Friday, July 25, 2008

Longing to Know Versus the Comfort of Ignorance

In 1615 “His Holiness and the Most Eminent Lords, Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition” declared that Galileo had “rendered (himself) vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy” and commanded him “to abjure, curse and detest the said error and heresies in our presence.”
Galileo’s “crimes” were:

1. “Making the proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.”

2. “Making the proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous of faith.”

Wielding the authority of their offices, the Pope and the Lords of the Inquisition decided, in essence, that Galileo had strayed from virtue into vice when he abandoned the scriptures and instead heeded his own observations and calculations. It was at this point that Galileo’s curiosity became “unlawful” as well as “disordered and immoderate.” Of course, it also led him to the truth.

This is no isolated instance. History is stuffed full with example after example of authorities declaring highly creative curiosity “disordered and immoderate” whenever it frightened them or threatened their interests. Consider just the history of medicine. Here are a few of the many vital medical interests that were originally regarded as disordered and immoderate:

• The structure and function of the human body.

• Inoculation.

• Vaccination.

• The germ theory of disease.

• Anesthesia.

In these and hundreds of other instances, Big Brother used the equivalent of Orwell's Thought Police and the Ministry of Truth to try to wipe out unwelcome curiosity.

What would remain should the enemies of curiosity succeed? Ultimately, we would be left with what George Orwell describes as "a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting - three hundred million people all with the same face."

There is an essential tension between a longing to know and the comfort of ignorance. The ignorant intuit that the glue that holds their world together is soluble when immersed in inquiry. So, given half a chance, they act to wipe out that threat by stifling the search and condemning the searcher.

To similar considerations see

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Christa McAuliffe's Death and Reagan's Reelection

Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and mother of two, was the "first citizen passenger" scheduled to go into space. Superficially, the presence of a teacher was to signify America's high regard for teaching and schooling.

Unknown to Christa McAuliffe, however, the more basic mission was aiding President Reagan's reelection. A teacher in Challenger was the cheapest way of making the incumbent President look like a supporter of teachers and schooling even though he had set out to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and was making drastic cuts in the Federal education budget.

When the decision was made to launch a Teacher-in-Space, the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign was already underway. Reagan-Bush was known to be vulnerable to Mondale-Ferraro on several issues. One of the most important was education. Mondale effectively highlighted Reagan's "second-rate leadership" that produced "an appalling record" of “educational neglect.” His campaign issued a "report card" on Reagan educational policy that gave the President "F's" in everything but dramatics and sports.

Shortly after Mondale launched this offensive a Gallup Poll revealed that a large majority of Americans thought Mondale more likely than President Reagan to improve public schooling. This pro Mondale trend concerned Reagan campaign officials. They felt the President needed to recapture at least some of the "education vote?" To do so they planned a counter offensive. It was launched on August 27, 1984.

While speaking at a District of Columbia junior high school, the President first announced several new members of his Advisory Council on Education. That was a warm-up. Then he proudly told the world who America's first passenger in space would be. "Today" the President said" I'm directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest — a teacher. One year later Christa McCauliffe was selected from over 11,000 applicants.

Late Night THoughts on the Death of Christa McCauliffe

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


John Dewey famously argued that children learn what they live. For instance, teachers can talk at youngsters about the virtues of democracy, but if they live in a despotic school, they will learn to tolerate despotism.

This line of reasoning seems compelling, but in the real world things work more subtly. The person who taught me most about the value of freedom and democracy, for example, was my despotic forth grade teacher. Feared by all, she extorted compliance by very credible threats and actual violence.

She finally went too far, even for those antediluvian times, when she held a youngster against a very hot steam radiator until he demonstrated sufficient servility. His burns got her transferred to another school. But not before she taught me how dangerous unrestrained power really is and how precious is control over one’s own life.
A similar thing sometimes happened in the good old days of Catholic schooling when some nuns occasionally bullied, slapped or otherwise humiliated children. Presumably, what these nuns had in mind by not sparing the rod was making better Catholics. But the actual consequences were often to turn some kids off, not just with regards to Catholic schooling, but Catholicism altogether.

The point is that what we learn in school is often contrary to what the instructor or administrator intends. Imagine, for instance, a ‘free and democratic’ classroom where chaos makes learning difficult, and where vast amounts of faculty and student time are spent mediating petty disputes. Some students might come away from such an experience longing for a strong leader who would end the chaos and quickly settle petty disputes. In short, poorly managed democratic classrooms could make some kids eager for despotism.

So when it’s said that children learn what they live, keep in mind that this learning might be other than what is intended.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Difficulties of Schooling for the Future

Most of us have seen articles in popular magazines that attempt to portray the future. How accurate are these prognostications? There is little room for optimism. Writers of the 1920's and 30's trying to look fifty years into the future, for instance, predicted bigger and faster airplanes, safer and more reliable cars, people commuting via autogyros or personal jet packs, and entire cities encased in plastic bubbles within which was a man-made environment of pristine perfection.

We now are beyond that “future.” To be sure, planes are even bigger and faster than predicted, but no one is whizzing to work in their own autogyro. Car are safer and more reliable than ever, but they are often gridlocked in traffic. Cities are not encased in plastic bubbles but in envelopes of noxious man-made effluvium that eats away at both person and property.

Yes, the futurists of the 20's and 30's only got some things right when they speculated about the material future. And there are other things these futururists tended to miss altogether. They rarely anticipated the changes in race relations that have since occurred. They did not imagine the change in attitude toward the handicapped, gays, sexual behavior, the pill or opportunities for women. As a matter of fact, the people depicted in the illustrations accompanying those old time futuristic articles were all white and able-bodied with the women smiling happily in kitchens of the future.

Why did the popular writers of the 20's and 30's commonly dream of sleeker cars and more efficient kitchens but not of a more humane and compassionate America? Why was it unexceptional for them to predict faster planes but exceptional for them to visualize anything like the Voting Rights Act? Because they took much of their culture for granted. In fact it was transparent to them. That’s just the way things were.

We too are like that. We also take aspects of our culture as a given, yet many of the things we never question, perhaps never notice, will change in the future. That’s the difficulty of schooling children for the future. We can’t really imagine what that future will be like. Perhaps educators should be satisfied with preparing students for the present. That's hard enough.

To examine these issues further, see Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals

Monday, July 14, 2008

How Educable Are Americans

It must be widely supposed that most people are educable, for Americans have long had a peculiar faith in the power of education. Indeed, it is frequently regarded as the answer for most human difficulties. That is why our schools are expected to resolve a daunting array of problems such as the cultural integration of immigrants, difficulties with national competitiveness, the elimination of racial injustice, the control of sexually transmitted diseases, and so forth. Indeed, the list of problems thought to be susceptible to educational solution seems almost inexhaustible.

Certainly a great deal of human misery could be prevented if people could be taught to think more deeply and effectively. But is the common failure to do so a consequence of a lack of education as many suppose? Perhaps, just perhaps, the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for education. After all, in order for education to be a cure, much less a cure-all, the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means; plus they also must willing. Suppose this is not the case? Perhaps a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense,?

Is such speculation too pessimistic? Perhaps it is; but consider the long-standing popularity of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Ponder also the durability of H.L. Mencken’s dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Perhaps these and many similar observations remain current because they are deeply rooted in reality.

To examine these issues further, see articles at

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Raising Adolescents: The Myth of Control

As a girl of my acquaintance emerged into adolescence, her parents relentlessly tried to control her behavior. Each time she did something they disapproved of they vainly tried to reestablish the control they had over her in childhood. The daughter responded by becoming ever more disobedient and devious. The escalation ended in an unwanted pregnancy, abortion, bitterness and estrangement. In short, the costs to all involved far exceeded the benefits.

There is a moral to this story — one every parent of an adolescent needs to know. Do not cling to the myth that you can still have the same level of control you had when your child was young. Such attempts are not only futile, but also counterproductive..

For good or ill, adolescents pretty much control their own lives particularly in today’s world Yes, those who respect their parent(s) often avoid doing things because they don’t want to embarrass or disappoint them. But this is something the adolescent, not the parent, chooses. Gentle parental influence remains, certainly; but being able to insure compliance is over forever.

To examine these issues further, see articles at

Friday, July 11, 2008

Schools as Concentration Camps

Some schools resemble prisons. But others are more like concentration camps. In the November 1988 Readers Digest, for instance, former Secretary of Education William Bennett praises a principal who took over a troubled inner-city Washington, D. C. school. The first day of school this "educational leader" assembled the student body and, in Bennett's words, "... with practiced eye chose 20 potential troublemakers to help enforce her tough new standard of discipline."

Can you imagine? The school is out of control and the principal's solution is to put the bullies in charge! How is that like a concentration camp? Hitler's SS used bully boy inmates, called Kapos, to maintain order there too. Frankly,even a former Secretary of Education should be able to see how extraordinarily cruel and stupid such a policy is.

Perhaps Bennett was too busy working on his The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories to think the right and wrong of this one through.

To examine these issues further, see School Bullies

-- GKC

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Schools: What Limits Their Technological Transformation?

A recent article in the New York Times cheerily reports that in the schools of the future:
  • "students will use free Internet applications to complete their classroom assignments on school-issued laptops that also substitute for text books;"
  • "parents will use instant messaging to chat with teachers about their child's progress;"
  • "educators will track students' academic growth with sophisticated software that allows them to better tailor lessons and assignments to each youngster's achievement level."
Certainly, all of this is possible and more besides. But the realists among us recognize a fundamental limitation — the kids. They have to buy into these possibilities before technology can ever transform the process of schooling.

There is no guarantee that this buy in will happen. And this is particularly true of the schools that most urgently require transformation, the schools of our inner cities.

Here is a brief cautionary tale that makes this point. Once upon a time there was a Philadelphia inner city school that was technologically impoverished. Through some miracle several ancient classrooms were equipped with new computers. The following week, during class change, two male adolescents went into the classroom and chased one another across the desktops, trampling the computers in the process. There was no money for repairs or replacements. Thus ended all of the bulleted possibilities above.

For more detailed realistic considerations of educational issues, visit

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What Do Online Courses Portend for Teachers and Teaching?

U.S. enrollment in online virtual classes is increasing with remarkable rapidity. Right now the level of enrollment is 22 times that of 2000 and shows every sign of continuing rapid growth. And this year, for the first time ever, on line enrollment reached the one million mark.

As this transformation progresses how will it impact teachers? It might mean job loss. And it at least means dramatic job change. Today only one percent of high school courses are taught online. But the Innosite Institute, a nonprofit thinktank, projects that 50% of all high school courses might be taught online by 2019. Perhaps that figure is inflated. So let's suppose that it will only half that That still means that in just eleven years one out of four high school course will be taught on line.

Why such rapid growth? Online instruction offers many advantages. Text books can be replaced by less expensive instructional packages with features and a level of student interest that individual teachers can never hope to match. Ability grouping, not to mention mass instruction, could become a thing of the past because online instruction permits every individual student to work at their own level in the same classroom. 

Tracking student progress becomes remarkably more detailed and individualized as well as much more efficient. Plus online instruction often works for kids who are turned off by traditional schooling. But effective implementation of this instruction implies vast change for teachers. Indeed, the role of the classroom teacher may well be transformed.

Online instruction may also cause unemployment for an appreciable number of teachers. In the first place, kids can learn on their own with minimal supervision. That appeals to school boards if it means lower instructional costs. Plus much of the growth in this type of instructionoccurs in newly minted virtual charter schools. And Morgan Stanley's experts say that these type "school"s will capture an increasing share of the U.S. education market as states encourage, rather than just permit, this type of instruction.

No one can predict the future with complete accuracy. But one thing seems certain. Online education promises major changes for schools, teaching and teachers.

For more on educational matters, including straightforward considerations of often avoided topics, visit

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Should We Decrease the Supply of High School Diplomas?

It is obligatory for politicians to call for an increase in the high school graduation rate. But if this actually happens who will benefit and who will lose?

Practically speaking, as the percentage of youngsters getting high school diplomas increases, the value of that credential decreases. In the job market its value depends on its scarcity. If everyone receives a diploma, for instance, the credential offers no competitive advantage.

Let’s suppose the politicos get their wish. What would happen? Youngsters who do not, perhaps cannot, go to college would be hardest hit. They depend on their high school diploma to open doors. So an increase in the graduation rate will create problems for every youngster counting on their high school diploma for competitive advantage.

Admittedly, even if they become more plentiful diplomas still retain a certain defensive utility. In other words, if nearly everyone has one, the absence of a diploma is a major handicap .

It might make more sense to toughen graduation requirements and actually reduce the number of diplomas issued. This would increase the diploma’s value and offer a boost to those who must depend on them.


For a more detailed examination of this and related issues See Dissecting School Benefits"