Archive for February, 2011


RIP Frank Buckles

The last surviving American veteran of the First World War died today. According to Wikipedia, there are only 2 veterans from the war left — both British — as well as a Polish soldier who fought against the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1919.

I sincerely hope someone has been able to interview these men before they pass on. As time passes, even the number of Second World War is beginning to dwindle. The more of their memories and experiences we can document, the better.


“Is Our Children Learning?” Part, the Second.

The situation, alas, is dire:

What good does it do to increase the number of students in college if the ones who are already there are not learning much? Would it not make more sense to improve the quality of education before we increase the quantity of students?


Students are adrift almost everywhere, floating in the wreckage of a perfect storm that has transformed higher education almost beyond recognition.

Politicians and the public are quick to blame college faculty members for the decline in learning, but professors—like all teachers—are working in a context that has been created largely by others: Few people outside of higher education understand how little control professors actually have over what students can learn.

The author goes on to list lack of student preparation, grade inflation, and plummeting admissions standards among a number of  other reasons that a Bachelor’s degree is becoming an increasingly worthless piece of paper that otherwise disinterested undergraduates feel entitled to after slouching their way through four (or five, or six) years of college. I have to say, unfortunately, that I largely agree with his assessment. College is swiftly turning into “high school without parents, but with more partying and more debt.”

In my experience, even excellent students are sometimes cowed by the fact that they’re outnumbered 30-1 in the classroom by peers who, simply by showing up and spending their time texting, doodling, or playing around on Facebook, are creating a massive wall of inertia that resists any attempt to create an environment were learning can happen. If the instructor or professor tries to do anything more with the class than simply providing a PowerPoint slide with a list of bullet points that give the answers to next week’s quiz, many students will simply not participate Assigned reading is simply ignored, and usually resented. “Increasingly,” writes Benton,

…undergraduates are not prepared adequately in any academic area but often arrive with strong convictions about their abilities. So college professors routinely encounter students who have never written anything more than short answers on exams, who do not read much at all, who lack foundational skills in math and science, yet are completely convinced of their abilities and resist any criticism of their work, to the point of tears and tantrums: “But I earned nothing but A’s in high school,” and “Your demands are unreasonable.” Such a combination makes some students nearly unteachable.

“Studying,” or so one undergraduate told a colleague of mine, “is only part of college.” For many, it seems to be the least important part. Moreover,

[i]t has become difficult to give students honest feedback. The slightest criticisms have to be cushioned by a warm blanket of praise and encouragement to avoid provoking oppositional defiance or complete breakdowns. As a result, student progress is slowed, sharply. Rubric-driven approaches give the appearance of objectivity but make grading seem like a matter of checklists, which, if completed, must ensure an A. Increasingly, time-pressured college teachers ask themselves, “What grade will ensure no complaint from the student, or worse, a quasi-legal battle over whether the instructions for an assignment were clear enough?” So, the number of A-range grades keeps going up, and the motivation for students to excel keeps going down.

This also matches up with my experiences fairly well. The expectation is that an “A” grade is the baseline, and only by making serious errors should a score decline from there. Instructors routinely receive student evaluations complaining that their grades were too low because they felt that they were graded on the quality of their writing, rather than the brilliance of their ideas, as if the two can be meaningfully separated. “This was not an English class. It was unfair to have been graded on my writing.”

Unfortunately, reforming American higher education faces a feedback loop that will be extremely difficult to change. Parents, believing that their children won’t be able to get ahead in life without going to college, frequently push their kids to go to college no matter what. In the end, the glut of degree holders fosters a mentality among employers that potential employees who don’t hold a degree are inferior to their credentialed peers. A Bachelor’s degree has thus become a minimum requirement even for positions where the skills ostensibly learned during the course of a 4 year degree program are of little or no use. This expectation, in turn, reinforces parents’ belief in the necessity of going to college.

Meanwhile, universities are in the middle, happily raking in millions of dollars a year from undergraduates, whose useless educations are financed by easy credit. A simple comparison between the staggering growth in administrative budgets and the relatively modest growth in instructional budgets illustrates the ultimate outcome of this: the student body has become little more than a cash cow for the University’s administrative class. In a sort of Faustian bargain, our educational system offers millions of undergraduates the opportunity to enjoy a half decade of irresponsibility after high school. The price of this five years of freedom (punctuated, of course, by unwelcome term papers and resented final exams) is a mountain of debt.

The “educational” aspect this arrangement is looking increasingly like little more than a cheap facade papered over the messy truth: that American higher education is bilking millions out of students each year, and providing almost nothing in return.


I Am the Koch Brothers!

A little light comedy for a quiet Friday afternoon:

Keith Schneider and Kerry Sipe (letters, 2/3) invite us to think better of the Tea Party since it’s really about Ron Paul’s ideas, not Glen Beck’s bigotry. OK, but that doesn’t help much. Paul is a libertarian ideologue, and his views accordingly suffer from the foolishness inherent in libertarianism. Please consult Wikipedia on the periodic financial panics of the 19th century, and then explain to us how unregulated markets serve our common interests effectively (hint: they don’t).

Libertarianism is a nonsensical theory of governance. It endorses abandonment of social responsibility by appealing to a juvenile notion of absolute freedom. All due respect to Ron Paul, but his political ideas are stupid and immoral. He may be more polite than Glenn Beck, but he’s no less fatuous.

Speaking of fools, the original Tea Party was not an act of popular tax resistance. It was gang vandalism organized by Boston businessmen wanting to keep the price of tea high, aggressively protecting their own profits. In that sense, our contemporary Tea Party is like the first one: It’s acting on behalf of our corporate masters, advocating policies that harm the working class and society in general. No Nazis here; just misinformed and manipulated morons.

Ken Kirby, Junction City

I was going to try to come up with some witty riposte to the above, but frankly, it’s already kind of its own punchline, don’t you think?


Musing on Geography

Glancing through the statistics for Guns, Germs, and Blogs, I noticed something strange. We got a visitor from St. Petersburg, Russia (здравствуйте!) recently, and this locational information was included in the logs:

Continent : Asia
Country : Russian Federation
State/Region : Saint Petersburg City
City : Saint Petersburg
Lat/Long : 59.8944, 30.2642

What struck me was the entry on the “continent” line: Asia.

Continue reading ‘Musing on Geography’



Megan McArdle has a great post up about bias in academia, which is a problem that most academics would like to pretend doesn’t exist. The whole article is worth reading, but here’s the money quote:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.

Think about that the next time someone tells you there aren’t any conservatives in academia because they’re “more interested in making money” or “would rather join the military” or, as some studies would have it, are simply too stupid and closed-minded to make the cut.


Is our children learning?


“I think it was insulting and I’m really pissed that’s being passed out on my campus because there are racist and sexist remarks in it,” said Lyons, a junior in psychology. “I have my right not to be offended as well as their right to free speech”

That was quote in The Telescope, the student newspaper of Palomar Community College in San Marcos, California, referring to The Koala, a lewd student publication.


Whatever it is, the Navy needs money for it

Via Wired, this is an actual solicitation from the United States Navy for stimulus funds. For what? I don’t know.  How ’bout a flying boat that transforms into a robot? Whatever. Just dump the money in front of the Pentagon, and we’ll take care of the rest. Capiche?

Or, as Wired so aptly put it: “We’re sure that somewhere, at some Washington bar, an earnest crusader against Pentagon waste sees this pop up on his BlackBerry and tells his bartender to make it a double.”