Obama's Blueprint for Education - Richard Rothstein criticizes

cross posted from Daily Kos

I have already weighed in on the Blueprint, in Obama's "Blueprint" for education - why this teacher cannot support it. Today I want to call to your attention a very important critic by Richard Rothstein, whose current position is as a research associate at the Education Policy Institute, but who spent 1999-2002 as the national education columnist for The New York Times

On March 23 he posted A blueprint that needs more work at the EPI website. His is a balanced examination, but one that is nevertheless more critical than complimentary. I am going to urge that anyone interested in public education carefully read his entire critique. I am going to focus on several issues that caught my attention. I invite your continued reading.

A major focus of Rothstein's critique is the administration's emphasis on students being college ready upon graduation from high school. He actually begins by discussing the funding of college, something addressed in the recent reconciliation bill on health insurance reform. He compliments the administration for recognizing the need to make college more affordable/accessible, writing
It would be foolish to try to re-organize elementary and secondary education to make students “college-ready” if college itself becomes less affordable.

But let's take a look at the goal of having students college ready. The Blueprint calls for all graduates to be college or career ready by 2020. This replaces the requirement of NCLB that all students be 100% proficient in reading and math in 2014. Let me quote how Rothstein embarks on exploring this topic:
The Blueprint’s overall theme is that by 2020 all students should graduate from high school “College and Career Ready.” Administration officials have explained that this entails the ability to gain admission to an academic college program without having to take remedial courses. (The addition of “Career” to “College Ready” is meaningless, because what the Administration intends to convey is that some students may choose to pursue a non-college career, but would still have gained the qualifications to enter an academic college program if they wished.) This is, perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of the Blueprint. It indicates that the Administration may have learned little from the NCLB experience.
He goes on to quote Duncan as describing the 100% proficiency requirement of NCLB as "utopian" and it is worth noting that those in the Congress knew it was not achievable, but did not believe you could move forward with a more achievable goal of say 75 or 80% proficient, certainly not in legislation labeled "No Child Left Behind." Then after noting that a level of proficiency cannot be simultaneously "challenging" for students at the top and bottom of normal distribution, Rothstein offers three powerful paragraphs, which I think need to be offered in their entirety:
But aside from ridicule, NCLB’s adoption of this goal did great harm to public education. It created incentives for educators to lie to the public and claim that they could achieve something that they knew was unachievable. It created well-known incentives to “define down” proficiency, to make it possible for more students to pass themselves off as proficient. It engendered a culture of cynicism in public education, and it discredited public education in the broader community, as it became apparent that school leaders could not deliver what they were promising.

Any institution that sets an impossible goal runs the risk of such cynicism and loss of legitimacy.

The goal of all students college-ready by 2020 is just as fanciful as the goal of all students proficient by 2014. Today, perhaps 20 percent of all youth graduate high school fully prepared for academic college. It should certainly be higher. Aspiring to make it higher is a worthy ambition. But basing policy on a promise, or even an expectation, that we will quintuple this rate in a mere decade is laughable.

Thus, the key selling point for the Blueprint, the idea that all students will be career or college ready, is as unachievable - or if you will, false - as was NCLB's goal of 100% proficiency. We are now at 20% ready for college. But basing policy on a promise, or even an expectation, that we will quintuple this rate in a mere decade is laughable. Which in my mind makes the entire proposal laughable.

There is so much more in this superb analysis of the Blueprint. Just on this point, while the administration tries to divert criticism by calling the goal aspirational, Rothstein cuts quickly to the chase. He notes that schools serving disadvantaged children will be most likely to fail this aspirational goal and continue to suffer sanctions just as under NCLB.
For these schools, the same cynicism, the same false promises, the same gaming, will be stimulated as occurred with NCLB.
Rothstein argues that middle class schools will be harmed by this, that the pressue to dumb down standards of readiness will parallel what happened to standards of proficiency, and then warns
Promising to make all students college-ready by 2020 is, in effect, an attack on the quality of America’s institutions of higher education.

Remember, this is on a key selling point of the administration's education proposal. While Rothstein offers some compliments on parts of the Blueprint - funding some states to broaden their curricula and assessment, providing funds for support outside the regular school day - on the whole he is at least skeptical if not downright critical. Those who have read my post will again encounter criticisms of the administration's shift away from formula-based programs, especially in a time of economic distress and pressu4e (and Rothstein properly credits the education funding in ARRA for having perhaps prevented the laying off of a third of a million teachers and other school employees).

There is more, much more in this 3219 word piece, which originally appeared as part of the group "blogging" effort on education at National Journal. As noted, I strongly urge people to read it.

In his penultimate paragraph, Rothstein offers this:
We can hope that the Administration thinks further about its proposals, and revises them as they proceed through Congress. It is, in any event, virtually certain that the Blueprint will not be adopted in its present design by this Congress, and perhaps not even by the next.
He may be correct. While the House (Miller) and Senate (Harkin) chairmen of the relevant authorizing committees might be inclined to give Obama what he wants on an issue he has said is important to him, they cannot control what their members think. When Duncan appeared on the Hill, most of the senior members of the House Committee were more than a little skeptical and challenging in their questions and commentary, and there were similar concerns offered by some of the senior Republicans, including ranking members Kline (House) and Enzi (Senate). Further, even if authorized, the proposal would have to be funded and House Appropriations Chair David Obey of Wisconsin made clear in his questioning of Duncan his unwillingness to go along merely because the President wants it. He is a 41 year member of the House, a close ally of Speaker Pelosi, who was trusted to preside over the House voting on the Senate Health Insurance Reform bill.

So perhaps I should end as does Rothstein. Here is his final paragraph:
This suggests an unintended benefit of the Blueprint. For the foreseeable future, Arne Duncan will continue to be responsible for administering NCLB. Having now gone on record that its provisions are seriously flawed and that compliance with them is doing American education great harm, the Secretary will have no coherent choice but to begin issuing wholesale waivers to states from compliance with the old law. If it accomplishes this much, the Blueprint will have done a great service.

In other words, like me, Rothstein really does not think much of the Blueprint.

So, what do you think?


Education: A Race to Equity instead of the Race to the Top

One of the important names in education that too many currently involved in making policy do not seem to know is Herbert Kohl. Those of us on the Progressive end of the educational spectrum know how important the insight he has offered are, and rare is the progressive thinker on education who has not read several of his books, most notably 36 Children and "I Won't Learn from You:" and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment, the latter a reworking of a slightly earlier essay.

Beginning in Harlem in 1962, Kohl has taught every grade from Kindergarten to College, including being a visiting professor at Swarthmore College.

During a previous time of re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Kohl worked with the late Senator Paul Wellstone on building Opportunity to Learn ideas into the law (you can explore OTL at this Google search).

Recently Kohl sent out an email on A Race To Equity, the contents of which are publicly available quoted in another email on the Assessment Reform Network list archive. I want to share with you and explore the ideas Kohl presents.

I want to focus on a series of questions that Kohl suggests should be answered as part of how we evaluate if we are truly and honestly are going to address the real issues of school equity.

Let me begin as Kohl poses the issue:
When considering school failure, consideration must be given to the situation and circumstances under which children learn. Jonathan Kozolâs Savage Inequalities dramatically documents the lack of opportunity presented to many poor children. Taking off from the, we raised the issue of how to negate those inequalities. The question that droves this analysis was: Do all children have the same opportunities to learn? We were careful to avoid the question of poverty, family background, etc., because we wanted to make strictly educational arguments. We wanted to focus specifically on the conditions of schooling and make the opportunity to learn an equity issue.

Kohl suggests we need a series of measures of equity, and ofers a list some. Let me note that absent some equality of opportunity those in so-called failing schools are often disadvantaged even beyond the prior learning with which they arrive in our schools and classroom. As Kohl writes in the conclusion of the piece from which I am quoting,
My feeling is that progressives should advocate a “race to equity” – a
multibillion dollar initiative to bring some of the most impoverished schools up to the material and pedagogical conditions of the most effective public schools in the country.

I am going to list in bold each of the questions Kohl proposes and then offer some commentary of my own.

What are the facilities necessary to promote equitable learning? We should realize that the physical setting of school can make a difference in the effectiveness of instruction and learning. If nothing else, students can quickly ascertain that their learning is not important if the facilities in which they attend school are decrepit, falling apart, with leaking roofs, heating/ac that does not work, etc. Is there some minimal standard upon which we should be insisting as a precondition to our expectations for learning? We know that wealthy communities often have superb facilities, modern buildings, and the like, while poorer communities, in both urban and rural settings, often conduct classes in buildings as much as a century old, lacking adequate electrical systems for modern equipment as just one indication of how they lag.

What is an equitable ratio of students to teachers?Please note: teacher/student ration is not identical to class size, although it is closely related. It is possible to have a ratio that is too high yet keep class sizes manageable by having teachers responsible for more classes, perhaps removing a planning period and forcing all planning and collaboration and grading to take place outside of paid school hours. Of course, such an approach burns out and discourages teachers, which inevitably leads to other problems. Whether you want to think of the ratio, or of class sizes, recognize this: in our elite private schools those ratios are much smaller than is often the case in schools in economically distressed or isolated communities. In some of our wealthier communities, ratios and class sizes tilt more in the direction of what we see in elite private schools. There are some communities which have made a major commitment on these issues - I live in Arlington Virginia, where I taught in a middle school for one year in which my four sets of students ranged from 19 to 24. By contrast, I have taught most of my career in Prince George's County MD, where in my current high school I have six sets of students with one class having 15 (it is a special program) and my other five ranging from 27 to 37. We know that there is research that supports the idea of smaller classes leading to more effective instruction, especially in elementary. Or if the elementary class has 30 students that there is a teacher aide to assist, or there are co-taught classes: in secondary one can co-teach language arts and social studies, having two teachers for perhaps 40-50 students.

What is the range and scope of a learning program that promotes equitable learning â this would include the arts, opportunity for athletics and cultural learning, advanced placement courses, science labs? Note that this is far beyond the sometimes exclusionary emphasis on reading and mathematics that was the result often seen in schools of lower socioeconomics because of the emphasis on test scores in those two domains under No Child Left Behind. I will acknowledge that Obama has spoken about broadening our understanding of what an education should include, and that the administration's Blueprint allows schools/systems/states to measure performance in other subjects, but for the supposed bottom 5% / 5,000 schools the determination is still being made solely on reading and mathematics. If we narrow what a child experiences in school we do little than perpetuate or even aggravate the unequal status with which that child arrives in our schools. Somehow we need to remember that while literacy and numeracy are important, sometimes they are best learned in a broader context in which the student can experience a broader sense of learning and education. Similarly, we must be able to provide in every school the opportunity to challenge the gifted students that exist in every school, even those in our poorest or most isolated communities.

What are the credentials teachers are expected to have to produce excellence in learning? This question is going beyond the formal licensing today, that is, do you have a complete teaching credential? NCLB said that every teacher was supposed to be "highly qualified" but it was too easy to limit that to paperwork and coursework. We certainly need to have some standards of what we expect those to who we entrust the future of our children to bring to the classroom. What are those characteristics that we can see make a real difference? Can we establish some means of measuring them, so that we do not assume that grades and test scores of teacher candidates are the only measure? Here I note of my five student teachers the one with the highest grades and test scores was totally unable to connect with the students, whereas several with what some might consider mediocre evidence in testing and grades had already demonstrated a real interest and ability in finding ways of motivating and challenging a diverse group of students, both succeeded as student teachers and then later as teachers in our building.

What kind of wages and conditions of work contribute to educational opportunity for children? These are both important issues. Let's address separately. First, if we want to attract and retain teachers we have to be willing to pay them a livable wage. Otherwise we will lose them to other careers, or else force them to work 2nd jobs in order to make ends meet. That is a minimum requirement. Conditions of work are equally important. That includes for many of us the ability to be flexible in meeting the needs of the students, having the support necessary to meet those needs, having the materials and equipment, being in an environment which is not overly punitive either to students or the adults serving those students, being in a setting where it is possible to work with the parents and the larger community for the success of the students. I will acknowledge that money is insufficient by itself to address the issues confronting our schools, but there is no doubt lack of money can undercut our best efforts. And please, do not simply compare the total amount spent per student as a means of undercutting that: yes, DC spends a lot per student, but much of that goes to mandated special education costs, to security, to a top-heavy administrative structure (including record keeping in excruciating detail of things easy to measure but which have not been shown to translate into better instruction), and not to improving instruction in the classroom.

What kinds of supplies and equipment must all school have access to (text books, computers, etc.)? IS it equitable that some school systems have a ratio of computers to students up to 10 times those in other schools? How does one teach laboratory science without labs, equipment, and supplies? What if a school lacks a gymnasium or safe athletic fields? Do some schools still lack chairs and desks for all students? What about a library, with books that students can take out? Remember, for some of our students there is little if any access to public libraries: in rural areas they are too far away, in some urban areas going to a public library - if the community still has one - might require crossing the territory of a hostile gang.

What kind of facilities should house an equitable learning environment for all children? The key word is EQUITABLE. That does not have to be identical. I addressed some of this in the beginning. It starts with the building itself. This is not merely the physical condition and age. It is also whether the building itself encourages or discourages learning. We have many models of building layout that can be considered as part of this.

What kind of standards and measures should be used to measure a school's effectiveness as an equitable learning institution? Are the standards which we impose upon students and schools appropriate for where we begin? That is, is it appropriate to measure all against a uniform and often arbitrary level of performance rather than on the growth we are able to to generate in our students? How much are we willing to go beyond easy to score mass-produced tests? What measures beyond test scores are important indicators of whether that school is providing equity of opportunity for our students? Let me offer a couple of things one might consider. School lunch, attendance, opportunity of extra-curricular activities, opportunity for students to explore subjects in depth, multiple measures (which does not mean just multiple tests) of student learning - these are just a few things that come to my mind as I read this question. But also, how do we set standards? Here I think of the current effort for Common Core Standards that were being developed without the input of teachers or professional organizations of the content areas, but had lots of input from think tanks and testing organizations and certain groups arguing for what I would consider a narrow concept of "reform." I might suggest that in order to determine what standards we should apply, we will first have to be willing to address an issue that still remains largely unanswered: what is the purpose of our providing for public schooling? What is the purpose of school? If we are willing to acquiesce in the sorting process and accept the idea that schooling is driven by a limited idea of economic competitiveness, then I suggest we will continue to be frustrated with the results, in large part because our students will be frustrated with what they experience in the classroom. Perhaps we should try talking to students, current and recently graduated, about what their experience has been, what they think they need, and why?

What role should parents and community organizations play to ensure equitable schools in their communities? Schools do not exist in isolation. In too many cases community support seems limited to honoring athletic teams. In some cases, we are fortunate that there is further support and honoring of academic "winners" - the scholarships one, robotics and Latin and Science and History competitions. Community organizations can provide so much more: guest speakers, field trips, supplemntal materials for classrooms, internship opportunities.

And parents: if we want their involvement do we provide an opportunity for them to participate? Is there even an active parent organization? What about providing opportunities for meeting with teachers and administrators on a schedule that works for parents? In many well-off communities, it is not difficult for a parent to adjust a work schedule for a parent conference. What if the parents both work two jobs, for which it represents a loss of income? What if the parents lack language skills, are we prepared to work with community associations to provide translators?

I have in this posting barely scratched the possibilities we could explore in the questions Kohl raises. And I am sure Kohl would tell us that these are only some of the questions we need to consider if we are going to make our schools more equitable.

Perhaps some do not care about school equity. There is a strand of thought among many in America which has no trouble with inequity, which is prepared to justify the increasing economic and social disparities in this nation. After all, we have seen some of that thinking in recent debates over health care reform.

I have experienced up close what the inequity in access to health care means. This weekend I again volunteered in dental triage at a Mission of Mercy seeking to bring basic dental care to people who normally go without. Health and nutrition and education are interrelated. Equity does not have to mean equal. But surely there should be some minimal levels beyond which as a society we understand we cannot allow some of our people to be trapped.

School is supposed to make a difference. Certainly we saw the explosion of the middle class in the decades after WWII in part because we opened up higher education through things like the GI Bill and various other programs, we opened up home ownership, we began to address some of the economic and racial inequity that was endemic in mid-20th century America.

I fear that we may have lost the belief that we can really provide opportunity for all. I worry that we are beginning, under the current economic pressures most of us are experiencing, to pull back from the concept that we have a responsibility for all of us. We may use language like "no child left behind" yet at the same time acquiesce as the educational opportunities for "other people's children" to use the phrase made famous by Lisa Delpit are not really our concern.

Herbert Kohl has been one of the important voices on this, as has Jonathan Kozol, as have many who continue to labor within many schools which do not have the facilities, the larger community support, and thus struggle to provide equity of educational opportunity.

The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was a product of Lyndon John's Great Society. Johnson had after college and before politics served as a school teacher in a poor economic community. He had seen first hand the lack of educational equity and its impact.

A competition inevitably has winners and losers, and thus inevitably leaves some behind, our telling them that in some way their education is not important enough. That is wrong.

I do not claim to have all the answers. I note that too often we are not asking all the right questions. Herbert Kohl offers some questions I think we need to consider.

What do you think?


Books that Broke my Brain

This meme is going around the net. Interesting to see so many right wingers, and shocking how many actually cite “The Bell Curve.” I would have expected Rand, but Murray? Yes, many on the right aspire to racism. They think they are brave for being willing to acknowledge this in public. ("It’s about the skin color, man. Yeah. It makes you stupid. It's like, scientific.")

Not sure why anyone else would care, but here’s mine while I’m slowly emerging from many days of bronchitis brain fog. It was kind of fun to think about. Interesting how few non-fiction books I can think of that really stand out. Self-revealing--not always in good ways.

The Dialectic Imagination—Maxine Greene
I spent a good chunk of my doctoral program following back the citations of this book and trying to figure out where she got these fascinating ideas. Now I think she really doesn’t get the “public” at all, for all that she is a master of the aesthetic. 99.9% of the time the public is more a sausage-factory than an inspiring self-factory, however much she might want it to be otherwise.

Origins of Totalitarianism—Hannah Arendt
People usually cite the Human Condition, but the last half of OT is more profound in many ways (although you can’t really “get” OT without HC and maybe On Revolution too). Greene led me to Arendt, who I also decided doesn’t get the public, although she is profound enough for a dozen political philosophers. The work I’ve done on Dewey was really an effort to figure out Arendt, even though I don’t cite her (or even read her) anymore.

Reveille for Radicals—Saul Alinsky
A theorist hiding in a populist. Too arrogant for his own good, too certain (in his public speech) to be sufficiently self-critical, and too willing to lie about his accomplishments in service to his own ego. And yet, he provided the best shorthand vision of political empowerment so far written in America, laying out what Greene and Arendt didn’t want to hear. His followers turned his principles into rules, killed the dangerous creativity, and now ACORN’s just fallen to rubble. Time to take some risks.

Nova—Samuel Delaney
Taught me what literary science fiction could do.

Cannery Row—John Steinbeck
The best book ever written about nothing.

The Moviegoer—Walker Percy
The second best book ever written about nothing. An attempt to turn a philosophical engagement with Kierkegaard into a novel. Should have been a total failure.

Citizen of the Galaxy—Robert A. Heinlein
Saved me on a trip to the crazy grandmother. What a “sense of wonder” means. Could have picked others.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang—Kate Wilhelm
Not actually the book, but really the person who, with her husband Damon Knight, took in a wet-under-the-ears teenager and taught him how to write.

Maybe Discipline and Punish? Domination and the Arts of Resistance?

The End of "Constructivist"?

Interesting article on the declining usefulness of the idea of social construction. Not particularly radical, but does make an interesting argument about an overall shift going on at the intersection between the social sciences and humanities. And it's brief, always a benefit (that I seem often unable to provide).

Her "co-evolutionary" view dovetails with the article on comics and co-evolution posted earlier.
Viewed in the light of contemporary knowledges and material realities, social construction is looking rather outdated. To borrow the vocabulary I learned from Meredith Jones' dissections of makeover culture (Skintight, ‘Mutton'), social construction has come to resemble a 1970s celebrity who is not ‘ageing well': she's become a repetitive and unconvincing grumpy old woman who arguably needs a conceptual makeover to stay attractive and relevant. Can she once again inspire re-constructions of people, languages, practices and worlds? It is possible for her to enjoy what Jones calls a ‘stretched middle age' and be re-capacitated as an ally for twenty-first century movements and policies supporting sustainability and diversity in both nature and society? I am not entirely sure. . . .

From understanding ‘construction' as a form of ‘co-construction', we can begin to contemplate the dynamic processes of ‘co-evolution', where actors and ‘products' (or entities) in networks continually interact with and mutually shape each other, meaning that each ‘construction' is a dynamic co-construction that changes over time or in successive iterations, along with other elements in the network that together ‘co-evolve'.6 Elizabeth Shove has outlined one version of a basic sociotechnical co-evolutionary system in the form of a triangle whose three poles are the habits and expectations of users (or ‘user cultures'), the technologies and objects they use, and the collective conventions and arrangements associated with large-scale social structures and technocratic infrastructures (Shove, Comfort 48; see also Sofoulis and Williams 54). Two-way arrows between each pole indicate co-constitutive interactions between user cultures, technologies, and systems, each of which adaptively changes and evolves in response to interactions with the others.

What should I major in?

A column in the Columbia University newspaper caught my eye. A woman was try to explain to her father why she had chosen the major she chose.


She, like most college students, thinks she is making an important life choice here. She is, but she is confused about which choice she is making.

Why do college have majors? If you understand that, then the decision will become clear. All universities in the United States, even those that don’t claim to be, are modeled after the concept of the research university. This means that the professors at the school are primarily interested in research. Not only that, research dominates their lives so much that teaching is very low on their priority list. More importantly, when they teach, they are teaching what are basically research subjects.

So, when a psychology major wants to learn about people’s minds he or she winds up learning how to run experiments and how to do statistics because that is what researchers in psychology do.. When a computer science major wants to learn to become a proficient programmer they wind up learning mathematical theories connected with programming because that is what their professors research.

The major exists as a way of routing students on one track of becoming researchers. There are, of course, a few problems with this model. For one, most students do not want to become researchers. For another, those that do want to pursue PhDs soon realize that they could have majored in most anything and been accepted into a PhD program of their choice if they did well enough in college.

Students major in biology or chemistry because they want to became doctors (a field that actually requires next to none of the biology or chemistry that one learns in college.) They major in economies when they want to became business people because, at schools like Colombia, there is no business major but there are plenty of economists who do research.

In fact the concept of major is meant to move students into advanced courses in a department, namely the research seminars, which are really all the faculty actually want to teach anyhow.

When my son asked me what he should major in (he was also at Columbia) I told him “subways.” I did that because he loved subways. Now of course there is no subway major at Columbia, or anywhere else. I told him to pick and choose courses that related to his main interest and that the major he wound up in would not matter at all to anyone.

And this is my advice to students in all colleges. The major requirement is not there to serve your needs, so serve your own. Pick any courses that interests you as you attempt to determine a plan for your life. It really doesn’t matter. If your college offers real training in areas that lead to jobs and you think you might want one of those jobs, by all means major in that. But most people change their plans in life many times, so the answer to “what should I major in?” is simple enough.

It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. What matter are the choices that you make later. If you pick a major that narrows your choices then you made a bad selection.

Who Needs a School Bus?

The Flying Fox transport system. 9 years old, 63 miles an hour, speed control: wooden fork. Brother in a bag.

(Okay, I'm supposed to be reading a dissertation. But you were supposed to be doing something useful too, right?) via Boing Boing.

More on Ravitch

More discussions of Ravitch, and other interesting diaries on education (scroll down) by jeffbinnc on Open Left.

Stats, Poverty, and Not So Smartness

Interesting discussion for lay people and those who haven't taken stats for a while about the statistics behind a recent study about the relationship between poverty and memory capacity.

How can we talk about this better and make "information" like this less destructive to poor kids (who are always affected in concrete ways by expectations created by reports about their (in)ability to learn by those who are supposed to teach them)?

Betting on the poor boy: Whorf strikes back

via Boing Boing

National Standards: how crazy is our government?

I have been mulling about writing a scathing commentary on the new idiotic national standards for education that have just been proposed. They are, more or less, the same standards that were rammed down the throats of Americans in 1892 by the President of Harvard. The government just seems to be want to make sure that no innovation or real change ever takes place in education in this century. They think our failed schools can be fixed by firing teachers and by having more tests. The idea that we might want to re-think a seriously broken system doesn't enter their minds.

I was going to say that, but why bother? I have said it many times before.

Instead, I want to point readers to an article recently posted in a congressional on line magazine that was written by my son. He is writing about transportation policy but really it is all the same. A dysfunctional government that can't get its head out of its lower regions.


And I might add, after you read it: that's my boy!

Comics, Evolution, the Brain, . . .

On the Origins of Comics: New York Double-take

Evolution lets us see comics, like almost anything human or even alive, in a panoramic context but also in extreme close-up, as close as a comics artist trying to grab readers’ attention in this frame or with that angle. And it can zoom smoothly between these two poles. Evolution offers a unified and naturalistic causal system from the general to the very particular. Far from reducing all to biology and then to chemistry and physics, it easily and eagerly plugs in more local factors—in a case like comics, historical, technological, social, artistic and individual factors, for instance—the closer we get to particulars. Evolution accepts multilevel explanations, from cells to societies, and allows full room for nature and culture, society and individuals. . . .

solutions are not final. They have costs, as well as benefits, and they themselves transform the problem landscape. The series of nutritional, hygiene, and medical solutions, for instance, that allowed us to lower human death rates over the last century has posed us unprecedented problems of overpopulation, resource depletion, and climate change. Benefits impose costs, and as in the solutions of natural selection, cultural traditions or individual inventions, benefits will always face trade-offs against costs.

Humans have evolved no special adaptation for reading comics. Comics on the other hand have been gradually designed, culturally, to appeal to evolved—gradually and naturally designed—cognitive preferences, and designed so well that thdy appeal across cultures, to Japanese and French, to Fijians and Americans. Comics appeal especially to our dominant sense, vision, including trichromatic color vision (a primate solution to the problem of object discrimination in the low light of an arboreal existence), to our capacity for language (a solution to problems of social communication), and our adaptive inclination for storytelling. Storytelling maximizes social cognition in a flexibly ultra-social species through a kind of play-training: compulsive, pleasurable, high-intensity, often-repeated, like all play, and therefore cumulatively highly effective as tuition in social understanding (Boyd, Origin). Since comics, like other arts, have been intricately designed by gifted designers to appeal to human minds, the comparative success of comics, against other narrative forms, other arts or entertainments, and other preferences for our disposable time, should offer rich data to psychology: evidence for what we find appealing and easy, for the proportionate strengths of human preferences.
Very cool article. You can learn a lot about learning and life and human beings by analyzing almost anything creatively.

What Really Goes on at College: the humanities are overrated

Here is a part of an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education that came out today:

“The results of an important new cross-disciplinary survey of humanities departments make it clear that the humanities remain popular with students and central to the core mission of many institutions . The bad news: The survey found less-than-rosy job prospects for the rising generation of scholars. The good news: the great majority of the humanities departments surveyed—87 percent—said that their discipline was included in the core requirements at their college or university.”

I would find this article hilarious if it weren’t so sad. But it is a very good example of what is wrong with our university system. There are no jobs for English and History majors and no faculty openings for PhDs in those fields, but nevertheless the humanities survive at universities. How do they survive? By making the humanities offer required courses that every student must take.

There is nothing wrong with the humanities in principle. We imagine that people might learn more about life, to be better people, to understand issues that have plagued mankind, and be able to think well what it means to be human. So the humanities must be good stuff right? Here are some courses picked at random from the Yale catalogue:

ENGL 265b, The Victorian Novel
ENGL 158b, Readings in Middle English: Language and Symbolic Power
ENGL 305b, Austen & Brontë in the World
ENGL 336b, The Opera Libretto
HIST 166Ja, Asian American Women and Gender, 1830 to the Present.
HIST 168Ja, Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.
HIST 201Ja, The Spartan Hegemony, 404-362 B.C.
HIST 202Ja, Numismatics.

I am sure that these are fine courses taught by serious scholars. But that is exactly my point. When people glorify the study of the humanities they fail to mention that these are scholarly subjects of very little use to the average college student. Universities require that students take them because universities don’t want to fire the professors they already have and they need to teach something. But, with a few exceptions, they are not teaching students to think better about life, they are teaching students about a narrow part of the scholarly domain in which they do research.

Here again we have the clash between the research university and what students expect to learn when they go to college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education represents professors and they think its great news that students are being required to take the courses that professors want to teach. I think this is awful news. Students need to learn to live in the real world. There are very few scholarly jobs so there is no practical reason to teach such courses. If these course teach human skills, as we all assume, that would be great, but they don’t.

Scholars need to stop running universities.

As I have said many times I don’t think Yale has to change. We need to produce some scholars after all. But there are 3000 colleges in the United States all copying Yale’s model.