Bob Schwartz

Category: Education

Prisoners Beat Harvard in Debate

Bard Prison Initiative

A team from a prison just beat a team from Harvard. In a debate.

The Washington Post reports not just the victory of the team, part of the Bard Prison Initiative, but the constraints that the debaters prepared under—including having to research without the internet, from actual books and articles, but only those approved by the prison administration.

Too many lessons to count. Among them:

The two million or so people we consign to prison aren’t all there because they are not smart enough or motivated enough to function or excel in the real world.

The people who consign themselves to our most privileged houses of learning aren’t all as smart and motivated as some of those consigned to prison.

If you want to learn, really learn, learn enough to defeat the nation’s purportedly premier scholars, you can do it offline. Just like this prison debate team. Just like Abraham Lincoln.

Winnie-the-Pooh

winnie-the-pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh is not only a children’s book, not exactly, though it should be read to and by every child. It wasn’t read to or by me as a child, but I found it later anyway, and have never let go of it since.

Pooh, as you know or might have heard, is a bear formally known as Edward Bear, but nicknamed by his friend Christopher Robin. He lives with his other friends Rabbit, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and her baby Roo in the Hundred Acre Wood.

In this bit from Chapter 7, Pooh and friends are trying to distract Kanga so that they can capture her baby. Pooh recites some spontaneous poetry:

“Talking of Poetry,” said Pooh, “I made up a little piece as I was coming along. It went like this. Er–now let me see–“

“Fancy!” said Kanga. “Now Roo, dear–“

“You’ll like this piece of poetry,” said Rabbit

“You’ll love it,” said Piglet.

“You must listen very carefully,” said Rabbit.

“So as not to miss any of it,” said Piglet.

“Oh, yes,” said Kanga, but she still looked at Baby Roo.

“How did it go, Pooh?” said Rabbit.

Pooh gave a little cough and began.

LINES WRITTEN BY A BEAR OF VERY LITTLE BRAIN

On Monday, when the sun is hot
I wonder to myself a lot:
“Now is it true, or is it not,”
“That what is which and which is what?”

On Tuesday, when it hails and snows,
The feeling on me grows and grows
That hardly anybody knows
If those are these or these are those.

On Wednesday, when the sky is blue,
And I have nothing else to do,
I sometimes wonder if it’s true
That who is what and what is who.

On Thursday, when it starts to freeze
And hoar-frost twinkles on the trees,
How very readily one sees
That these are whose–but whose are these?

On Friday—-

“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” said Kanga, not waiting to hear what happened on Friday. “Just one more jump, Roo, dear, and then we really must be going.”

Note to English and philosophy professors: Shakespeare is great, but if you are not including A.A. Milne and his Pooh books in your syllabus, you are shortchanging your students. As for philosophy, “what is which and which is what?” and “who is what and what is who?” are questions that could take up a full semester, if not a lifetime.

Note to parents and children of all ages: If you are not reading Pooh to your kids or you haven’t read the book yourself, just do it.

Note to lovers: This may not seem like very romantic literature. But it contains the sort of sweet nonsensical silliness that love, stripped down to its unserious basics, is all about.

WARNING TO ALL: The Disney version of Pooh is known and beloved by many, maybe including you. Sweet Christopher Robin and Pooh would never say unkind or harsh things, such as saying that the Disney version completely misses everything wonderful about the Pooh books and characters, and that it might be deemed a creative desecration. They would never say anything like that.

Independence Day and STEM Democracy

Thomas Jefferson with Telescope

Is the increasing hegemony of STEM education dangerous to the future of American democracy?

In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, Professor I. Bernard Cohen might see it otherwise. As one of the most eminent historians of science, he makes the case that the familiarity of some Founding Fathers with science inspired the new nation, and that the shape of the new democracy was directly based on scientific principles.

One review notes about Professor Cohen’s theory:

The Declaration of Independence, which he [Jefferson] wrote, reverberates with echoes of Newtonian science, as when he invokes “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature.” Benjamin Franklin, far from being a mere tinkerer or inventor, pioneered the science of electricity. Franklin also developed a demographic theory that North America would become a population center of the British world; this led to the policy according to which the British annexed Canada rather than Guadeloupe as the spoils in the war against the French (1754-63). John Adams, who studied astronomy and physics at Harvard, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. And James Madison, a devoted amateur scientist, drew on scientific metaphors and analogies in his Federalist articles.

Maybe. But in fact, most of those in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress from which the Declaration of Independence emerged were not scientists or even science fans. And even those whose philosophy was shaped in part by science enjoyed a much broader education, one that gave complete dimension to their thinking, what we now call liberal arts. So that while the intriguing questions that Professor Cohen raises are significant, so is the parallel question: If the Continental Congress had been mostly or entirely filled with 18th century scientists, just what kind of Declaration would have been produced, and more broadly, what kind of nation would we be?

Nowhere can the nexus of Big Science and Big Political Philosophy be better seen than in Richard Rhodes’ magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is sort of a fun house mirror of what Cohen claims for the American founding. Rather than world-changing political thinkers with a scientific bent, we have equally historic scientists with a worldly and philosophical bent. They had been educated in the early 20th century, many in Europe, and the standard for education then and there was broad learning beyond the laboratory. In the end, their science was driven by the realities of World War II and Hitler, but that did not stop them from philosophical ponderings and quandaries about the work they were doing and its ultimate impact.

So, yes, it may be that science did help give us what by all measures is a remarkably robust and resilient democracy, starting with the rousing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. And we should educate scientists, to make progress and to advance the liberty, peace, and security we want. But we should also have many other thinkers, scientists or otherwise, who are capable of leading and having enlightening debates about exactly what we do need and want, and about the means we choose to get there, and about where it might lead. We do need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. But it is never enough, not nearly enough, at least not in this democracy.

Educating Prophets

If we view prophets in a broad sense, in a big sense, not something necessarily biblical or spiritual, not as fortune tellers, but as witnesses, critics, analysts, teachers, and guides, it is something we have always had and needed.

That kind of prophecy may be viewed as a gift, but it is something that can be cultivated and encouraged. That isn’t always to the liking of many. Prophets can point in a constructive direction, but in their role as critics they can also be harsh, and stand in the way of those who benefit and profit from the status quo. So some prophets are more acceptable than others, and some are treated as enemies.

Education, in and out of institutional settings, is a part of cultivating and encouraging prophets and prophecy. That isn’t often, or ever, on the list of what education is for or about. So maybe, if we are intent on viewing education as a path to employment and the jobs of the future, we should make sure to include prophet among those jobs. And should include the sorts of subjects and fields in which prophets and prophecy of all kinds grow.

How Much Is That in Harvard Years?: Why Ted Cruz Thinks He Is Leader of the Senate

Ted Cruz - Double Harvard
One of the puzzles of the current political situation is how a U.S. Senator with less than a year in Congress believes he is the leader of his party—if not of the nation.

One theory is that Ted Cruz was born in Canada, and therefore doesn’t completely understand the American political system. But that would make him more reasonable, conciliatory and polite, so that has been rejected.

Another possibility is that the sudden disappearance of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has left a vacuum that the party is scrambling to fill. In the chaos of the relentless search for the Kentucky Senator, Sen. Cruz has leapt into the breach.

The best explanation is a bit esoteric, but if you attended one of the “major” Ivy League colleges, as Ted Cruz did, you should have no trouble following. (Note: This writer, as a graduate of what Ted Cruz considers a “lesser” Ivy, is still struggling with the theory. Hopefully there is a Harvard, Princeton or Yale grad out there to help.)

Just as there are “dog years,” there are also, at least in the mind of Ted Cruz, “Harvard Years.” The exact numbers aren’t clear, but on a one-for-one basis, this means that the seven years he spent at Harvard (College and Law School) is the equivalent of seven years in Congress. If it is two-for-one, he has been there for fourteen years. And if it is a canine calculus, Ted Cruz has been in Congress for 49 years! That is a near record achievement that should put complaints of his inexperience to rest, though other concerns won’t go away so easily.

Note: The Ivy League colleges are famous (at least among their attendees) for their mottos. These are in Latin, because at the time the schools were founded, Latin was the lingua franca of the intelligentsia. (And yes, of course, Ted Cruz probably speaks Latin, along with French and Spanish.)  For all his Haravardian pride, he should pay closer attention to the motto of his alma mater: Veritas (truth).

Even closer to home for Ted Cruz, if he would deign to consider the motto of one of those lesser Ivies, is this: Leges Sine Moribus Vanae—laws without morals are in vain.

Education Epic: The ACT Chapter

ACT College Readiness 2013
The epic of American education goes on, success and failure, part triumph, part tragedy. Today’s chapter is the release of a report from ACT about the college readiness of American high school students. The ACT, along with the SAT, is the test used by colleges to determine admission of individual students. In various states, one or the other test predominates; college-bound or college-aspiring students take at least one, at least once.

States and school districts are increasingly using these scores as a standardized measure of just how well (or poorly) they are doing—so much so that some states are now paying for and requiring all students, college track or not, to take the tests.

Today’s ACT report could generously be characterized as equivocal (the ACT press release headlines: “ACT Points to Improvement Efforts and Calls for More Action”) but that is sugar coating. You will see the report covered both nationally and locally; you can read the state numbers and see whether and how they are being spun or faced head on. You can also read the report yourself.

You will come across a small collateral matter that is meant to explain, not excuse, the drop in scores in some places. Previously, those students that had been granted extra time to take the test as an accommodation for disabilities (10% of ACT takers) were not included in the aggregate score; now they are. ACT had not revealed this before, and it is now a mini-tempest of its own. States, districts and disability advocates call this previous exclusion discriminatory and inappropriate. For whatever reason, the fact is that this cohort did score lower than average, something—one might speculate—that ACT knew, and kept out of the statistics so that they would not look quite so bad.

They look bad. Here are some highlights from the ACT press release:

ACT Points to Improvement Efforts and Calls for More Action, Especially for Underserved Students

IOWA CITY, Iowa—College and career readiness problems persist among U.S. high school graduates, with the majority ill-prepared for success at the next level, according to the latest edition of nonprofit ACT’s yearly report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013. ACT, however, points to solutions and ongoing efforts that could help improve student readiness in the future.

Only 39 percent of ACT-tested 2013 graduates met three or more of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. Conversely, 31 percent of graduates did not meet any of the benchmarks. ACT research suggests that students who don’t meet the benchmarks are likely to struggle in relevant first-year courses at two- and four-year colleges, which increases their risk of not succeeding in college. “Once again, our data show that high school success and college readiness are not necessarily the same thing,” said Jon Whitmore, ACT chief executive officer. “Too many students are likely to struggle after they graduate from high school. As a nation, we must set ambitious goals and take strong action to address this consistent problem. The competitiveness of our young people and of our nation as a whole in the global economy is at stake.”

The research-based ACT College Readiness Benchmarks specify the minimum score students must earn on each of the four subject tests that make up the ACT® college readiness assessment (English, math, reading, and science) to have about a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or higher in a typical credit-bearing first-year college course in that subject area. ACT research suggests that students who meet the benchmarks are more likely than those who do not to persist in college and earn a degree….

Largest, Most Diverse Group of Test Takers Ever

The ACT report examines the ACT scores of a record 1.8 million students, 54 percent of the U.S. graduating class. It was the largest and most diverse group of graduates ever to take the ACT, the nation’s leading college entrance exam, and also likely the broadest in terms of academic preparation. This is due in part to an increase in the number of states and districts that administer the ACT to all students, not just those who were preparing to go to college. This year’s report includes 29 states in which 50 percent or more of graduates took the ACT and 12 states in which 90 percent or more took the assessment. As more students take the ACT, the data obtained from scores better reflect the entire U.S. graduating class, providing a glimpse of the emerging educational pipeline.

The national college-readiness level of 39% is, like most national aggregates, a bit misleading. In some states, that readiness level according to the ACT is about 18%.

Aside from the “steps are being taken” happy mantra, there is something good to say. In state after state, for the first time since standardized test scores have been the centerpiece of our education policy, the tests are being made appropriately stringent, playing scholastic hardball rather than softball or T-ball. This has caused scores to drop, even in some of the most sought-after school districts. Admitting you have a problem may be the first step, but admitting the actual depth of the problem is the second. As today’s ACT report indicates, we are indeed in deep.

Should We Test Our Elected Officials?

IQ Curve
There is currently a right to have an abortion in America during the first trimester of pregnancy. This is one of the most divisive moral and legal controversies of our time. Some who support that right make clear that it is not necessarily a right they would exercise personally. Many who oppose the right would like to see it disappear entirely, whether through reconsideration by the Supreme Court or by constitutional amendment.

In the absence of constitutional reinterpretation or change, a number of states have passed laws to circumscribe that right, or at the very least to reduce its exercise. One of the most common laws, signed a few days ago in Wisconsin, requires pregnant women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. This is aimed at emphasizing to these women that they are carrying a fetus—as if they had forgotten—in hopes of deterring them from going through with an abortion. The states just want to be sure these women are well and fully informed.

Great examples of conditioning a right are the sorts of literacy tests that were used in the Jim Crow South to keep black people from voting. Questions were often so difficult that even government officials would have trouble passing. From the Alabama literacy test of 1965 (68 questions):

19. Who passes laws dealing with piracy?
30. Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was _____________.
39. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?
41. The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to _____________.
66. After the presidential electors have voted, to whom do they send the count of their votes?

The use of these sorts of literacy tests for voter suppression was challenged and ultimately outlawed.

Still, there may be the germ of a good idea here. A correlate of the right to vote is the right to hold public office. Sometimes, just sometimes, it seems that this right is being taken for granted by our elected officials. Perhaps there are some of the executives and legislators, at the state and national level, who might benefit from having their ability to hold office tested. Maybe they need to be tested on the arcane intricacies of how government works. Maybe they need to be better informed.

So the proposal is for all public officials to be tested before they are allowed to take office. No ultrasounds. Just the sort of knowledge assessment that prospective black voters had to undergo in 1965. Just the sort of test to see if these officials really understand what rights are and how, in America, we allow change to happen, and what to do lawfully if we don’t like the direction (we don’t terrorize people to make rights painful or impossible to exercise). We will see just how many of them can pass that test.

Answers to above questions:

19. Congress
30. Virginia
39. Congress and the legislatures of both states
41. 10 miles square
66. Vice President (President of the Senate)

Who Killed the Assault Weapons Ban?

Hoover Tactical Firearms
A ban on assault weapons is dead, at least for this session of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Democratic gun bill moving forward will not include it.

The political math is that 60 votes are needed to pass a bill in this new and not improved super-majority Senate voting, and there weren’t enough Democrats, let alone Republicans, to make passage possible. The political reality is fear. There are Democratic Senators who believe that a vote for anything that looks like a gun ban, however reasonable and popular, would cause them grief or worse back home and in the voting booth.

We had a ban on assault weapons for ten years, signed by Bill Clinton, allowed to expire under George W. Bush in 2004, and never revived. It was far from perfect or comprehensive, but at least it represented recognition that as a modern civilization, there are things we try not to do or allow to be done. This isn’t heaven, but we can make it a little less hell.

An earlier post mentioned that we have not seen, and as a matter of decency (we are civilized people, aren’t we?) will not see, the photos of the dead children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown. Since then, though, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing at which a vivid word image was painted by a first responder. Maybe not a thousand words, but we got the picture.

Harry Reid could tell us, name by name, which Democratic Senators did not want to have a vote on this so they wouldn’t have to be accountable. They wanted to avoid the double-edged sword, cut once politically by supporters and voters who believe that any banned weapon is one too many, then cut again by those who can’t understand why military weapons are needed by the hunter or the psychopath next door. By Adam Lanza’s mother and, in the end, by Adam Lanza.

Maybe we are asking the wrong questions of our politicians. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether they believe in a ban on assault weapons, or in the possibility that such a ban might reduce the number of gun deaths by even a little, and might reduce the brutality of an already brutal world.

Maybe we should be asking our politicians whether they believe in ghosts. The kind of ghosts who visit all of us, in the moments before sleep, in sleep itself. Ghosts of things done or not done. For Senators, ghosts of bills passed, unpassed, and too many times, never voted on at all. Ghosts that aren’t abstract, but that take stark, all too real form. Ghosts that look like mangled, barely recognizable angels, just wanting somebody to speak—and vote—for them.

If Not Now When: Today Is the Day to Talk About Guns

National Rifle Association - Newtown
In the immediate hours after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, Presidential spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether this would move the President on the issue of gun control. “Today is not the day to talk about guns,” he replied. The focus, he said, should be on the victims and their families.

A few massacres ago, around the time of the Colorado movie theatre shootings, that sounded better. The boldness of those activists wanting to instantly seize the moment and make a point about gun control seemed insensitive. There would be time enough, soon, to talk about public policy.

“Today is not the day,” doesn’t sound so good or so responsible any more. Whether or not we go for years without another incident like this, or whether, as is more likely, it is a matter of a few weeks or months, the day to talk is today.

The National Rifle Association and the related Second Amendment groups are the most powerful and successful lobby in modern America. Grover Norquist is a pretender, thinking that his threats of losing elections have changed America. As much as Americans hate taxes, many love having their guns, and the NRA has helped those Americans get them, keep them and be allowed to use them.

The NRA’s biggest, though not only, problem is that they have constitutional paranoia. They perceive even the slightest hint of regulation as the first step on a slippery slope. That paranoia has mutated and spread to politicians of almost all types. Except that those politicians aren’t pathologically afraid of guns being taken away; they are pathologically afraid of losing their jobs.

Fortunately for him, the President just got his contract renewed for four years. Even if he has something to propose that won’t get the support of his own party, let alone Republicans, even if what he proposes will have trouble passing constitutional muster, that should not stop him, if he is the man of principle we believe him to be.

The dead can’t vote, and in the case of the children killed today at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they weren’t old enough anyway. So we have to speak for them and vote for them. Today is the day. President Obama, lead us and show us what to do.

Mitt Romney Too Busy to Answer Questions from Kids

Mitt Romney has refused to appear on Nickelodeon to take questions from kids. He is too busy.

Here is the Hollywood Reporter story:

Mitt Romney Declines Nickelodeon’s Invitation for ‘Kids Pick the President’ Special

One spot Mitt Romney won’t be hitting on the campaign trail: the Nickelodeon studios.

The Republican presidential candidate declined an invitation from the children’s network to participate in its special “Kids Pick the President: The Candidates.” According to a release from Nickelodeon, Romney’s camp said he was unable to fit the taping into his schedule after multiple attempts from the network.

The special, part of Nick News With Linda Ellerbee, gives kids across the country the opportunity to ask questions of each candidate. It premieres at 8 p.m. Oct. 15. On Oct. 22, Nickelodeon will reveal the results of its Kids’ Vote poll, which has correctly predicted the winner of five of the past six presidential elections.

President Barack Obama sat down for a taping in the White House, where he answered questions regarding gun control, jobs, immigration, same-sex marriage, outsourcing, bullying and obesity, as well as light-hearted questions including his most embarrassing moment. (“Running into the wall is par for the course for me,” he says. “I’m running into doors and desks all the time.”)

Romney still will be featured in the special, with producers selecting previously taped clips from the campaign trail in which Romney addresses various issues raised in the kids’ questions.

“By answering kids’ questions directly, candidates show respect for kids,” says Linda Ellerbee in a statement. “We are disappointed that Mitt Romney wouldn’t take the time to answer the questions but are thrilled that President Obama participated in the special.”

Now in its 21st year, Nick News — produced by Lucky Duck Productions — is the longest-running kids news program in television history.