Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Graduation Speeches

May 27, 2014

In a recent sermon my pastor said something that stuck. Roughly this: “This week thousands of speakers at graduation ceremonies are urging graduates to excellence. None of them–unless at a religious institution–is saying ‘Be holy, because God is holy.'”

I suppose that made me jump because self-actualization has crept into me. What advice do we urge on young people? Work hard at school; dream; have fun; make good friends; excel if you can; be polite; set goals; make plans. The Spirit is a support mechanism for our self-actualization.

The mindset and advice of Scripture is obviously different, summed up in that slightly scary prescription: Be holy, because God is holy.

What does that phrase mean?

The word “holy” can be translated as “dedicated.” Holy people are set apart for special work. Like “dedicated” phone lines they serve a singular purpose. I think you could translate 1 Peter’s prescription this way: Be dedicated to whatever God is dedicated to.

Put that way, it sounds more practical. Some graduation speakers do, in fact, urge graduates to dedicate their lives to serving their fellow creatures, to protecting creation, to serving justice. They probably don’t mention God in that context, but the end is the same.

Mentioning God is valuable, however, because it puts a limit on our tendency to faddism, to rationalization, to power trips. If we get to define virtue, virtue often ends up looking strikingly like us. God’s dedication is often a challenge to our thinking. And at the very least, the presence of God reminds us that we are not God–an important understanding, as AA reminds us.

I, for one, like to imagine the graduation speech that Jesus would give.

The Best

May 8, 2014

A few days ago David Brooks published an op-ed entitled “A Love Story.” It refers to an encounter between the British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmotova. They met in 1945, in Leningrad, and talked all night. They spoke of literature and history and, of course, their lives. It was a luminous conversation, life-changing, unforgettable–and never to be repeated, as Akhmotova had only begun to be persecuted by Stalinism.

Brooks writes: “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments. Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading.”

And he concludes: “I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion – the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.”

I’m old enough to remember that too. The quest wasn’t always about literature, of course. In my college years it had more to do with protest against the Vietnam war. People could, they did, spend all night talking about the agony of the draft. Nobody I ever knew hoped to start a business, and very few thought of their education as being mainly about qualifying for a job.

“Today we live in a utilitarian moment,” Brooks says. “We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.”

Now: my son Silas put the lid on the romanticism inherent in these thoughts when he pointed out that the Great Recession has a lot to do with the current mood. He’s right that in earlier generations, including mine, you could count on a decent job if you went to college. Indulging in Dostoevsky is more attractive if the bills are paid, and will be.

Nevertheless I’ll stand by my belief that the greatest aspiration in life is not to lead a successful start-up. In faith, art, culture, conversation, family, books, beauty, goodness–in these we find our best selves, and our deepest satisfactions. We owe it to our children, and to our friends, to hold on to such hopes.

Some good news

April 21, 2014

It didn’t get a lot of attention, but I found this news story profoundly encouraging. The University of California for the first time admitted more Hispanic students than whites–29% of admissions vs. 27%. (Asians were at 36%.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the University of California system: while UCLA, Berkeley and UC San Diego are seen as the elite programs, it’s hard to get into any of the nine undergraduate programs. And there are no preferences given–not for race, income, or background of any sort. Not even to children of alumni. (Okay, yes, athletes do get special treatment.)

It’s not so much of a deal that Hispanics bested whites. Among younger Californians, they are almost half the population–so they are still underrepresented. (Whites are too, but only by a couple of percentage points.) What’s striking to me is that Hispanic students in such sizeable numbers are performing at an elite level.

Historically Hispanic immigrants haven’t done well academically. There’s been substantial effort to improve their education, and this number suggests it is paying off. Or maybe it’s just the assimilation effect. Immigrant populations tend to change as they become second and third-generation Americans.

Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging news. Immigration and assimilation have always been a big part of the American success story, and that seems to be continuing.

Adam and the Huffington Post

January 25, 2014

Another op-ed by me, this time at Huffington Post.

The Fundamental Problems of Education

May 19, 2012

My nephew James Swenson, who teaches math at the University of Wisconsin, posted something on Goodreads about his fundamental frustrations with and questions about the educational process. He doesn’t claim to have the answers, but his questions go deep, I think.  I’d be very interested in other views on this:

Because I’m a college math professor, How Children Learn [by John Holt] is a hard book for me to deal with.

Today, I spent the day grading final exams. The students’ performance was tremendously discouraging. Many problems were left completely blank; in many other cases, the students wrote things that were not even false – just meaningless – or otherwise failed to address the exam questions at all. It is hard to escape the feeling that the students and I have largely wasted the last four months. The worst thing is that, for the most part, the students are smart, and they like math: most of them are pursuing degrees in engineering.

This is depressing, but it is completely routine. When teachers get together, we complain about students: they do not know how to work, how to budget their time, how to take responsibility, how to study, how to think. And, as I recall, when students get together, they complain about teachers: we are mean, we are unfair, we set up unreasonable expectations, we are boring, we have no idea how to teach. No, this is not the whole story of anyone’s education, but it is perfectly common: familiar to everyone. I do not think my school is any worse than the rest.

It should not have to be this way – and John Holt has set out to rub my nose in the fact. But I have known for a while, anyway, because I’m a parent of two kids, and anyone who spends a lot of time with little children must be amazed by their ability to learn, and their love of learning. They are intelligent, curious, and persistent. Usually, I describe the phenomenon wistfully: “If I could learn mathematics the way a one-year-old learns everything, I would be unstoppable.” Holt’s colleague, Bill Hull, put it more mordantly: “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” (p. 56)

Holt’s thesis is that formal schooling systematically destroys children’s love of learning and molds them into ineffective thinkers who are crippled by the fear of failure. Today, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of strong evidence to support this. More evidence, some of which is very moving, is collected in Holt’s earlier, excellent book How Children Fail.

So let’s stipulate that I agree completely with everything Holt wrote here. What I really need to know if how I can change, to do my job better. Mostly, Holt avoids this question. “To discuss this in any detail would take a book in itself.” (p. 185) His primary conclusion is that children “ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.” (p. 185) He adds, “My aim… is not primarily to persuade educators and psychologists to swap new doctrines for old, but to persuade them to look at children, patiently, repeatedly, respectfully, and to hold off making theories and judgments about them until they have in their minds what most of them do not now have – a reasonably accurate model of what children are like.” (p. 173)

Reading this, I feel the urge to stand up and cheer, because I feel Holt is taking my side against the professors who taught my (few) education classes, which were worse than useless. It is less comfortable to identify myself as one of the “educators” in question.

I do not think that Holt is offering me direct advice that will help me to teach better. Maybe he would even identify the job of a college professor as different in kind from that of an elementary-school teacher. My students may not have grown into their final, mature personalities, but they are not children. Also, by choosing a college, selecting a major program of study, and registering for classes, they have exercised a certain amount of control over what they are to learn. Finally, they have typically been students for three quarters of their lives: they have developed strongly fixed patterns of behavior which use in reaction to new intellectual challenges, surely including some behaviors that are specific to mathematics classes.

More to the point, I think Holt is writing about systemic reform: minimally, one school at a time. In How Children Fail, Holt makes a big claim in this direction: “We could safely throw out 90% of the standard curriculum, because the students are throwing it out already.” (paraphrase) Maybe this is true, but it’s not a tenable option for an individual teacher.


From my perspective, the fundamental (implicit) promise that I make to my students at the start of each semester is that I will provide them with an opportunity to learn the information and develop the skills named by the course title and described in the syllabus. These things may, or may not, be useful to them in future classes, or in later life, but they are intrinsically valuable. The students, if they take full advantage of this opportunity, will leave the class as better people than they were when they registered.

My students (to generalize) focus on a different aspect of the bargain: I, the teacher, will credential them by awarding them a certain number of credits, along with a letter grade, if they will do most of what I tell them to do. If they do this often enough, they will become eligible to apply for certain jobs that are preferable to the ones they could have gotten before.

All of this is true: The student is entirely correct, and so am I. The problem is that our different emphases make it hard for us to work together.

You can recognize the problem by thinking about a short conversation that I’ve had over and over again in the past two weeks. [Many other examples would do equally well, but this one is on my mind right now.] The student begins by asking, “What do I need to get on the final to get a C in the class?” I check the online gradebook for the necessary data, then solve a linear equation in one variable to get a numerical answer. I suppose it’s not obvious why this conversation makes me angry, but I will try to explain what goes through my head while I’m answering the question.

The first point is that the student should not need to rely on me for the answer to this question. The student has all of his/her grades, via the online gradebook – the same place I get them. The system by which the letter grade is derived from the raw scores is also on the website, in the syllabus. The process by which I figure out the answer to the student’s question is taught in our remedial math courses, so the student is certainly expected to have mastered it before registering for my class. In fact, I’ve been relying all semester on the (generally correct) assumption that the student can do this perfectly well. Thus, asking this question is a small way in which the student rejects responsibility for his/her own education.

The second point is that it is useless to know the answer to the question. I expect and hope that the student will spend the two hour examination period doing his/her best to solve the problems on the exam: they would be ill advised to answer only 50 points’ worth of questions, even if 50 points would be sufficient to ensure the desired C.

Finally, why is the student focused on the C grade, specifically? [Yes, this is essentially always the case.] The student’s primary goal for the course is to get a C, because this is the prerequisite for the third semester of calculus. And there is no problem with wanting to satisfy the prerequisite, unless that is your primary goal. If so, you should be asking why the school does not allow students to register for Calc 3 unless they’ve been at least somewhat successful in Calc 2. Correct answer: no one else is equipped to learn Calc 3. Instead, your primary goal should be to develop the knowledge and skills that make up second-semester calculus. This, and not the grade, nor even the diploma, is the reason to attend a university.

None of this would matter, except that the goals one sets tend to determine one’s behavior. When you’re assigned to do a homework problem, do you skim the relevant section of the textbook hoping to find an extremely similar example? Do you copy someone else’s solution from Cramster (the Internet’s patron saint of academic dishonesty)? Do you skip it, and hope that it won’t be graded? These things could help you get an OK homework grade without doing much work. None of them is much help, though, if your goal is to learn something. In this case, you’ll have to look at the homework problem as a puzzle to be solved, and take an interest in it. You have to build a model of the problem in your mind; make a plan and follow through. You have to care about the problem! Ironically, people who act this way get the best grades, with the least amount of effort and anxiety, especially around exam time. Learning the hard way is hard, but it’s easier than the easy way. (I believe I’m quoting Granny Weatherwax, from Lords and Ladies.) This ground has been covered thoroughly in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is among other things a very insightful exposition of how to learn.

It is very difficult, though, for me to tell my students any of these things, because (continuing to generalize) they are thinking of me as a judge, not as a guide. They’re not wrong: I play both roles. But they distrust my advice, because they think of our class as a game they’re playing against me. This also makes it very difficult for them to ask me questions, or to reveal anything to me about the way they’re thinking, in case they might be mistaken. In short, they are afraid.

Holt has a lot to say about the prevalence of fear, and how it makes smart people act stupidly, especially in school. [This is the heart of How Children Fail; it is less central here.] He calls us to recognize how much children are afraid in school, and argues (I think) that empowering students is the only viable solution, because their fear is a function of their lack of power in the classroom. I think he’s mainly right about this, except that I think the power differential is intrinsic, at least as long as schools retain the credentialling mission that my students primarily value. Once again, Holt brings me to a place where I’m both dissatisfied with the status quo and convinced that, ultimately, it cannot be corrected.

More on Living Alone

February 22, 2012

Last week I wrote about Eric Klinenberg’s NYTimes piece on living solo. Now, David Brooks has weighed in with an interesting assessment.

If you remember, I said that people increasingly live alone (not necessarily in isolation) because they are reluctant to take on obligations. They want to be free to come and go in relationships on their own terms and their own timing. When you live with someone—even a roommate who has his own shelf in the refrigerator—you have to do some negotiating.

As a general matter, individualism doesn’t foster character or morality. Community does. We’re trending toward individualism.

Brooks’ take is that the primary force behind this trend is “maximizing talent.” People who are skilled and smart can manage their lives in a flexible, shifting world, getting what they want and advancing their careers. “Fast, flexible and diverse networks allow the ambitious and the gifted to surf through amazing possibilities.” They don’t want or need to be tied down. On the other hand, people without such social capital may fall through the cracks and become victims. They need the dedicated bonds of marriage, church, community and family to help them along. In a world where those ties are weaker, they end up losers. Brooks appears to advocate celebrating the freedom of the ubermensch, while providing as much safety net as possible for the rest. (Not government programs, so much as strong community.)

Brooks’ analysis doesn’t quite work, though, in that the people with the most social capital—measured in income and education—are far and away the most likely to make the ultimate commitment to marriage, and stick to it. If you graduated from college, you are extremely likely to marry and extremely unlikely to divorce. Not so, everybody else. Apparently, “maximizing talent” takes one away from the fast and fluent networks of modern urban society, and leaves you pottering in the garden on Saturday and driving your children to soccer games. As Brooks himself wrote in a recent blog, “People in the educated class talk like social progressives and behave like traditionalists. People in the less educated classes talk like social conservatives and behave like libertines. “

Still, there’s a long history of people with talent choosing to live as outliers, if not outlaws. Steve Jobs is a good example of how this works. I gather he was a miserable human being who created a great company that made great products. (I’m a believer, as someone who has been wedded to Apple since the Apple IIe.) Which would you choose: great products and miserable human relations? Or the opposite?

I don’t think there are any simple answers. We human beings are an uncanny mix. Our committed relations (marriage and family, particularly) can be exquisitely worthwhile or miserably oppressive. Our “creative talents” can be forged in extraordinary inhumanity (Jobs’ cruelty) or in care (“the HP way”). But if there is no blueprint for the ideal society, there is certainly, in Jesus’ teachings, a clear instruction about priorities: love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s a particular way of maximizing talent, and it does not leave you free.

Teacher Test

January 16, 2012

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent column in the New York Times on the value of teachers. A big new study has tried to quantify the lifetime impact of a single good fourth-grace teacher, versus the impact of a single bad teacher, and it’s pretty significant.

But we knew that. My understanding is that extensive quantitative research on American education has consistently found, taking income and family and school quality into account, that some teachers get remarkably good results year in year out, and some get remarkably bad results. Even in chaotic ghetto schools, some teachers succeed far more than seems possible, and other teachers fail far more than seems reasonable. The results don’t just show up on the next test. They show up over a lifetime. Good teachers make a huge difference. So do bad teachers.

I admire teachers more than just about any other group in America. My mother was a teacher. My sister is a teacher. Back in the days when I went to Back to School nights, I routinely came near to tears when I met the inspiring, dedicated, full-of-life individuals who were teaching my kids day in day out.

But I do have a beef with teachers who won’t admit that there are bad teachers and good teachers and that it makes a huge difference in kids’ lives to get the good ones and avoid the bad ones. Especially it makes a difference in the kids who don’t have a lot of other resources at home or in the neighborhood.

I know it’s hard to fairly evaluate teachers. It’s hard to evaluate people in most lines of skilled work. You’re bound to get it wrong sometimes. But you shouldn’t retain bad teachers because you’re afraid of accidentally mistreating others. Schools exist for the benefit of kids, not teachers.

Our schools should try hard to be fair to teachers, but much more they should be fair to kids. That means doing everything possible to ensure they get good teachers—by singling out and rewarding the best—and avoid bad teachers—by helping them to improve or encouraging them to go on to some other career where they can be successful.

The Fate of the Middle Class

August 16, 2011

The latest Atlantic Magazine has a very informative article on the demise of the middle class in America. (“Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” by Don Peck.) Recently I’ve read lots of statistics about how the rich are getting richer and the rest of us declining, but this analysis is a lot broader and deeper. The trends are linked not only to income but to marriage and divorce rates, to cohabitation, and (very strongly) to education levels.

(I’ve written about this before, here, and in other postings.)

The Atlantic article is long, but well worth your time. The issues are probed deeply. The prescriptions are not so convincing, unfortunately.

Here are a few quotations:

“Since 1993, more than half of the nation’s income growth has been captured by the top 1 percent of earners, and the gains have grown larger over time: from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two. Nearly 2 million people started college in 2002—1,630 of them at Harvard—but among them only Mark Zuckerberg is worth more than $10 billion today; the rise of the super-elite is not a product of educational differences.”

“”By the 2000s, the percentage [of moderately educated couples, with a high school diploma but no college degree] in ‘very happy marriages’—identical to that of college graduates in the 1970s—was also nearing that of high-school dropouts. Between 2006 and 2008, among moderately educated women, 44 percent of all births occurred outside marriage, not far off the rate (54 percent) among high-school dropouts; among college-educated women, that proportion was just 6 percent.”

“Thirty-nine percent of children born to parents in the top fifth of earners stayed in that same bracket as adults. Likewise, 42 percent of those whose parents were in the bottom fifth remained there themselves. Only 6 percent reached the top fifth; rags-to-riches stories were extremely rare.”

The Blind Side

March 22, 2011

I want to tardily commend The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ book about a poor black kid and a rich white family, now a major motion picture. I liked the movie, which is mainly faithful to the book, but I liked the book better.

Michael Lewis is a great storyteller. He made me laugh out loud at least half a dozen times, and choke up occasionally too. A lot of the book is focused on the game of football—only moderately interesting to me—but the book’s core is a human drama of a kid redeemed from awful circumstances. Michael Oher never met his father, and his addicted mother had 13 kids whom she made no attempt to raise. Michael and his siblings had to scrounge for food on the Memphis streets from the time he was a little boy. He always ran from foster homes, and hardly attended school except to get the free lunches. When we first meet him he seems more animal than human. By sheer chance he was enrolled in a white suburban Christian school when he was 16, and he ended up taken in by a rich white family. The book is about how Michael managed to graduate from high school and get courted by football coaches all over America.

It took a massive effort. His adoptive parents invested time and emotion and huge amounts of cash. His senior year they hired a full-time tutor. He really didn’t know anything, not even how to ask a question. Several times the project seemed to crash. But the family kept trying, and Michael kept trying, and they succeeded.

“Of course, he wasn’t the first black kid to rise from poverty and make it in the white world. But Michael was different, because the white world had so unusually aided and abetted his rise. The white world had watched Michael Oher happen, or thought they had, and so could imagine how he might be replicated. He haunted that world.”

He haunted the Christian school, for instance, that had bent over backwards to help a kid with zero academic ability. After his success, a lot of other poor black kids applied to the school. The school decided they couldn’t absorb them, even though Michael Oher’s adoptive family volunteered to pay their tuition.

“He haunted that world” because, on the one hand, he proved that it could be done, if people were willing to give a lot. On the other hand, it took a lot. The Blind Side chronicles how much in considerable detail. It’s hard to imagine giving as much as Michael’s adoptive family did. And most people have a lot less disposable money and time than they did.

The family comes off as tough and street-smart, with a sentimental core. For several years, Michael Oher dominated their lives (and they had kids of their own, about Michael’s age). At one point, when Michael ran away and disappeared, it all seemed likely to go down the drain. “’You think this is it?’ Leigh Anne [the mother] had asked. And the truth was, Sean [the father] didn’t know. ‘Your mind does funny things when it’s idle,’ said Sean. ‘But that’s when I decided that the downside was that we’d helped some kid—so even if he’d been playing us all along there really was no downside.’”

But there is a downside, and that’s why The Blind Side is haunting. We could make a difference in the millions of lives decimated by the pathologies of urban poverty. Michael Oher’s case shows how. In order to truly help, though, we’d have to give a lot more than charity.

Theological Book Network

March 21, 2011

Last week I was in Grand Rapids, where I encountered a great little organization you should know about. Theological Book Network was started by Kurt Berends a few years ago. They have a large warehouse space where they receive and collate books aimed to go to Majority World Christian libraries. The books are donated—some from individuals (for example, pastors’ libraries sent in when the pastors move on to a higher assignment), some from academic libraries, some from book publishers (who get a good tax writeoff). If you have some theologically oriented books you think might be useful to a poorly endowed Third World seminary or Bible college library, you just have to box them up and send them in. TBN will give you a tax receipt for the donation.

TBN has surveyed hundreds of institutions. They know what kinds of courses they offer, their academic level, and their library status. The institutions indicate to TBN which books they need. TBN then figures out the best set of books for the institution and sends them out. Ideally they send a whole container load (usually to several neighboring libraries) but they sometimes send a pallet or two.

You can learn more at