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, and his recent artwork can be found at Stemleaf Studio:

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.

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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