a young and fairly new teacher.

Mrs. Novad was the best teacher I ever had. She had very high expectations for us and helped us develop the tools to meet them. We read two Shakespeare plays a year and took field trips to see them on stage. We read A Tale of Two Cities and, as a class, decided to rewrite it as a musical and film it. This was in 1965, and we worked in 8mm. We wrote the script, the lyrics and some original music. We developed a way to film a fairly graphic decapitation (of me!) by guillotine without, I’m happy to say, actually having to cut my head off. We went in pairs to the adolescent literature graduate course she was teaching to tell them about the books we were reading and our generally low opinion of adolescent lit. In short, our intellects and creativity were uncovered, energized, engaged and celebrated.

Part of the problem that P-12 schools have is that they act like they have an exclusive monopoly on learning. This arrogant fantasy reduces the efficacy and utility of schools because it compartmentalizes learning instead of integrating it. I often hear teachers complain that students who learn a skill in one class don’t have the ability to apply it in a different subject class. This occurs because subjects are taught as separate domains, disassociated from each other and from the world outside of school. Students learn that there is information and skills one needs inside schools and that these are different from those needed outside.

The amount of information available to the average person has expanded exponentially in my lifetime. Despite E.D Hirsch, Jr.’s attempt to identify what learning is necessary to create a common core of knowledge among Americans, it is increasingly difficult to identify what information is essential for every American to know. Schools need to teach the skills necessary to research, access, assess and apply the information available online. This will be impossible to do until there is universal full-time access to computers and the Internet in American schools. It makes no sense to continue to use 19th century technology (pencils, pens, blackboards and chalk) or its 20th Century upgrade (dry erase markers) in times when even the most tech-resistant teachers are using email to communicate.

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich imagined an education marketplace in which people who seek certain knowledge or skill, playing guitar or architecture for example, find and engage with people who know and can teach what is sought. This is a system of self-education and it is increasingly visible in communities all across America. Even schools are starting to operate this way. I have read several articles about how schools too small to offer certain classes within their building - Italian language was one example – allow and encourage students to take online classes. In other words, they allow the student to choose what to learn and, with some oversight, who to learn it from.

The most effective schools are the ones that embrace and are embraced by the community, those that understand that learning is constant and occurs everywhere. Schools need to evolve from closed-off fortresses to open community resources. They have facilities that can facilitate self-directed or contracted learning and teaching.

WAM: What role do other people play in your self-education? Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

DB: Like most people, I am a social learner. Most of my self-directed learning involves contact with other people. I have developed interest in topics I didn’t even know existed through interpersonal contact. I am not an autodidact; I have had a series of short-term and long-term mentors to stimulate, help inform, and guide my inquiries.

WAM: Do you follow current events, and if so, where do you get your news? Why did you select those sources? Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

DB: I have been a newspaper and radio news reporter. My first jobs as a teen involved current events. I am a news junkie. I read as much of the New York Times as I can before going to work in the morning. I listen to NPR and I read the articles friends or my PLN (Personal Learning Network) recommend by sending links. I listen to people around me talking.

I grew up with newspapers arriving daily. Public affairs were discussed at the dinner table. My parents were politically active. Civic awareness is in my DNA.

I have been politically active since I was seven and worked in my first electoral campaign putting stamps on envelopes. By my teen years I was directing a campaign for a State Assembly candidate. I have opinions and am not afraid to express them.

Sometimes it seems like some Americans practice a willful ignorance of government and public affairs. It does not portend a lengthy life for democracy. The centralization of power is disturbing. People should exert more control over our government, but they need to be well-informed to do so intelligently.

Thank you, Deven, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit Deven's blog and Twitter feed. If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it on Facebook or Twitter, or emailing it to a friend.

Thanks, as always, for reading.