Independent study, a replacement for college

There are many things wrong with higher education today, as I've argued on this blog. It's way too expensive.  The amount of bureaucratic overhead is simply ridiculous. The focus on education as vocational training has deeply undercut appreciation and practice of the liberal arts. It has become too business-oriented, meaning that ratings by the customer—the students—count for far too much. The gospel of publish or perish has if anything become worse, and the quality of scholarship has suffered. Far too few faculty members are actually tenured or paid what they are worth.

But beyond all this, we have a special reason for concern. For anyone committed to the liberal arts in particular, the stories we hear coming out of academe are increasingly alarming. I won't make the case here, but it's not at all unreasonable to think that students, especially in the "soft sciences" and humanities, will simply be indoctrinated by their professors and bullied by their fellow students if they are not politically correct enough. There is a point at which the amount of intellectual dogma, dishonesty, and intolerance is so overwhelming that a college education (and especially a liberal arts degree) becomes more an exercise in indoctrination than training the rational mind. No doubt it depends on the institution, the major, and the professors. It's really the luck of the draw. But I would be concerned. I am concerned for my two children.

However that might be, I think we need another sort of option.

I've already argued that getting an education via tutors and a degree via examinations is a good way to pop the education bubble. What I want to do now is record a few thoughts on how a student might actually pursue college study independently. (This is not advice; or, follow it at your own risk!)


Move to a city with a lot of professors. Most big cities would do, and while Boston is maybe the most famous college town, other excellent ones in the U.S. would include Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

Find one or a few good academic advisers. If they aren't 100% committed to you, pay one who will be. This person will help you plan your course of study, give you advice on many things, receive regular reports from you on your work, and encourage you and kick your ass as needed. Obviously, you'll want to find someone fairly like-minded, especially in terms of your academic goals. It needn't be (and probably shouldn't be) someone who has the title "academic adviser." Many academics will do just fine.

With the help of your academic adviser, map out your course of study for a year. It doesn't have to be complete, but you should know a year in advance what you want to do.

I'd create a web page explaining what's going on. This way you just send people to that URL where they can learn what you're doing, what you've studied so far, read samples of your work, etc. This will make it easier for you to get professors interested in helping you.

Professors are not all created equal. Lots are brilliant, excellent teachers, and very fair-minded, even today. Some are just execrable. So here you'll have to do your research. Find professors who are inspiring, clear (or understandable to you, anyway), and make time for you (but they should be if you're paying them).

Pay professors by the hour. One hour a week ought to be enough. The main thing you'll be doing is reading and discussing what you have written about a subject the professor knows about. Maybe offer to take them to lunch.

If a professor sends you to a grad student, forget 'em, unless you're doing introductory work, or just getting tutoring for some standard course. For more advanced work, look elsewhere. Trust me, I was a grad student for eight years. They will be cheaper but they won't be as good. Of course, grad students can grade and tutor certain kind of work and that can be well worth it.

I'd want to live centrally so I can visit professors from various campuses. I'd also want to live with some other students who are doing what I'm doing, rather than with enrolled students. I think independent students living together would encourage each other to stick to it. You might even be able to get some sponsors that way; a group of you doing this is a good cause, well worth supporting.

You don't have to think about your studies in terms of discrete courses. You can, and it might be a good idea. But reading a series of books or article collections, however long it takes you, is also a good idea. Bear in mind that grad schools will still probably want you to quantify your work if you ever want to apply to one.

The bulk of your work, unless you're in one of the hard sciences, will take the form of reading and writing. You'll read books and other things, and write essays, and your professors will read your essays and give you detailed feedback. Then you'll revise. Of course, in science and math you'll have to do problem sets and pay to get those graded.

Consider auditing college courses if you like. Offer to pay the professor to read and mark up your writing and exams, if that's possible. If it's possible for you to sit in on discussion sections, as long as it doesn't cost too much, you might consider doing that.

There are lots of free courses online. You probably know that. They are a great resource; you could use them instead of attending boring lectures in big impersonal lecture halls. Live lectures can be great, but it's the luck of the draw again. In any case, lectures aren't good enough on their own. You will get a better college education if, in addition to watching lectures on video and reading books, you speak face-to-face in real time with an expert passionate about the subject and interested in you in particular. That's really essential.

Do a "senior thesis" or "senior project," i.e., an extended piece of writing or other significant professional accomplishment on a narrowly-focused topic that requires about a year to finish. This will be impressive to grad schools and be a reasonable basis (in part) on which experts can judge your level of accomplishment.

You probably have a few different options for securing a college degree. Suppose you have put all your work on a website. This includes papers, comments by professors, exam scores, the whole nine yards. (Of course, it can be password protected.) On the basis of that, I suspect some professors would be willing to sign their name on a statement (probably for money to compensate them for their time in making the evaluation honestly) to the effect that the amount of work that you have done is equivalent, or more, than the amount of work normally needed to secure a B.A. or B.S. in in their field at their institution, and that your level of scholarship is also commensurate with that of a college graduate in the field.

A GPA? Transcript? You might even finagle a GPA for yourself. Get professors to agree in advance to grade you on chunks of work. Have them edit a document that you write, stating what was accomplished, credit equivalent at their institution, when the studying was done, and the name, institutional affiliation, specializations, and contact information of the professor. They write the grade in and sign it. You make a PDF of this signed document and save the original and give them a copy. Do this for all the independent study courses you do with various professors at various institutions, and make all the PDFs available alongside the grade in your self-made "transcript." My guess is that that will work for many purposes.

Award yourself a "B.A. (or B.S.) by independent study, endorsed by..." On resumes, you can add a brief paragraph explaining how you got a bachelor's degree without having enrolled anywhere. For example, a philosophy graduate might on his resume (I'm totally making this up), "B.A. Philosophy by independent study, endorsed by Profs. Smith (Harvard), Jones (MIT), Kim (Boston University), and Wang (Boston College)." Then in a footnote you describe your program and, especially, you link to the endorsements by the professors who did your final assessment. Make sure these endorsements are uploaded correctly on LinkedIn or some other such website where people publicly endorse other people.

Be prepared to pay professors for endorsing your work and "awarding" you a degree. Especially if it is an independent professor, someone you didn't study with (or, not much), it's going to take them time to look at your portfolio and decide that you've done the work and have shown the knowledge that you need to show.

Will employers accept your "bachelor's degree"? I can't make any guarantees (the risk is all yours!)—but why don't you ask some? Speaking for myself, if I looked at your page and your statements checked out (e.g., I saw the PDFs, got confirmation from the professor that the program was legit, and saw the LinkedIn endorsements), then I would. In fact I'd say, "Here's an entrepreneurial, independent-minded go-getter. This is the kind of person I'd like on my team!" Of course, boring conventional types might turn their noses up at this, but hiring decisions for good jobs are often not made by boring, conventional types.

This is going to be much cheaper and probably better education than you'd suffer through at most universities these days.

Finally, if you do this—or have done it—then email me with your story at yo.larrysanger@gmail.com. I'd love to hear about it.


On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don't use in everyday life?

This video was posted in a Facebook group of mine here:

I find it ironic that some of the most listened-to speakers about education explain that the cure to our educational ills is to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here's another representative sample and another.

It is possible to make the argument, "X isn't going to be necessary for most students in life, therefore X should not be taught," for almost everything that is taught beyond the sixth grade or so. After that, we should be taught "critical thinking" and vague "analytical abilities" and "reading comprehension" and other such claptrap; that seems to be the natural consequence of this commentator's thinking, and sadly, he is not alone.

The fact that educated people like this teacher, and all the people who approve of this stuff, cannot answer the question is very disappointing. It's not surprising, perhaps, because it's philosophy and philosophy is very hard. Moreover, there are a variety of sort-of-right answers that subtly get things wrong and might end up doing more damage than good.

In the latter category I might want to place E.D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most prominent education traditionalists alive. (He just published a book I got today called Why Knowledge Matters, and he might have updated his views on this; I'll find out soon.) Hirsch's argument is that we ought to learn classics and, essentially, get a liberal arts education, because this is the knowledge we use to interact with other educated adults in our culture. It is "cultural literacy" and "cultural capital" and this is something we desperately need to thrive as individuals and as a civilization.

That's all true, I think. If Hirsch made the argument as, essentially a defense of Western (or just advanced) civilization—that we need to educate people in Western civilization if we are to perpetuate it—then I'd be fully on board. But Hirsch as I understand him appeals particularly to our individual desire to be a part of the elite, to get ahead, to be able to lord it over our less-educated citizens. This is a very bad argument that won't convince many people. If Hirsch or anyone makes it, I would put it in the category of arguing for the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

The argument I'd give to this math teacher is the same I'd give to someone who says we shouldn't memorize history facts or read boring, classic literature or learn the details of science or what have you. Of course you don't need that stuff to get through life. Most people are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to academic stuff (yes, in all countries; some are worse than others).

The reason you get an education, and study stuff like higher math, is more along the following lines. Education trains the mind and thereby liberates us from natural prejudice and stupidity. This is the proper work for human beings because we are rational creatures. We are honing the tool that comes more naturally to us than to any other animal. One must realize, as people like this educated fool and so many others seem not to, that education, such as math education, is not merely a tool in the sense of "abilities." The content, or what is known, is a deeply important part of the tool; in fact, as Hirsch does argue correctly and convincingly, any "analytical abilities" brought to a text will be very poor without relevant subject knowledge. If you want an analogy, it is a poor one to say that a course in logic sharpens your wit, to say you want to have sharp wits, and therefore you should study "critical thinking"; the heft or substance of your wit's ax is all the rest of the knowledge behind the cutting edge. Getting an A in a logic class (a course I taught many times) without knowledge of math, science, history, literature, etc., gives you about as much heft and effectiveness as a sharp-edged piece of paper: capable of paper-cuts.

The core of the argument for knowledge is that academic knowledge forms a sort of deeply interconnected system, and the more deeply and broadly that we understand this system, the more capable we are in every bit of life. This is true of us as individuals and also as a society or civilization. It is completely and literally true that the fantastic structure of modern civilization as we know it, all of the historically unprecedented developments we have seen, is a direct outgrowth of the deep commitment of our society's leaders—since the Enlightenment—to education in this system.

The system I refer to is deeply connected, but that doesn't mean it isn't also loosely connected in the sense that one can learn bits here and there and benefit somewhat. That's absolutely true. This is why it's possible for the math teacher to say, "Well, you don't really need to know higher math in order to live life." Some people are geniuses about literature but don't remember anything about any math they learned beyond the sixth grade.

But as everybody with higher education knows, in fact it is absolutely necessary to learn higher math if you are going to learn higher science—both the hard sciences and the social sciences, both of which require heavy calculation—and deal intelligently with statistics and probabilities, as is necessary in politics, or the financial part of business, or some of programming, etc.

This is because the "deep structure" of reality is mathematical. To declare that "you don't really need to know it" is to declare that you don't need to know the deep structure of reality. Sure, of course you don't. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea don't. But do you want our children to be more like them or more like fully rational, aware, human creatures?


How the government can monitor U.S. citizens

Just what tools do American governments—federal, state, and local—have to monitor U.S. citizens? There are other such lists online, but I couldn't find one that struck me as being quite complete. This list omits strictly criminal tracking, because while criminals are citizens, actual crime obviously needs to be tracked.

  1. First, there's what you yourself reveal: the government can use whatever information you yourself put into the public domain. For some of us (like me), that's a heck of a lot of information.
  2. Government also tries to force tech companies to reveal our personal information, ostensibly to catch terrorists and criminals. The FBI and NSA have both been in the news about this.
  3. The NSA famously tracks our email and phone calls. They might be looking for terrorism and crime, but we're caught in the net too.
  4. The IRS, obviously, tracks your income, business information, and much else. That certainly qualifies as government monitoring.
  5. State, local, and school district tax systems do the same.
  6. The FBI's NSAC (National Security Branch Analysis Center) has hundreds of millions of records about U.S. citizens, many perfectly law-abiding.
  7. The State Dept., Homeland Security, and others contribute to systems that include biometric information on some 126 million citizens—that means fingerprints, photos, and other biographical information.
  8. For a small number of citizens—740,000 to 10 million, depending on the system—there is a lot more information available, not just because the people are actual or terrorists or criminals, but only because they are suspected of such activity. If someone in government with the authority thinks you fall into broad categories that make you possibly dangerous, they can start collecting a heck of a lot more information about you.
  9. The Census Bureau tracks our basic demographic information every ten years.
  10. U.S. school students in at least 41 states are tracked by Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, including demographics, enrollment status, test scores, preparedness for college, etc.
  11. Many and various public cameras, including license plate readers, are used by many local authorities, mainly for crime prevention.
  12. Monitoring by police will be easier in the near future: As an expert on the subject, law professor Bill Quigley, puts it, "Soon, police everywhere will be equipped with handheld devices to collect fingerprint, face, iris and even DNA information on the spot and have it instantly sent to national databases for comparison and storage."
  13. The internet of things will be another avenue in which government will increasingly be able to view our habits.

So...explain to me again how we have a right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

By the way, it is a conceptual mistake to suppose that there is any one person or group of people who have access to (and care about) the information in all of these databases. How the databases are used is carefully circumscribed by law, obviously, and just because the information is in a database, it doesn't follow that there has been a privacy violation. But it does raise concerns in the aggregate: the extent to which we are monitored might be a problem even if most programs are individually constitutionally justifiable.

In short, is there any point at which we say "enough is enough"? Or do we grudgingly give government technical access into every area of our lives and hope that the law controls how the information is being used?

In the comments, please let me know what I've missed and I can do updates.

Sources: Common Dreams, ACLU, Ed.gov, Forbes, Wired, Guardian, and my own experience working at the Census Bureau long ago.


Why do smart people say such stupid things about politics?

Hey to all my friends who are smart people. (And if you wonder whether this "who" is restrictive or nonrestrictive, you may be one of my smart friends.)

When Thoreau said, "Simplify," he was not talking about your political positions. The truth is complex. You know this. You are capable of doing professional work (programming, philosophizing, writing, business, whatever) at the highest level. So why is it that we seem to turn off our brains and speak in simplistic, black-and-white, unnuanced and frequently obviously false terms when we talk about politics?


Top 10 hidden gems of central Ohio

Today my family discovered yet another hidden gem, a spot we had never been to before, in central Ohio where we live. This inspired me to catalog our favorite "hidden gems."

Central Ohio has some excellent landmarks that a visitor would enjoy. The Columbus Zoo is world class; the Whetstone Park of Roses is stunning when in bloom; the riverfront, COSI, LeVeque Tower, and State House downtown are all well worth a visit; nearby German Village is a great spot to stroll; Ohio State is nice to visit, especially around the Oval, Library, and Mirror Lake; the Columbus Metropolitan Library downtown is one of the best public libraries in the country; Franklin Park Conservatory is a beautiful spot; the various metro parks make an excellent park system; you've probably heard of Ohio Caverns, which we love; and everybody has heard about the Hocking Hills. But if you live in the area, you probably know about those spots.

Here are some spots you might or might not have encountered yet, which we have visited several times (or plan to visit again) and which we love—from least hidden to most hidden.

10. Hoover Dam. This is the least "hidden" and perhaps it doesn't belong on the list, but I didn't know about it for a long time. This isn't an earthen dam like so many others in Ohio, it is a tall and wide concrete dam with a massive gushing spillway. You can walk all the way across the dam, as well as from the top of the dam to the marshy, blue heron-filled area at the bottom. At the observation area on the eastern side, last time we were there, there were a bunch of swallow nests. On both sides of the dam and on either side of Hoover Reservoir are places to walk, play, and picnic. Hoover Dam is just one of the nicest places in central Ohio.

9. Slate Run Living Historical Farm. Again, perhaps it's not so well hidden now. If you have little kids, and maybe even if you don't, this is a must-see. A well-maintained, apparently well-run farm following 19th century farming ways, Slate Run features an open farmhouse, a separate kitchen, gardens, root cellar, horse-plowed fields, a massive barn, and a big variety of farm animals, from chicken and other poultry to cows, sheep, horses, and pigs. Just a great way to learn about the old ways of farm life. We also enjoy the pond.

8. The Wilds. Again, many people know about this so perhaps it isn't very "hidden." But if you haven't visited, you might find it to be a surprise. The bus and other tours allow you leisure to take in the unusual, vast, hilly landscape as well as the big animals scattered over a 14 square miles in giant paddocks. The animals we saw when we have visited in the past included rhinos, giraffes, unusual deer and oxen, zebras, bison, a cheetah, and many others. Like a safari, but fairly close to home. Also worth a mention is that the drive to the Wilds is quite nice, especially if you go through the very scenic Blue Rock Forest.

7. Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve. Some of the Hocking Hills attractions, like Old Man's Cave and Cedar Falls, are unquestionably excellent and are far from "hidden." But one of our favorite spots is the less-visited but surprisingly awesome Conkles Hollow. The trail is very green and scenic, but flat and paved for most of the way, and thus excellent for small children. What awaits you at the end is stunning, resembling some landscapes I remember from the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park out west. The gorge is reputedly one of the deepest in Ohio and the end of it is a magical place.

6. Rising Park and Shallenberger State Nature Preserve. I put these together because they're both in the Lancaster area and they both feature similarly short, but steep hikes to the top of a hill, from which you get a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape. Rising Park is well-known (hardly a hidden gem) to the people of Lancaster, but worth a visit to those from outside the area. The main attraction is the gorgeous view overlooking the town of Lancaster, but there is also a scenic reservoir, an old house on the property, and plenty of places to wander. We visited Shallenberger in winter when the leaves didn't block the view. We had passed it many times on the way to the Hocking Hills, but spotted it on a map and decided to visit one day. Very nice little preserve, short and scenic but steep hike to the top of a hill that overlooks the surrounding country in all directions, although leaves might get in the way in the summer.

5. Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve. Now we come to some of the slightly more hidden spots. On the east side of Newark is this lovely area, a paved bike and hiking trail—a converted rail bed—next to the Licking River going through a very scenic gorge. Apparently, it was called "Blackhand" after Indian hand paintings on the cliff walls. There are some nice little waterfalls in the tributary dales along the trail, as well as some sandstone cliffs of the sort you'll find in the Hocking Hills. Old canal towpaths and locks are nearby. Also interesting is a notch or gap cut through a hillside, which is a little like a roofless tunnel.

4. Rockbridge State Nature Preserve. This is on the other side of 33 from the Hocking Hills, between Lancaster and Logan. The parking lot might take some finding, and the trails leading to the main attraction—a large natural bridge, or arch—take a bit of puzzling out. But Rockbridge itself is a stunning location, and the rugged hike to it is one of the nicer hikes central Ohio has to offer.

3. Tar Hollow State Park and Forest. One of the nicest areas just to take a drive would be Tar Hollow State Park and Forest, which we visited in the fall—highly recommended. Sweeping vistas. There's a pretty reservoir, Pine Lake, with swimming and paddleboats. In the middle of the forest is a giant fire tower that it is possible to climb, although it seemed somewhat rickety and lacking in railings for our two young boys, so we didn't attempt it. While there we were absolutely swarmed by ladybugs.

2. Rock Mill Park. This out-of-the way area is worth a bit of extra driving. The mill itself has been lovingly restored, with a giant mill wheel. To get to it, you walk across a particularly excellent example of an Ohio covered bridge—over a beautiful gorge—and if you proceed down a path from the mill, you'll come to one of the nicest waterfalls in the central Ohio area, which will strike you as a bit of the Hocking Hills, only a lot closer than you might have expected.

1. Wahkeena Nature Preserve. We first visited this preserve yesterday. We simply saw it on a map, read some intriguing descriptions, and decided to go. We're glad we did, because it's a very unusual, surprising place. Several things make it very special: beavers, a pine forest, wildflowers, an excellent free guide map, and an especially interesting nature center. There are two big beaver lodges at one edge of the pond. There are all sorts of little surprises. There is a floating boardwalk across one end of the pond, which takes you by one of three beaver dams. There are some stunningly tall pine trees you'll walk by on the very nice 1.5 mile circuit—a fragrant bit of landscape, reminds me of California and other western forests. Wildflowers are abundant, identified handily on the excellent guide map. A family of geese with brand new goslings, hatched earlier the same day (April 24), was swimming about. Frogs galore of course. Near the top of the hill are sandstone cliffs of the typical Hocking Hills variety. The guide map has numbers and letters which match numbers and letters posted along the well-maintained trail, with naturalist notes we enjoyed reading—I wish more parks would do this. A barred owl and a red-shouldered hawk are in a quiet area not far from the nature center, both injured, non-releasable, and cared for by preserve personnel. Unlike many nature centers, this one is hands-on and reading-light, but full of small stuffed Ohio mammals and birds of every description, many dozens of them, live turtles and snakes in aquariums, a fascinating indoor beehive and knowledgeable talkative staff members on hand. Absolutely perfect learning place for children.

Honorable mentions... The Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis is one of our favorite libraries, gorgeous old building, wonderful place to read. Pigeon Roost Farm is a great spot for fun, hay wagon rides, corn maze, etc., in the fall as a place to take little kids, although it's getting a little too popular so maybe doesn't qualify as a "hidden" gem. Yoctangee Park in Chillicothe has swans and beautiful trees—like Rising Park in Lancaster, not at all hidden to the residents of Chillicothe. Charles Alley Park on the south side of Lancaster has some very nice, scenic hikes in the hills above a reservoir. Close to home is one of our favorite places, maybe a "hidden gem" for some people not in the area: Chestnut Ridge Metro Park. Excellent hiking and views.

What have I missed? Please turn us on to other spots around that we have missed! Share in the comments!


Teaching reading — two suggestions

America’s literacy problems could be solved if parents, preschool teachers, and daycare workers did just two simple things. One is obvious. One is not.

First, we should read a lot more to our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers — say, at least an hour per day. That means picking up a good old-fashioned book, putting a kid in your lap or sitting up close in a small group, and reading the book to the kid. And do voices! Kids love voices.

To turbo-charge your little reader’s skills, simply point at the words as you read them. You’d be amazed at how much this helps them. Retirees can help by volunteering to read to kids at a local preschool or daycare.

That’s all common-sense advice, right?

My second piece of advice is less obvious: We should start teaching our little ones to read before kindergarten, at home and in our preschools and daycares.

Ten years ago, this would have just sounded crazy. Then we started hearing about “baby reading” and how little Emma or Aidan started reading at age one. You probably think their parents must have pushed their kids, and you don’t want to be one of “those parents.”

I am one of those parents, but I didn’t push my boys. They both started reading at age one. How?

I didn’t use workbooks, software, or other systems designed for five- or six-year-olds — that’s a terrible idea. Instead, in addition to all the reading I did to my oldest son, I showed him a lot of flashcards, when he was a baby. He seemed to get a kick out of them. If he didn’t, we stopped immediately.

When he was about two years old, in 2008, I started making him a new kind of card, with words put in phonetic groupings. We started with simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, like “dog,” with a picture on the back, and gradually we worked our way to harder words. Lots of other parents used my flashcards (free online) and praised them highly. At the same time, we started using some “teach your baby to read” programs.

All together we didn’t spend much time on all that sort of training — no more than a half-hour a day — but we did keep reading to him a lot, maybe one or two hours per day. Of course he spent most of the day playing like any other kid.

The result? At age three, he was reading at the 3rd to 4th grade level. You can find a video I made of him on YouTube:

My second son was born in 2010, shortly after I bought the first iPad. We did lots of flashcard apps, which show big words and colorful pictures. I strongly recommend using whatever flashcard apps your baby likes the most. There are a lot.

At that time, I was working on WatchKnowLearn.org, funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist. He saw the video of my son and said, “Why don’t you make a reading program of your own?” The result was ReadingBear.org— I based it on those old phonics flashcards I made, but it’s a lot more than just words and pictures. The words, all 1,200 of them, are pronounced at four speeds, they’re used in a sentence, and a picture and a video illustrate them. Thanks to that Memphis philanthropist, the website is 100% free, ad-free, and nonprofit.

My second son was just as good a reader as my first by the age of three:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wmlOkiOo08

Users tell me that regular use of Reading Bear leads to spectacular results. But you’re not limited to that. Lots of other free or cheap tools — apps and websites — are available, too.

Now, here’s the point: Reading Bear and those other tools need not take much time. They aren’t terribly challenging. Just find the tool a child likes — there’s so much to choose from, you’ll find something. It doesn’t require pushing or forcing. Just 15 minutes a day, and within months, children as young as two can be reading out loud, as two boys did.

Why isn’t every Head Start preschool in the country making use of these freely-available tools? We know they work, and they can solve our illiteracy problems. So why aren’t we using them?

Just two things, and so many problems connected to poor education will disappear: read to very young children religiously for an hour per day, and start teaching them with these 21st century reading tools that they like.

If we do these two things, we’ll see our country’s reading problems disappear.

Larry Sanger (yo.larrysanger@gmail.com) is co-founder of Wikipedia and has helped developed many other educational websites, including ReadingBear.org. Sanger has posted a free book on his experience teaching his son, How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2000 from Ohio State University.


Against language arts and social studies textbooks

Here's a little argument against language arts and social studies (e.g., history and geography) textbooks. We need to get rid of them. Period.

Prima facie, we don't need textbooks to teach a subject. Other pedagogical methods include chapter (trade, library) books, short readings, computer software, videos, lectures, worksheets, projects, etc. So what are textbooks for?

Well, consider what they are: Textbooks are systematic, book-length presentations of information for purposes of introducing students to a subject, systematically covering every aspect at some level. All information that is needed is presented. Modern texts include supplementary media, not just photos and charts but also, for example, videos and interactive widgets. Texts often have accompanying exercises and workbooks. In short, a modern textbook system is an end-to-end multimedia introduction to a subject at a certain level.

Textbooks make perfect sense for certain subjects, including—especially—math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming. These subjects are suitable for textbook presentations because it is deeply important, first, that students of those subjects learn certain topics adequately before moving on to other topics and, second, that all the basic topics be covered in adequate depth. The textbook method is lends itself very nicely to both requirements. First, textbook readings, accompanying media, and exercises all structure information in a logical fashion so that the more fundamental information is mastered before moving on to the more derivative information. Second, textbooks marshal all the relevant information within chapters, and can cover the whole subject by simply making the book longer.

Most textbooks are so darned meaty and substantial-looking, it seems hard to argue against them, especially if you are someone—like me—who believes that absorbing a lot of knowledge is what school is primarily about. But actually, it's easier than it might look. You see, there are excellent reasons why certain subjects lend themselves to textbook presentation, while others do not.

There are a couple of very good reasons why math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming lend themselves to textbook presentation. It is because the information in these fields lends itself to a logical, bottom-up structuring. You cannot learn certain things about math—and upper division science, and foreign language, and advanced grammar, and programming—before you have mastered certain other things. You'd better not tackle the subjunctive in Latin before mastering the indicative, or division before multiplication, or subordinate clauses in English grammar before adjectives and prepositions. Moreover, at a given level of mastery, we can agree that certain topics must be included, or the method is simply incomplete. If you have learned Latin noun declensions but not verb conjugations, you haven't learned Latin. If you have learned about processing loops but not about data storage, you haven't learned programming. If you haven't learned the Circle of Fifths, crack open that music theory book again. Textbooks seem necessary because they help guide the student (and the teacher!) so that the information is presented in the right order, and all of it (at a certain level) is presented.

Assuming there's a real phenomenon here, we may for shorthand refer to math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming as structured subjects. (A couple other structured subjects are music theory and economics.) And we may also for shorthand refer to the logical dependency of one topic on another, within structured subjects, their foundational structure, while the tendency of certain topics to be needed for a complete presentation of a subject, the subject's completeness.

In short, then, my proposal is that textbooks are particularly useful for structured subjects, because such subjects exhibit a foundational structure and completeness (within a level of mastery), and the textbook approach can (if well executed) elegantly mirror the foundational structure and completeness of those subjects. All well and good. You don't have to use just a textbook, but I won't argue with you much if you do.

I now come to my point:

Subjects that do not exhibit foundational structure or completeness are very bad candidates for textbooks (dammit!).

Such subjects include:

Science at the elementary level. It manifestly does not matter what order you teach little kids science in or how much of each subject they learn (as long as they learn certain basics before they get to more advanced science).

Reading and writing. There is nothing less structured than literature. There is nothing less foundational or complete than writing. These are not bodies of knowledge to master. Literature is made up of narratives and great language to come to grips with, not logical structures. And reading and writing are both skills to practice, not to study in the systematic way one studies math or foreign language. Literature does not exhibit completeness. It does not matter whether you read certain books, although I think a good education will be heavy on the classics. "Reading comprehension," spelling and vocabulary exercises, integrated grammar, directed writing, and all the other claptrap that makes up a modern "English Language Arts" textbook-based program—it all positively obscures the beauty and appreciation of actual literature. It is decidedly not required. The only thing that is really required, I think, is copious reading and writing. All that textbook drivel is much more effectively and efficiently learned simply by reading and occasionally discussing great books, and writing copiously about anything that strikes your fancy (and sometimes about what you read) and getting occasional feedback on your work.

History. Now, it is true that history exhibits a kind of completeness; to be fully educated you have to have some exposure to, say, Roman history and the Renaissance and (in this country) the War of Independence. But it does not—not really—have any foundational structure. It doesn't matter what order you go in, or in what depth you cover various subjects. Again, I think that the more of it you cover in considerable depth, the better—but history is, in short, pretty much the opposite of a structured subject.

Geography. Same analysis as history. You'll want to cover certain basic topics for sure, but what order you go in, how much depth you go into, etc., it's all arbitrary.

Many other subjects also are not structured subjects, either, including the rest of the topics that go under the heading "social studies" in U.S. schools, art history, art and music appreciation, general computer literacy, etc.

Textbooks and textbook programs are, at best, necessary evils. Why? Because, especially for children, they are boring, unmotivating, and therefore less efficient than reading real books and other methods of teaching. Why? Let's see:

A single source. You read all year from one source, who or (worse!) which has one style, however brilliant, one point of view or bias, etc. That gets old before too long.

Human brains, while capable of great rationality, enjoy randomness. I am one of the biggest rationalists (depending on the sense of "rationalism" you mean) you'll find. But learning minds, especially young ones, love to leap from topic to topic. If you want to keep a student's motivation up, you have to change things up.

Texts are totalitarian. Of course I'm being facetious, but I do have a point. By being careful, orderly, and complete, students are forced to study certain things in a certain order. This is necessary (to some extent) for structured subjects, especially as one gets into higher and more technical aspects of subjects. It is decidedly not necessary for unstructured subjects.

Texts are often badly written, by committee. Enough people have complained about this that I don't have to.

Various educational practices delight or irritate me to various extents, but a special place in my personal hell is reserved for the practice of inflicting lame language arts texts on students through the eighth grade. In addition to turning off generations of school kids to reading and leaving them poorly prepared in their own language, the worst thing about such textbooks is the opportunity cost. Ironically, too much time is spent about reading about the reading, doing busywork exercises, and studying for and taking exams the point of which is to make sure one has understood everything taught so far. That all seriously cuts into the time spent actually, you know, reading something worthwhile.

I wish I could hear back from some language arts teacher or curriculum designer. Explain this to me, please. Let's suppose your poor students spend, in and out of class, 100 hours reading your groan-inducing textbook (sorry, but that really is how I feel) in a school year. At an average of, let's say, 6 hours per book (faster readers might finish them faster), those students could read about 17 great children's books. So, do you really think reading your  textbook all year long will teach and engage your students better than 17 shorter, more interesting chapter books?

The problem with history texts is different. History becomes seriously interesting only when one studies the narratives that make it up in some depth. Textbooks consist of, basically, a series of Cliffs Notes versions of historical narratives, cut so short as to be incomprehensible. Students should be reading chapter books and long meaty history books—not textbooks—in order really to appreciate and get something out of history. The whole idea, after all, is supposed to be to understand how human nature and society operates through the study of examples. If you don't study the examples closely enough, if you're just memorizing names and dates willy-nilly, you'll both forget them and fail to appreciate the purpose of the subject.

 


The notorious co-founder of Wikipedia interviews the notorious co-founder of Genius


I am spending a few days with the energetic and charming young crew of Everipedia at their offices in sunny L.A. I got to know Everipedia through Mahbod Moghadam, the 30-something but youthful and “thug” (this, apparently, is a good thing) co-founder of Genius.com, whom I got to know last year when I was still working on Infobitt (which, alas, is still in mothballs). Mahbod is not the CEO but is certainly one of the leading lights of this approximately one-year-old company; he and the other guys are very friendly, easygoing, smart, and hard-working, as far as I can tell. Anyway, Mahbod likes to be interviewed, and he is a “character,” so I thought it would be fun to do that. After all, people have interviewed me a lot but I can’t remember ever interviewing anybody else. So the tables are turned! For this blog’s very first interview, here is Mr. Moghadam. This will be a fairly wide-ranging email interview, so here goes.


Everipedia is the project you’re now working on. What exactly is the vision, at present, behind Everipedia? What are you trying to achieve?
Everipedia is the baby of Sam Kazemian and Tedde Forselius — they are my sons. It is, in short, a better version of Wikipedia. There are lots of differences, but the biggest one is that you can make a page about ANYTHING. I’ve had a Wikipedia page written about me before — several times — and Wikipedia kept taking it down! It was heartbreaking, especially because it has always been my dream to have a Wikipedia page about me. I’m sure there are millions of people who feel this way. Sam showed me my Everipedia page when I was giving a talk at UCLA — I was over the moon! I went home and immediately started making pages for all of my friends, my friends’ companies…everything I think is cool! Adding pages on Everipedia is really easy — it’s like posting on Facebook. No complexities or weirdo markup language like Wikipedia.

You say you want Everipedia to be the encyclopedia of everything, covering not just the topics in Wikipedia, not just the topics snootily deemed not important enough to include, but topics far, far outside the mainstream of what is considered “encyclopedic.” Things like: Every person in the world (including me and you!). Every street in the U.S. All the products currently for sale. All the species in the world. Every chemical compound (!). Every gene (!!). Every episode of every lame TV show. Every website (!!!). Etc. First of all, are you frigging insane?
I think it’s insane to have a strict notability requirement! The cool thing about the Internet is there is so much bandwidth — everyone can have their piece. Even if you are a shitty photographer, you can have an Instagram. Even the WORST rappers annotate their lyrics on Rap Genius. (TRUST ME) So why shouldn’t everyone have a Wiki?

OK, setting aside issues about feasibility, maintainability, etc., there’s a more basic question: Why is it important to have an encyclopedia of everything? Aren’t you basically just trying to replicate the Internet, or what eventually will be on the Internet?
Yeeee! One of our nicknames for Everipedia is “Crowdsourced Google” — the same way that Google gives you information about any subject, we want Everipedia to give you the info, except humans are doing the sorting, summarizing and rating of the sources instead of a machine.

Right now the site actually reminds me no small amount of the early days of Wikipedia — same youthful enthusiasm, same friendly welcoming atmosphere, same lack of f’s given if someone starts work on a topic with a very lame article. But Wikipedia sort of grew up (not entirely) and became huge, with long, meaty articles. How are you going to “get from here to there” and avoid burnout or seeming irrelevant?
Hopefully we can steal a lot of users from Wikipedia! On Everipedia you get IQ for your contributions. Contributors get credit and recognition for their accomplishments, they are not simply working in a void. College students can be appointed “Everipedia Campus Representative” if they earn it, and celebrities can contribute via Verified Accounts. Wikipedia won’t even let Snoop Dogg contribute to his own page! That ain’t right…on Everipedia, Snoop can even cite himself as a source! Not to mention anyone can cite his Instagram posts, hit tweets…anything that has cool information.

Why should somebody work on Everipedia when they can work on Wikipedia and have a better chance of having their words read by people on the #7 website in the world?
Because on Everipedia you get rewarded for your work. On Wikipedia, you get no recognition, contributions are pretty much anonymous. Maybe that appeals to some people — but I know, personally, I would never want to spend time working on something without getting credit for it. I think I’m a very good writer, and I want to be recognized for my work. I’m sure there are a lot of talented writers who feel the same way I do!

You have sometimes called Everipedia the “Thug Wikipedia.” Come on, dude, isn’t “Thug Wikipedia” likely to be off-putting to people who are, you know, working on an encyclopedia? And what does this mean, anyway?
Haha, yeah, we should probably stop saying that. What I mean by “thug,” in this case, is that there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary rules. You might think rules are great, but look at the result. Wikipedia’s notability requirement results in systematic discrimination against women and minorities, which is truly shameful. The top-performing pages on Everipedia are often black actresses, like Mariah Lynn from “Love and Hip-hop,” who are massively popular but face “Wikipedia Discrimination.” Everipedia made a page for Sabrina Pasterski — known as the “Female Einstein.” Wikipedia scraped our article and didn’t cite us! So I think that symbolizes the different focus of Everipedia and Wikipedia. Maybe we should change “Thug Wikipedia” to “Feminist Wikipedia.”

You and your buddies started Genius, originally RapGenius, which is one of the coolest collaborative websites online. I put it up there with Wikipedia, Quora, and a very few others that feature open collaboration among equals in order to develop a resource that is of use to everyone. This is what I love, and you and I both agree people ought to make more of these sorts of sites. So what is your top advice for entrepreneurs or community organizers (so to speak) who want to organize other people to create awesome resources that are useful to everyone?
It is bizarre. Every wiki site blows up. Even WIKIFEET gets a ton of traffic. But nobody wants to make encyclopedias. Everybody wants to make “The Next Snapchat.” I think this is because making a social media app is sexier than making an encyclopedia. Also, if you succeed, it’s a lot less work. You don’t have to sit there and use your own product, add a bunch of cool pages, etc. But I don’t think it’s an accident that I am 2 for 2 on successful startups and both are encyclopedias. There is such a thirst for robust software to disseminate information. It is the future of media! And nobody is doing it…personally, I think Quora sucks, and even Quora is blowing up…

OK, I gotta ask. You’ve been asked this ad nauseam, I’m sure, and I’m sure you’re annoyed by it, but I gotta ask. (Remember, this question is coming from a guy who thinks we are falling in a moral abyss. I may be a libertarian but I am also a moralist.) In November 2014 you wrote an article ill-advisedly titled “How To Steal From Whole Foods.” First of all, WTF? What were you thinking of? You know that stealing is wrong, right?
The article was meant as a joke, the sole purpose was to make people laugh. The title is paying homage to Tao Lin’s classic tome “Shoplifting from American Apparel.” Lames like Mark Suster took my words literally, because they have the minds of sheep. A lot of people also told me they loved the article — those were the smart folks. I don’t steal, but personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with stealing. You certainly can’t compare it to murder or rape, not even close. Stealing food, especially, strikes me as a morally neutral activity.

Being around you and the other Everipedia guys have introduced several items of slang that are completely new to me, because I don’t watch TV, don’t spend any time around teenagers or college students, and work from home in an exurb of Columbus, Ohio. I’m a bit cloistered, to tell the truth, but that’s how I like it. You meanwhile are the man about town, living in L.A. and hip to the scene (which shows how unhip-to-the-scene I am, since kids these days do not use the phrase “hip to the scene”). So I require brief, Urban Dictionary-type but Mahbod-crafted definitions of the follow terms d’art of the thug life. I give you…

The Mahbod Moghadam Lexicon
thug (not in the brutal ruffian sense):
Did you know this comes from the Hindi word “Thugee”? I use it in homage to 2PAC — my favorite human who ever existed. (He had “Thug Life” tattooed on his chest). It is a synonym for “disrupt.”
pimp (not in the employer-of-whores sense): If you’re a pimp, that means you’re charismatic! You can get others to serve you..
janky: Means “sucks.”
yeeeee: One of my Persian friends got me saying “yeee”! It is a refreshing alternative to “yasssss!” which is very popular with Hillary Clinton supporters…
hooooo: Short for “HOOOOOLY SHIT!” — we say this a lot at Everipedia HQ because we are constantly amazed and bewildered by our own product! It is changing the world. It is our catchphrase.
blowin up: This is what Everipedia is presently doing! YEEEEE
ewoking: Ah, my favorite word! This means “contributing to the site” — it is derived from the username of the TOP-IQ EDITOR OF RAP GENIUS, Monsieur William Goodwin aka EwokABDevito. He is one of only 2 users who have a higher IQ than I do.
shhhhht: This is the companion of “HOOOOO!” (See above.)
bae: I use “bae” sarcastically — “bae” is a word the kids say these days, it means “baby”/”babe” — I think it sounds ridiculous, which means I’m getting old! So I imitate them.
jag: “Jagh” means “masturbate” in Persian, my native language. This is pretty much the only non-work activity we are allowed to do at Everipedia HQ. (We’re also allowed to go to the gym once a day.)
swag: This is my favorite word of all time. The eccentric rapper Lil B “The Based God” popularized it. It is a nonsense word, similar to Kurt Vonngut’s “Ho Hum”…it can mean whatever you want it to mean! It is the best word.
dope: Dope means good, like drugs.
chill: Currrrr! (Sorry I got cold for a second there!) Chill means you’re icy, which indicates a state of jewel-encrusted repose.

Now for a microaggression. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?
I’m from the Barrio vato! Barrios weyyyy! Pinche cavron! (I’m from the San Fernando Valley — Encino to be exact — via Iran.)

At this juncture I would like to inform our readers that you have a B.A. in History from Yale, a J.D. from Stanford Law, and were a Fulbright scholar. You also helped Genius to go viral. So, in short, you are clearly pretty goddamned brilliant. And yet if a reader reads your answers so far, these revelations might seem surprising. I hate to, you know, lift the curtain on the mystique (although I suspect that’s not really possible in your case), but can you comment on why, particularly at age 33 (you know — when your friends have become boring adults), you affect a “thug” attitude?
I loathe snobbery and propriety — I am against society. I was making wikis for Merrick Garland and his family today — he is a Jew trying to be a WASP, very “Ivy League” — he makes me want to throw up. I consider myself to be a UCLA alum, not a Yale alum. UCLA is where I will be donating my money, it is a school where they teach you actual knowledge, instead of propagating bullshit yuppie culture.

What are your favorite topics in history? The law?
My specialty in college was French colonial history! I am obsessed with all things French — I don’t know why — it is embarrassing! My favorite legal subject is tax, by far. I had an amazing professor for several tax courses, Joe Bankman — he is my Rabbi, basically. He taught me the most about ethics and the way the world works. I love him.

I noticed you play piano pretty well — I think I heard some Bach. Did you have lessons or what?
I am OBSESSED with Bach! That is what I am first and foremost — a Bach performer. His music is so intellectual, and yet so emotional! He is the greatest artist of all time. Hopefully Everipedia will get really big within a year or so and I can leave the company and return to my REAL full-time job — learning the complete keyboard works of Bach. I took lessons from age 15–17 with a lovable Persian guy named Arjang Rad, who is now a famous composer.

Last question, back to Everipedia: Given the choice of Everipedia and Wikipedia, or spending time in some other similar online knowledge-sharing pursuits (e.g., Quora, Medium, etc.), why should people check out and start writing for Everipedia today, in March 2016? Is it ready for people to get involved?
Everipedia will give you recognition. You get IQ, badges, and top users get equity in the company. This company will be worth billions of dollars someday — and it will not only belong to the founders and investors — it will belong to everyone who helps build it. We have already awarded equity to top users.


All my presentations zipped together

I finally took a few hours and prepped all my educational preK-4 presentations for easy download. Here they are in one ginormous 862MB zip file.

If you want to download them individually, here's the link.