Posts Tagged ‘education


A Nation of Rosalind Franklins, Rather Than Ben

Another quick note on our educated populace. I recently watched someone try to learn physics on his own. He was assiduous about the learning, and–being availed any number of written, online, and hands-on resources–one would think he quickly became an expert. And yet, after 4 years of trying, he still has a serious misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the science. Is it because he’s unteachable? No. Is it because physics is too difficult to comprehend, even at its basest level? No. Why, then, could he fail to learn it after trying so hard?

What I have noticed in my (admittedly paltry)Look, Ma, lots of hands! year-ish of teaching here in the States is that more and more people have a serious difficulty synthesizing information. While the problem my students have in communicating a hypothesis effectively is understandable (as is their lack of being able to formulate good game plans in general), what I find interesting is their seeming lack of ability to analyze their own results. For example, say a student indirectly measures the height of a table by seeing how long a pencil takes to fall off of it. If one measurement says the table is 4 feet tall, and another says it’s 8, they have a very difficult time understanding what that data means. In truth, they tend to just not think about it. They report it, then move on.

This is a problem I’ve seen reflected in myriad instances in the country. Immediate utility, rather than broad applicability, is what has increasingly become of the focus of a populace ever more terrified and bewildered by the idea of thinking critically about subjects. It seems that the emphasis in everyday problem-solving has become immediate gratification. Maybe it’s the result of the Sesame Street generation growing up. Maybe the further infantilization of the Facebook crowd is adding to it. I tend to think, however, that the problem is one that has historically plagued anyone who is obsessed with linear thought.

Linear thought processes are great. They can help keep ideas organized, can keep ideas focused, and can keep blogs on-track. They are not, however, so great at seeing the forest for the forest. Take the titular case of Rosalind Franklin, for example. While her photograph of DNA’s structure may have been the first, her inability to see it for what it was led to her getting scooped by James Watson on her own data.

Our country has always purported to encourage the Ben Franklins amongst us to greatness. Those who can understand that the electricity coming out of the bulb might be the same as the luminescence visible during a thunderstorm are supposed to always find a home here. More and more, though, this kind of thinking is being seen as suspect and, worse yet, European.At least it's still sunny in December, suckers!

Nowhere is the lack of understanding the causation of the big picture from the little picture more evident (and evidently disastrous) than in California.

California boasts a “direct democracy.” In other words, voters decide on policy. It sounds great, but it’s actually a horrible idea given the lack of ability of the statewide electorate to understand and extrapolate from data. Want better parks? Sure. Better schools? Absolutely. More cops and firemen on the streets? You bet! Want to pay more taxes? No way! And that, in a nutshell, is how a state with a huge economy can go bankrupt.

The basic understanding of how the little picture relates to the big picture is part of what makes a science like physics fun to teach. Look at the pencil fall off the table. That’s also what holds our universe together (and on, and on). It’s also what makes nations work. Looking at the data of our society right now, we can derive the following: we are not recovering from an almost-depression as quickly as we should; we are quickly becoming a nation of the chronically un-and-under-employed; we are coexisting with other first-world markets that are equally hurting; we are trying to mitigate terrorist threats from multiple countries of origin; and we are paying historically little in taxes. After reading this list of problems the next president will need to address, one can easily derive that the next president must be:
1. Highly proactive and persuasive to a bipartisan group
2. A master diplomat
3. Tough-minded and steady
Nate Silver’s work has shown as much. Specifically, it said that, if the economy continues to recover slowly, the GOP candidate is a shoe-in against Obama. Just so long as he’s neither an extremist nor has taken crazily extreme positions.

Here are the GOP candidates:

Nuff said.


Commodification to Any Degree

So it’s been a loooong time since I added something. The quick synopses of events leading to now: moved back to the States (more on that later), am teaching in a private school, and had another kid. Even though I’m busier than I’ve ever been, I’m making time now to update. Why? This:

James Franco got a D in his acting class, then promptly (allegedly) bitched about it until NYU canned the offending professor.

As I mentioned, I’m currently teaching at a private institution, so this hits very close to home. After all, I’m currently teaching a kid who, upon having plagiarized every single assignment he’s handed in for the semester, tried to get me canned for only having inflated his grade to a B+. To my school’s credit, they did read me the riot act, but refused to fire me. Still, these two instances point to a problem in the educational system in general. Namely, if private schools are our kids best option, what does that say about the next generation?

We all know public schools need work. We all know that they’re mismanaged, inefficient, and sometimes staffed by people less-than-qualified to be there. Fine. Private schools, then, seem like a better option for a lot of families worried about their children’s future. Yes, they’re usually staffed by impressive people (or, at least, people with more alphabet soup after their names). Yes, they offer highly specialized classes. Yes, their teacher-to-student ratio is largely one more conducive to higher standards of learning.


Like, I'm totally an expert in Keyensian theory!Private schools also experience something that public schools don’t: accountability to their
stockholders. And, in this shitty economy, that can be a driving force in even the best-intentioned educational institution. Amazingly enough, this increased accountability on the part of the administration of any private school is then leading to a marked decrease in accountability for the students there. The message eventually becomes clear: complain loudly and violently enough, and any student can receive any degree, so long as their tuition check clears.

This is not to say that privatization always leads to inferior products (FedEx always being a prime example), but I am saying that it tends to breed a lack of accountability endemic to private institutions. Yes, the heads of any company will always be held accountable. As will the employees of the private company. The ones who won’t are the stockholders.

In a publicly-held institution, the ideal situation is that everyone is accountable to each other. If the local water company fails, they will be held accountable by the tax-paying population. And, that tax-paying population will also be accountable for their own decision (i.e. they will live with disease-infested water, or without enough). That is precisely why certain companies are made public: their success serves the public interest in such an inextricable way that the public will have no choice but to support the genuine success of said institution, regardless of price.

This is also still the best argument for public schooling. A nation can only be as strong as its best and brightest, after all. Likewise, a nation can only benefit from seeing an increase in the numbers (and abilities) of its population. It isn’t as though we haven’t experienced this first-hand lately. We’re all currently enmeshed in the consequences of living under the leadership of someone who bought his education, someone who was never held accountable, someone who still has no real grasp of what the repercussions are of his actions. And yet the populace, still reeling from the effects of the governance of said incurious boob, has seen fit to glorify such a motley crew of inglorious bastards as has ever been witnessed by an electorate. More worrisome yet is that said inglorious bastards aren’t polling at 5%. They are being supported by a population too poorly educated to remember what happened the last time they chose someone poorly educated or trained.

So it goes. And so it will continue to go so long as we make public education a talking point before election, yet the visible results of an education anathema to an electorate too insecure about their own bad education to be outraged by it. We also need to remember that what made this country great once were revolutionary ideas that were coupled with courage behind said convictions; it was not, as some might have you think, made great by mindless tough guys who came over here to flex only their southernmost muscle. And what makes this country a shameful joke on the world economy is that we have let the uneducated feel vindicated rather than angry, empowered by their lack of knowledge rather than entitled to it.


John McCain, I Am Here To Take You To School, Motherfucker

That may sound strong, but it was the first thing that came to mind when reading his Twittered list of wasteful spending.

I shouldn’t let it bother me, since I knew it was coming. I even told my husband, when I saw there would be a list, that I would bet all our money on scientific endeavors topping it. Still, seeing that, once again, scientific research and education (like that “infamous” planetarium we heard about ad nauseum during his debates with Obama) gets the shaft from old McNasty just kills me. And so, as is my profession, I will now explain to the old man why he’s active like a fool in opposing governmental funding of science. Here we go.

As an experimental scientist, I am going to illustrate to you how the experiment I work on has revitalized an economy abroad, thereby explaining how experimental science is stimulus for failing economies, m’kay?

I first started with my current experiment about 8 years ago. Remember what was going on in Argentina around that time? Probably not, but, boy howdy, we do. They went bankrupt. Kaput. No mas dinero. Luckily, though, they still came through with the money that had been promised for our project. Was it because they desperately want to know the origins of the highest energy particles in the universe? I doubt it (it is, after all, knowledge that it useless for anything other than sounding smart at parties, practically speaking). Nope, they did it because it was an economically stimulative thing to do. How, you ask?

Scientific field research usually requires a large, untouched area. I could explain why, but it would involve words like “light pollution” and the like, and I don’t want to confuse you. Suffice to say that, for our experiment, we had to go out to the pampas and into a tiny town with no industry in it whatsoever. I don’t mean it had a couple of small businesses; I mean there was nothing. Nada. Zip. An old, abandoned salt mine. The men there had two options: be a goat farmer, or join the gendarme. The women had two options also: marry a goat farmer, or marry a member of the gendarme. While there were schools there, it was impossible to get them to attend past the age of 13 or so, since they began to see there was no point. And then they’d start getting pregnant (the abstinence-only education really is effective, eh?), having children they couldn’t support, and the cycle continued. I knew a teacher there who had to drag her 15-year-olds to class while they were pregnant with their second child. Really, it was rough.

So in we came: 250+ scientists from around the world. And we needed stuff. Like places to stay, places to eat, and people to help us construct an enormous and costly experiment. Over the last 8 years, I have watched the hotel prices go from $8 a night to over $60. I’ve seen multitudes of new restaurants open every year. Curio stores, tour guides, bakeries, and other shops now line the streets. Everyone there has a job, mostly centered around bilking us our per diems (as I suggested to my beloved hotel proprietor). And we happily pay it, because we are academics. Which means we’re activist hippie types at heart.

We show our bleeding hearts, in part by patronizing a ton of local businesses, but also by taking the most talented of the kids in the schools there and sending him, all expenses paid, to a university in the United States. The first such recipient graduated in 3 years with honors, then went on for his doctorate.

That’s how it works, on a practical level. But why focus on increasing the scientific and intellectual curiosity of our youth, with “wasteful” projects like making planetariums up-to-date or promoting astronomy in Hawaii? While I know that Arizona has no interest and/or economic stake in supporting astronomy (sarcasm doesn’t translate to the written word very well; what I mean to say is that YOUR FUCKING STATE houses one of the biggest and most active astronomical communities in the world, one to which I’ll be bringing Irish funds to spend soon). One of the second biggest communities resides in Hawaii, a place that drew $10 million from an old millionaire’s fortune for the express purpose of bettering the astronomical research done there. So, the promotion of astronomy has, historically speaking, brought in a buck or two here and there.

Besides, lack of education and intellectual curiosity is what brought us this:

…and, subsequently, this:

Now, see? Scientific research is stimulative to jobs for people from all walks of life, and education is never a waste of time. Not even for old, bitter men.