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.


Update about the boys, March 2016

I have given a report about H. last Jan. 2, and now I have a little time to write about what's going on with E., who is now 5, and not quite old enough to be in Kindergarten this year.

First of all, E's Mama is homeschooling him, which means I know what's going on with him mostly second hand, although I see some of it since I work at home. Anyway, here goes.

The big change with E. is that since his fifth birthday, last fall, he has slowly transitioned to being actually homeschooled. Theoretically he's supposed to have at least 30 minutes' reading, 15 minutes math, and 15 minutes writing. But a typical day looks very different from that.

We're still not doing SuperMemo, because E. just doesn't like it much. H. didn't start until he was 6, so...

Reading/literature. Since the last report, and after his birthday, for his reading we let him read whatever he wanted, and he went through dozens and dozens of Berenstain Bears books, because they were on hand (left over from H.) and he likes them. He did read a few other things, occasionally science. He also read a pile of classic picture books, which I picked out for him. After going through all those picture books, I think he was bored, but not quite ready to tackle so many chapter books. Mind you, he can read them just fine (this is two years ago), but he hasn't been motivated and we're not going to push him. He did read Roald Dahl's The Witches (more about Dahl below). He doesn't read enough to my taste, probably not 30 minutes a day on average, but some days he reads for a few hours.

After his Mama insisted that he start something, a week or two ago, he did pick a chapter book and is now reading his hardest self-read book yet, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, which he says he likes quite a bit. I remember H. read that book at about the same age.

Meanwhile, at mealtimes, I'm still reading to him most breakfasts and lunches. I finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to him—he rarely wanted to read anything else, and it took over a year to read them all, I think. Then we went through various other books, including Black Ships Before Troy, the fantastic prose adaptation of The Iliad, which was quite advanced. In fact, I started reading it to H., although H. is perfectly capable of reading it to himself. H. lost interest (often leaving the meal table before anyone else to run to his computer to work on his latest programming project), but E. was hooked, and asked me to keep reading, even though I thought it was too advanced. I did have to explain quite a lot of the words.

The same thing happened again more recently. I thought I'd try reading The Odyssey to H., the awesome, poetic, and relatively accessible Fitzgerald translation, knowing that E. would get a little out of it (he always surprises me in how well he pays attention when I'm reading to H.). So H. quickly lost interest and said he'd rather read it to himself (which I'll have him do after he's finished with A Midsummer Night's Dream). But again, E. was hooked. I said it's beyond him but he insisted that I continue, and for several weeks I always said we didn't have to read this, we could read something else, and he keeps asking for the Odyssey.

How do I read the Odyssey to a 5-year-old, you ask? (Sure, a precocious 5-year-old, but come on.) Basically, what I always do: as I read a sentence, I read the written words and immediately, parenthetically, insert glosses for the words that are easy to gloss. As to the more important, interesting, or hard-to-gloss words, we look those up in the handy on-screen dictionary (we read it on the iPad which makes this easy). When a whole sentence or phrase seems difficult, I retell the point in my own words. I'm rather proud of how much I seem to remember from my slender study of classics, lo, over 25 years ago. For pronunciation of names, it helps that H. and I have started studying ancient Greek at night (using Athenaze). I also do voices. The result is that the book (as glossed by me) still has E's attention, and we're up to Book 9 of 24. The cyclops part. Very exciting and gory. Perfect for E.

It helps a lot, and I mean it has been absolutely essential, that we read Tales from the Odyssey before, listened to it in the car as well, read a zillion other Greek myths books, etc. The gods and goddesses, Odysseus himself, and his story are all pretty familiar at this point. He can explain what's going on. A few times Mama has asked for clarification of some point, and E. will answer before I do.

Speaking of advanced stuff, on Sunday evenings I read The Pilgrim's Progress (this slightly modernized but gorgeously illustrated edition...I didn't know that it was actually modernized when I bought it, but I think that's actually not a bad thing in this case) to H. But E. as usual is paying close attention and so I try to bring this already somewhat simplified version down to his level in my glosses. Reading only once a week a half-hour at a time, we've gone through quite slowly but are now past the halfway mark.

But back down to earth: E. still likes reading easy stuff. I often catch him with my iPad looking at old Disney story apps, which he read when he was one and two, and the preschool-level Beginner's Bible. (Probably because of readings from Pilgrim's Progress.) Whereas H. said at that age that he was an atheist (pretty sure he still takes that position), E. says he believes in God. Go figure. E. is of a more magical and romantic cast of mind.

Math. He worked on 1st grade math (Splash Math) intermittently for over a year, I think, and after trying IXL for a bit, he started working on that instead, in 2nd grade. He's been playing Tower Math (the iPad app) lately which helps a bit with his math facts, but he's still counting on his fingers or quickly in his head, having memorized only a few. I think Mama has started using flash cards with him as well as LacerLinks, as I did with H. at that age, and maybe we'll get him going in Two Plus Two Is not Five, which seemed to help H. Anyway, although he seems talented at math—it comes to him pretty easily—he's not very motivated to do it, and again we don't insist too much at this point.

Writing. He's gone mostly through the Kumon Writing Words book, and his handwriting is getting reasonably good. Mama has taught him very well how to hold the pencil and write neatly. I encourage them to copy sentences, but they haven't really started that yet—sometimes. So he's not particularly advanced at writing yet. He's also rather less confident than H. was at this age as far as spelling goes. He is demotivated to write because he needs to know exactly how things are spelled and doesn't seem to believe us that he'll pick it up automatically by random practice. E.g. earlier today he wrote a couple sentences as part of a little Scratch program. So who knows, maybe we'll go through some sort of systematic speller with him, even if we didn't do that with H.

He also types, and has practiced typing rather well. He types more confidently than he writes, and he gets in all sorts of typing practice when he does Google searches, e.g., for funny cats, and other such occasions. We started him on different typing software but nothing seems to be working out (bugs and/or poor design). That's a problem I'm assigned to solve soon.

Latin and Russian. As with H., we started our Latin study with Rosetta Stone when he was three or four, but that didn't last long; unlike H., E. just wasn't that into Rosetta Stone. Then last year I discovered the easy children's Latin curriculum Minimus, a British production, and we fairly carefully went through all but the last couple chapters of book 1. It was great on the iPad, as audio and cartoons are built in, making it all a very gentle introduction. Anyway, for some reason toward the end of that book he started refusing to go on, so we gave that up. Not long after I decided we could start with one of the easiest public domain Latin readers, Mima Maxey's New Latin Primer. But we got several pages into that when the grammar started piling up, so to speak, and I figured it would be easier to just go through Getting Started with Latin, which I had used with H. when he was 8—it was very easy for him then. This book is somewhat challenging, but he's still OK with it, if not always enthusiastic, and he does seem to get a kick out of the progressive knowledge he's building up. This book is a great confidence-builder for kids, I highly recommend it. We're around Lesson 25 now (of 144). We'll see how it goes! My guess is that the next thing won't be D'Ooge or Lingua Latina, because those are both too hard for him now and require grammar he hasn't got under his belt yet. Instead, we'll probably go through another elementary curriculum.

As to the time Getting Started with Latin takes, we do it typically during lunchtime, once a day but usually skipping a few days a week. Still, we're making good forward progress. At this rate he'll be at big brother's level or beyond when he is that age.

E's Mama also reads stories, sings, and teaches him to read in her language daily. She also speaks to them in her language, and while they respond back in English, they do understand quite a bit, and E. can read simple stuff. Recently, after H. discovered Duolingo, E. decided to get into it in Mama's language. He's been (with my and Mama's help) starting to learn how to type/spell words, and this of course helps his English as well.

History. Mama is reading The Story of the World, Vol. 1, to E., and discussing it, as I did with H. around the same age. I think they're several chapters in. They started only a couple of months ago. I have read him a few history books at mealtimes; in the last few months, I remember one about Lincoln and a few about the ancient world. Also, E. watches a lot of videos about history (and other subjects) on BrainPop. He did BrainPop Jr. for a long time, which wasn't very interesting for H., so I decided to switch our subscription for a while to...

BrainPop. In other words, Tim and Moby. Turns out that E. likes these at least as much as BrainPop Jr. and for many months he was watching them religiously every morning as H. and I were doing Latin, something like 30 minutes a day or more. Then we sometimes watch one at the beginning of a meal. Similarly as H. absorbed loads of random facts from the Horrible Science series, then spewed the facts out at random intervals afterward, so E. watches dozens upon dozens of these middle school-level videos and later reports them back to me, often at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to work. His favorite subject in BrainPop is...

Science, and in particular the human body and health. Often some quite advanced stuff. He paid fairly close attention as I read to H. about chemistry, and definitely picked some advanced topics up for a 4 or 5 year old. Also, since we switched to biology last fall, I started by reading H. What's Biology All About? by Usborne. This is for H. a very easy book (he is doing high school biology), but H. enjoys the review and I generally leave the book choice up to him. It helps E. that this is a book closer to his level, especially after all those BrainPop videos, so I sort of read it to E. as well. We read it 1-2 times a week at dinner. E. has been saying for over a year now that he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Mama has been doing occasional experiments with him, which is a good thing because she used to shoo us out of the kitchen and bathrooms when H. and I tried to use them for experiments, and now she has no excuse as she is responsible for the mess. Another sciencey thing we do is Thursdays, we read from William J. Long, Secrets of the Woods, a book of the nature writing genre that I hadn't been exposed to since...maybe high school. Unusually and unexpectedly good book; the people on Goodreads who called it "wordy" are probably just in need of education themselves. The book is part of the Yesterday's Classics series we bought and which I highly recommend, if you can transfer the books to your tablet. It was just the first plausible of their "Nature" books that I found in our collection. E. has also taken to watching some cool science videos in the Kurzgesagt series, which must be over his head, but what the hell, he found them and he wants to watch them. He has watched an awful lot of Magic School Bus videos (and I read a few of the books, some while back, at the table to him), and Bill Nye. We went all the way through the Brain Games series on Netflix, and recently started How We Got to Now, also on Netflix, both very cool. Also, as of last week, MacGyver. That's science!

Art & Music & Poetry. Wednesday dinnertime is poetry; I read this ostensibly to H. but E. is often tuning in. Both seem to like poetry, and E. on occasion will request poetry during his (i.e., breakfast and lunch) reading times. Friday evenings is art and music, and again while I chose the books and media for H., E. tunes in closely and definitely learns quite a bit there too.

Bedtime reading. As much as he likes science, E. is totally into anything magical (like Harry Potter) and heroic (like The Odyssey). So at night, I've read him a series of Roald Dahl books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Danny the Champion of the World, and The BFG. (Did you know there's a British cartoon BFG on YouTube that as of this writing hasn't been taken down?) H. was never so much into these, but he has listened in on the last three. E. really likes Dahl. At the moment we are starting in on W.B. Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, beautifully told. I'm pretty sure we've read some others at night as well. We're almost done with The Tower Treasure, the first Hardy Boys book.


Fund me to make 50 educational videos for kids!

I have a Kickstarter project that will close in two days! Unless I get a bunch of pledges in that time, I won't raise the money. I haven't tried very hard (actually, almost not at all)—been busy with other things.

Some salient points:

• I’ve made 26 educational videos for kids in my spare time (put on YouTube).

• As a homeschooling dad, Ph.D. philosopher, and reader of vast quantities of children’s literature, I am the perfect person to write these videos. I like making them, too.

• My videos are popular with and praised by students, parents, and teachers.

• My videos each average 52 views per day, or 18,834 per year.

• My videos on high-demand topics average 92 views per day, or 33,580 per year, about 4 years after being uploaded.

• Working full time, I can make 2-3 of these educational videos per day.

• So I can make 500 educational videos in a year.

• I can limit myself to high-demand topics.

• This would work out to over 30 million views per year (on high-demand topics), 4 years after being uploaded. That’s a lot!

• The videos don’t get stale. The amount of traffic my videos get has been growing year over year.

• I am seeking funding just for myself to make these videos.

It would become a K-4 version of Khan Academy (which is mostly focused on high school and college level material).
The videos would supply background knowledge about everything needed to be a proficient reader.
The selling points:

• Massive traffic, based on years of clear, consistent data.

• Inexpensive: I make them quickly, by myself.

• High quality educational content.

This is a proven, massively beneficial project. What I really want is somebody to fund me to full-time until I get tired of making these things. In the meantime, funding 50 of these things would be grand, and I'll show yez what I can do.

Some thoughts, 15 years after Wikipedia's launch

It's been 15 years since I announced the opening of the new Wikipedia.com site, with a little message that said:

http://www.wikipedia.com/
Humor me.  
Go there and add a little article.  
It will take all of five or ten 
minutes.
--Larry

I am still sometimes called "Wikipedia's sharpest critic," but if you actually look at the panoply of Wikipedia criticism, you'll quickly see that that's not actually true. I happen to know some critics of Wikipedia, people like Gregory Kohs and Edward Buckner. They know a lot more (and care and are more "outspoken") about Wikipedia's assorted flaws than I do. Saying Wikipedia's co-founder is a critic does make a nice headline, though, which is why, when I did a long, nuanced interview with VICE recently, the headline writer (not the interviewer) called me "Wikipedia's most outspoken critic."

Some people might come to this page to see what have I been up since leaving Wikipedia 14 years ago, so let me fill you in. I taught philosophy for a while, I worked on somebody else's failed startup for a year, then transitioned to start Citizendium, which is still kicking six years after I left. I allowed myself to be poached from my own project by a Memphis-area philanthropist who wanted me to work on what became WatchKnowLearn. While developing that I was teaching my toddler son to read, and the video of his precocious reading inspired the same philanthropist to fund ReadingBear, which digitizes the method I've used with both my sons. Reading Bear was very difficult to develop, but I'm proud of it. You'll probably see some new features on the site soon—mobile compatibility, probably.

After that I decided to try my first for-profit funded startup, Infobitt; we ran out of runway, as most startups do, but we also learned a lot about how a volunteer, collaborative news summary site might work. Since last July I've been working part-time doing various fun projects for Ballotpedia as well as ReadingBear, and I've been wooed by a few different startups. I've been developing a few different exciting ideas, just to test them and make proposals to different organizations. Whatever I do, I want my next move to be into something that has a good chance of being long-term.

One idea I'm toying with a lot lately is educational videos like these, which my boys liked quite a bit and which surprisingly get a good bit of traffic. The best part is that they're fun to make and I can make them pretty quickly. I don't have a sponsor as such for them, yet, but making a bunch of such videos does seem like a worthwhile way to spend my time. I have various other interests that I've thought about parlaying into meaningful employment: writing a curriculum about philosophy for kids; free speech, a topic I'm greatly interested in; organizing a community to defend the fundamental ideas behind enlightenment Western civilization; writing superior reviews of homeschooling resources; and joining a news startup interested in letting me develop Infobitt further.

There are two grand ambitions lurking in the background, although the jury's still out whether I will ever have time and resources to work on them. One is Textop. The other is developing a system of philosophy roughly in the vein of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher of common sense.

I would love to hear from anyone with advice and help to move forward on any of these fronts.


Wake up, people! Minecraft sucks as an educational tool.

<rant>

You don't have to cite studies to me. I already know that various kinds of video games can have some positive educational effects. As somebody who has wasted way too many hours on video games since 1977 or so, this isn't surprising to me. The notions that it might help train kids to think ahead, improve reaction time and some processing abilities, or even occasionally (very occasionally) teach some actual subject matter fall into the "duh" category for me. I have watched my sons get hooked on Minecraft (I never, never should have installed it last summer! I rue the day!), and I freely admit that they have learned a little about getting themselves organized, planning ahead, and of course a little about such things as mining and building.

So why am I not on the "let's let kids play Minecraft for hours in class" train? It's one thing mainly. There is one argument that some educators and parents for some bizarre reason are constantly ignoring:

Opportunity cost.

Yes, boys and girls, opportunity cost. You know what? If there were a multi-billion dollar industry behind any number of other activities—cooking, say, or board games or television-watching—you'd find zillions of new studies showing that those activities are delightfully educational as well. Why do I say so? Because almost everything has some measurable educational impact. You must be doing something pretty goddamned mind-dulling, like watching Growing Up Kardashian, if you don't emerge just a little smarter.

So it's not terribly surprising that playing video games, and Minecraft in particular—yes the time-sucking bane of the young lives of so many boys, and some girls too—has some educational benefit.

The question is whether it's a wise use of time for educational purposes. And that is a matter of comparative educational benefit. You know what has more educational benefits than video games? Pretty friggin' much everything on the curriculum. It's all about efficiency, and qua efficient educational experience, most video games absolutely suck for most educational purposes—compared to the traditional alternatives.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think reading textbooks and doing worksheets and taking way too many quizzes and tests is pretty inefficient. This is why we homeschool. Reading a lot more meaningful books and keeping the busywork to a minimum is more the thing (that's what we try to do). My point is not that ordinary school curricula are wonderful, but only that adding heavy doses of Minecraft to it simply exacerbates an already appalling problem.

I can imagine a response: "But Minecraft is really inspiring to my kids! I can get them to write about their worlds, and we have worked in a lot of creative Minecraft lessons that the kids love!" I'm sure that's all true. If it stopped at a few lessons now and then, then heck, maybe we'd be doing it. But Minecraft is like crack for kids. They don't play for a half an hour. They play for hours and hours, until you drag them, kicking and screaming, from the computer. And I reiterate my point: There are all sorts of extremely fun stuff that we could be doing, which have some educational benefit. But we don't do them during study time, and why? Because we have better things to do.

If you want your kids to be well-educated, you'll think harder about educational efficiency and opportunity cost.

</rant>


Report about the boys, January 2016

I'll dive right into H's schooling. He's now age 9.

The new tasklist orientation. This past year the biggest problem has been motivating him to study enough. Until November, it was a struggle. Although Mama's helping quite a bit more, especially with E., H. still requires management and I still have to work full-time. While he can do quite a bit without being closely advised, if he's not monitored, he'll just do whatever he wants.

To get help with keeping him on track, we went through the long process of enrolling H. in Ohio Connections Academy. After testing he was admitted in the 8th grade in most subjects and 7th grade in math. So he was at OCA for one week in, I guess it was, November. I thought he'd be able to proceed through the curriculum at his own pace, but he really couldn't, i.e., they aren't flexible that way. OCA's advertising and protestations to the contrary are spurious. The tasks are not really a la carte, either. H. ended up saying that he could learn a lot more doing "Papa's curriculum," and I had to agree.

Digression about OCA and public school curriculum

An aside—public school curriculum as represented by OCA's Pearson texts (Connections Academy is owned by Pearson) looks very "meaty." Kids are constantly doing things that certainly look educational and they're hard to fault. The problem is that putting all that crap together amounts to a lot of busywork. A lot of assignments are basically repetitive or drilling what ought to be obvious or to be picked up on the fly. It's more efficient (it has been for us) to stick mainly to reading high-quality books and do straight writing, math, and language study; much of the extra crap kids are drilled on ancillary to the main curriculum is incredibly annoying.

Language Arts texts, ugh, don't get me started. H. was going to have to read just two chapter books for the semester. But on those books he was going to have to answer questions, take quizzes, do vocabulary sets, etc., etc., meaning he spent at least as much time with ancillary busywork as actually reading the book. Why not just answer some questions at the end the book, have him look up words he doesn't know, then read another book in the same time? Worse than that—much worse—are the textbooks. Here we have short stories, nonfiction essays, poems, etc., which altogether looks great (although nonfiction should be studied in history and science). The trouble is that there is two or three times as much material padding all the readings. It's appalling.

The history text was similarly ugh-inspiring. Don't get me wrong, it seemed to be fairly well-written and comprehensive. The problem was that there were a zillion sidebars, too many pictures and other bells and whistles, and the text itself was a compilation of facts rather than anything resembling a narrative. This is not how to teach history.

The math and science curriculum was a bit better, but also suffered from the padding problem, albeit less so. H. likes the CK-12 biology set-up we have going much more, though, and Khan+IXL for math is hard to beat, for H. anyway.

There was also way, way, way too much testing/checking/quizzes over everything. That takes time, time that could be spent actually learning. I'm not referring to standardized tests. I'm referring to everyday quizzes and exams. Just way, way too much.

But we did bring from our failed experiment the excellent technique of breaking down the school day's tasks into small chunks and getting them checked off (by me...hopefully to be passed on to Mama soon) regularly. The checklist discipline clarifies to H. exactly what we've decided he'll work on. He can decide in what order he does things in, but he has to complete a whole "day's" work before he moves on to the next "day." Generally speaking a "day" requires anywhere from one to two days, maybe 1.5 days on average. The checklist discipline also helps me to decide how long to allot to H. for a task, and how long to set a timer after which I check in with him. For example, this was a recent checklist:

  • Divisibility Rules (review)
    • IXL Math 7.A.4. (15)
  • Greatest Common Factor
    • Watch this Khan video and  this one and this one. (You can skip one of these if it seems too obvious (20)
    • IXL Math 6.E.7. (15)
    • IXL Math 7.A.5 (to 30*). (5)
  • Pick a new novel to read. (10)
  • Start reading it. (at least 20)
  • Read Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, next 4-6 pages. (20)
  • Make ~2 questions per three pages read about the presidents. (10)
  • Do 30-45 minutes of CK-12 biology quizzes (up to but not past  “Other Cell Organelles”). (30-45)
  • Answer the questions about The Hunger Games. (30)
  • Review to 100. (15)
  • Review to 50. (15)
  • Do next 15 minutes of Think Java. (15)

So far, so good: he's done more work on an average day in the last six weeks or so than he has at any time in the last few years.

Math. H. is now working concurrently on IXL.com's 6th and 7th grade math. So, this is kind of weird. In my high school back in the early 1980s, most kids did pre-algebra in 8th grade, algebra in 9th grade, etc. If you were in honors classes, though, you'd do pre-algebra in the 7th grade, algebra in the 8th grade, and geometry in the 9th. So here's the thing: IXL's sixth grade is on the advanced track. Then they have two years, the 7th and 8th grades, doing pre-algebra. Algebra is supposed to be a 9th grade activity. (IXL doesn't teach Calculus yet.)

As a result, and since the 7th grade stuff looked very doable, we decided to combine IXL's 6th and 7th grade. If the 7th grade stuff is just a review of their 6th grade stuff, as it often is, I just make him get his IXL score for the 7th grade version up to 30, and if he does so without any mistakes, he can skip the rest. Anyway, that's working out. The idea is that he'll do this for the next six or nine months and then tackle IXL 8th grade, which does introduce quite a few new topics.

Khan Academy's free videos at this level are finally quite good, so I just assign him to watch those before the topic comes up and lo and behold, he usually doesn't need much help from me. That's all we do for math now. Maybe when we get to algebra we'll switch to a textbook. But at this point, we've tried Saxon and Singapore and a few others, and this seems to be most simpatico to H. I wish he liked a more substantive curriculum, but motivation is key, and with Khan, he does seem to be learning the concepts pretty well.

Writing. It's been a long time since I had H. do anything like a systematic writing program, but I decided he needs systematic training in certain kinds of writing, even if he is able to put together decent sentences and paragraphs. So in November we started working on Writing with Skill. We're going through it very slowly, maybe too slowly, because I still let him do "own choice" writing every other day, and I give him special assignments like poetry or, as recently, a speech (his speech is about why you should have a pet dog). Another "break" we took was to get feedback from Fiverr on a long story he wrote, then rewrite the story incorporating the feedback. That was fun. Anyway, I'd say his writing is progressing nicely.

He's also occasionally been doing his own choice of IXL Language Arts topics and got hooked, for a little while anyway, on Vocabulary.com. He is still working in Cursive Writing Words (!) and I'm threatening to make him write some essays in cursive as soon as he's done with that. He can type pretty quickly...up to 50 wpm or so.

Literature. As to literature, for a long time I was having him do an hour a day, except that for most of this year, he rarely did that. He did maybe an hour a day three times a week. So instead, after the Ohio Connections Academy experiment, I decided to make the assignments more reasonable: I'm having him do half-hour of reading actually daily. This works out much better than requiring an hour, and he's made more consistent progress in his reading, with fewer of the "breaks" of many days that he used to take. Recently he finished The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Flies, and he's almost done with The Wind in the Willows. I'm not sure I could tell you what else he's read this year...definitely a fair few. E.g., he did read The Hobbit, and he read the first three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring but decided that it was boring (as a Tolkien fan, I was scandalized by this but I let it go; he'll get the appeal later). I got him The Hunger Games after he read and enjoyed a few other dystopian novels, Anthem, Animal Farm, and The Giver.

Another thing we did (are still doing, too) was to compile an anthology of poetry. I'm not sure how we got into this. This was mostly his idea, and he's still quite gung-ho about it. The dream is to co-author and eventually publish a poetry anthology for young people (ages 8 to 15 or so). We were doing this for about 30 minutes per evening, most evenings, last fall; but then we decided we needed to get back into the evening reading (e.g., we still haven't finished Oliver Twist, which I started reading to him a long time ago). But we still work on it every so often and our intention going forward is to spend a couple of hours working on it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. We work together at the same time on this Google doc. Of course, I work more efficiently than he does, so I guess most of what you see there is my work, but H. does make a lot of contributions to every aspect of the production. We've also worked on transferring this document to a better-formatted MS Word version, but the text so far is pretty much the same.

This inspired some interesting poems from H. recently, the first doubtless inspired by "A Swing Song":

The Sky
Sky, sky,
Up high,
No animal but
The bird is sly
Enough to venture
Into the sky.

Low, low,
Down below,
Where any foe
Would love to go
Who cannot fly high
Up into the sky.

=============

The Frog
There once was a frog,
Who loved to sit
On a particular log.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To sit on any other.

There once was a frog,
Who loved to bathe
In a particular bog.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To bathe in any other.

History. This is a subject that we started very well on, with the first 1.5 books of The Story of the World read alongside three other history books. Then we started slowing down and since then it's been pretty hit and miss. Under the new checkbox scheme, H. is finally making excellent forward progress in The Story of the World vol. 3 (done as of early January; soon to start vol. 4), as well as The Landmark History of the American People and Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, and occasionally something else. He also has to add questions to SuperMemo, which is one big reason why he's made relatively slow progress; but he does remember some history as a result.

Science. Last summer or so we finally finished our study of chemistry. This included What's Chemistry All About? as well as the two long sections about chemistry in the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (quite good). He read a big long book about the elements as well as How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients and some other things. Then we switched to biology last fall. This was quite cool, because his fairly in-depth exposure to chemistry prepared him to dive past middle school level biology and go straight to this free CK-12 Biology text. For the first time ever he's doing most of his science study without me, which is great. I still have been reading What's Biology All About? at the dinner table, which is very easy, but he still enjoys it. In addition to just reading the CK-12 text, I make him answer half of the comprehension questions, do all of the corresponding quizzes in the (stunningly good) CK-12 app, and add questions to SuperMemo.

Geography, etc. In an earlier version of this post I neglected to say anything about his geography study. Well, this has been a problem. We're still working on U.S. geography, and I don't think we're even halfway through the states. In our evening reading, among several other things, we were working our way through the National Geographic U.S. Atlas for kids, and our progress was steady, but quite slow. Then last fall we dropped all of that for the poetry anthology and, though H. did read a few short "True Books" about U.S. regions, for the most part geography was dropped. More recently I started him reading the atlas by himself, and making SuperMemo questions, and I think he did that for 2-3 states. But he complained that it was boring, so for Christmas I gave H. a geography workbook with map-labeling and fact-drilling work. He seems to like this better. Anyway, I do hope with the checklist method we'll get through U.S. geography this year.

H. has continued to do drawing and other art projects, mostly with Mama, at home—when given specific instructions, he has retained some of the ability he gained in his art classes, which he no longer takes (they were getting repetitive). He has also been practicing piano, but not very much; he's basically been treading water for the last year, although he has learned to play with two hands and it getting more confident anyway. But he declares he doesn't like it and we haven't insisted very often.

Java/programming. For a long time I've been telling my programming-crazy son that he really must go all the way through a programming tutorial. Well, I said to myself, if he isn't going to do it all on his own, I'll just "make" him. It turns out that he's very happy to be "made" to do this; he enjoys having the time (only 15 minutes per day) to do it. He goes through the text quickly—he started a few weeks ago and is around the end of chapter three of Think Java, which is written for high school preparing for the AP exam. He seems to be highly motivated and enjoying himself greatly, and so far isn't complaining about any problems. On his own he has thoroughly learned Scratch, and has made some inroads into Visual Basic, and bits of other languages. He wants to be a programmer when he grows up.

Latin and Greek. Don't ask me how, but in the nine months since my last update, we have gone through only pp. 39-63 in Benjamin D’Ooge’s Elements of Latin. We have also made more progress in  Maud Reed’s Juliaas well as Mima Maxey's Cornelia. In the last week or two, though, we put these down and started in on Orberg's Lingua Latina, mostly because H. says D'Ooge is boring. I exhaustively compared the programs, and I have to admit that LL might be better for us at this stage. Although it seems we have done only a little work on Latin, we have not really been shirking too much. We have actually gone over several things repeatedly, done a hell of a lot of review (we spend half of our 30-45 minutes each morning on Latin in SuperMemo review). The stuff that we've learned, we've learned to death, and that includes the stuff in Julia and Cornelia. We have mastered a lot more vocabulary than what appears in D'Ooge.

As of just a few days ago, we decided to let H. finish by himself the books we've started reading together at night. Instead, we've started studying (for 20-30 minutes per night) ancient (Attic) Greek out of the same textbook I used in college, Athenaze. We're still learning the alphabet...I'll let you know how it goes. I'm motivated and so is H. He thinks the alphabet is pretty cool and he infers (he realizes this is an invalid inference, however correct the conclusion is) that the language must be pretty cool too.

Supermemo. Here's one of our great success stories. At some point in November, I told H. he can finish 100 SuperMemo review questions in 30 minutes (why not?). I check after 15 minutes if he has finished 50, then after another 15 minutes I check if he has finished 50 more. A lot of the time I don't really have to check at all—he almost always does it without getting distracted. He writes down the number he has left to do after each three minutes on a snazzy spreadsheet, which automatically calculates his rate of review (instant feedback is very handy), and so I hardly have to monitor him at all. He actually chooses to do Supermemo first thing in the day sometimes, which he never used to do.

Dinner reading. I still do reading to H. at dinnertime. This includes Help Your Kids with Language Arts on Mondays (now mostly done), What's Biology All About? Tuesdays and Thursdays, poetry on Wednesdays, art and music on Fridays (shared between both boys), logic workbooks on Saturday (almost done with Orbiting with Logic, thus completing the Prufrock series—again, both boys are doing logic now), and, lately, a slightly modernized version of Pilgrim's Progress on Sundays. The amazing thing is that E. at age 4 and 5 absorbed quite a bit of the chemistry and biology I've been reading to H., and as a result he's doing very well on science; he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

Anyway, that's all I have time to write up, for now...I'll add some info about E., now age 5 and addicted to "BrainPop," soonish.


Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?

I know, I know: That title sounds ridiculously click-baity. But if you'll look at my blog, you'll see that I don't really go in for click-bait titles.

Unfortunately, I mean it quite literally. It's an enormous problem that we aren't talking about enough. And I want to propose that one reason for it is a massive failure of civics education.

Support for democracy is declining. First, let's talk a bit about support for democracy—yes, democracy itself, as in voting for your leaders and representatives and holding them accountable in the arena of public debate. Only one in five Millennials aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in the 2014 elections—the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years, says the Atlantic.

As Vox recently asked, "Are Americans losing faith in democracy?" The article makes a series of points illustrating that Americans, especially younger Americans, are ignorant of and aren't engaging in American political life. The article's main source is a forthcoming paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk titled "The Democratic Disconnect," together with the World Values Survey. The writers summarized their own work in the New York Times last September.

Asked how much interest they have in politics (as Vox reports), Americans born in the 1930s said "very interested" or "somewhat interested" almost 80% of the time; for those born in the 1970s, the figure dropped to about 50%, and for those born in the 1980s, it was continuing to drop just as precipitously.

More sobering is the survey question about how essential it is to live in a democracy, rated from 1 to 10. The percentage of Americans responding "10," essential, has dropped from the 70% range for those born in 1930 down to the 30% range for those born in the 1980s. A 40% drop in support for democracy itself is a momentous generational change.

In case you think that's a mistake, compare that to a question asking whether "having a democratic political system" was a "bad" or "very bad" way to run the U.S.: while the percentage for those born in the 1950s and 60s hovered around 13%, for those born after 1970, in the surveys since 1995, the percentage rose from about 16% to over 20%.

Even openness to army rule—something we associate with banana republics—has climbed from 7% to 16% of all Americans.

Support for free speech in America is declining. This is incredibly important: the Pew Research Center found that 40% of American Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (up from 12% for seniors aged 70-87). A stunning 51% of Democrats want to make "hate speech" a criminal offense, and 37% of Republicans. If you have even a passing familiarity with First Amendment law, you'll know that these things are contrary to the First Amendment.

That is how it is possible—and not implausible—that 50 Yale students could sign a petition within an hour to repeal the First Amendment, as this video of Yalies showed:

What the video shows notwithstanding, Yalies are very smart. They can compare their attitudes toward offensive and hate speech with what they learned in their elite civics and history classes about the First Amendment, and infer that they're opposed to the First Amendment. If they're reasonably intelligent, self-aware, and honest with themselves, as some Yalies are, they'll recognize that their intolerance to certain kinds of speech commits them to an opposition to free speech.

The increasing hostility toward free speech among many of our future leaders at elite colleges like Yale has been frightening to many of us, and has sparked a national conversation—an example is here, summarizing some recent episodes and calling academe to return to free speech.

Here's a possible reason why: Civics education has been weak for years and recently declining even further. I don't pretend to know why support for democracy and free speech have been declining, but if our students for some generations have simply not been well educated about basic American civics, that must be part of the explanation.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the "Nation's Report Card"—for 2014, only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics. While 39 states do require a course in American government or civics, only two states require students to pass a test in American government/civics to graduate from high school. As the Civics Education Initiative reports,

[T]he Civics Education Initiative...requires high school students, as a condition of graduation, take and pass a test based on questions from the United States Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) citizenship civics exam – the same test all new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

To date, six states...have passed legislation implementing the Civics Education Initiative, with a goal of passage in all 50 states by September 17, 2017 – the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But, you wonder, if new immigrants have to pass this citizenship civics exam to get in the country, wouldn't American high schoolers be able to pass it? No. In studies, only 4% of high schoolers in Oklahoma and Arizona passed it.

The National Council for the Social Studies published a position statement summarizing the sobering truth: "Sadly, the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools' ability to provide high quality civic education to all students."

According to a 2011 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ignorance was not rectified at the college level:

beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting. ... A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.

Knowledge of basic political facts among the general public is shockingly low. For example, only 40% of Americans surveyed in a recent survey by Pew knew which party controlled each house of Congress, and only about a third of Americans could even name the three branches of government.

Civics isn't easy, and political philosophy is even harder. But both are necessary. If this purported decline of commitment to the basic American system is real, and if it's rooted in poor civics education, it doesn't seem surprising to me.

For all the emphasis on reading and the massive, feature-rich language arts textbooks, American public school students don't have to read many books, period. Most of them are not prepared to read and comprehend the Constitution, much less the complex historical works such as The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and Democracy in America that explain and defend the American system.

Education matters. It is likely that we will face more battles in higher education and, increasingly, in the public sphere over the necessity and advisability of maintaining robust democratic institutions and adherence to free speech. I fear that as we answer more and more attacks, reference to the Constitution and American political principles will not be sufficient. Part of the problem can be laid at Jefferson's doorstep, when he wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The fact is that they aren't self-evident, that philosophers have argued for and against them quite a bit, and in the years ahead, the better the pro-freedom side acquaints itself with those arguments, the better chance we'll have.


Our Moral Abyss

First, let me state my basic thesis poetically. To some, it will sound unoriginal, implausible, and overwrought:

We in the West are falling in a moral abyss. We are in mid-fall. It's been long since we careened off the precipice, though we have not hit bottom.

abyssPoetic language is vague, so let me explain what I mean.

1. Plumbing the abyss

We began falling when we (many of us) stopped earnestly using the language of moral judgment, i.e., the discourse of individual responsibility, of suffering the hard consequences of foolish action, of liberal knowledge, hard-earned wisdom, of bad judgment, of the risky exercise of freedom that entails and requires judgment, of sound character and good habit, of courage, humility, and other virtues. In short, our strength of character is weakened, and the cultural wisdom needed to keep it strong, the cultural capital we built up over thousands of years, has been squandered in the space of a few generations.

So many good and necessary habits we used to have, which strengthened our character and that of our children, have been carelessly tossed in the dustbin of history. Instead, look at what we have. Look honestly. Look past your partisan or religious contempt and your haughty reactions, and try to judge soberly how far what I say here is actually true.

Blaming others, rejecting responsibility... What we have is a society that blames others for our failings. Our problems are blamed on benighted parents, racism and sexism, evil corporate masters, venal politicians, the corrupting influence of mass media, violent video games, and other dark forces. But ultimately, these too are all thought to be pawns and tools, and our problems are really all "structural" or societal. Ultimately we must engineer a better way to control the dark forces that inflict all our problems. In any case, our problems are not individual. We, too many of us, act as if we have no individual responsibility for our failings. We cannot be blamed.

freewill...because of a rejection of personal freedom. We have a society that increasingly rejects personal blame because it increasingly rejects personal freedom. This is a natural human belief that dies hard, but it is dying with contemporary education. Cynical journalists and "thought leaders" quote philosophically sophomoric scientists who assure us that free will is an illusion. Many educated young people believe this. Many educated older people also act as if they believe it. Our society is bathed in the language of therapy rather than philosophy and ethics. We are not lazy; we are depressed. We are not selfish, vain, and nasty; we have narcissistic personality disorder. Our children aren't immature and irresponsible; their frontal cortexes are incompletely developed. We are not evil; we have antisocial personality disorder. Mass murderers are not inhumanly wicked, they are always "troubled" and must have a history of mental illness. The most appalling enemies of our civilization, groups like ISIS, are not monsters, they are merely reacting to abuse of Western power in their home territory. Even positive responsibility—praise—sometimes goes by the wayside. The inventors and entrepreneurs of every sort, the people who actually create progress, are sometimes denied their accomplishments by an egalitarian tendency to say, "you didn't build that": it was society, it was all of us working together. Both blame and praise are shared out into society at large.

Collectivized risk and coddling above freedom. We have a society that insulates our youth from risk, that cushions every blow, that places safety above freedom. Our older generations remember a society in which one saved diligently for "a rainy day." Now, we have collectivized risk, with credit cards, bankruptcy meaning only the loss of credit, the social safety net beneath it all. These are not bad things in moderation, surely, but we have gone too far. We are forced to buckle up and we may not smoke in public—all for our own good, of course, and who really can complain? Many of our professors and university administrators are increasingly comfortable with and even insistent upon sheltering our children not just from harsh behavior but from harsh talk and offensive ideas, ideas known by society's enlightened elite to be benighted and wrong. A growing number of young people, meanwhile, being so used to their cocoon-like existence, demand such coddling; they were apparently never taught that there might be something wrong with it, wrong because inconsistent with their self-reliance, rights, and freedoms.

"The salt of the earth"—ignored, at best. We have a society that indeed glorifies foolish youth and is fascinated with famous idiots, finding hard-earned wisdom—as opposed to the latest fads handed down from on high—to be just another, quaint point of view. The ordinary, solid man and woman, who get married, stay together, maintain a stable household for children, are productive and pay their taxes, obey the law and do their duty, and grow old and full of wisdom—these people used to be thought of as "the salt of the earth." Today they are ignored, forgotten; worse, sneered at as bourgeois, middle class, and old-fashioned; or worse still, dismissed as merely "privileged" and as part of an oppressor class. They are rarely honored, except by their families and friends. The former "salt of the earth" hear signals everywhere that their lives are boring, inauthentic, even offensive. Many philosophers and priests of days gone by would disagree, but they too are boring and offensive.

winsor-mccay-good-bookWisdom literature—ignored, at best. We consult psychologists, celebrities, and pundits for wise advice on living, rather than philosophers and priests—but perhaps that's understandable, since so many of today's philosophers and priests have really gotten out of the wisdom game, after all. The philosophers focus on technical questions far more than broad, useful soul- and mind-craft, and I have heard that our religious leaders focus not on how to avoid sin and live more pure and holy lives, but instead on how to rely on God to inspire us to success and abundant joy. Increasingly, our teachers reject the wisdom of "dead white men," glorifying whatever is new or genuinely produced by online communities, so long as it can be consumed quickly and easily by those who have never been taught to pay attention. The great books are less and less thought of as sources of perennial wisdom but instead are increasingly forgotten or, when remembered, viewed with contempt and hatred.

Increasingly, we lack the cultural capital needed to pass on the classic virtues.
So very much has been lost already.

A society of educated fools. Wisdom—gone. Although more of us than ever are college educated now, fewer than ever seem acquainted with or comfortable discoursing in terms of the best concepts, examples, and narratives of perennial, classical Western values. It's all so old-fashioned and pretentious to us now. Much wisdom could be found in the Bible, whatever its faults might be, but in a largely secular society, those things are mentioned only the church services that a dwindling minority of the population attend on Sunday, and often not even there. Public discourse, which now mostly takes place online, the happyfoolsdiscourse that at least among educated adults ought to be the most informed by classical standards of knowledge and logic, is mostly an exchange of tiresome fallacies, insults, and memes, when it does not consist of outraged head-nodding in Internet silos. We have become a society of educated fools.

Conscience replaced. And the practical wisdom, the wisdom that ought to inform how we spend our time and guide important decisions, seems a dwindling commodity as well, as more and more supposed adults act like selfish adolescents in their personal habits and relationships. Judgment of ourselves in moral terms, once called "conscience," is rarely done or discussed. We can't help but feel guilty at our faults—moral feelings die hard. But we don't put a moral description on our faults. They are mistakes, self-destructive behavior, stresses, failures, embarrassments, addictions, flare-ups of psychological problems. They are so rarely vices, bad habits, foolish choices, bad actions, shameful behavior. The very idea of practical wisdom sounds increasingly antique and even foreign. Today we have "life hacks" that sound like technology instead of soulcraft.

Out of control, with a shrug. Self-control, or temperance—gone. Since around the 1990s we have freely admitted to binging on everything. We waste thousands of hours of our free time in front of television sets, not improving ourselves. We smile indulgently as many of our college students get drunk every weekend and "hook up"—it's merely a rite of passage and youthful high spirits. Of course, everyone can agree there's a problem when one of these hook-ups ends in a rape accusation. But the problem, society's leaders say, is that our young men have failed to receive the proper sensitivity training. It is not due to a thoroughly vicious tendency on the part of everyone, men and women of all ages, to dehumanize others, to use others. We don't discuss how appallingly damaging this high-spirited behavior can be to the souls of some students, those who go on to become alcoholics (not drunkards), who get pregnant and abort the babies and regret it for the rest of their lives, who cannot view the opposite sex with a sense of romance and without cynicism. Avoiding the entire morass, many of our men are glutted on desensitizing porn. Even our boys are glutted—on time-wasting video games. Many of us are glutted on social media, a huge time-suck that is often strangely impersonal. In the face of our many and varied temptations, it seems most of us can barely hold it together. We can't stop ourselves—or so we tell ourselves, with a self-indulgent shrug.

laziness
Kindness and humility, uncool. 
Humility, unselfishness, kindness—the winning social graces of caritas, they too are sadly mostly gone. We are still restrained by peer pressures to behave more or less politely. But there is something at once pretentious and very small about so many people today. Few seem to find a value even in the outward display of ostensible humility, such as self-deprecating remarks. Besides that, actual humility involves candidly admitting faults, limitations, and ignorance, apologizing, allowing others to go first—everything that flows from a realistic assessment of human frailties and an acknowledgement of others as true equals. Instead, we are told to promote our personal brands and "never apologize, never explain." In big cities especially, civilization has evolved in such a way that "taking what's yours" and aggressive self-assertion are expected parts of being an ambitious go-getter. It is also simply part of being "cool." Indeed, the very idea of "cool" involves some amount of contempt or cynicism toward other human beings. The notion seems to be that it is cool to act like you don't really care about basic civility and kindness, about acting like ladies and gentlemen. The sheer inhumanity of man toward man sometimes on display online and in traffic still sometimes surprises me, and I'm almost 50; younger people don't realize that "polite society" wasn't always like this. It's changed—really. Things have gotten better in some ways, yes, for example toward women and minorities; but they have also become ruder, cruder, and less graceful toward everyone.

I could go on but I don't want to write a book—I just want to make it clear what I mean when I say we are in a "moral abyss."

2. What the abyss is not

A nonpartisan abyss. I have not mentioned the moral criticisms conservatives make of the liberals: I take no stand, here, on whether the problems I have sketched are related to the conservative political bêtes noire of abortion, gay marriage, and drug legalization. Nor do I mention the moral criticisms liberals make of conservatives. Whether lingering intolerance, racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, etc., are part of the abyss, I will leave the reader to decide.

The abyss is throughly nonpartisan. I have many friends who would take great issue with any suggestion that any such moral abyss is a consequence of the post-1960s liberal drift of society. I think they will mostly agree that good habits, and the classical virtues I have discussed, are important. I think my conservative friends will agree as well.

The sociological abyss. While I find our moral abyss can be described in a politically neutral way, there are some deep social problems I do associate with this moral abyss. Divorce rates have stayed at 50% for the last half-century; illegitimacy rates have soared over 40%, while marriage rates have shockingly declined; in Western societies and especially among elites, childbearing has fallen below the replacement rate, and appallingly, certain radicals in the "childfree" movement readily admit that they hate children; drug addiction is widely regarded as one of the leading ills of society; homelessness remains a huge problem; crime, while it has declined, lingers above pre-1970 rates, and it has probably declined in the U.S. because of how many criminals we lock up for long periods; etc. Arguably, these are each related to the common atrophying of our character.

Call all that the sociological abyss, and as appalling as it is, it is not the abyss that I mean. As bad and as consequential as all that is, I am more concerned about the moral abyss that resides within each of us.

childrenofignorance

The abyss in us. I mean an abyss within me and within you. There are "saints" among us, no doubt. I'm not one of them, and I doubt you, reader, are one either. Our souls, so to speak, have collectively atrophied. When I talk about such things as lack of temperance and unkindness, I think ruefully of myself, my friends, and my family as much as I think of anyone else. I'm not trying to be falsely modest; I am making a hand-wringing confession. These problems seem to be in all of us, or nearly all of us, to some extent. If my hypothesis is correct and there were some valid way to measure at least the classical virtues I have mentioned, then as a society we would have seen a measurable decline from a hundred years ago until now.

Aren't we living in a golden age? Still, you might say, it seems somehow ridiculous and perverse to complain about a moral abyss, and, if not motivated by a religious point of view, my complaint is simply weird, I will be told. (Especially by my fellow libertarians.) The world has gotten better. Literacy rates worldwide have grown. Standards of living have risen. Crime has declined. We live in nothing short of a golden age of invention, entrepreneurship, and technology.

A gilded age. All true. But all completely and utterly irrelevant to the problem I'm endeavoring to describe. Please, please make an effort to understand what I'm saying; it's important. The problem I'm describing is not reliably reflected in sociological or partisan issues. Of course it seems bizarre, to someone strolling down the bustling, famous, elite avenues of New York City, San Francisco, London, or Paris, to hear we are falling in a moral abyss. I understand the attitude. I get it: our society is deeply impressive, yes, in many ways. I'd say we live in a gilded age.

If this is your reaction, I want to grab you metaphorically by the collar and shake some sense into you, because you don't comprehend at all. The outward trappings of civilization in the centers of power mean nothing to the character of the everyday person in the civilization. Surely, if you are liberally educated or have some moral sense, you must know this.

FoolLand

 

3. We need to change

The challenges of parenting in the 21st century. So many parents lack a knowledge of the religious texts, the literature, the history, and the philosophy teaching such virtues. They have a weak grasp of the concepts and of the language needed to pass them on. Above all, they lack the virtues within themselves to teach them by example. Consequently, parents today produce children that must struggle to learn the qualities of character they so desperately need to know to lead decent, contented lives and ultimately maintain our civilization. And not surprisingly, we parents fail a lot, even if we try. It was always so, I'll be told. Perhaps, but it's gotten worse, a lot worse. The virtues were already weakened in our own parents' generation.

Keeping up with the equally decadent Joneses. I admit that the problems I'm describing here might seem relatively unimportant "first world problems." Your family is not homeless, probably nobody is strung out on drugs, the children are loved by their parents (whether together or divorced), etc. You're doing fine. In that case, then yes, OK: you're doubtless doing just fine compared to the Joneses. But you and the Joneses and everybody else together are living in a weakened version of Western civilization. I fear we are living on borrowed time, running on the fumes of the Enlightenment. The moral fiber within each of us has weakened, and in some it has thinned to the breaking point.

What is to blame for mass murders. It breaks in various startling ways. It was, for example, the recent shooting in Roseberg, Oregon, of nine innocent people, that inspired this cri du coeur.

Here's why I don't blame guns for mass murders. We went through generations in which guns were much less restricted than they are now, and we did not have regular mass shootings. Blame, instead, our moral abyss. We need to begin by blaming ourselves, our bad habits, and above all our utter foolish incomprehension about the way freedom, responsibility, and morality work in the world. After these atrocities, all too often we see hear stories that a brazen killer was "a nice guy" and good citizen and seemed normal enough. To be sure, sometimes the evil among us hide their evil thoughts and habits very well. But I think more often the actual behavior of those people is just not morally judged, period.

The rejection of responsibility makes the atrocities possible. The fact that we must look to societal causes rather than within the souls of the murderers—that is of course what these people are, after all, cold-blooded, soulless killers—is a profoundly deep part of the problem that brings these monsters into existence. If they had been raised in a society in which they were taught to take responsibility for themselves, in which the tools in their hands are not blamed, but instead the characters that wield them, then they might have found within themselves the moral wherewithal to resist the temptation to take out their frustrations on innocent others.

We are the abyss. I blame the monsters first and foremost. I also blame their parents and the abysmally amoral society they were brought up in, without which they would not seek to lash out as they do. "There but for the grace of God go I," says the lovely, humble Christian sentiment. I do blame the abyss. But we are the abyss, all of us. The abyss is in the killers, it is in their parents, and it is in me, and you, and almost everyone in this utterly degenerate old world.

We need to change.

If we find a purpose in the so many senseless killings of innocents, let it be a call to all of us, a call from somewhere outside of the abyss, so that we may all climb out of it. We need to stop making excuses for our moral failings. We need to own up to them, hang our heads in shame, support each other in correcting them, and improve our souls and improve our society.

We need to regain our moral sense.

rabbits

A video of this post (play it with close captions on):