Thursday, January 26, 2017

End state monopolies in education!

Donald Trump's Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is getting flak from both sides - from the left because she is not fully committed to unionized public education, from the right because she appears at least neutral on the "Common Core" national standards mandated by the Obama administration. Education is important - it is how we pass on our civilization. Accordingly, we should fight monopolies, whether structural from the public sector or intellectual from the "treasonous clerks" of academia. It is to be hoped that Ms. DeVos both understands this and does something substantial about it.

Education is in many ways our most vital function: it is how we pass on our history, our values and our civilization. That being so, why would you attempt to turn it into a monopoly? It must surely be obvious even to the left, after centuries of bureaucrat failure, that there is no central body of "experts" capable of defining what history, values and civilization we should be passing on.

That is not to say there are no other means by which we pass things on to the young. Parents, obviously, are in many but not all cases a more important source of information, values and culture than the school system. In traditional societies, churches also passed on many of the society's values, together with their views on how citizens should lead a good life. Books, too, have always been a good source of primarily information and to a lesser extent values, for those young people who can be brought to read them. More recently, Hollywood, television and the internet impart their own set of values and culture, frequently violently at odds with what schools, parents, churches and even books are attempting to teach.

Given the extraordinary disparate richness of our history, our values and our culture, it is immediately clear that no single curriculum can possibly pass it all on, or be regarded as satisfactory by any but a small minority of parents. A little of the necessary diversity can be gained by some parents "home schooling" their children, but this is very difficult. Even with two degrees I am not confident in my ability to home-school a child beyond elementary school level in most subjects, and in any case I have a full-time occupation which would prevent my giving appropriate time both to the actual teaching and to the preparation, as I stumbled my way through Middle School French or biology. Clearly only a small minority of parents are even as well equipped to do this as I am, however much they may want to.

It is therefore necessary for educational provision and curricula to be as decentralized as possible, in order that, in any given area, a wide variety of teaching systems are available, from the most traditional to the most eclectic, with even the poorest family having access to a range of possibilities for educating its children. No "common core" national curriculum is either necessary or desirable. Any such curriculum will inevitably reflect the fads of a centralized educational bureaucracy, and will thus be hopelessly unfitted for the diversity of education's two sets of consumers: the hugely diverse parent body and the equally diverse and very rapidly changing working world.

The solution lies in both localization and diversification. Localize the provision of education, so that local lifestyles, moral beliefs and potential job opportunities are better reflected in what local children are taught. Second, diversify the providers of education, so that the teachers' unions can no longer impose a uniform leftist bias upon the curriculum and its implementation. The obvious way to achieve this is a system of local control and vouchers, ensuring that poor students have as much educational choice as rich ones.

Skeptics will say that this will result in students being taught creationism in some areas of the Deep South, but so what? Students are taught global warming in almost all schools today, and that belief is no more proven and no less faith-based. There is no reason whatever why the irrational beliefs of the left should be the only ones inculcated through the school system. Students taught creationism will have difficulty achieving successful careers in some areas of biology, but there plenty of other fields of endeavor in which a belief in creationism would be no handicap. And after all, students fully indoctrinated in the global warming hysteria would probably not find success as geophysicists.

Parents will no doubt have some nutty ideas about what they want their children taught (rich, progressive parents generally the nuttiest of all), but the children themselves as they grow older and the demands of the job market will correct the worst foolishness. However, just as local variation will produce some schools with low standards and eccentric curricula, so also it will produce some schools with superior, more rigorous curricula, and in particular with a brisker, less dilatory pace through the early years in e.g. mathematics. With some children taught calculus at 11, as I was, the United States will no longer come 37th in every international comparison of high school achievement.

It would also be both possible and very likely popular to set up "insulated schools" in which by agreement with the parents the most loathsome aspects of popular culture were blocked from the students' school and home environments and appropriate high culture inculcated instead. Opera-lovers have rights, too!

A program of localization and vouchers would very likely go far to solving the problem of school education, but it would not address the almost equal malaise affecting colleges. Here, in the United States at least, the problem is not excessive centralized control. The Federal government provides funding for student loan schemes, themselves a monstrous drain on taxpayers who are very often poorer and less educated than the college students being financed, but it does not prescribe a "common core" of college curricula.

Instead, the colleges themselves have devalued college education, especially at the top schools, to the extent that increasing numbers of the best students are deciding to skip the college experience. The blight of political correctness in elite college faculties, which has got worse as the Baby Boomers have increased in seniority, become even more set in their views and recruited like-minded lunatics to the faculty, makes college a pretty unattractive prospect for any young person with intelligence and an open mind. Four years of political correctness and indoctrination are not worth $300,000 of anyone's money - almost the entire value gained is the brand name on the diploma, and that is inevitably a wasting asset as educational quality declines.

Apart from the mind-numbing political slant, there are three disadvantages to four-year colleges in the current system. First, their cost has been allowed to escalate beyond all reason, so that any reasonable risk-reward analysis by an 18-year-old without wealthy parents suggests avoiding them.

Second, they cram all the expensive education into the beginning of a career. This does not matter too much with a liberal arts degree (though the value of a "Feminist Studies" major by 2060 must be seriously questioned) but any science or mathematics degree, or even a degree in economics or business, is almost worthless 20 years out, at which point the student is faced with the difficulty of self-reeducation or a severe career downgrading in the early 40s.

Finally, colleges make students take all kinds of irrelevant courses, to satisfy the prejudices of their professors or transient academic fashions. Students are not able to pursue a course of study that truly reflects their interests, and are thus paying a great deal of money for education they do not want. However, of the three problems, this is the easiest to solve. Innumerable services are now making individual courses available to interested students, and awarding "nanodegrees" to those passing them.

One objection to this is that it only works for highly self-motivated students who have already acquired the ability to learn independently. However, a Coursera offering "Learning how to Learn" addresses this problem, and there is no doubt that all except the least motivated and those completely failed by their school education will be able to pick up knowledge on an a la carte basis in the future, with the aid of a few foundational courses on learning itself.

The availability of individual course modules of high quality through the Internet removes most of the difficulties to a student who does not wish to spend four years in college. It also enables students who wish to retrain in middle life to do so, thus greatly increasing career flexibility. Employers will need to adapt also, accepting an appropriate portfolio of nanodegrees as qualification for a particular post, and rejecting the current snobbish credentialism that places barriers in front of able students.

As the above discussion suggests, the Federal government's main potential contribution to education is to get out of the way. It should provide funding where necessary to impoverished districts, allowing them to set up generous voucher schemes whereby their residents can take advantage of a broad range of educational opportunities, but it should no longer attempt to set standards or interfere in schools' running. At the college level, it must cease subsidizing the outmoded model of the four-year college. In particular, it must cease encouraging the acquisition of college debt, which leaves students penurious and financially inflexible for much of their working lives.

Ms. DeVos, if she is to achieve what is needed, has a great deal of work ahead of her. But most of it will consist of undoing past mistakes.


Diversity for the Sake of Democracy

“Stand up if you identify as Caucasian.”

The minister’s voice was solemn. I paused so that I wouldn’t be the first one standing, and then slowly rose to my feet. “Look at your community,” he said. I glanced around the auditorium obediently. The other students looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and as white. ¨Thank you,” the minister said finally. After we sat down, he went on to repeat the exercise for over an hour with different adjectives in place of “Caucasian”: black, wealthy, first-generation, socially conservative. Each time he introduced a new label, he paused so that a new group of students could stand and take note of one another. By the time he was finished, every member of Princeton University’s freshman class had been branded with a demographic.

This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity.  The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.

Why were the university administrators, who speak so highly of diversity, choosing to strip us of our individuality?  No doubt their intentions were good. In an effort to appear enlightened and progressive, they wanted to show their appreciation for the distinctions between various cultures. Unfortunately, this is hard to do without forcing members of each culture to assimilate to the most extreme stereotypes of their group. And so the administration chose to celebrate our cultural diversity as a student body, at the cost of our individual diversity as students.

Like many other schools, Princeton has become disturbingly homogeneous because of this phenomenon. Not only that, but the pressure to respect other groups on and off campus is pushing my generation into left-wing uniformity. We are encouraged to mind our own business by mimicking politically correct values without ever thinking them through on our own.  No one questioned the students and faculty members who disrespectfully walked out of Charles Murray’s lecture hall after he was invited to speak on campus this winter.

My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.

We’ve forgotten how to look past the extremist values of the groups we identify with, and instead celebrate our nuanced differences as individuals. Walt Whitman wrote: “I am less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder of life.”

The point of diversity is not that each culture is different, but that each person must live his own life and develop his own worldview.  As Whitman eloquently noted, “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself.” But instead of letting us travel it by ourselves, Princeton limits us by constantly pressuring us to behave and think like others in our demographic.

This concerns not only my university and others like it, but the future of our nation as a democracy.  The less we respect our individuality, the more likely we are to blindly follow partisan values. This prompts an extremist us-vs-them mentality that builds barriers between Republicans and Democrats, African-Americans and Caucasians, and the wealthy and the poor. Because we’re afraid of considering any opinion that is foreign to our demographic, we can’t hear any voices except those that agree with us.  This is especially true in light of the recent election. Trump’s supporters ask each other who could possibly trust Clinton, and Clinton’s supporters ask each other who would dare validate Trump; but neither group finds answers because of the wall between them.

Embracing our singularity would allow us to see past these walls and genuinely consider each other’s ideas. For the sake of democracy, we should take the spotlight off our various backgrounds and focus instead on our personal and idiosyncratic worldviews. Though our minds crave different knowledge, our bodies explore different feelings and our hearts beat to different rhythms, we all share the gift and burden of citizenship. There is a beautiful history of personal sacrifice in the relationship between diversity and democracy.

Diversity is the celebration of individuality and nonconformity, and democracy is most precious when it allows three hundred million individuals to reach a compromise out of love for their country.  As Whitman wrote in his Democratic Vistas, “there is nothing grander… than a well-contested American national election.”

Let’s not lose sight of that grandeur.


Australia Day Address orator Michelle Simmons horrified at 'feminised' physics curriculum

The inherent problems of "affirmative action" rear their heads yet again.  If women really are equal, why do they need special accomodations?  They are not lacking opportunity.  They are a majority on most university campuses

Professor Michelle Simmons, a professor of quantum physics at the University of NSW, has expressed her horror at the "feminised" nature of the HSC physics curriculum.

Delivering the 2017 Australia Day address on Tuesday, Professor Simmons said it was a "disaster" to try to make physics more appealing to girls by substituting rigorous mathematical problem-solving with qualitative responses.

During her Australia Day Address, Professor Michelle Simmons, a world expert in quantum physics and computing challenged Australians "to be known as people who do the hard things".

"There is a big cost in this type of thinking," she said to an audience that included Premier Gladys Berejiklian. "When we reduce the quality of education that anyone receives we reduce the expectations we have of them," she said.

A spokesman for the NSW Education Standards Authority (formerly BOSTES) said the new HSC science curriculum will commence in 2018.  He said: "The new courses address the exact concerns expressed by Professor Simmons. "The physics and chemistry courses will have a greater focus on mathematical applications."

He also said there will be a reduction in the sociology-based content and an emphasis on practical investigations.

Professor Simmons' Australia Day speech focused on the need for Australians to attempt the difficult things in life. "It is better to do the things that have the greatest reward; things that are hard, not easy," she said.

"If we want people to be the best they can be we must set the bar high and tell them we expect them to jump over it," she said. "My strong belief is that we need to be teaching all students – girls and boys – to have high expectations of themselves."

Professor Simmons has certainly set the bar high for herself. She wants to realise her dream to build a working quantum computer, here, in Australia.

For her Cambridge was "too hierarchical and esoteric". The American culture, she said, restricts early-career researchers. When she arrived, people asked her "Why on Earth did you come?"

But for Professor Simmons the choice was easy. "Australia offers a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas and an amazing willingness to pursue ambitious goals," she said.

Professor Simmons is so proud of the one-way ticket to Australia she bought 18 years ago that she had it framed and sent to her brother for his 50th birthday.

From what she said was a "pretty rough" part of south-east London, she moved to Australia in 1999 after studying at Cambridge. Her big brother Gary went to the United States.

In her Australia Day Address on Tuesday, she said she often jokes with him that she got the better deal. "Only I'm not joking," she told an audience, including NSW Governor David Hurley and Premier Berejiklian. "It's the truth. I genuinely believe it is better here."

Ms Berejiklian introduced Professor Simmons in what was her first official function as Premier.

Professor Simmons said: "On occasions like this, we tend to emphasise the beauty of our natural environment, our great lifestyle and the easygoing character of our people. "This is a mistake ... it encourages us to shy away from difficult challenges. It will stop us from being as ambitious as we might be," she said.

Professor Simmons leads a storied team of dedicated scientists trying to do what many think impossible: build a new type of computer – a quantum computer – based on individual phosphorous atoms in silicon.

She said said: "Quantum physics is hard. Technology at the forefront of human endeavour is hard. But that's what makes it worthwhile."

Building a quantum computer is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Professor Simmons calls it the "space race of the computing era". There are three dedicated centres of excellence in Australia working on quantum technology, with a strong presence across Sydney's universities.

"Australia, for some reason, is disproportionately strong in quantum science. And, with billions of dollars of investment coming into this field from across the world, our challenge is to see if we can translate our international lead into high-technology industries," she said.

A working quantum computer would make currently impossible computing tasks possible. "Instead of performing calculations one after the other like a conventional computer, quantum computers work in parallel, looking at all possible outcomes at the same time," she said. This would allow us "to solve problems in minutes that could otherwise take many thousands of years".

Australia, she said, is a great place to discover things. "I am grateful for that Australian spirit to give things a go and our enduring sense of possibility."

Professor Simmons said: "I want Australians above all to be known as people who do the hard things."


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