Archive for the 'Education' Category

“They opened a book to see what was inside”

November 2, 2012

Is it possible that raising one’s children to be avid readers is becoming an mark of antiquarianism? Such is the thesis of this recent op-ed, “Literature is the New Latin”. Michael Reist writes:

No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.


Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?

This puts me in mind of a poem by Chesterton, which reads (in part):

Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

Now that was satire, once upon a time, but perhaps no longer? Are such ideas really as far to the fringe as they ought to be? It is not the first time I have heard the claim that the multi-media options available today render reading far less attractive, or that we are moving from a literate to a visual culture in which reading will be far less prevalent. (As I write I am sitting in front of a new version of MS Word in which the former text-based menus have been replaced by panels of little visual icons, few of which have any meaning to me.) Perhaps we are all due for another look at McLuhan.

Mr Reist’s students apparently take it for granted that we go to school for job training, so anything that won’t help on the job might as well be jettisoned. This itself points to a major failing of our education system, for we should think of education as a training of the mind, an enrichment of the soul, and a preparation for a lifelong engagement with our long cultural and intellectual tradition.

I take two lessons away. First, it is important to put limits on the use of electronic media in our home if we, as parents, want to encourage reading in our family. Second, to the extent that in our classrooms “literature is being replaced by “literacy activities” that are interactive and online to “engage today’s student””, we should think twice about sending our children to school.

Note: I have edited the original version of this post, after having been encouraged to re-read the newspaper article more charitably.  I also would like to note that Mr. Reist has published several books on education, and I am told that they are good and instructive reads.

Through the academic looking-glass…

August 16, 2012

The world does not lack for books describing the leftward tilt of higher education. If one has spent time on a university campus, and if one has conservative tendencies at all, that the place is listing to port will be obvious. For those who mistrust intuition the statistics are unequivocal. The effects of this not only an campus culture but on the quality of a university education have been much discussed (and, by conservatives, lamented).

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to stumble upon an essay (“How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps”) in which responsibility for the decline of higher education is placed squarely on the shoulders of conservatives!

It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

It’s a topsy-turvy world!

Granted, the essay doesn’t say much about what goes on in the classroom. Its concerns are mostly about wages for professors and lecturers, tuition costs, and the power of administrators. Overlooking the fact that the author flirts throughout with lunacy (“Unlike those communist countries, which sometimes executed their intellectuals, here we are being killed off by lack of healthcare, by stress-related illness like heart-attacks or strokes.”) I can agree that these structural and economic problems are genuine. I know people wending their ways up the academic ladders who are paid a pittance and have next to no job security (just as I know young academics of conservative bent who keep their mouths shut to avoid having their careers torpedoed). So he has a point. But to characterize the general state of higher education as one in which conservatives are triumphant is passing strange.

The portrait of higher education painted here is an odd one: universities are controlled by conservatives who, in their wisdom, fill the ranks of the professoriate with left-liberals, expose as many students as possible to left-liberal ideas, and generally preside over the erosion of all they hold dear. Maybe conservatives are stupid after all.

(Hat-tip: Modern Medieval)

Academic Earth

September 15, 2011

Last week, in response to a post about the Great Courses company, Janet pointed out Academic Earth, a site that is new to me. It streams full academic courses from some of the best universities in the United States, all completely free of charge.

There is some very nice material there. Some of their subject areas are thinly populated — only one course on Art & Architecture, for instance, and very little on Religion (sorry, “Religious Studies”) — but there is plenty of selection in subjects like Economics or Computer Science. The courses are not all at an introductory level: a full semester of modern physics with Leonard Susskind would be no laughing matter, I assure you (but how tempting!). If one had the time and energy to follow the lectures, do the readings, and complete the assignments (some of which are provided), one could potentially learn a great deal. From that point of view, it is a pretty amazing resource, and bound to get better.

A problem that I have with video lectures is that I simply don’t have time to sit down and watch them; I prefer audio, to which I can listen in the car, sitting in traffic. Granted, I don’t get as much out of the lectures when I only give them half my attention, but I figure it’s better than nothing. On the other hand, if I were a university student again, with a fair bit of leisure time for study, I can imagine that I would be all over Academic Earth.

Another potential resource of this type is Apple’s awkwardly-named iTunes U. I haven’t spent any time with it, but my impression is that it is based on much the same idea: academic lectures, presentations, etc. for download. Whether it is free or not, I do not know.

I expect that by the time my children are ready for university, we’re going to be drowning in this stuff.