Our "curriculum": update about the boys (August 2011)

Every once in a while, someone asks me what "curriculum" we use.  I feel puzzled.  What does "curriculum" mean, anyway?  In the sense that she was using, I guess it means a pre-bundled set of textbooks and workbooks, often with other supplementary materials.  One can find math curricula, language arts curricula, and even whole homeschool curricula.  In that sense, we aren't using any curricula.

This talk of curricula is borrowed from schools, which must adopt packages that all students in a class (or school, or school district, or state, or country--it depends on what level the decision is made) must follow.  Because the curriculum has to be appropriate for many different students, and not offensive or even surprising to many stakeholders, many school curricula are ridiculously boring.  But homeschoolers have the freedom to choose from a very wide range of curricula, so the problems in terms of fit to student with the curricula chosen by homeschoolers are probably not so bad--I'm sure that's true.

Still, I'm biased against so-called curricula, insofar as what they are, are sets of ready-made decisions.  I don't like others making my pedagogical decisions for me.  That's one main reason homeschooling is so natural for me.  So of course the very idea of an end-to-end curriculum is obnoxious to me.  Even a total math, language arts, or history curriculum is obnoxious, mainly because whenever I see a book I like (for example, Singapore Math), I always discover I need something else (such as Two Plus Two Is Not Five--and now, Life of Fred: Apples, which somebody just turned me on to [happy now, Mike?] and which we started quite enthusiastically).  The other reason I'm biased against curricula in general is that they involve the use of textbooks.  Now, for certain subjects which it is useful to teach to some extent systematically (such as math, foreign language, logic, and grammar) it is probably a good idea to use textbooks, at some point, anyway.  But for much else, I am having a hard time understanding why on Earth it is necessary or even beneficial to use textbooks or workbooks when, it seems to me, you can engage the student better with high-quality books and basic writing assignments?

That is my general approach, which you'll be able to see as I go through the subjects one by one.

First, my 5-year-old, H.  Every morning (well, almost--these days), we do math as well as penmanship/writing, so I'll start there.

Mathematics.  We finally finished the Singapore Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics textbook (we didn't use the workbook, though we had it).  I liked the concrete-to-abstract approach as well as the emphasis on applied math.  We took almost two years to go through the book, which we finished a few months before H. is eligible to start Kindergarten (this fall).  (He declares that he doesn't want to go to school, because he is being homeschooled--he's totally on board.)  I didn't want to push this too much.  Anyway, it certainly seems to have given him an excellent start in math.  He still needs to review addition and subtraction and other topics, but the basics are now old hat.

We've already started Primary Mathematics 1A, which has a lot of review (for those who have already gone through Kindergarten Math), but which goes through the same material in usefully new ways.  We'll see how he likes it over the long run, but so far it's been a nice change to be able to skip things because they're too easy, go through things quickly, and also to take our time consolidating and strengthening his understanding.  Generally, I think that the Singapore approach, especially using both Kindergarten and 1A books, will expose H. to many different ways to think about addition and subtraction.  I actually like the fact that we spend a lot of time mastering a zillion ways to think about addition and subtraction.  I agree with the apparent philosophy of this series that the important thing in studying math is to come to a really firm, "sophisticated" understanding of the basics.

Math hasn't always been H's favorite subject, but a few days ago he actually said he liked math.  He is encouraged when he gets things right and makes evident progress.  He was greatly motivated when we got close to the end of Kindergarten Math.  Today, in Two Plus Two Is Not Five (mentioned in the last report), I decided to time how many problems he could do in a minute.  He ended up doing more problems than ever before.  (Again I must thank the mommies with bright ideas at BrillKids.com for turning us on to this idea.)  He isn't excited about Two Plus Two but he was very happy to observe how much we've gone through, and what sorts of problems we'd be able to do quickly when we got to the end of the book.  As for me, the reason I'm having him work in this book (about three times a week or so) is that really mastering the math facts will make math later on much, much easier.  And the earlier he masters the facts, the more ingrained they're apt to be.  (Of course, I wouldn't recommend forcing this knowledge on your child, or spending much time on it before a child can start making solid progress.  We all want to see our children do the very best they can, but on the other hand, if they are doing top flight work right at age/grade level, that's probably better, in the long run, than doing advanced but mediocre work earlier on.)

Anyway, H. has gone through a couple levels' worth of Two Plus Two, and therefore has memorized (or, anyway, can quickly do) quite a few problems.  Also, I suspect the process of drilling (I know how that word makes some people shudder) the same types of problems over and over really ingrains an understanding, not just "rote memorization," of the sums he has mastered.

We've sat down to read Life of Fred: Apples for just a couple times now, and my plan is to do it once a week.  It's quirky and occasionally bizarre, as one would expect from a self-published book for kids written by a math professor.  Unusually, it combines story-telling and math and is oddly engaging.  H. has been quite motivated to do the exercises, of which there aren't many, but they are very high-quality.  Anyway, we're into it and I'll have to give a more complete report after we've done more.

Penmanship and writing.  For a long time we were working out of various penmanship books--mostly but not only Kumon.  He didn't start making more rapid, noticeable progress until I started going through and teaching him letter by letter "myself," meaning without a workbook, just explaining (usually many times) how to make a letter, and what was wrong with how he has done it.  Now his handwriting is getting quite good, at least when he's trying to get it right.

Basically, we do a few different kinds of penmanship and writing exercises.

Penmanship improvement. He knows both uppercase and lowercase letters pretty well, but often forgets exactly how to write certain letters--and when we are working on penmanship, I have been getting increasingly strict on matters of "correctness."  For a long time, I wasn't really strict at all because I didn't want to discourage him and didn't think he could improve much by my criticizing him.  Then, about nine months ago or so, I started getting strict for the first time.  At first he resisted, so we took strategic breaks and such, but eventually he got quite used to me erasing what he had just written, showing him exactly where to put the pencil down, and so forth.  Though we had tried writing them for well over a year before that, we finally went through all the capital letters carefully and systematically without a book, then we did them again in a Kumon book, at which point he wasn't bad at all.  All that took several months.  Then we went through the Kumon lowercase letters book, and at the same time I assigned him 5-6 words or a short sentence to copy.  I carefully corrected him as he went through this, and as a result made very rapid progress.  He actually didn't mind this sort of practice, which surprised me.  In fact, as we did this (late spring and early summer, this year) he started getting into the practice of writing words, sentences, and other things on scraps of paper to illustrate his various imaginative and creative projects.  For example, he made (completely out of his own design) three charming "Wanted" posters the other day, one for each of me, his Mama, and his little brother.  They went, "Wanted: Papa.  H. wants him" and when he got to Mama it was "Wanted most of all: Mama.  H. also wants her."

Anyway, we finished the Kumon lowercase letters book over a month ago I guess, and since then we have been copying sentences from various books, or he has come up with some of his own.  When working on penmanship strictly, I am in the mode of carefully correcting anything that I think he should be doing differently.  If he is trying, he can now, with only a few corrections, write most sentences with good penmanship, and he's continuing to improve.  My guess is that within a few months we will be able to stop these "strict" penmanship lessons.

Writing (grammar, punctuation, and spelling). About half of the time we do "writing," in which I assiduously refrain from correcting his penmanship, and we focus instead on writing a "composition," which means writing much more.  It's usually just two or three sentences--but the amount he can write in a session has been noticeably increasing.  I correct his spelling, punctuation, and spacing between words (whether he puts spaces between words is still hit or miss, but he's getting better all the time).  For these we usually use Mead Redispace notebooks.

For a rank beginner, as spelling expert Richard Gentry might be interested to note, his spelling is remarkably good.  He often comes up with the right spelling for semi-difficult words without any help from me.  He can spell the easier words perfectly almost all the time and, when he was getting started, required almost no help or tutoring from me on these.  This, I think, is because of the enormous amount of reading we have done up to now, together with his intensive training in phonics.  So our approach is simply to practice, practice, practice, and very regularly too--with nearly instant feedback from me in most cases.  (Sometimes he'll do these writing assignments without me sitting over his shoulder, but if I'm not there, more often than not he's not motivated enough.)

Another thing we do, maybe once a week, is to pick a picture to describe, sometimes from a step-by-step "how to draw" book, then draw it again in a half-drawing half-writing book, then write a sentence or two to go with it.  This way we get a little art in with the writing.  H. always likes these assignments.

Now, let me digress and answer a question about language arts curricula.

When their children are starting not just to write their letters but actually to write, I gather that many homeschooling families adopt workbooks that systematically teach grammar, spelling, punctuation, consonants and vowels, and so forth.  Not us, or at least, not yet and not until I can clearly see some advantage to using such books.  The problem with them, first of all, is that they are almost always boring. The words and sentences don't come out of the child's idiosyncratic, constantly-changing experience or interest.  They frequently and tiresomely go over things that he knows.  For example, we started going through the Kumon My Book of Writing Words, and stopped after a couple of pages, because H. just hated it and it became clear to me that it was quite pointless.  He knew how to spell all those words, and in the few cases of words he couldn't figure out, he would quickly learn in the context of practicing actual writing.

This leads me to the second problems with such language arts curricula: they don't seem necessary for learning what they have to teach.  I am about 90% sure that if we simply write a little every day--increasing amounts over the months and years--and if I am on hand to correct his writing and explain the rules and concepts that he has not learned, then in the end, he'll have learned all the elements of writing much better and more efficiently than if he had studied such things out of context in a textbook or workbook.  For example, lately, he has gotten into the habit of starting sentences with "And," and putting exclamation points on the end of most sentences.  I am gently explaining why these are not done, although I'm not being too much of a hard-ass about it yet, maybe just because it's still kind of cute.

You might say that it is possible to teach spelling, in particular, systematically, and I can't disagree with you there. Ditto with the more difficult/unpredictable aspects of grammar.  Those are things that we will very probably tackle, systematically, after a few years.  At some point, we will no doubt memorize spelling and vocabulary words, and also go through a real grammar.  But for the early elementary grades, it seems just obvious to me as I teach my son "in the trenches," that, by simple practice, he can maintain the best motivation and get the most efficient training in the arts that make up writing.

That goes double for language arts "readers."  The thought has never even once seriously crossed my mind that we might use the sort of readers that I was subjected to in my elementary school years--I still remember the boredom.  There are so many great chapter books and other books (including nonfiction, especially history and science) that a child can use to learn to fine-tune his reading skills, that I can't fathom why any homeschooler would give a "reader" a second thought.

Ah, you say, but what about reading comprehension?  Well, let's talk about that.

"Reading." I've been letting H. escape from his afternoon nap with an hour of reading to himself instead.  I reported last time about how much reading he's been doing.  Lately, for some reason, he's been wanting to read out loud--he says he likes it more--but he ends up reading a quarter of the amount he is able to read silently.  (He can read a huge amount silently.)  Anyway, I'm upstairs working and after his reading time is up, I take a break and we do an oral exam.  I flip through the book and think of reading comprehension questions that will both prove that he has done the reading but also help him to understand and remember what he's read better.  As I said last time, he usually is able to answer the questions quite well, often better than I think I'd be able to do.  Occasionally I try to get him to summarize a whole story for me, but he resists.  That's something we need to work on, not because it will improve comprehension or memory, but because the very ability to tell a narrative is important, and one learns this by doing.

By the way, and I hope I'm not being too repetitive or boastful, but his reading memory and comprehension, even (or maybe especially) when he reads silently and very quickly, is amazing.  Most of the time lately he's been picking very easy books to read, like some of his old picture books, but a few days ago he chose Chlorine in the rather good (and huge) "True Book" series.  Thinking he wouldn't get it, I asked him when chlorine was discovered.  He said 1774 or 1776 (I forget) and then added "but it was officially discovered in 1810," which is exactly what the book said.  He can quite frequently answer "why" questions rather well, too.  He read a book about The Monitor recently too and could explain what a blockade was and why the North had blockaded southern ports.

(In his copious pretend play, knowledge from his history, science, and other reading and experimentation is put to use.  For example, a few days ago he was explaining how something that I would have thought was a fairly random pile of blocks was a blockade of southern ports.)

Now I ask you: is this worse than using a language arts reader complete with reading comprehension questions?  He picks the books (90% of the time), so they are of some interest to him.  Even if he is reluctant when starting to read, as he often is (see below), his interest comes out especially well in the oral exam; he rarely if ever expresses any sort of boredom then, and frequently seems quite excited to tell what he's learned.

Would it, instead, help him to spend much time actually writing out answers to comprehension questions, as those tiresome language arts texts had me do when I was in elementary school?  A little, probably; but writing is so difficult now that we had better focus on those kinds of writing that he actually has a taste for.  Generally, I think writing out "comprehension" questions for any text (on any subject), just as part of "homework," is inefficient and annoying and therefore mostly falls in the category of busywork.  If a student understands himself to be writing, say, an opinionated encyclopedia of a subject, or a thoughtful and original essay or report--in other words, something that involves some thought and judgment and not merely copying out and rewording answers--then the result will be of personal interest and thus, potentially anyway, genuinely engaging.  The same would go for a series of questions that does not merely require copying answers out of the text but instead the combination of careful textual reading with deep reflection, then the answers themselves can have high interest and even be quite personally satisfying (this happens in philosophy, anyway).

But H. is only five.  He is far away from being able to write such things or think in such ways.  In the meantime, we'll do our oral exams and get ourselves gradually to the point where we can retell a story very nicely.

Keeping H. supplied with enough books that are not too difficult for him to read to himself, and which are high-interest to him, is something of a problem.  We have quite a few unread books now, so I don't really feel like getting a lot more, but H. is very choosy (often exasperatingly so) about what he wants to spend his 60 minutes on.  He is no longer always interested in reading about trucks or other subjects that (I thought) are of high interest to him.  Books that are quite interesting to him when I read to him are often difficult for him to read to himself (not to say impossible--he just doesn't want to put in the effort, and I don't want to force him).  So he ends up reading things at the third grade level, the sorts of things that I read a lot to him when he was three.  That, of course, is how it usually is: most kids read to themselves at a level below what they're capable of taking on board when parents read to them.  He's been re-reading quite a bit of stuff that I have read to him, which is fine with me--he always learns a lot more the second time through.

I've also resorted recently to a somewhat involved system of bribery.  Yes, I've heard some about the dangers of this, but I'm not convinced; I've used it before without any evident ill effects so far.  The system involves earning "units" and "credits," which can be exchanged for lollipops, Hot Wheels, and even Harry Potter Lego sets (I see someone else had a similar idea).  He got his first lollipop a week or two ago and declared that he loved his incentive--and for the amount of reading he did to get it, so far it's looking like a rather good system.  It has gotten him reading more, and reading out loud less (reading silently = more pages finished = more "units").

Finally in the "reading" category, there is the reading I do to him.  We started reading Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales--the original (in translation).  To be able to take the originals on board properly, a child really does have to be something like five or older.  He's loving it, and so are his Mama and me.  No idea what the baby thinks, but he's hearing a lot of language.  At bedtime, we've read a lot more than I can recount here, but we finished reading The Moffats last night (and listened to it in the car twice, and he wanted to start it again, but I drew the line--anyway, highly recommended for 5-8 years old), Harry Potter #1 (for the very first time--almost done with this too, and he's quite excited about it), The Great Brain (which frankly he's not too keen on just now, though it's similar in style, mood, and level to The Moffats), and something I was surprised to find: Stories from Plato and other Classic Writers.

I should probably write a review.  It's a reprint of an 1894...and wait for it...reader. So, OK, it is from back when readers actually had something to offer.  But for the Internet, I'm sure this wouldn't be in print and I wouldn't have heard about it.  Basically, the editor repackaged and rewrote a bunch of myths, history, and even lightweight philosophy for children all taken from classical (Greek and Roman) sources.  It is right at H.'s level right now.  We've read the absolutely wonderful Tales from the Odyssey by the Magic Tree House author Mary Pope Osborne and lots of other myths (we're also reading D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths at mealtime) and a fair bit about ancient history as well.  (Have I raved about Tales from the Odyssey yet?  What a great series it is.  We listened to it all the way through and read it, all in a short space.  It was one of the best experiences, if not the very best, I've had reading a book to H.)  So anyway this reader takes his understanding a bit further, introducing him to an unpredictable (and somewhat uneven) assortment of stories, concepts, and characters from classical literature.  One of the nicest features is that the stories are mostly very short, not more than five pages, and mostly self-contained, so I can slip one in before another chapter of Harry Potter. On the other hand, some of the stories are a little weird.  But that's because of the source material.  Folktales and myths are frequently very weird and quite refreshingly diverse.  You might think, if you haven't read such traditional material recently, that it is all the same.  It isn't at all, not in the slightest.  It's some of the most imaginative, off-the-wall stuff you can find, far more so than most modern stories.

History.  Let me tell you a little about how I feel about history and education.  History is the backbone of the humanities, at the elementary level.  History provides essential background concepts and narratives for classic literature, and is absolutely necessary for any understanding of politics and economics, as well as any sophisticated study of geography and cultures.  It actually provides an introduction to these subjects, too.  So I've put some thought into how to get H. interested in history, and as it turns out, he is actually quite interested in it.  We've read dozens of short history books and are now working our way through some longer ones for the first time.

We do 2-4 pages of history reading at the start of our bedtime reading.  This might seem trivial, but if you're reading this little bit every night virtually without fail, as we do, it adds up to something like 300 pages of chapter book history in 100 days and over 1,000 pages per year.  And now if that sounds like too much, well, bear in mind that we were very well prepared to take on board the history books we're tackling by the time we started in earnest, earlier this year.  We had read, as I said, dozens of easy, short history books, to say nothing of Magic Tree House books and my history presentations, etc.  Also, now, when we read those pages of history, we also usually look at pictures or videos on the iPad (e.g., recently, of the South American Nazca drawings) and also pronunciations.  So it turns out that history is now one of H's favorite subjects.  I like it a lot too.

In addition to Bauer's Story of the World and Usborne's Ancient World, we're also working through The Kingfisher Atlas of the Ancient World and Gombrich's Little History of the World. We're slowly but steadily covering the same material in each different source, which is very interesting as well as being an excellent way to solidify knowledge.  You'd think that there would be too much repetition--well, not at all.  In fact, it's more exciting to us when the sources repeat and elaborate each other (so to speak), though it's also interesting when they approach the same subject in different ways.  Occasionally we find outright conflicts as well, which is interesting too.

We are almost always working our way through some other history book during mealtime as well.  We recently finished The Second World War, in the fantastic Usborne Young Reading series.  I don't know what we would have done without Usborne's history books--there just isn't anything else like them out there.  They're not too long, not too hard, and yet extremely substantive and generally a "class act."

Science.  As to science, we've been reading a couple of science books during mealtimes.  We just finished Basher's Periodic Table: Elements with Style, which in terms of language is quite challenging, and we wouldn't have been able to read a year ago.  But H. really liked it when he saw it, and he was very game to finish it, so we did.  We also just finished a quite substantive and advanced book about electronics, which I wouldn't recommend--it's not bad, but I'm sure there are better.  It's just that we got into it and eventually sort of felt obligated to finish it (over a long period of time).  Both of these books are advanced, and we've been reading them only because they happen to be accessible to H., due to his previous reading, and cover very basic topics.  We also fairly regularly read books about different animal species (there are thousands of such books, and we must have over a hundred).  Of course, we also do experiments of various sorts from time to time.  Had a lot of fun with Diet Coke and Mentos the other day.  We've studied geology relatively little so far, and I found this book (at Half Price Books) which looks like a nice slightly-more-advanced introduction, so we're on something like fact #15.  By the way, we read the book about Ancient Egypt in this "100 facts" series and liked it quite a lot.  For the amount of info in them, the rather good writing, and the quite excellent quality of illustrations and photography, they're surprisingly cheap.

Latin.  Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, continues to be quite doable.  (This is no doubt due to H.'s copious language training, not to mention the fact that his mother speaks a foreign language to him exclusively.)  Theoretically, we do Latin every day, either in the morning before breakfast or late afternoon before dinner.  In the last month or so, it's been more like three times a week, but I have every intention to get us back into it daily.  If I don't remember to do it, H. usually won't remind me!

Geography and cultures.  We haven't been working much on this beyond what we absorb through history (which is not a trivial amount, actually).  H. still plays with the Stack the Countries app, which is fun.  We also put together geography puzzles regularly, and he did this Europe one recently over a mealtime (and didn't take the whole mealtime--did I mention that our mealtimes are kind of weird?).  I regularly think we're going to start a systematic study of countries, states, or other geographical topics, but I never get us started.  Well, before too long anyway.

Music.  In May or June we tried piano lessons for a month and dropped them--H. wasn't getting much more out of them than he got out of them with me.  As of a week ago, we're now having (theoretically) three "micro-lessons" per day, around breakfast, lunch, and dinner-time.  We average more like 1.5 a day.  They take about five minutes each, because I basically just have him practice two pieces each once or twice.  As a result of this latest effort, he's re-learning (very simple) pieces he first played a year or more ago, and playing them much better than ever before.  We've just got two pieces to go and we'll finally be done with Music for Little Mozarts #1. I really feel like, this time, we'll stick with it and make progress.  Maybe when he's done a few of these books with me (I am not out of my depth yet--I had 8 years of piano lessons when I was a kid), he'll have more patience for a real teacher.

Chess.  We're sort of approaching this as an academic subject.  We're halfway through Chess for Children, which I can recommend--it's challenging for this 5-year-old, though--and I play games with him pretty regularly.  I often play with him as a "really dumb guy," which H. gets a big kick out of.  We also got an account on chesskid.com, not sure if we'll use it much. Tried to find some local chess clubs for children open to him; no luck yet, he's still young.  Found a nice iPad app to teach kids, called Dinosaur Chess, but there isn't actually that much to it.  H. likes it though--I guess it's two bucks well spent.  He still doesn't quite have patience to sit through a real game from beginning to end.  We have played several games to the end, but I do help him a lot.  He knows how the pieces move pretty well, can recognize a piece he can snag, and is starting to learn some basic principles.

Logic.  OK, we aren't really studying logic, we're just doing several pages of Lollipop Logic Book 2 once a week.  Here's how I feel about it and why we're doing it.  In short: it's not terribly important, but H. actually requested it and it can't hurt.

Art.  We aren't doing any art history regularly now, though we did read The Impressionists in the Usborne Young Readers series not too long ago.  I don't really train H. in art other than using that drawing book I discussed above.  He draws lots of random pictures these days, mostly of vehicles, but sometimes other things as well.  (Totoro, one of his favorite characters, after I gave him step-by-step instructions.)  This not assigned or anything.  He's making some progress but his drawings probably don't look much different from other five year olds'.  I should mention that he wasn't drawing or scribbling that much until, I don't know, about six months ago--around the time I started teaching him writing more.  He still just doesn't want to color.  He doesn't like copying other pictures or following instructions (most of the time) or engaging in group activities--he's fiercely independent.  (But he's a good boy.)  So the whole idea of coloring someone else's drawing, let alone coloring inside the lines, seems to be a non-starter for him.  Who knows, maybe he'll change when he gets older.  He has mellowed out quite a bit since he turned five, just as the books said he would.

I'm going to have to cover baby E. another time.  He's making good progress too!


See a ReadingBear demo and volunteer to help finish the job!

Regular readers of this blog know that I've been spent most of this year developing a free reading tutorial.  We were calling it WatchKnow Reader, but now it's called Reading Bear. I need you to help to finish it (see below to volunteer!).

First let me show you a demo. It's unfinished and undesigned, but still cool.  To check it out, I recommend these steps:

1. Go to the above-linked page.  Click on "Short A" in the middle of the page.

2. Choose "Sound It Out Slowly" (to begin with).  Play with the green buttons.  When you get to the sentence slides, click a word.  It should be sounded out.

3. After you've seen one or two dozen slides, click the settings button (upper right, with the gear) and check "Always show video of word spoken" and "Enable interludes" (and save).  Note that you can also uncheck "Pause and ask me to say the words" (which is what you'd want to do if showing this to a child too young to supply answers).  Then watch another five words' worth or more.

4. Exit the presentation (press the lower right "on/off" button) and try the other presentation types, including "Sound It Out Quickly," "Let Me Sound it Out," and a flashcard-only and sentence-only version.

Please bear in mind that this doesn't have all the features it will have in a few months.  So you really can't judge Reading Bear yet.  It doesn't have all the presentations (there will be almost 50 total), reviews, quizzes, progress tracking, and help features that it will have.

Feedback on this blog, though, would be greatly appreciated.

Want to volunteer to help finish this free, non-profit, educational project?

I am facing an extremely ambitious deadline and need your help.  I've involved some volunteers earlier this year, but that didn't work out very well because I tried to manage that all out of my email, and I thought I could write all the scripts myself.  It ended up being too much work for me to manage by myself.  Now I'm finally to the point where I can and should involve volunteers again, and this time around I'm giving people access to some Live.com-hosted documents, which we'll use as a sort of wiki to manage content development.

Basically, I need help (1) drafting sentences, (2) finding videos and pictures, (3) doing quality control for the video and picture choices, and (4) editing some text-audio file matchup stuff. It's not very simple (not as simple, for example, as writing a Wikipedia article), but if you're reasonably technically adept, you should be able to do it.

Interested?  Email me at sanger@watchknow.org.  If you've already expressed an interest, I should have already emailed you. I'll give you info about where to find the development files.

Here's a series of help videos I made for Reading Bear volunteers (watch at full screen and highest quality):


Reply to Nathan Jurgenson on anti-intellectualism

Thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for a thoughtful critique of "Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?"  I wish I had more time to respond, especially since it is so earnestly intellectual itself.  The following will have to do.

Jurgenson provides a definition (which he says is based on Hofstadter's discussion in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), which combines anti-expertism, anti-reason, and "unreflective instrumentalism" or the view that ideas must be put to work if they are to have any value.  I think that "isms" are, since they are theoretical inventions, either trivially easy to define (just quote the inventor), or else very difficult.  I don't feel qualified to evaluate this definition, but neither do I want to accept it uncritically.  Instead I'll just skip ahead to the part where Jurgenson starts using it to formulate some interesting questions and claims on behalf of geeks:

...are [geeks] evangelical/dogmatic in their knowledge justification (beyond populism)? Do they appreciate knowledge and thinking for its own sake, or does it always have to be put to work towards instrumental purposes? Neither of these points are substantiated by Sanger (yet).

I would argue that geeks are not dogmatic, but instead typically rely on reason (e.g., they employ reason in their defense of populism and the “wisdom of the crowds”; even if I and many others are unconvinced). Further, geeks indeed do seem to engage in knowledge projects for fun. Part of the success of Wikipedia is that it allows for purposelessly clicking through random entries for no other reason than because learning is fun. However, my task in this essay is to better conceptualize Sanger’s points and not really make the case for a geek intellectualism. I’m only half-convinced myself of these last two points. I’ll leave it to Sanger to describe how geeks are anti-intellectual on these other two dimensions of anti-intellectualism. Until then, the story of geek anti-intellectualism remains mixed.

I haven't encountered geek anti-intellectuals of a fideist stripe--those who regard faith as a cardinal virtue and who criticize over-reliance on reason and science.  Computer geeks are mostly scientistic rationalists, or at least, they try to be.  (Sometimes they seem not to be simply because so many of them aren't actually trained in rational argumentation or the scientific method.  They learned how to argue on Internet forums.)  If there is something weird about calling geeks intellectuals, it would surely be this.  Indeed, geek rationalism actually explains why there was such an interesting response to my essay.  It didn't surprise me that geeks replied in various highly rational ways to my essay.  That's not the sort of response that a lot of religious anti-intellectuals, of the sort Hofstadter studied, would have, if I had made them my target; they probably wouldn't have responded at all.

As to the second point (on "unreflective instrumentalism"), however, I think Jurgenson lets geekdom off far too easily.  Of course geeks "engage in knowledge projects for fun" (so do many religious fundamentalists).  But geeks frequently talk about how the humanities are useless (this ties in to my point (2)) and for that reason, a waste of time.  One of the recent geek arguments for the pointlessness of college is precisely that college features so much abstract theorizing which doesn't have any practical application.  A lot of geeks love books, to be sure, but some of them reject books not merely because they prefer ebook editions over paper books, but because they have become true believers that social media is what Clay Shirky described as an "upstart literature" which promises to become the "new high culture," just give it some time.  Besides, we often hear, books are becoming outmoded because they are not collaborative, and they're boring and irrelevant because they were not made recently.  And if you try to argue that college might have a non-vocational purpose, their eyes seem to glaze over.  They just don't get that.

Here's a couple of points elaborated, also probably related to "unreflective instrumentalism," or as I would put it, to the devaluing of theoretical knowledge.  First, if you diss the classics, if you reject the intellectual basis for Western civilization wholesale, as some silly-clever geeks (to say nothing of culture-warrior college professors) do, then by golly, you're anti-intellectual. This isn't because you are an instrumentalist, it is because you reject the conceptual-historical basis which allows you to think what you're thinking, including even the math and computer science that forms the basis of the computers you're working on.  If you ignore the giant shoulders you're standing on, and pretend to be thinking through issues a priori or innocent of all scholarship, then you'll certainly fall prey to all sorts of significant errors and confusions.  A person who pretends to be able to speak intelligently on the political issues of capitalist democracy but who has not read theorists like Locke, Rousseau, or Marx is almost certain to make various sophomoric mistakes (regardless of his political leanings).  And that's just one example from one field.  If you don't care about making such mistakes based in historical ignorance, and the whole idea of understanding the content of the ideas you're so passionate about leaves you cold, then you are to that extent not intellectual, and perhaps not really as much of a rationalist as you'd like to think of yourself.  If you go farther and say that persons who inform themselves of the intellectual underpinnings of Western civilization are wasting their time, then plainly, your contempt for the knowledge that people get from such study is so great that you do deserve to be called anti-intellectual.

Second, there's my point (4).  If you reject the necessity of learning things for yourself--if you actually endorse ignorance merely because certain things can be looked up so easily now--then you're anti-intellectual in the rather basic sense that you're anti-knowing stuff.  The three-part definition Jurgenson gives is ultimately grounded, I would argue, in this basic concept: an anti-intellectual undervalues knowledge for its own sake.  That's what explains the stance of anti-expertism, anti-reason, and unreflective instrumentalism.   And if you had any doubt about whether there were a lot of geeks who undervalue knowledge for its own sake, just look at the comments on my essay.  There, on Slashdot, and in other places you'll find plenty of people dismissing college not just because it's a poor economic decision but because the sort of theoretical knowledge you get in college is allegedly a waste of time.  The very claim is anti-intellectual.

It would be different if I saw many geeks hastening to add, after dissing lit crit and philosophy and political theory, that they really mainly have it in for an over-politicized academe, while they still do have respect for the likes of Aristotle and Locke, Michelangelo and Picasso, Thucydides and Gibbon, and for those intellectuals who, along with most scientists, continue to work in the old tradition of advancing knowledge instead of deconstructing it.  But I don't come across geeks saying things like this too often.

The people I'm describing use their minds (often professionally, and very competently), and therefore their minds have a life, so to speak.  But many do not go in for, in Jurgenson's phrase, "the life of the mind."  That involves some level of commitment to understanding the world, including the humanistic elements of the world, at an abstract level, bringing the tools of reason and science to bear.  Just because you write computer software and are fascinated by a few geeky topics, it doesn't follow that you have this commitment.

But then, a lot of academics don't, either.  As I said, it's no contradiction to speak of academic anti-intellectuals.  Their influence is no doubt one of the reasons certain geeks are anti-intellectual.


Should we teach math in elementary school?

From the anti-intellectualism department, arguably:

An emeritus psych professor, Peter Gray, has made the argument in Psychology Today that we should not teach math in elementary school (K-6).  (Hat tip, BrillKids Forum.)  Well, I flatter Prof. Gray in calling it an "argument."  Maybe he has an argument elsewhere, but there isn't much of one in this mini-essay.

In what I will call his first premise, he reports on research from 1929 in which a group of kids were not taught math until the sixth grade, and instead, were taught "recitation," meaning "to talk about topics that interested them--experiences they had had, movies they had seen, or anything that would lead to genuine, lively communication and discussion."  Then, at the beginning of the sixth grade, they were tested.  While they didn't do nearly as well as their math-trained peers on most of the problems, they did better on simple word problems that could be solved with simple, intuitive math thinking.  And, according to Gray (for what it's worth), the math-deprived kids were doing as well on all of the problems by the end of the sixth grade.  The (intermediate) conclusion suggested is that early math education was unnecessary and actually made the kids less able to do word problems.

Then in his second premise, Gray says, in effect, that most elementary school teachers are very poor at math themselves.  No great surprise there.

Those, as far as I can make out, are the essay's two reasons for concluding: "At the present time it seems clear that we are doing more damage than good by teaching math in elementary schools. Therefore, I'm with Benezet [who did the 1929 research]. We should stop teaching it."

There are two basic problems with this: the first is with Gray's analysis of the study, and this forms his main premise. The second is that the conclusion does not even come close to following logically from the premises.

As to the study, what are the problems with Gray's analysis?  Let me count them:

1. The conclusion's proposal is radical.  Radical proposals demand rock-solid proof.  So, even if the study perfectly supported the conclusion, it would be, after all, just one study, and that is not strong proof, regardless of the study.  It is surprising that a distinguished scholar would make such a dramatic proposal on such a slender basis.

2. An important part of Gray's analysis is that by practicing "recitation," the experimental students were learning how to do the sort of reasoning done in word problems.  This is plausible.  But it doesn't follow from that that kids exposed to traditional math education were hampered in their ability to do word problems.  After all, there was not a third group--as perhaps there should have been--which received both math and "recitation" training.  My guess is that such a group would have outperformed the others.

3.  Another part of Gray's analysis is that most sixth graders are unmotivated to study math.  This is surely true, in general.  But he seems to assume that the math-untrained sixth graders were enthusiastic about math at the end of their year of math, and--maybe more to the point--remained enthusiastic through the rest of their schooling.  Gray's assumption appears to be that unpleasant experiences in the early grades turn students off to math, and if we waited, they would not be so turned off.  He could be right, but the study doesn't give any basis for thinking so.  If there had been a follow-up study, in the ninth or twelfth grade, that indicated love and motivation for math, then his point would have some support.  But it might turn out to be the subject itself, regardless of how it is taught, that turns off students.

4. Why the seventh grade?  Why not wait until the twelfth grade?  Why not start a little earlier, like in the fourth grade?

I could go on, but that's enough.

Now to the other problem.  Let's suppose that Gray's analysis is correct, and that, for the kids in the study, the math education they would have received in their classes would not have been beneficial.  But does it follow from that--and the fact that most elementary school teachers aren't good even at basic math--that we should not teach math before seventh grade?

Uh, no.  Here are just a few reasons this doesn't follow:

1. If we're going to get all clever with studies, let's compare recitation-only not just to the math education they would have received in their school, but according to the most effective curriculum as measured by test scores.  (And don't forget to compare it to that curriculum plus recitation, too.)

2. It's easy to agree that kids will not receive a high-quality math education in most classrooms in most public schools in the U.S.--no thanks to all the half-baked failures of the education professors and educational psychologists, who are so often not interested in what has actually been proven to maximize student knowledge.  But this for me (as for a BrillKids commenter) illustrates why my boys, like two million students (and growing), are being or will be homeschooled.  Until you can establish that doing math below the seventh grade is pointless even for homeschoolers, your recommendations are going to sound awfully foolish to a lot of the homeschoolers out there.  (Of course, some of them agree with Gray.  The more radical Unschoolers don't want to start their kids learning anything like math or reading until the kid is all in favor of learning them.  But then, Gray looks like a radical unschooler himself--see the link to his CV below.)

3. The effect might have been real enough for the experimental group, but Gray's advice regards the whole country or world (as far as I can tell).  But why think it wouldn't be a complete, unmitigated disaster if we started teaching math in the seventh grade en masse?

I suggested with my snarky opening line that Gray's position is anti-intellectual.  Of course, if he were right, and avoiding math for seven years (K-6) on average were to help kids to learn math better later, then of course that wouldn't be anti-intellectual.  That would be pro-intellectual.  But I stand by the label.  Gray doesn't supply even remotely enough in the way of argument and experimental evidence to seriously suggest that we should stop teaching math in elementary school.  For a distinguished scholar, who no doubt has the ear of many education decision-makers and whose recommendations are, therefore, of some practical import, he seems to be surprisingly willing to be play fast and loose with the educational futures of children.  This is the sort of half-baked, sloppy thinking and scholarship that got us disasters like the new math and whole language teaching of reading.  I'm just guessing, but it seems very possible that, more than by the evidence he presents, Gray has a general animus against abstract thinking.  This is all the rage in discussions of education methods these days; learning should be maximally hands-on, "experiential," project-driven, etc.  That whole trend is anti-intellectual.  A glance at Gray's (very distinguished) CV more or less confirms my suspicions: he's a Sudbury Valley (radical unschooling) and "free play" advocate.


Update about the boys (June 2011)

I've changed quite a bit of what I've been doing with H. For many months, I was following a schedule according to which I assigned specific subjects to specific meals (we read, or do something else educational, at almost all meals). So, for example, at breakfast on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we did history, and on the other days, science.  This was working reasonably well. But, for a whole bunch of reasons I won't go into, I decided to change things up. I guess the main reason is that we had started way too many books. We were working on, I'd estimate, 20-30 nonfiction (and a few fiction) books at once. This contributed to a lack of interest in certain books (it's important that there not be too big of a lag between time working on a book, or the thread is lost).

So I decided to pick at most a half-dozen and read only those. As a result, we've finished a lot more books, we are finally making significant progress on those half-dozen, and I think our reading time is more efficient. Books that we've been dipping into, off and on, for as long as a year (or more, in one or two cases), we are now actually finishing. We could still follow a schedule, if we really wanted to, but I'm not sure I see the point anymore. I mean, if I want to ensure that we read a wide variety of subjects, or get more of some particular subject, then it's just a matter of adding more of those books to the "active" book set when we finish one.

The other change is bigger: H. is now reading on his own for an hour a day, and he's reading a substantial amount with good comprehension. How has this happened?  Well, now that H. is five, he is at an age when a lot of kids are stopping their afternoon naps. We've been worried that, if he stopped his nap, he wouldn't be getting enough sleep, and getting enough sleep is very important, especially for children. But we did stop his nap, and as a result he has been getting to sleep earlier (sometimes he was taking a loooong time to fall asleep at night) and getting up a little later (rather than bouncing on the bed at 6:30 AM, as he has been known to do). So at night he seems to be getting the sleep that he would otherwise have in his afternoon nap.

So here is the deal: I figured that putting off bedtime would be an excellent incentive to read at bedtime. I already knew he didn't like napping. So I said, "Either you take a nap, or here's a new option, you can read for an hour."  H. jumped at the chance to skip the nap.

Let me digress: for a year or so, H. has not been reading to himself so much. I don't know why this has been the case; it might be something as mundane as the abundance of more compelling toys, like Legos, which diverted him endlessly. I wrote off his new nonreading habits as a phase (though there were two or three short periods in this "phase" in which he did read to himself a fair bit), but it was getting to be a rather long phase. Mind you, he still declared that he liked reading--just only when I read to him. And that I did (and still do) a lot. Actually, H. never did read very much to himself, and when he did, he only rarely read books from cover to cover, even though he was totally able to do so. Instead, he would sit and look through a zillion picture books at random and, later, the Magic Tree House books we read so many of.

As I was saying, H. was totally game for reading instead of napping. And it has worked out very well for the last week, the first we've tried it. I thought he'd resist, take long breaks, pretend to read and not really do it--but none of that has happened, as far as I can tell. A couple of days ago, in a little over an hour, he read the whole 62-page Usborne Young Reading (Level 3) version of Count of Monte Cristo, a 30-page highly illustrated (but not babyish) book about farm equipment, and (he re-read this) one of the Katie museum books (maybe Katie and the Spanish Princess--we love the Katie books, they're a great way to introduce art). This is, I think, an amazing amount for a five-year-old to read in an hour. So I've kept asking him (and myself) whether he's actually reading all that. (I can't see him doing the reading, because I'm upstairs, putting together Reading Bear--that's the new program's name.) Now, H. is a pretty honest little kid. Still, I've decided to verify. I am now in the habit of asking him a whole series of questions about all the books he read, and he is in the habit of answering them.  This has the added benefit of reinforcing what he has read, of course.

He always gets the more obvious questions right, and he frequently surprises me with his ability to remember things that I am quite sure I would never remember myself. I also sometimes ask questions about unimportant details, just to see how carefully he read the text (most are not "reading comprehension" questions), and he often gets those right.  This overall performance has really put my mind at ease. For a long time, I wondered how much of what we read H. really absorbed. I sometimes asked him comprehension questions, and he usually got the answers right, but I was still not sure. Well, this practice of an-hour-of-reading-then-quiz-on-it has me completely convinced: H. doesn't just remember what he read, he remembers it far better than I would, and he definitely understands most important plot details, characters, motives, etc. So, for those few of you reading this who might be skeptical that a very early reader would be reading with excellent comprehension at age five, I can assure you that they can, at least in the case of my own little boy.

Today, after I put out ten or so books for him to choose from, set the 60-minute timer, and went upstairs, he chose one that he picked out at the bookstore last night: Who Was Abraham Lincoln? (from the Grosset & Dunlap historical biography series). He read 20 pages of this 100-page chapter book, a historical biography for kids, grade level 3.9 (according to the wonderful "Teacher Book Wizard").  I never would have expected him to pick a "serious" history book; he was obviously made interested in the subject by a rather easier picture book bio of Lincoln by the D'Aulaires.  Anyway, he read out of the Lincoln book after he had read, cover to cover, Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures #2: The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery, about 80 pages long, supposedly grade level 4.4.  And after that, he re-read 30 pages of the Usborne version of The Canterville Ghost (for the fourth time--he just likes it, for some reason).  When he told me he read all that, I was still having a hard time believing it.  Twenty pages of history, after an 80-page easy chapter book and then 30 pages of another easy chapter book?  Could he really do all that in an hour?  But I gave him a quiz, asking him all sorts of questions that he could answer only if he had been reading and paying attention, and he appeared to have read them and understood them very well.

I don't mean to brag--I'm just feeling vindicated, as well as proud of my little boy.

Otherwise, we're plugging away with math and penmanship.  As to math, we're doing Two Plus Two Is Not Five, which is a workbook for memorizing addition and subtraction facts, and still plugging away with Kindergarten Math B (but getting closer to the end).  As to penmanship, lately we've been doing two pages per day out of the Kumon Lowercase Letters book, and then I give him five words, or a short sentence, to copy.  He's making fine progress on both fronts, although he's not nearly as advanced in these skills as he is in reading.  We've (temporarily) stopped practicing typing and memorizing quotations--haven't done either one for a month or so.  I'm sure we'll get back into those soonish.

As to history--well, first, some background.  Last spring, around March I guess, H. found in our bookcase Gombrich's Little History of the World, which I had hopefully bought a year or so ago.  I didn't really expect him to start reading it, because it seemed advanced.  But he requested it, totally out of the blue.  Then we also started reading Bauer's excellent Story of the World again, at his request.  Now, I just knew, because I know his habits, that, left to his own devices, he would probably drop one or both of these books.  I had the notion that we ought to stick with them and even read them concurrently, to get two different child-friendly perspectives on world history.  So I decreed that we would read at least two pages of each book before reading our usual chapter books (novels).  (Right now, we're working on The Great Brain and an easy version of The Secret Garden, the original of which we just finished in audiobook form.  And today we finished Tintin and the Picaros, our sixth Tintin "graphic novel"--fun, but not the best of the series.)

This was totally the right move for us, now.  Two pages go by very fast, so often we read three or four; as we do this every night without fail, we actually made good progress through the books, despite the fact that we're reading two at once.  He never complains about this reading and has actually taken a definite interest in history.  Myself, I've never had more fun with it.  It also helps that I show him supplementary videos and pictures on the iPad.

Actually, we haven't read Gombrich or Bauer in a month, though.  Halfway through Bauer, I turned to a historical atlas for kids as well as Usborne's excellent Ancient World, a thin children's encyclopedia, and we've been reading two pages out of these daily, to solidify what we learned in Gombrich and Bauer.  It'll take another week or two and then we'll be caught up.  Then the idea will be to cover some period of history first in a relatively short version from Gombrich, then a longer version from Bauer, then consolidate this by reading the atlas and encyclopedia versions.  "Slow but steady" is how we're approaching history--at this rate, in a little over two years, we will have read Gombrich, Bauer's four volumes, a series of Usborne history encyclopedias, and one or two history atlases--two to four pages at a time, at bedtime.  "Slow and steady."

Then, after the little bit of history, we do chapter books for a half hour or so, as usual.

Still doing Rosetta Stone Latin in the afternoons.  Working away at Level 1, Unit 2.

We finished Lollipop Logic, a little beginner logic book.  It's OK--H. has "ordered" the second in the series.  As a logic teacher myself, I'm not sure what the advantage of this sort of practice is, but H. specifically asked for logic books after I explained something about the subject and he saw my logic texts on my bookshelf.  Can't hurt, and provides a tiny bit of practice helpful for understanding science and the  world generally.

We did a six week soccer thing--H's first team sport experience.  He liked it, but really didn't get the whole competition thing.  Preferred talking to playing.

We rented a fiddle, again; I started giving him lessons, but we both sort of gave up--me, mainly because I'm worried that he's going to learn bad habits by practicing endlessly without me but not holding the instrument properly.  We probably need the discipline of Suzuki at this point.

Now just a little about baby E.--not as much to report here.  He's now eight months old.  He's noisier now, and just ready to crawl (doing the rocking-back-and-forth thing on his hands and knees) and standing easily (holding on to one hand).  (H., by the way, never learned to crawl as a baby, but he started walking at age 10 months.)  We've been doing 10 minutes of flashcards nearly daily, often read books, watch Your Baby Can Read twice a week or so (and I'm now having him watch Volume 2).  We also look at Reading Bear (the same demo presentation, 30 words or so) regularly, and iPad apps several times a week.  I regularly take him on tours of the house and narrate stuff.  He's constantly hearing language from his mama and big brother.  He makes all sorts of noises, and can say "mama" and "papa" intentionally, and knows what they mean.  Once a few weeks ago I showed him the "wave" or "waving" card, without saying the word, and he started waving his arm vigorously.  Of course, it could have been a coincidence.  Anyway, E. is a very lively little guy.


Geek anti-intellectualism: replies

My essay on "geek anti-intellectualism" hit a nerve.  I get the sense that a lot of geeks are acting--quite unusually for them--defensively, because I've presented them with a sobering truth about themselves that they hadn't realized.  Consequently they've been unusually thoughtful and polite.  This is quite new and startling to me--I mean, there's something about this discussion that I can't remember ever seeing before.  Anyway, it must have seemed relevant, because it was posted live on Slashdot within minutes of my submitting it--something I'd never seen before--and proceeded to rack up 916 comments, as of this writing, which is quite a few for Slashdot.  It was also well discussed on Metafilter, on Twitter, and here on this blog (where I've had over 160 comments so far).  What struck me about these discussions was the unusually earnest attempts, in most cases, to come to grips with some of the issues I raised.  Of course, there has been some of the usual slagging from the haters, and a fair number of not-very-bright responses, but an unusually high proportion of signal, some of it quite insightful.  Reminds me of some old college seminars, maybe.

First, let me concede that I left a lot unsaid.  Of course, what I left unsaid ended up being said, sometimes ad nauseam, in the comments, and a few points I found to be quite enlightening.  On the other hand, I find a lot of geeks thinking that they understand aspects of higher education that they really don't.  I'm not sure I can set them right, but I'll try to make a few points anyway.

I am going to do what I've always done, since the 1990s, when something I've written elicited a much greater response than I could possibly deal with: make a numbered laundry list of replies.

1. How dare you accuse all geeks of being anti-intellectual? I didn't; RTFA.  I know there are lots of very intellectual geeks and that geekdom is diverse in various ways.  I'm talking about social trends, which are always a little messy; but that doesn't mean there's nothing to discuss.

2. There's a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-academic. Maybe the most common response was that geeks don't dislike knowledge or the intellect, they dislike intellectuals with their academic institutions and practices.  First, let me state my geek credentials.  I've spent a lot of time online since the mid-90s.  I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects.  You'll notice that I'm not in academe now.  I have repeatedly (four times) left academe and later returned.

I agree that academia has become way too politicized.  Too many academics think it's OK to preach their ideology to their students, and their tendency to organize conferences and journals around tendentious ideological themes is not just annoying, it is indeed unscholarly.  Moreover, speaking as a skeptically-inclined philosopher, I think that some academics have an annoying tendency to promote their views with unwarranted confidence, and also to pretend to speak authoritatively on subjects outside of their training.  Also, in many fields, the economics of academic advancement and publishing has created a tendency to focus on relatively unimportant minutiae, to the detriment of broader insight and scholarly wisdom.  Also, I completely agree that college work has been watered down (but more on that in the next point).

Having admitted all that, I'm still not backing down; I knew all that when I was writing my essay.  Please review the five points I made.  None of them is at odds with this critique of academe.  Just because some experts can be annoyingly overconfident, it doesn't follow that they do not deserve various roles in society articulating what is known about their areas of expertise.  If you deny that, then you are devaluing the knowledge they actually have; that's an anti-intellectual attitude.  If you want to know what the state of the research is in a field, you ask a researcher.  So even if your dislike of academics is justified in part, it does not follow that their word on their expertise is worth the same as everyone else's.  Besides, most of my points had little to do with academics per se: I also had points about books in general, classics in particular, and memorization and learning.

3. Just because you think college is now a bad deal, economically speaking, it doesn't follow that you're anti-intellectual. Well, duh.  I didn't really take up the question whether the present cost of college justifies not going, and I'm not going to get into that, because I don't really think it's relevant.  Let's suppose you're right, and that for some people, the long-term cost of college loans, combined with the fact that they won't get much benefit from their college education, means that they're justified not going.  My complaint is not about people who don't go to college, my complaint is about people who say that college is "a waste of time" if you do go and are committed.  Maybe, for people who don't study much and who don't let themselves benefit, it is a waste of time.  But that's their fault, not the fault of college.  I taught at Ohio State, which is not nearly as demanding as the college I attended myself (Reed), and I saw many students drifting through, not doing the reading, not coming to class, rarely practicing their writing skills.  I also saw people who always did the reading, always came to class, participated regularly, and were obviously benefiting from their encounter with great writing and great ideas.  Moreover, how college affects you isn't "the luck of the draw."  It depends on your commitment and curiosity.  This is why some partiers drop out and come back to college after five or ten years, and then they do great and finally enjoy themselves in class.

Finally, may I say again (I said it first in the 1990s, and also a few days ago), it is possible to get a degree by examination from programs like Excelsior College?  This way, you bypass the expense of college and pick all your instructors for a fraction of the cost.  This entails that you can get intellectually trained, as well as earn a real college degree, without going into debt.  This would be my advice to the clever ex-homeschoolers who claim that it is college that is, somehow, anti-intellectual.  Put up or shut up, home scholars: if you really are committed to the life of the mind, as you say, and you've already got experience directing your own studies, why not get a degree through independent study with academic tutors, and then take tests (and portfolio evaluations) to prove your knowledge and get the credential?

4. The people you're describing are not true geeks; they are the digerati, or "hipsters," or leftist academics who were already anti-intellectual and then started doing geek stuff. Uh, no.  I mean, you're probably right that some anti-intellectual thinkers who weren't geeks have started talking about the Internet a lot, and they have a big web presence, so now they might appear to be part of geekdom.  But they aren't really, by any reasonably stringent definition of "geek."  Besides, if you look at my article, you'll see that that's what I said (such people fall into the category of "digerati").  My point is that claims (1)-(5) started circulating online among geeks, and they are, each of them, commonly spouted by lots of geeks.  Take them in turn.  (1) Anti-expert animus is a well-known feature of the geek thought-world.  Wikipedia became somewhat anti-expert because of the dominance of geeks in the project.  (2) Of course, the geeks at Project Gutenberg love books, but all too often I see comments online that books went out in the 20th century, and good riddance.  One of the leading idols of the geeks, Clay Shirky, essentially declared books to be a dying medium, to be replaced with something more collaborative.  (3) It is obvious just from the comments here on this blog, and elsewhere, that some geeks find the classics (that means philosophy, history, novels, epics, poetry, drama, religious texts, etc.)  to be a waste of time.  They don't have the first clue about what they're talking about.  (4) The first time I saw the idea discussed much that Internet resources mean we no longer have to memorize (and hence learn) as many facts was among Wikipedians in 2002 or so (when it was totally dominated by geeks, even more than it is now).  (5) The whole college-is-a-waste-of-time thing is a not uncommon geek conceit.  It's not surprising in the least that a founder of Paypal.com would spout it.  It's easy for computer geeks to say, because they can get well-paying jobs without degrees.  In many other fields, that's (still) not true.

5. But I'm an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passe.  The things to be learned are "relationships" or "analysis" or "critical thinking." Oh?  Then I claim that you are espousing an anti-intellectual sentiment, whether you know it or not.  I'm not saying you're opposed to all things intellectual, I'm saying that that opinion is, to be perfectly accurate, a key feature of anti-intellectualism.  Look, this is very simple.  If you have learned something, then you can, at the very least, recall it.  In other words, you must have memorized it, somehow.  This doesn't necessarily mean you must have used flashcards to jam it into your recalcitrant brain by force, so to speak.  Memorization doesn't have to be by rote.  But even if you do a project, if you haven't come to remember some fact as a result, then you don't know it.  Thus I say that to be opposed to the memorization of facts is to be opposed to the learning, and knowing, of those facts.  To advocate against all memorization is to advocate for ignorance.  For more on this, please see my EDUCAUSE Review essay "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age."

I know that this is an old and common sentiment among education theorists--which is a shame.  Indeed, the educationists who say that it is not necessary to memorize the multiplication table are implying that it is OK for kids to be ignorant of those math facts.  (No, it's not OK.  They should know them.)  Anyway, it might have started with misguided educators, but it is becoming far too common among geeks too.

6. The Internet is changing, that's all.  Most people are anti-intellectual, and they're getting online. No doubt about it, the Internet has changed greatly in the last five to ten years.  And it might well be the case that the average netizen is more anti-intellectual than in the past, in the very weak sense that more stupid people and uneducated people are getting online.  This might have been clever to say, if my point had been, "Folks online seem to be getting anti-intellectual."  But that isn't at all what I said or meant.  If you will review the evidence I marshalled, you'll see that the people I'm talking about are not the great unwashed masses.  I'm talking about geeks and the digerati who presume to speak about geeky things.  And their influence, as I said, has been growing.

7. Americans are anti-intellectual.  Geek anti-intellectualism is just a reflection of that. Think about what you're saying here; it doesn't make much sense.  I claim that geeks are increasingly anti-intellectual, or increasingly giving voice to anti-intellectual sentiments.  This is a trend, which many people are discussing now because they recognize it as well.  American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon, goes back to colonial days, and was rooted in our distance from the erstwhile European sources of intellectual life as well as the physical difficulty of frontier life.  The pattern of anti-intellectualism I discern is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has grown up especially with the rise of the Internet.

8. Conservatives never were the anti-intellectuals; it was always the liberal lefties! Glenn Reynolds linked my post, and so some conservatives grumbled about my line, "Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing."  Well, I hate to wade into politics here.  I used the passive voice deliberately, because I did not want to endorse the claim that anti-intellectualism is the mark of "knuckle-dragging conservatives" (I don't endorse this phrase, either).  All I meant to say is that this is one of liberals' favorite things to say about American fundamentalists.  I was about to, but did not, go on to say that actually, among the home schooling crowd, liberals and libertarians tend to go in for "unschooling," which is relatively (and not necessarily) hostile to traditional academics, and it is conservatives who go in for  uber-academic Latin-and-logic "classical education."  I didn't say that, because I knew it would be distracting to my point.  So I'm kind of sorry I made the remark about conservatives, because it too was distracting to my point.  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers, so to speak, everywhere.

9. Are you crazy?  Geeks are smart, and you're calling geeks stupid by calling them anti-intellectual. You didn't know that "anti-intellectual" does not mean "stupid," apparently.  There are plenty of anti-intellectual geeks who are crazy smart.  They aren't stupid in the least.  You also must distinguish between having anti-intellectual attitudes or views, which is what I was talking about, and having anti-intellectual practices. There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are anti-intellectual.  (There are Jewish anti-Semites, too.)  Just think of any progressive education professor who inveighs against most academic work in K-12 schools, describes academic work that involves a little memorization and practice as "drill and kill," wants the world to institute unschooling and the project method en masse, has nothing but the purest P.C. contempt for the Western canon, advocates for vocational education for all but those who are truly, personally enthusiastic about academics, wants academic education to be as collaborative as possible rather than requiring students to read books, which are "irrelevant" to the fast-changing daily lives of students, and channeling Foucault rails against the hegemony of scientists and other experts.  Well, such a person I would describe as an anti-intellectual intellectual.  The person might well write perfectly-crafted articles with scholarly apparatus, read classics in her field, and so forth.  It's just that her opinions are unfortunately hostile to students getting knowledge (in my opinion).

10. But the liberal arts are a waste of time.  Studying Chaucer?  Philosophy?  History?  The vague opinionizing is pointless and facts can be looked up. If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any really educated person will disagree with you.  Once you have received a liberal education, your mind expands.  You might not understand how, or why it's important, but it does.  That's why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn't pay much, as it usually doesn't.  If you haven't studied philosophy, you can't begin to understand the universe and our place in it--I don't care how much theoretical physics you've studied.  There are aspects of reality that can be grasped only by critically examining the content of our concepts.  Similarly, if you haven't read much literature and especially if you are young, then you are very probably a complete babe in the woods when it comes to the understanding of human nature and the human condition; that's why people read literature, not so that they can sniff disdainfully at others over their lattes.

11. What you call "anti-intellectual" is really "anti-authority."  You're merely defending the prerogatives of snooty intellectuals whose authority is on the wane. This is one of the most common and often snarkiest replies I've run across.  But it's also a very interesting point.  Still, on analysis, I'm going to call it flimsy at best.  I'm going to spend quite a bit of space on this one.  Feel free to skip to down to the end ("In Sum" before "Conclusion").

Let's distinguish between being opposed to knowledge in its various forms, on the one hand, and being opposed to the prerogatives of intellectuals, on the other.  I claim that the path many geeks are headed down really has them opposed to theoretical and factual knowledge per se. I think the evidence I offered supported this reasonably well, but let me try to make it a little more explicit.

Consider point (1), about experts.  ("Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.")  That certainly looks like it is about the prerogatives of experts.  If for example on Wikipedia I encountered people saying, for example, "Experts need to prove this to us, not just assert their authoritah," that would be fair enough.  That's not anti-intellectual at all.  But going farther to say, "You merely have access to resources, you don't understand this any better than I do" and "You're not welcome here" is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe.  If you can't bring yourself to admit that--and I submit that the stripe of geek I'm describing can't--then your attitude is anti-intellectual.  (Some people are refreshingly honest about just this.)  Then what you're saying is that specialized study and experience do not lead to anything valuable, and are a waste of time.  But they lead to knowledge, which is valuable, and not a waste of time.

Point (2) (that books per se are outmoded) also, admittedly, has a little to do with intellectual authority--but only a little.  One of the reasons that some geeks, and others, are welcoming the demise of books is that they resent a single person set up as an authority by a publisher.  They say that publishing can and should be more like a conversation, and in a conversation, there shouldn't be one "authority," but rather a meeting of equal minds.  So perhaps those who are pleased to attack the medium of books couch their views as an attack on authority.  Perhaps.  But when I defend books, I really don't care about authority so much.  Of course, when thinking adults read books, they don't read them it in order to receive the truth from on high.  They are interested (in argumentative books, to take just one kind) in a viewpoint being fully and intelligently canvassed.  As some of the geeks commenting do not realize, and as some people don't realize until they get to graduate school, it frequently requires a book--or several books--to fully articulate a case for some relatively narrow question.  Scholars should be praised, not faulted, for being so committed to the truth that they are willing to write, and read, discussions that are that long.  The fact that publishers have to pick authors who are capable of mounting excellent arguments at such length doesn't mean that their readers are supposed simply to accept whatever they are told.  At bottom, then, to oppose books as such is to be opposed to the only way extended verbal arguments (and narratives and exposition) can be propagated.  An indeterminately large collaboration can't develop a huge, integrated, complex theory, write a great novel, or develop a unified, compelling narrative about some element of our experience.  If you want to call yourself intellectual, you've got to support the creation of such works by individual people.

Point (3), about the classics, has almost nothing to do with the prerogatives of authority.  The shape of the Western Canon, if you will, does not rest on anybody's authority, but instead on the habits of educators (school and university) as an entire class.  You're not rebelling against anybody's authority when you rebel against classics; you are, if anything, rebelling against the ideas the classics contain, or against the labor of reading something that is demanding to read.  In any case, anybody who comes down squarely against reading the classics is, to that extent, decidedly anti-intellectual.  Face it.

Point (4), which has us memorizing as little as possible and using the Internet as a memory prosthesis as much as possible, has absolutely nothing to do with authority.  If you're opposed to memorizing something, you're opposed to learning and knowing it.  That's quite anti-intellectual.

Point (5) concerns college, and on this many people said, in effect, "I oppose the stupidity of an overpriced, mediocre, unnecessary product that rests on the alleged authority of college professors."  Then it looks like you're criticizing the authority of professors, and so you think I'm defending that.  Well, to be sure, if college professors had no significant knowledge, which (as I think) gives their views some intellectual authority, then there would be no point in paying money to study with them.  But I can defend the advisability of systematic college-level study (I choose these words carefully) without making any controversial claims about the authority of college professors.  I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say (especially in the humanities and social sciences).  After all, most professors expect their students to be skeptical and not to take what they say uncritically; and only a very dull student will do that, anyway.  If you didn't know that, it's probably because you haven't been to college.  So, no.  I am not merely defending the authority of college professors.  I am personally quite critical of most scholarship I encounter.

In sum, I know that libertarian geeks (I'd count myself as one, actually) love to rail against the prerogatives of authority.  You'd like to justify your anti-intellectual attitudes (and sometimes, behavior) as fighting against The Man.  Maybe that is why you have your attitudes, maybe not.  In any case, that doesn't stop said attitudes from being anti-intellectual, and your issues don't mean that I am especially concerned to defend the prerogatives of authority.  I am not.

Conclusion

I think I've hit most of the high points.

One thing I didn't discuss in my original essay was why geeks have become so anti-intellectual, especially with the rise of the Internet.  Here is my take on that.  Most geeks are very smart, predominantly male, and capable of making an excellent livelihood from the sweat of their minds.  Consequently, as a class, they're more arrogant than most, and they naturally have a strong independent streak.  Moreover, geeks pride themselves on finding the most efficient ("laziest") way to solve any problem, even if it is a little sloppy.  When it comes to getting qualified for work, many will naturally dismiss the necessity of college if they feel they can, because they hate feeling put-upon by educators who can't even write two lines of code.  And the whole idea of memorizing stuff, well, it seems more and more unnecessarily effortful when web searching often uncovers answers just as well (they very misguidedly think).  What about books, and classics in particular?  Well, geek anti-intellectual attitudes here are easily explained as a combination of laziness and arrogance.  The Iliad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract; instead, they could read a manual or write code or engineer some project, and do a lot more of what they recognize as "learning."  The advent of new social media and the decline of the popularity of books are developments that only confirm their attitude.  It doesn't hurt that geek is suddenly chic, which surely only inflates geek arrogance.  If they admit to themselves that there is something to philosophy, history, or anything else that takes time, hard study, and reflection to learn, but which does not produce code or gadgetry, then they would feel a little deflated.  This doesn't sit well with their pride, of course.  They're smart, they think, and so how could they be opposed to any worthwhile knowledge?

So it shouldn't be surprising that some (only some) geeks turn out to be anti-intellectual.  This is no doubt why many people said, in response to my essay, "This is just what I've been thinking."


Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?

Is there a new anti-intellectualism?  I mean one that is advocated by Internet geeks and some of the digerati.  I think so: more and more mavens of the Internet are coming out firmly against academic knowledge in all its forms.  This might sound outrageous to say, but it is sadly true.

Let's review the evidence.

1. The evidence

Programmers have been saying for years that it's unnecessary to get a college degree in order to be a great coder--and this has always been easy to concede.  I never would have accused them of being anti-intellectual, or even of being opposed to education, just for saying that.  It is just an interesting feature of programming as a profession--not evidence of anti-intellectualism.

In 2001, along came Wikipedia, which gave everyone equal rights to record knowledge.  This was only half of the project's original vision, as I explain in this memoir.  Originally, we were going to have some method of letting experts approve articles.  But the Slashdot geeks who came to dominate Wikipedia's early years, supported by Jimmy Wales, nixed this notion repeatedly.  The digerati cheered and said, implausibly, that experts were no longer needed, and that "crowds" were wiser than people who had devoted their lives to knowledge.  This ultimately led to a debate, now old hat, about experts versus amateurs in the mid-2000s.  There were certainly notes of anti-intellectualism in that debate.

Around the same time, some people began to criticize books as such, as an outmoded medium, and not merely because they are traditionally paper and not digital.  The Institute for the Future of the Book has been one locus of this criticism.

But nascent geek anti-intellectualism really began to come into focus around three years ago with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, when Nicholas Carr asked, "Is Google making us stupid?" in The Atlantic. More than by Carr's essay itself, I was struck by the reaction to it.  Altogether too many geeks seemed to be assume that if information glut is sapping our ability to focus, this is largely out of our control and not necessarily a bad thing.  But of course it is a bad thing, and it is in our control, as I pointed out. Moreover, focus is absolutely necessary if we are to gain knowledge.  We will be ignoramuses indeed, if we merely flow along with the digital current and do not take the time to read extended, difficult texts.

Worse still was Clay Shirky's reaction in the Britannica Blog, where he opined, "no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting," and borrows a phrase from Richard Foreman in claiming, "the ‘complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality’ is at risk."  As I observed at the time, Shirky's views entailed that Twitter-sized discourse was our historically determined fate, and that, if he were right, the Great Books and civilization itself would be at risk.  But he was not right--I hope.

At the end of 2008, Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, got into the act, claiming that Google makes memorization passe.  "It is enough that they know about the Battle of Hastings," Tapscott boldly claimed, "without having to memorise that it was in 1066.  [Students] can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google."

In 2010, Edge took up the question, "Is the Internet changing the way you think?" and the answers were very sobering.  Here were some extremely prominent scientists, thinkers, and writers, and all too many of them were saying again, more boldly, that the Internet was making it hard to read long pieces of writing, that books were passe, and that the Internet was essentially becoming a mental prosthesis.  We were, as one writer put it, uploading our brains to the Internet.

As usual, I did not buy the boosterism.  I was opposed to the implicit techno-determinism as well as the notion that the Internet makes learning unnecessary.  Anyone who claims that we do not need to read and memorize some facts is saying that we do not need to learn those facts.  Reading and indeed memorizing are the first, necessary steps in learning anything.

This brings us to today.  Recently, Sir Ken Robinson has got a lot of attention by speaking out--inspiringly to some, outrageously to others--saying that K-12 education needs a sea change away from "boring" academics and toward collaborative methods that foster "creativity."  At the same time, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel sparked much discussion by claiming that there is a "higher education bubble," that is, the cost of higher education greatly exceeds its value.  This claim by itself is somewhat plausible.  But Thiel much less plausibly implies that college per se is now not recommendable for many, because it is "elitist."  With his Thiel Fellowship program he hopes to demonstrate that a college degree is not necessary for success in the field of technology.  Leave it to a 19-year-old recipient of one of these fellowships to shout boldly that "College is a waste of time."  Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

2. Geek anti-intellectualism

In the above, I have barely scratched the surface.  I haven't mentioned many other commentators, blogs, and books that have written on such subjects.  But this is enough to clarify what I mean by "geek anti-intellectualism."  Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above:

1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.  Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.  (Cf. this essay of mine.)

2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.  In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.  They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can't be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes.  In short, they are boring and irrelevant.

4. The digitization of information means that we don't have to memorize nearly as much.  We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities.  We can answer most general questions with a quick search.

5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek.  You don't have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

If you are the sort of geek who loves all things Internet uncritically, then you're probably nodding your head to these.  If so, I submit this as a new epistemological manifesto that might well sum up your views:

You don't really care about knowledge; it's not a priority.  For you, the books containing knowledge, the classics and old-fashioned scholarship summing up the best of our knowledge, the people and institutions whose purpose is to pass on knowledge--all are hopelessly antiquated.  Even your own knowledge, the contents of your mind, can be outsourced to databases built by collaborative digital communities, and the more the better.  After all, academics are boring.  A new world is coming, and you are in the vanguard.  In this world, the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge, are objects of your derision.  You have contempt for the sort of people who read books and talk about them--especially classics, the long and difficult works that were created alone by people who, once upon a time, were hailed as brilliant.  You have no special respect for anyone who is supposed to be "brilliant" or even "knowledgeable."  What you respect are those who have created stuff that many people find useful today.  Nobody cares about some Luddite scholar's ability to write a book or get an article past review by one of his peers.  This is why no decent school requires reading many classics, or books generally, anymore--books are all tl;dr for today's students.  In our new world, insofar as we individually need to know anything at all, our knowledge is practical, and best gained through projects and experience.  Practical knowledge does not come from books or hard study or any traditional school or college.  People who spend years of their lives filling up their individual minds with theoretical or factual knowledge are chumps who will probably end up working for those who skipped college to focus on more important things.

Do you find your views misrepresented?  I'm being a bit provocative, sure, but haven't I merely repeated some remarks and made a few simple extrapolations?  Of course, most geeks, even most Internet boosters, will not admit to believing all of this manifesto.  But I submit that geekdom is on a slippery slope to the anti-intellectualism it represents.

So there is no mistake, let me describe the bottom of this slippery slope more forthrightly.  You are opposed to knowledge as such. You contemptuously dismiss experts who have it; you claim that books are outmoded, including classics, which contain the most significant knowledge generated by humankind thus far; you want to memorize as little as possible, and you want to upload what you have memorized to the net as soon as possible; you don't want schools to make students memorize anything; and you discourage most people from going to college.

In short, at the bottom of the slippery slope, you seem to be opposed to knowledge wherever it occurs, in books, in experts, in institutions, even in your own mind.

But, you might say, what about Internet communities?  Isn't that a significant exception?  You might think so.  After all, how can people who love Wikipedia so much be "opposed to knowledge as such"?  Well, there is an answer to that.

It's because there is a very big difference between a statement occurring in a database and someone having, or learning, a piece of knowledge.  If all human beings died out, there would be no knowledge left even if all libraries and the whole Internet survived.  Knowledge exists only inside people's heads.  It is created not by being accessed in a database search, but by being learned and mastered.  A collection of Wikipedia articles about physics contains text; the mind of a physicist contains knowledge.

3. How big of a problem is geek anti-intellectualism?

Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants.  Remarkably, that seems to be changing.

How serious am I in the above analysis?  And is this really a problem, or merely a quirk of geek life in the 21st century?

It's important to bear in mind what I do and do not mean when I say that some Internet geeks are anti-intellectuals.  I do not mean that they would admit that they hate knowledge or are somehow opposed to knowledge.  Almost no one can admit such a thing to himself, let alone to others.  And, of course, I  doubt I could find many geeks who would say that students should not graduate from high school without learning a significant amount of math, science, and some other subjects as well.  Moreover, however they might posture when at work on Wikipedia articles, most geeks have significant respect for the knowledge of people like Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins, of course.  Many geeks, too, are planning on college, are in college, or have been to college.  And so forth--for the various claims (1)-(5), while many geeks would endorse them, they could also be found contradicting them regularly as well.  So is there really anything to worry about here?

Well, yes, there is.  Attitudes are rarely all or nothing.  The more that people have these various attitudes, the more bad stuff is going to result, I think.  The more that a person really takes seriously that there is no point in reading the classics, the less likely he'll actually take a class in Greek history or early modern philosophy.  Repeat that on a mass scale, and the world becomes--no doubt already has become--a significantly poorer place, as a result of the widespread lack of analytical tools and conceptual understanding.  We can imagine a world in which the humanities are studied by only a small handful of people, because we already live in that world; just imagine the number of people getting smaller.

But isn't this just a problem just for geekdom?  Does it really matter that much if geeks are anti-intellectuals?

Well, the question is whether the trend will move on to the population at large.  One does not speak of "geek chic" these days for nothing.  The digital world is now on the cutting edge of societal evolution, and attitudes and behaviors that were once found mostly among geeks back in the 1980s and 1990s are now mainstream.  Geek anti-intellectualism can already be seen as another example.  Most of the people I've mentioned in this essay are not geeks per se, but the digerati, who are frequently non-geeks or ex-geeks who have their finger on the pulse of social movements online.  Via these digerati, we can find evidence of geek attitudes making their way into mainstream culture.  One now regularly encounters geek-inspired sentiments from business writers like Don Tapscott and education theorists like Ken Robinson--and even from the likes of Barack Obama (but not anti-intellectualism, of course).

Let's just put it this way.  If, in the next five years, some prominent person comes out with a book or high-profile essay openly attacking education or expertise or individual knowledge as such, because the Internet makes such things outmoded, and if it receives a positive reception not just from writers at CNET and Wired and the usual suspects in the blogosphere, but also serious, thoughtful consideration from Establishment sources like The New York Review of Books or Time, I'll say that geek anti-intellectualism is in full flower and has entered the mainstream.

UPDATE: I've posted a very long set of replies.

UPDATE 2: I've decided to reply below as well--very belatedly...


Is college a waste of time?

More from the anti-intellectualism dept.:

I admit this is news to me: a "Thiel Fellowship" has been set up by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, which encourages tech entrepreneurship by under-20-olds with the requirement that the recipients not go to college for two years.  Peter Thiel, as it happens, has B.A. and J.D. degrees from Stanford, so it's a fair question whether he would have taken his own advice.  I recently had a similar reaction to Ken Robinson, Ph.D.

One of the fellowship recipients, 19-year-old Dale Stephens, wrote a provocatively-titled essay reprinted in CNN.com: "College is a waste of time."  As a former college instructor, I'd give it a C.  The essay's argument is undeveloped; its thesis, that college is a "waste of time," gets only the scantiest support.  Moreover, I can't help but observe that this is a short and dogmatic essay, well exemplifying the generation of self-important, dogmatic young techies that dominate discourse about the Internet these days.

Let me preface these remarks by saying, first of all, that I too sort of dropped out of the academy.  I had wanted to be a philosophy professor from the age of 18.  But, a few years before finishing my dissertation, I became disillusioned with academia--it's a familiar story.  I did finish my Ph.D. in Philosophy, though, partly because Jimmy Wales promised to increase my salary once I earned the degree.  My complaint, anyway, was that academic research tends to reheat arguments and focus on the trivial, which is an inevitable feature of the publish-or-perish economics of academic hiring.  But I wouldn't recommend that college students drop out, if they want and have the aptitude for jobs that require college degrees. Moreover, a college degree can, even today if you attend a liberal arts institution, broaden and improve the mind.  Skipping graduate school, well, that's another question. Some jobs require it, some don't.

So what is Stephens' argument that "college is a waste of time"?  It is more or less a laundry list of complaints about college:

1. College rewards "conformity rather than independence."

2. College rewards "competition rather collaboration."

3. College rewards "regurgitation rather than learning."

4. College rewards "theory rather than application."

5. College actually reduces "creativity, innovation and curiosity."

6. "Failure is punished instead of seen as a learning opportunity" in college.

7. College is very expensive.

8. But "there are productive alternatives to college," as one can see in the lives of people "who never completed or attended college."

9. LinkedIn, Facebook, StackOverflow, Behance, and other sites together allow us to document our accomplishments and get them "socially validated," and evaluation of acccomplishments on such sites will take the place of college degrees for hiring purposes.

10. Therefore, college is a waste of time.

The trouble with this argument is that the premises are in some cases quite questionable, and those that have merit do not support the conclusion.  I'll make some comments on each.

Premise 1: whether college rewards conformity rather than independence really depends on the field.  In the humanities, for example, conformity to P.C. is pretty rigorously enforced, and one can never be quite sure if endorsement of the professor's idiosyncratic views is expected or not.  (As a rule of thumb, if a professor spends a lot of time trying to convince you of something not everyone in the field believes, then throwing it back in his or her face isn't a good idea if you want the best grade.)  On the other hand, most professors find attempts to think originally and creatively refreshing, and they reward attempts, or successful attempts anyway; I did.  Also, don't confuse the conformist attitudes of your fellow students with your professors, who, even if they are dogmatic or ideological, generally have some appreciation for genuine intellectual creativity.  As to science, in the basic courses anyway, "independence" is beside the point; either you learn the material or you don't.  Bottom line: college as it is done today tends to make people more ideologically "pure" or conformist, but also frequently better able to range across a wide landscape of intellectual possibilities.

Premise 2: if Stephens is actually saying he'd prefer more groupwork, I'm surprised; I really hated groupwork in the classes I took.  Collaborating in Wikipedia or Citizendium is one thing--that can be amusing.  Collaborating on a college paper or assignment, on the other hand, is usually tedious and annoying, at least in my experience.   Anyway, let's suppose college does rewards competition rather than collaboration.  Why is this bad, even by Stephens' lights?  Stephens, like the anti-intellectual types who perennially talk down college, seems to think that what is important in evaluating college as an institution is its ability to prepare students for thriving careers.  This is not really correct, but suppose it is.  Well, the marketplace is full of competition, so prima facie getting practice competing isn't bad preparation.  It is true, to be sure, that collaboration also happens all the time in business; but let me assure you that doing more groupwork in college will not help you in the slightest, especially in courses like philosophy and chemistry, unless you are in an applied field.  For example, if you're doing film production, then by golly I'm sure practice in collaborative film production is exactly what's needed.  But then, in such fields, it's easy to find college programs where just such collaboration happens regularly.

Premise 3: does college require regurgitation rather than learning?  "Regurgitation" is itself a frequently regurgitated concept, a favorite of disaffected high school students and educationists alike, according to which memorization for a test is criticized because the facts tend not to be understood, or "digested," properly.  Well, it depends on the college and the student, first of all; at Reed College, most of work done outside of science and math took the form of essay writing, and little regurgitation took place.  Granted, at many state colleges there is a lot of teaching to the test, and I can't disagree that this is unfortunate.  My advice if you are at such an institution is to find professors who by reputation do inspire learning, one way or another.  Just bear in mind that some professors who use textbooks, lecture, and examinations do manage to produce excellently-prepared students who can do much more than just "regurgitate" undigested information.  Things would be different if your peers were better students who could be expected to attend class and do the reading and understand it; then, professors would be able to do more with them.  Anyway, is this enough to justify quitting college?  Not at all.  After all, whether one really learns the subject in a lecture-text-examination scheme really is up to the student.  If you really want to learn, you will.

Premise 4: of course college requires more "theory" than "application"--but maybe this isn't a very clear proposition.  Anyway, college is about the deep reasons for things, or the theory.  Community colleges, technical colleges, and professional programs are about how to do specialized vocational tasks such as managing a business, writing code, and designing.  College, by contrast, is about expanding the mind and training the understanding.  The idea that college is better if it is "applied" is just wrong, because, quite frankly, there is no substitute for careful reading and analytical writing, for working through difficult calculations, and so forth, if you want to train the mind.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply anti-intellectual, or, in other words, simply doesn't care about training the mind.  If like Sir Ken Robinson they are already educated, then no doubt they take such training for granted, probably having forgotten the sorts of things they had to do--which some students find very tedious--in order to get the sort of intellectual training they use daily.  If they are not well educated, they probably have no idea of what they're missing out on.  In some cases, this attitude is just a matter of sour grapes from students who couldn't make the grade.

Premise 5: does college reduce "creativity, innovation and curiosity"?  Surely not.  I mean, the stuff about ideological indoctrination aside, college instructors labor hard to wake minds up to possibilities that they cannot see and, in many cases, actively resist.  The ability to see possibilities is a crucial component of creativity.  As to curiosity, mine was certainly heightened by my college education, but then, I went to Reed, and Reed is different.  Still, if you arrive at college intellectually curious, there are challenging programs even at state colleges which cater to your curiosity more than the usual lecture-text-exam courses will.  But I suspect that Stephens, like many, is complaining that college already has a body of knowledge to teach, and  instead of letting him think whatever he likes, he would have to learn what they have to teach.  Well, yes.  Critical and scholarly thinking is in some tension with creative thinking.  You might get very enthusiastic about some half-baked idea of your own, which is creative, innovative, and inspires your curiosity--only to be confronted, unpleasantly, by your professor saying, "Have you noticed that you're actually contradicting yourself?" or "You need to cash out your central concepts, and when you do, you'll find that your basic claim is trivial," or "That's a plausible hypothesis, but a whole body of research done back in the 1970s actually showed it to be a blind alley."  Now, if you're the sort of person--say, an insufferable egotist, or passionately dogmatic--who hates to be told that his cherished ideas are wrong, then being swatted down casually by your professors is going to sting quite a bit.  But then, until you lose your ego and dogmatism a little, you're probably incapable of being educated.  It might be a good idea to get out into the real world for a few years--where your egotism and dogmatism will probably be beaten out of you anyway.  Then you might be ready for college.  This happens quite a lot.

Premise 6: failure is punished instead of being treated as a learning opportunity?  This is just a fallacy: failure is both. The fear of failure is, of course, the only thing that motivates most students to study.  Besides, if you do fail (to get the right answer, or to pass a whole exam or a course), then usually you have the "opportunity" to do better.  Who is stopping you?  Only yourself and your wounded ego.  Finally, failure in the real world can have a lot harsher consequences.  Whether you take these consequences as a "learning opportunity" is up to you.  What is certain is that there is no effective system for getting an education that does not feature copious identification and correction of mistakes, a.k.a. failure and learning therefrom.

Premise 7: yeah, college is very expensive, much more than it should be.  Can't argue there.  But did you know that if you love homeschooling, you can do the same thing at the college level and then get degrees by examination, e.g., from Excelsior College?  Anyway, the reason college is expensive is that the market values it.  When the market stops valuing it so much, expect the cost of college education to drop.  (This is something a college student learns in ECON 101.)

Premise 8: are there productive alternatives to college?  Well, of course.  Degrees by examination are one example.  Or simply go to work instead of college, and, one hopes, you will be productive.  I concede Stephens' more full-bodied point here, that it is possible to have a meaningful career without college.  Whoever denied that?  But if you are 20 years old, you are not making a decision under certainty (a concept you'd pick up in Intro to Logic).  You don't know, if you drop out of college, what the likelihood is that you will remain in uninspiring jobs or an uneducated person.  But you do know this: if you stay in college, then the chances of your getting the best opportunities are better than if you drop out.  It is, of course, a fallacy to assume that you'll be another Steve Jobs (who dropped out of Reed).

Premise 9: social networks will replace college degrees as credentialing services?  Of course they won't, and Stephens does not even begin to mount a defense of this radical claim.  Employers, like it or not, see college degrees as evidence that candidates probably have some baseline amount of training in reading, writing, critical thinking, and basic knowledge.  For most jobs that require much thinking and articulate communication, a college degree is still necessary because employers still need some rough guarantee of the mastery of these skills.  In this way, sadly, a college degree has come to replace what was formerly supposed to be guaranteed by a high school diploma.   The busy professionals who do the hiring for both large and small concerns need ways to cut down the amount of work they do.  Trust me, my young padawans, they do not have time to peruse your blog for evidence of basic skills attainment, they know that LinkedIn profiles and online resumes are easily padded, and they know that number of "friends" means nothing (except maybe time spent online collecting friends).  Maybe the Internet will find a new credentialing method (I argued for a new sort of educational scheme myself a few years back--essay is now offline), but you'll have to confront an institution and do the sort of things you do in college if you want to get the credential, of that I'm pretty certain.

My main objection to Stephens' essay, and another reason that he gets a C from me, is that he mainly misunderstands the purpose of education, which means he didn't take the time to acquaint himself with the main opposition to his point of view.  College education in the sense of liberal education, which is what is normally meant by a "college education," is not vocational training at all, but training of the mind.  This is not something trivial like being able to play chess, or just another skill like being able to swim.  We are our minds, by and large.  A good liberal arts education changes our minds and in so doing changes our personalities, our ability to understand what's going on around us, our ability to react appropriately, and how we feel about life and the world.  When in college himself, Peter Thiel no doubt read this in J. S. Mill's Utilitarianism:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Stephens' argument seems to rest mainly on the assumption that the reason we should go to college is so that we can succeed in the work world.  I know that is why many people do go to college; but it is not, so to speak, the reason they should. College's purpose, and the reason that it is not "a waste of time," is that it improves us in a way that simply going into the work world, even the work world 2.0, will not.  In saying this I don't mean to defend every aspect of the institution of college education, because of course I don't.  And I might well recommend that my little boys get their degrees by examination when they are old enough (of course, it will be up to them).  But generally, college education is recommendable because it improves the mind.


The value of knowledge - the anti-intellectualism problem versus the philosophers' problem

I need to complain about my fellow philosophers.  But maybe I'm confused.  Maybe some philosophers out there can set me straight, somehow.

In recent years, as my interests have turned away from encyclopedia-building and toward education, I have become increasingly interested in the whole social phenomenon of people appearing to devalue academic knowledge.  This is unfortunate enough in students, but it is disturbing among adults who shape the attitudes of children, and positively alarming among educators--precisely the people responsible for imparting knowledge.  This trend is part and parcel of anti-intellectualism--and, by the way, it has recently gotten a fresh shot in the arm from the rise of the Internet.  Let's call this the problem of anti-intellectualism.

Concern about this problem has led me to read, among other things, Susan Jacoby's pretty interesting book The Age of American Unreason.  I've been thinking of writing an essay on the topic, and making a defense of knowledge as such, and in particular, why it ought to be the centerpiece of our goal statements of education.  Education is, first and foremost, about the getting of knowledge, or improving our understanding.  Toying with this idea, I decided to look into what some of my fellow philosophers have said about it.  Philosophers frequently say that knowledge is an intrinsic good, something sought for its own sake.  But, of course, there is far more that can be said about the value of knowledge than that, even if it is an intrinsic good.

I was not too surprised to learn that a currently trendy topic in epistemology is now the value of knowledge.  But when one looks at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, attractively titled "The Value of Knowledge," one discovers that there is very little indeed on the problem above-described.  Instead, it is all about the relatively technical problem of why knowledge is more valuable than mere true belief.  I decided to search the page for the words "anti-intellectual" and "anti-intellectualism."  They do not occur in the article.  In fact, there is no significant discussion of "anti-intellectual" or "anti-intellectualism" anywhere in in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Well, I can't say I'm surprised.  This is how all too many philosophers water down what could be truly fascinating questions: they identify some vaguely related technical issue connected to the interesting question, and then compare technical theories on the technical issue.  Now, don't get me wrong; I studied with many analytical philosophers and I strongly prefer analytical philosophy to Continental philosophy.  Moreover, the philosophers' "problem of value" is actually interesting to me.  But, sadly, the "relevance" critique does have some purchase.

Here by the way is my own current view, the view I might want to expand in an essay.  Knowledge--or more precisely, amassing a large body of knowledge, and coming to understand many different aspects of our world, personal, social, and natural, abstract and applied, theoretical and practical, historical and current, mathematical and verbal--is valuable because it improves us.  Having good writing and speaking skills makes our communication more efficient and effective.  Being able to read texts accurately makes it possible to understand instructions, evaluate arguments, and make sense of explanations.  Acquaintance with literature and psychology makes us more worldly, or able to relate smoothly to a wider variety of personalities.  History and politics make us better citizens.  Math ability has not just obvious practical consumer uses, but also allows us to make sense of the more abstract aspects of the world, which are sometimes the only way to come to an accurate, nuanced understanding of why things are as they are.  Or in other words, science.  Science, especially at the more advanced levels in which we understand not just observable facts but begin to grasp the deeper reasons for things, ultimately forms the basis for engineering marvels as well as technocrats' policy decisions, which, in massive bureaucratic states such as we have now, are widespread.  Philosophy and logic can (or should) greatly improve the clarity with which we think about the world.  Mastering all of these subjects generally improves one's ability to understand and make oneself clear on various other subjects.  Education makes it possible for us to get stuff done in a complex world.  I could go on and on, of course.  I'm pretty sure that with more thought (or research) I will be able to pull together these various disparate advantages into a few general themes.  I'm sure eventually I'll sound themes of liberal education, that education in general broadens the mind, liberates us, and so forth.

The multi-faceted ways in which knowledge quite obviously improves us are precisely why schools were invented in the first place, and why people have continued to support the institution of education vigorously.  Indeed, I submit that without reference to the virtues imparted specifically by knowledge, one cannot begin to make sense of education as an institution.  This is why I say that the purpose or goal of education is, first and foremost--regardless of whatever other goals it might have--to cause students to have knowledge, or to improve their understanding.  This is the most basic, ur-explanation of the existence of education and hence schools.

Well, I'll leave it at that for now.  I'm not ready to write the essay just yet, if I ever will be.

 


On Robinson on Education

This very striking video has been circulating, and I'm inspired to reply to it:

First, let me say that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong.

The typical comment made about this video is that it represents a radical new proposal for what education should look like.  But there's very little that is new about it.  Indeed, many school teachers and education professors, I'd wager, find a lot to agree with here.  Many of the progressive "reform" proposals look like this.  The problem is that they endlessly run up against the facts of reality.  And I don't mean political reality, although that's fierce enough.  I mean the reality of what education really means and what it accomplishes.

So let's try to understand a few things that Robinson is trying to argue.  He basically makes the point that the education system was designed in the 19th century, and its methodology is stuck in the 19th century.  It needs to be updated, he says.  This, by itself, is a rhetorically powerful message, and an effective way to position his proposed reforms, especially for all those people out there who pride themselves on being cutting-edge in everything.

But what exactly, according to Robinson, is educationally backward and now wrong?  Several things, all dramatically denied (and quite amusingly illustrated):

  • 1. Work hard, do well, get a college degree, and you will be rewarded with a good job.  (Our kids "don't believe that" and "they're right not to," says Sir Ken--why?  Because a college degree doesn't guarantee a good job.  I spy a fallacy.)
  • 2. The "Enlightenment view of intelligence," that real intelligence consists in the ability to do deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics, or what (he says) we think of as "academic ability."  (I think of academic ability as far more than this.  Also, I can't recall coming across either of these as strongly advocated for in my public school education, and these have if anything become even rarer in schools.)
  • 3. There is not enough collaboration in schools.  (There sure was an annoyingly large amount of groupwork in the public schools I attended from 1973 to 1986, and now, I gather, such methods are still all the rage.  So I'm not convinced on this point.)
  • 4. Schools are too standardized: organized on factory lines, scheduled, regimented, studying compartmentalized subjects, with people of the same ages graduating at the same time.  (Here is where I agree with him--except for his complaint about the separation into specialized subjects.)

There are three main points in the rest of his argument, as follows.  First, the modern student is constantly being bombarded with stimulation, from computers, television, handhelds, and so forth.  This can be expected to reduce their level of attention.  But, second, this leads to a ridiculous over-diagnosis of and over-medication for ADHD.  This is supposed to be an epidemic, but it is really a fictitious epidemic.  The problem at base is that kids are made to look at "boring stuff" (Sir Ken actually uses that phrase, to cheers from teenagers on YouTube), which they simply can't do unless they are "anesthetized" with ADHD drugs.  Third, an important element of intelligence is "divergent thinking," or the ability to think of different interpretations of questions and produce many different answers.  Schooling, for reasons above stated, gradually kills this ability off, which is much stronger in kindergartners.  Our creativity is educated out of us.

What should we do instead?  At least in this speech, Robinson is annoyingly cryptic.  For instance, he says: "We should be waking them up to what is inside themselves" instead of "anesthetizing them."  (OK, so how do we do that?  What does this even mean?)  Also, we should get rid of the distinction between academic and non-academic, and between abstract, theoretical, and vocational subjects.  (But...these are reasonably coherent and useful distinctions.  You can't get rid of the distinction, in practice, without getting one of the things distinguished.  I'm guessing Sir Ken is all for getting rid of the "boring stuff," which I suppose would include the allegedly soul-killing "academic" stuff.)  Also: "Most great learning happens in groups."  (Not in my experience.  I associate group learning with precisely the standardization and anti-creativity groupthink that Robinson was bemoaning earlier.  And supposing he's right and I'm wrong: how, exactly, should we harness groups to make "great learning" happen?)

Sir Ken is a charming character, but he is mostly wrong.  I think his views, far from being especially novel or radical, reflect the mainstream of educational theory.  This pattern of educational theorizing has been going on for generations now, and one of the things that people say again and again, ironically, is how innovative and cutting-edge they are when they reheat such stuff for the umpteenth time.

But, you might ask, if Sir Ken's theorizing is mostly old hat and mainstream among educational theorists, why aren't we living out an educational utopia of self-realizing, non-academic, collaborative kids who only go to college when they really want to?  Because, of course, the theory is impractical.  It is poetic justice that somebody who thinks that we should jettison the distinction between theory and practice would be impaled on that very distinction.  Another way to put it, however, is that it is incoherent--in some cases, with itself, and in some cases, with common but often unmentioned beliefs, also known as common sense.

I'm not sure that Sir Ken mentioned any actual academic subjects such as history or mathematics.  But if you are going to castigate academics as "boring stuff," then let's get clear: you are opposing history, mathematics, science, classical literature (OK, so that was mentioned), and various other subjects.  In the same vein, when clever would-be educational reformers say that we need to get rid of the orientation around memorizing facts, they rarely specify which facts they think students shouldn't learn.  As Sir Ken himself says in this talk, he doesn't want to lower standards--of course not, that's just obvious.  But if, in the limited amount of time we have to teach our children before they're all grown up, we start emphasizing vocational subjects, then we're talking about teaching less history, less mathematics, less science, etc.  De facto, standards regarding the amount of such learning are lowered.  You can't really argue with this; it's a hard, cold fact.  The practical consequence of less emphasis on academics, on "boring stuff," is to de-emphasize teaching knowledge that, it so happens, society in general naturally prizes.  You set yourself up in opposition to school boards and parents who understandably want to raise standards so that U.S. schools remain competitive with other countries.  But, you say, what's wrong with that?  They are simply mistaken about what our educational goals should be and so, sure, you do oppose them.  Perhaps; but, again, let's get clear: are you really in favor of reducing the amount of math and history that is learned in schools?  I'm sure there are some people who follow the consequences and say "yes" to this.  But most people are like Sir Ken, who says, smugly and cracking a joke, that he, too, is in favor of raising standards.  He, like so many educational theorists, wants to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn't want to teach so much "boring stuff" in school.  But he also doesn't want to lower standards.  He no doubt wants our kids to do just as well in math and science...just without all that studying, which unrealistically requires ADHD kids to pay attention.

Similarly, just as the U.S. is in the process of adopting national education standards--i.e., taking a bold leap toward ever-greater standardization--he states that he firmly opposes standardization.  Well, I do too, which is why I'm homeschooling my boys.  But in the same speech he says that we learn best by learning in groups, collaboratively.  It is hard (not impossible, but hard) to do that very much apart from a school system.  And what is the politically practical way to create a school system without the sort of standardization Robinson dislikes?  I doubt there is any.  The government cannot and should not do anything without being accountable to the people; and how can it be accountable without adopting some reasonable rules and standards against which its performance is measured?  Besides, quite famously, the U.S. educational system still (as of this writing) lacks a national educational curriculum, and in that respect is remarkably less standardized than other countries.  The point is that as long as government is in charge of education, there are natural pressures toward the standardization that Robinson--and so many, many other staunch supporters of public education and collaborative learning--bemoans.  Again, we can't have our cake and eat it too.  If we want public schools in modern democracies, we must face up to the fact that the quite proper requirements of democratic accountability will make our public school systems greatly standardized.

Not all students should get on the academic track and go to college--opines both Professor Robinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, and a passel of other highly-degreed academic theorists.  Well, of course this is true, in general.  There are still many jobs that do not (and should not) require a college degree, and there will always be people who, for whatever reasons, won't be competitive enough either as students or in the job market to be very competitive in getting jobs that do require college degrees.  It would simply be cruel, and economically illiterate, to advise everyone to try to get a college degree.  This should be obvious to anybody who has been on the "front lines" of teaching the sort of college freshmen who quickly drop out because they should never have been admitted in the first place.  So, given that this is a truism (at least under present circumstances), why does Robinson, like so many others, feel it necessary to attack a culture in which many people are getting college degrees?  What, exactly, is the point of doing that?

If I were being very charitable, I'd say that Sir Ken simply hated the thought of people making poor life choices, being overambitious, and paying for it in the form of high debt and dashed hopes.  But, having heard his speech, I think another explanation is more likely.  His contempt for the ladder to college comes in the context of a complaint that pushing education on children "alienates" them.  He says that he was taught as a school boy that by working hard, doing well, and going to college, he'd get a good job.  (It worked out that way for him, now didn't it?)  But "our kids don't believe that," he says.  And yet "our kids" are still going to college in record numbers, so if they don't believe it, they're acting irrationally.  Anyway, he seems to be saying that the reason you shouldn't go to college is simply that the academic track features "boring stuff" which will snuff out your creativity.  Yes, as amazing as it might sound, that is what he says in his speech.  He doesn't put it in so many words, but that's essentially what he says.

While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true.

In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.  If you come out against academic education in the sense of liberal education, you really have to explain why you aren't also coming out against keeping a lot of people relatively stupid.  Sir Ken seems to have forgotten that a good, indeed, academic education changes minds; it liberates them, which is where we get the phrase "liberal education" from.  It needn't kill creativity, it can just as easily channel it and strengthen it.  But more importantly--because understanding is more important than creativity, I will be so bold as to say--it develops our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the universe we live in.  Having such an understanding does not merely make us much more employable, which it certainly does; and of course being more equal in this respect was indeed the reason for the egalitarian ideal of universal public education. But it also tends to make our minds and our lives so to speak broader or larger. To pretend that liberal education does not have this effect, to dismiss academic education as an artifact of the 19th century, is to ignore precisely the sort of training that made Sir Ken the speaker and writer that he is today.

Robinson would, I think, have a reply to this.  In his speech he says it is wrong to equate "smart" with "academic" and "non-smart" with "non-academic."  So I seem to be trading on that outdated equation.  This sounds very egalitarian, and especially nice when he says that many people who are brilliant are convinced they are not, merely because they are not "book smart"--a lovely, gracious sentiment.  After all, everybody knows smart and wise people who have relatively little book learning--and people full of book learning who lack wisdom or good sense.  So, sure, that's true; education has its failures, like any institution, and sometimes it isn't really necessary at all. But whoever denied these things?  It hardly follows that academic education doesn't tend to make people smart.  Of course it does; if it didn't, people wouldn't value such education.  When people go to school for a long time, and work hard and conscientiously, they tend to become better readers, better writers, better at math, and in general, possessed of better minds, than they had before, or than they would have in the absence of their education.  And this is, of course, ultimately the reason why people get an academic education.  I know it's rather obvious to say this, but it is, after all, an important bit of common sense that Robinson is ignoring.