Tuesday, December 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

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

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

Date: 21 December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

In schools, don't place form above function

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

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

You can find the article at http://www.ajc.com/opinion/in-schools-dont-place-731869.html. If you enjoy it, please consider passing it along to others who might be interested.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Highly qualified teacher" rules protect the status quo

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

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

Sunday, October 10, 2010

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, August 13, 2010

Excerpts from Jacques Barzun's "Begin Here"

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

From "Schooling No Mystery":

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

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

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

From "The Alphabet Equals the Wheel":

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

From "The Centrality of Reading":

There is...no excuse for allowing the exercise of reading to be less certain in its results than the exercise of listening and remembering. To tolerate reading that proceeds by guesswork, as if at a later time some one would surely tighten the screws of the loose mental structure and make it solid and precise, is to commit an injury against the growing mind. To allow the written word to be indefinite is to undo the incalculable technical advance that turned sounds into signs.

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

Monday, July 5, 2010

Making the most of your commute through self-education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Consider subscribing to audio versions of high-quality, educational magazines and newspapers. You can arrange to have these automatically downloaded to your digital audio player every morning in time for your commute. I particularly recommend the Economist, every article of which is made available each week in podcast/audio format for subscribers. Regularly reading the Economist over a period of years is, in my opinion, the single best way to gain a broad knowledge of current events around the world. And the Economist is not, its title notwithstanding, primarily a business magazine; its pages include news from around the world, in-depth special reports about a wide range of topics, business and economics news, science news, book reviews, and more.

Audible.com also offers audio subscriptions to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the U.S.'s top two newspapers.  The Times is better for in-depth investigative reporting about politics and international affairs, and its opinion pages are mostly liberal; the Journal has a business and finance focus, and its opinion pages are mostly conservative.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debate: Will standards save public education?

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

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

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

From Jonathan Kozol, "Foreword":

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 12, 2010

Evolving thoughts about technology and education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 6, 2010

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

I'm planning to purchase Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System as soon as possible - it sounds like a fascinating and heartfelt book about a great educator's rethinking of long-held positions on school reform. The reviews have been mostly glowing. (For a kind but critical review, check out Chester Finn's take in Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/2010/03/02/diane-ravitch-education-schools-opinions-book-reviews-chester-e-finn-jr.html)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image sources: Education Week (www.edweek.org) and Barnes & Noble (www.bn.com)).

Further reading:

Diane Ravitch's homepage: http://www.dianeravitch.com/

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

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

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

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview: Self-educator Hoossam Malek

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Hoossam (Sam) Malek

Self-educator’s location: Baltimore, Maryland

Date: 4 March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 26, 2010

Charles D. Hayes on self-education in the "September" of life

Self-education advocate Charles D. Hayes just mailed me a copy of his newest book, September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life. He argues that self-education can help people find purpose and meaning later in life by "erasing the concept of retirement." Hayes writes: "The more we learn and expand our knowledge of the world, the more meaningful our understanding becomes."

You can read more about the book and support the work of a great self-educator by purchasing a copy here. I am planning to interview Hayes on Wide Awake Minds this spring.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reflections on my first three weeks of full-time teaching

I am currently in my third week of full-time preservice teaching, and I have been fully immersed in planning, designing, teaching, and grading three 10th-grade World History and Geography classes (one course or "prep," three classes of 26-34 students). I am having a blast so far - I've never enjoyed any job so much, and the experience has been very challenging, rewarding, and educational. The school day flies by, but for the first two weeks, I found myself putting in ridiculously long hours planning and grading at home. Finally, I am settling in - and today, the school is closed due to a snowstorm (I had forgotten how much anticipation and joy a snow day can create), so I am taking the opportunity to update Wide Awake Minds for the first time in a few weeks. Thank you for sticking with the blog through such periods of silence. (If you haven't done so yet, please consider joining the Wide Awake Minds Facebook page as well).

Curriculum: reading, writing, and ideas

One of my teaching goals this semester has been to push back against what I see as low expectations about the quality and quantity of reading and writing thought to be appropriate for non-honors/non-AP high school social studies classes. I am building a lot of writing into my world history curriculum, including making highly-structured extended essay prompts account for around 1/3 of each unit quiz grade and offering a lot of writing-intensive extra credit opportunities - but I'll save the details on the writing dimension for another post.

Reading tasks in my World History class take several forms. It is crucial, I have learned, to pair practically every resource (reading, video, visual image, audio, etc.) with some sort of assigned task to actively engage students and ensure that they take what you are asking them to do seriously.

First, I give 2-4 page (usually closer to two, and often including visual images with explanatory captions) take-home assigned readings, and I assess whether students have done the reading (and been paying attention in class) two school days later with a somewhat informal, generously-graded short-answer "warm-up" quiz that also offers opportunities for students to earn bonus points if they have been paying attention to current events (on some occasions, they can earn even more bonus points by drawing connections between current events and the World History curriculum).

Second, in the final days of each unit, I distribute 3-page summaries of the textbook chapter covered by the unit; these are created by the textbook company. I pair these chapter summaries with a multi-page, short-answer assignment (due roughly three school days later) I create that focuses on core concepts and is aligned with the shared, district-wide marking period final exam in World History and the Michigan state standards (HSCEs) in World History. I ask students to complete these chapter summary assignments as independent homework in order to study for their unit quizzes, and I ask them to take responsibility for themselves to ensure that they have a solid understanding of the core concepts we have covered; I do not assign the textbook itself, but I regularly suggest that students check a copy out voluntarily or access it online if they would like to deepen their understanding.

Finally, one of my goals as a high school history teacher is to bring a little bit of the intellectual excitement and engagement with the history of ideas that I have experienced into the sometimes boring and sterile world of the standard high school curriculum. I believe that this can be done within the parameters of standards-and-accountability systems such as the Michigan state standards. While not every necessary building-block of knowledge is destined to be experienced by high school students as equally exciting or relevant, none of the core academic content areas, when they are taught passionately and creatively and received by open minds, should be the least bit "boring."

I have experienced the social sciences not just as a student and teacher, but as a reader who has struggled through many challenging and provocative political and historical documents, as someone who has had many spirited discussions about politics and history with intellectually-inclined friends, as an alumnus of the University of Chicago with fond memories of discussing the Great Books in my first-year humanities and social science seminars, and as a former graduate student of international relations who has engaged in intense, high-level seminar discussions and thesis-writing with some of the greatest political thinkers in the country. In short, I have experienced the study of history (and the pursuit of knowledge, the research and writing processes, and the acts of non-fiction reading and writing) as an exciting and high-stakes activity, and I want to give my students some sense of what that experience feels like.

To that end, I am trying to sneak high-quality reading and viewing materials - the Great Books, "good books" on the outskirts of the established canon, and excellent contemporary writing and other media - into my students' hands and minds as often as possible.

In the first week of class, the take-home reading on nationalism I assigned them included excerpts from a recent debate between bloggers Jonah Goldberg (National Review Online) and Ilya Somin (The Volokh Conspiracy).

In another in-class activity, I asked students to write down examples of how they saw nationalism expressed (through flags, rallies, music/anthems, heroes, traditions, rituals, love/hate passed down across generations, "us vs. them" mentality, exclusivist behavior, love of the "homeland," etc.) in a series of YouTube clips that included a Michigan vs. Ohio State pre-game "hype video," a clip from a British documentary about Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, a clip about Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian War, a news story about recent controversies surrounding the issue of nationalism in Japanese schools, a CBS feature story about ultranationalism in contemporary Russia, and a patriotic American slideshow set to the music of Lee Greenwood's post-9/11 anthem "God Bless the USA."

Last week, I had my students read and answer a four-page questionnaire about excerpts from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' The Communist Manifesto - the central ideological documents of capitalism and communism, respectively. I assigned the students into groups (I randomized this process rather than allowing students to choose in order to ensure (1) that the class activity would be the primary thing bonding each group together and (2) that the most advanced readers would be distributed around the room rather than clustered together in a single group), and each group chose to either read the readings aloud or individually and then worked together to proceed through the questions and discuss possible responses.

We are currently wrapping up our unit on the Industrial Revolution. Then, we will move on to study the late 19th-century social reforms aimed at ending the slave trade, banning child labor, promoting women's rights, and creating free, universal public education. In every case, instructional time is very limited, but I hope to be able to bring in excerpts from some of the most important documents that fueled each debate. I want to find new ways to promote student understanding of these documents (even among my struggling readers) through creative scaffolding, and I want to steer students toward high-level, idea-conscious historical thinking.

Trying new things and seeing what works

This semester is a time for experimenting with different instructional methods, and I am thoroughly enjoying the process of trying new things and seeing what works and what does not. I plan to share some of the success stories on this blog and post some of my course materials on my website for those who are interested. Many of the ideas I generated before I began full-time teaching did not pan out for one reason or another, but some ideas have seemed to work - and the act of teaching and reflecting on teaching has helped me generate many new ideas every day.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Renewing our commitment to public libraries

I am writing this post from Loutit District Library in Grand Haven, MI - one of the most beautiful local libraries (and towns) I have ever been in. As a high school student in neighboring Muskegon, MI, I came to Loutit on a weekly basis with my grandfather or my friends to purchase grocery-bags full of books in Cheapstacks, the used book store in the library's basement.

Once, some friends and I chipped in together to purchase a $5 bag of books and calculated that we had just paid 8.6 cents for each of the books we had bought - books that would go for five, ten, or fifteen dollars each in a for-profit used book store and for much more in a new book store. Many of the books that have set the course of my life, my thoughts, and my writings originally made their way to me through Cheapstacks or from the shelves of Loutit Library, the Norton Shores Branch Library in Muskegon, or the Lakeland Library Cooperative's inter-library loan network in West Michigan.

When I return to my family's home in Muskegon, I always sift through the shelves and boxes of books that I have so far been unable to bring with me, and I am constantly finding something new or forgotten - some book that I purchased on a whim, usually from Cheapstacks, many years ago - that has suddenly taken on new meaning and relevance in my life and my self-education. (My most recent post, on the out-of-print book High School Subjects Self-Taught, described one such find). Today, I purchased a stack of classic books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and others to make available to the high school students I teach in a school near Detroit: I'll place these on my desk and trade students a book for a promise that they will read it.

I cannot express strongly enough my belief in the importance of public libraries. I hope that the digitization craze, whatever its benefits and efficiencies (and they are many), does not delude us into thinking that our public libraries are expendable, or that Google Books, however amazing it is, will meet all our needs as readers and lifelong learners.

The truth is that many small, local public libraries in America have found themselves out of step with the times and with the needs of their communities; they have found themselves pushed to the margins of their communities, with sharply reduced hours and few new acquisitions. They are fighting a constant battle for financial survival - and they risk losing the debate about their relevance.

But a visit to Loutit Library can renew one's faith in the importance and the possibilities of local public libraries as integral parts of the educational infrastructure of communities. A few years ago, the Grand Haven community decided to make a massive investment in the library - completely renovating the building and building a new library almost from scratch. The community also fought against a proposal to tear the library from the heart of the community and move it to the outskirts of the city, leaving a hole in the historic downtown.

Today, I saw the results for the first time, and they are staggering: beautiful, spacious reading areas with ample natural lighting, well-designed artificial lighting, and comfortable chairs; a large public computing area; free wi-fi throughout the building; a fireplace; private study rooms; a "teen room"; a reference librarian; conference rooms where local groups and book clubs can meet; a filled calendar of free events; a large and well-stocked genealogy and local history room; and, of course, a remodeled Cheapstacks. Since the renovation, use of the library has surged by 35%. And the vast majority of what goes on in a library is self-education.

I have always liked the idea, expressed in the title of a recent book, that "good design can change your life"; the case of Loutit Library demonstrates that good design in libraries (and schools) - made possible by a commitment to invest the resources necessary to make good design possible - can change the educational life of a community.

See also:

Chad D. Lerch, "In a bad economy, residents are flocking to libraries," Muskegon Chronicle, 1/4/10.

Myron Kukla, "Library traffic surges as economy struggles," Grand Rapids Press, 12/27/09.

Cathy Runyon, "Hard choices ahead; local libraries face state revenue shortfalls," North Ottawa Weekly, 1/16/10.

Loutit District Library Homepage.

American Library Association.

Ryan McCarl, "Building the Educational Infrastructure," Wide Awake Minds, 11/13/09.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"High School Subjects Self-Taught"

Whenever I return to the home I grew up in, I sift through the shelves and boxes of books that I have so far had to leave behind in my transitions from city to city over the past few years. I recently stumbled upon an old, out-of-print book on self-education: High School Subjects Self-Taught by Louis Copeland, with an introduction by the late mathematics educator William L. Schaaf.

In fact, since I started this blog and began my project of researching and writing about self-education last year, I have started noticing references to self-education - direct and indirect - all over the place. I am beginning to collect these as I find them in the hopes that they might be able to inform the book I am working on.

A few things to notice about the following quotes:

--Learning is presented as a valuable end in itself as well as a means to other ends; schooling is presented as an opportunity for learning.

--The ultimate responsibility for learning rests with the learner himself or herself.

--The learner's motivation and desire to learn is critically important.

--It is never too late to learn: the fact that one's schooling is complete, or one's experiences in school were unsatisfactory, does not mean that the opportunity to get an education has passed. For self-educators, there is always a "second chance" to learn.

From William L. Schaaf, "Introduction" and "Suggestions for Studying this Book," in High School Subjects Self-Taught by Louis Copeland:

Modern life and contemporary events make a heavy demand upon the education and resourcefulness of the individual. In dealing successfully with personal, social, and vocational problems, a basic education is an unquestionable asset.

The primary value of an education is not simply the attainment of knowledge, but rather, though ideas as well as information and skills, to develop the power of thinking and to cultivate understanding and appreciation that will serve many purposes. These purposes may concern self-improvement and advancement in your business or vocation; efficient conduct of your household and personal affairs; intelligent consumer activities; adequate participation in civic and community life; helpful guidance where your children are concerned; effective and enjoyable use of your leisure time, devoted to recreation, hobbies, or other avocational pursuits.

Possibly you never had an opportunity to attend High School; or, having begun your studies, you were, for one reason or another, unable to complete them. Perhaps you finished your high school course some years ago, but since graduation you have forgotten a good deal of what you once learned, and have come to appreciate its significance somewhat more fully than you did when you were in school. In any event, you now wish to refresh yourself on many of these matters, and perhaps may even want to strike out in one or two new directions.

One is never too old to learn if one has the desire to do so. It is an accepted fact that, under ordinary circumstances, you can learn just as well at 25 or 30 as you could at 15 years of age; indeed, there are good reasons why you may learn even more effectively as an adult than as an adolescent. To be sure, it isn't always easy to stick to it. There are pressing demands and inevitable distractions - the business of earning a living, the fatigue at the end of the day, the need for relaxation, the desire for recreation. But that is just where your determination comes in; if you want to badly enough, you will be amazed at how much you can learn, even at 40 or more!
A moment's reflection will reveal that there are, in all, but a half dozen or so large fields of human learning and achievement into one or another of which virtually all subjects fall. These fields includes: (1) the social studies; (2) language and literature; (3) the fine arts; (4) foreign languages; (5) mathematics; (6) the physical sciences; (7) philosophy and logic; and (8) the practical arts.
No matter how great the sacrifice or how considerable the effort in mastering these subjects you will be amply rewarded. No one can ever take your education away from you.
Merely reading a book may no more result in learning than listening to a lecture. To learn something requires active effort on your part. You must have a goal. You must know how you are progressing. And above all, you must want to learn.
Here are some additional hints on how to study effectively:

1. Try to understand the general scheme of what you are trying to learn. If it is fairly complicated, make an outline of the main terms.
2. Several short periods on successive days are usually better than one lengthy period of study.
3. Use various ways of making yourself think over what you are studying.
4. Try to associate new facts or ideas with something you already know.
5. Form the habit of reviewing mentally every paragraph or section before you go on to the next one. See how much of it you can recall; this will help you to remember it.
6. Sometimes reading aloud helps one to remember material; it is better to read rapidly rather than slowly.
7. When you have to stop studying, interrupt yourself at a logical point, but make note of some cue which will enable you to pick up the thread when you begin again.
8. When you have learned something new, try to make use of it as soon as you can; the oftener the better.
9. When you have completed a reasonable amount of material, take time out to summarize what you have covered. You may want to write out your summary.
10. Always have a good dictionary handy. Make frequent use of it. When you have discovered the meaning of a new word, try to use the word yourself.
The important thing is to adopt a plan and then carry it out regularly and faithfully; success is never achieved by good intentions or casual activities.

William L. Schaaf
--From "Introduction" and "Suggestions for Studying this Book," in High School Subjects Self-Taught by Louis Copeland (Garden City Publishing Co., 1946).