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
  • 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.


Infobitt's Future, and Mine

I've just posted the following announcement to the big Infobitt mailing list.

=======

Friends,

I have some unfortunate news. While I don’t wish to give up on Infobitt, we have run out of money. I’ve let the programmers go, and I’m looking for a job myself. But I'll still be contributing, and I hope you will too.

Before I say anything else, let me say thank you to the investors, my advisers (especially Terrence Yang), and especially the contributors. Thanks also to Vivy Chao, who has written the daily updates very well; Tim Chambers, who provided the awesome audio editions; and Ben Rogers, our technical adviser. And, of course, the readers!

Infobitt deserves to be rescued. It’s got an active, committed community, it’s an awesome idea, it works quite well at a small scale, and I'm confident it can be made to work at a large scale. So we’re very much open to new opportunities for Infobitt. Maybe you can help? I’ll explain how below.

Contents of this mail:

• If you keep at it, so will I
• What’s the core problem?
• Why I'm still excited about Infobitt
• What does Infobitt need?
• Potential partners
• How it can happen
• If not Infobitt: gigs I’d like to consider
• Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
• Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

If you continue to support Infobitt by writing bitts, adding facts, and so on, then I will too. I do hope that in the next few weeks or months, we’ll re-emerge, re-invigorated, with a new configuration of people who can really make things happen fast.

What’s the core problem?

1. Why don’t we do a proper launch? Because the software works OK only at a small scale. It desperately needs certain features if we are to benefit from the massive traffic we’d get after a proper launch. If we launched now, we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb the new arrivals. (That’s what happened after my Reddit AMA.)

2. So why don’t we just code up the features we need? Because our outsourced software is buggy, complicated, and lacks automated tests, all of which means it’s hard to maintain, and would become more so as we add more (badly needed—see below) features.

3. So why don’t we just raise the money? Because we’re out of money, which makes fundraising very hard. Besides, we need an active, productive team to raise money, and at this point it’s just me, a sole founder.

4. So why don’t I get some co-founders? Yes, just my thinking...read on.

Why I'm still excited about Infobitt:

• Unlike every other news startup I know of, we are actively, daily creating a purely volunteer, Wikipedia-like front page news site. Infobitt works as no other crowdsourced news startup does. It's been working, in its current version, for about a year now—really working, even if our traffic numbers are still small. That can change (see below).

• People are still working on it, and not just a few, but over 25 every week, and that's on an obscure project that still hasn't been properly launched and is rarely discussed in the media. Regularly, I see old hands getting excited again and new people getting into it. We are onto something.

• I absolutely love your loyalty and I don't forget the people who have helped my projects. You are the lifeblood of Infobitt.

• I've seen evidence of deeper support for Infobitt from outside our active community. There are people waiting in the wings, waiting for the software to get better, waiting to be able to share their work, waiting for it to get easier (e.g., a browser plugin to add facts by selecting text on a page and pressing a button to add to Infobitt), etc.

• When I work more on it, you do. If I were enabled to work full time just on growing the community—if I had the time to write 10 bitts per day, comment and add facts, do more tweeting and blogging, and especially if we were launched and I could do interviews about it, then the community would grow like gangbusters.

What does Infobitt need? So...why aren't we there yet?

• We need a better API. (Our automatically-created Python/Django API lacks many features, although it works.)
• Then we need apps (which use the API). (But a high school kid has actually made one based on our existing API, but it’s not released yet.)
• We need to add some insanely obvious features:

• Fact editing!
• View counts!
• Choose a bitt's rank from within the bitt!
• Social sharing!
• FB/Twitter login.
• Email notices.
• Automatic newsletters.
• Tags/categories.
• Browser plugin to start/expand bitts quickly.
• We've also got serious bugs to fix.
• Any one of these would inject new life into the project. All of them would make this a popular and growing website, I think.

• Then, we need to be properly launched.
• We've got to make the software faster and more resilient for when high traffic arrives.
• I’ve got to start doing interviews. But first we need to be positioned to benefit.

To be brutally honest, I never should have tried to start a startup as a sole founder. I need others on board as partners, who are passionately committed to our mission and to making it a success. I'm doing too many jobs at once, when my forte, what I need to be focused on, is community and project development.

Potential partners. I assume that many of Infobitt’s best potential partners will be reading this, or will know people who are reading this—and you can forward this mail to them. Here is what we need:

• Awesome engineers: Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL. Solid sysadmin type skills, including experience on AWS, would be most welcome. Somebody who can improve our API so people can make full-featured apps around our (open content) data. Maybe more exciting would be somebody who is inspired (and, of course, positioned) to write Infobitt from scratch, in a more reliable form.

• Designers. (But we need engineers on board first, to be able to use design work.)

• Maybe eventually one or two community people to help me.

How it can happen. Here are some categories of people or organizations who might be interested in joining me and helping to turn Infobitt around:

• Remarkable individuals, especially those are free to work for equity or who might want to buy into the company. Especially awesome engineers who are on top of Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL, sysadmin, AWS.

• Existing startups, or idle startup teams, that want to pivot to Infobitt, who are interested in working with me. Again, free to work for equity or who want to buy into the company.

• Big nonprofits or fast-moving universities (ha ha). Theoretically, we could become nonprofit, open source, and open content. This would probably make it easier for Infobitt to succeed, assuming the project funding were adequate, but Infobitt's investors obviously would like to make money.

• An investor that wants to buy Infobitt, build a team, and will hire me (with significant equity) and assign me to work on it.

Such people (or entities) would have to buy a major stake in the company and, presumably, hire me as an employee. I’m cool with that.

As far as I'm concerned, everything is on the table. I’ll be interested in anything that has a reasonable chance of making Infobitt a success.

Other gigs I’d like to consider

If nobody bites on Infobitt, here are some opportunities that would intrigue me:

• Full-time worker on somebody else’s startup. Community leader, project manager, or you tell me. I’d prefer to work from home most of the time.

• Adviser. For the right sort of project, I can help a lot. I’m an endless fount of ideas and very useful critical feedback.

• Writer/analyst/advocate. About education, homeschooling, very early reading, the Internet, rescuing the Enlightenment, philosophy, etc. (from a libertarian, rationalist perspective, if relevant). I’m also a practiced public speaker. I’m interested in working for a nonprofit advocacy group.

I'd be excited to execute either of a couple ideas I've had:

Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
I started writing an intro to philosophy for elementary students, a chapter book, back in 2012. Here’s the first chapter. I’d love to finish it quickly, and use the text to make the world’s first complete set of videos about philosophy for kids approximately 5-10 years old. Here’s the first video. It would take about three months for me to finish if I work on it full time.

Thing is, to support this project, I need at least $17,500. I’d love to do this and make the next generation a bit more hip to the liberal arts and the Enlightenment. I started designing a Kickstarter about this, but I haven't finished it.

Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool
Are you a philanthropist? Want a high-impact way to support online education for kids everywhere? Pay me me to make 2-3 videos per day like these. Most of those 24 videos got over 10,000 views after a few years, and my top ten have over 50,000 views apiece (with one at 750K). They’re easy for me to make, I’m good at it, and I love to do it. Also, my 4-year-old will beta-test for free! I envision a library of thousands of videos like these...think of it as an awesome free online preschool. By the way, if you want to pay me per video, to make sure I don’t waste your money, let’s do it!

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry


Some unpopular opinions

Here are some unpopular opinions, for your outrage or delight.

1. One of the biggest but least recognized reasons that American school system sucks—and it most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we homeschool.

2. A large contingent of geekdom is actually anti-intellectual, too, as paradoxical as that might sound. Not all; certainly not my friends.

3. The most important purpose of education is not vocational education, but to train and liberate the mind, to create fully competent and responsible free citizens of a free republic. This, contrary to the much-celebrated Sir Ken Robinson, is not "boring stuff." We've got to adopt the right educational goals, lest we continue to suffer great opportunity costs of various inefficient educational methods. It's a goddamned shame that national treasures like Marva Collins have not been listened to and learned from.

4. Knowledge—which is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn't matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. If we could only jettison our distaste for memory work, we might learn the tremendous advantages of spaced repetition.

5. Television is mostly a friggin' waste of time. You're better off without access to broadcast and cable TV. You can watch the good stuff on your own time via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

6. Latin and Greek are still good languages for kids to study.

7. Yes, babies can read. Robert Titzer (of Your Baby Can Read fame) was badly misunderstood and unjustly attacked. At least, babies can start to learn to read. By the time they're preschoolers, they can read well. This doesn't require pressure in any way. It's fun. Maybe you just didn't know this. Try to keep an open mind.

8. Joyful, disorganized early education can generally do great things for little kids. It's a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids exit first grade without knowing how to read.

9. All that just goes to show you that experts can be really friggin' dogmatic, or so I find, as much as I do respect them. They're highly susceptible to groupthink, and we must not confuse devotion to science and scholarship with uncritical acceptance of whatever trends happen to be in the ascendancy among the current generation. Follies are frequently collective, even among smart, well-educated people. Sad, but all too true.

10. Another example of dogmatic experts: yes, we do have free will, properly understood. Oh-so-clever science students stupidly assume that science alone can establish the contrary. They pretend not to be doing philosophy, when that is exactly what they are doing (albeit badly). They are annoying in their stubborn failure to understand the issues. Compatibilist free will is the only sort of freedom we need.

11. Our university system is broken, but it's a huge mistake to conclude that college is a waste of time. I propose that we pop the education bubble by creating a new, more independent and modular system of higher education, with degrees by examination among other things.

12. It makes no sense to use reason to call into question the use of reason. "He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses," said one of my heroes, Thomas Reid. It is per se rational to begin our reasonings from the principles of what philosophers like Reid and G. E. Moore called "common sense."

13. An objective morality does exist. Relativism is dangerous and wrong. It is not the case that, if God is dead, everything is permitted. As Aristotle knew, life itself is the basic good that underlies our moral judgments; so our basic duty is to live well.

14. While in some ways Western civilization has never been more powerful and enlightened, it has also become morally and intellectually arrogant, sclerotic, and stunted. This can't end well.

15. More specifically, I am appalled and saddened by how cynical and morally bankrupt so many people can be today when acting as part of governments, bureaucracies, parties, corporations, schools, social cliques, the dating scene, gangs, law enforcement, publishing, etc., etc.—and when our supposed intellectual leaders mostly avoid moral judgment of the contemptible behavior that takes place in these social contexts. Corruption and cynicism are not OK; it doesn't matter if "everybody's doing it." Someday I'll write an essay, or a book, about this.

16. We've lost our moral and intellectual bearings. Religion is no longer a unifying force, of course. Even the formerly unifying ideals of western civilization—knowledge, freedom, dignity, excellence, self-control, etc.—have come under attack by much of our intelligentsia. Ideology is no substitute; no, nothing substantial is in its place. As a society, we're sleepwalking. It's alarming. Again, it can't end well.

17. Goddamned Hollywood is a morally depraved hot mess. They have got to get their house in order. They generally don't deserve our attention beyond any worthwhile entertainment they happen to produce.

18. I'm sorry if this offends, and I'm not saying this about my many liberal friends, who are generally very original and brilliant, but I'm going to say it anyway: conventional, dull, social-climbing, ambitious people are now mostly liberal or progressive Democrats. Being a lefty is no evidence that you are a smart nonconformist, not that it ever was. There are still plenty of dull, conventional conservatives too, of course. But at some point we've got to start talking about big-government left-wingers in this country as "conservatives," just as unreconstructed communists in the old Soviet Union were called "conservatives." Then I'll ask for the good old word "liberal" back.

19. I am particularly appalled by the illiberal hostility that certain left-leaning students, and some older people as well, are showing toward the fundamental American ideals of free speech and intellectual tolerance. In the Facebook alumni group for my alma mater, the uber-liberal Reed College, a lot of older liberals share my consternation at these trends; no, they aren't conservative or even libertarian.

20. Jonathan Chait is correct that there is a new political correctness. We have become too sensitive and rely far too much on dismissive arguments regarding how people have allegedly broken new social norms that not everyone shares. We ought instead to engage on issues of substance. That we don't is really screwing up our civic culture.

21. Speaking of political incorrectness, I have some guilty pleasures on YouTube that aren't quite politically correct for me to admit to liking. I admire their outspokenness, their intellectual courage in an increasingly censorious age, and their thoughtfulness. Let me introduce you to them:

Pat Condell. In-your-face atheist, old-fashioned liberal, vociferous defender of free speech. I might not always agree with him—actually, I often do—but in any case, I admire his spirit.

Karen Straughan. I'm really going to catch it for endorsing her, so let me just say first that I'm not convinced that her general take on feminism is right—it's a lot to process and I need to think her views through more (a book would help). Still, I love that she's a bisexual single mother and yet has the courage to comes down, hard, against the bigger stupidities of radical feminism. She comes across as remarkably articulate, intelligent, and frequently shows she's done a lot of research; it's hard to believe she doesn't even have a college degree. She's going to be famous in 10 years if not sooner.

I also like the brand of feminism of my fellow philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; I have ever since reading her Who Stole Feminism? back in the 1990s.

"Rockin' Mr. E." He's sort of a long-haired Greek-Welsh cross between Pat Condell and Karen Straughan. Again, I don't always agree, often because his arguments would require research and thought to evaluate properly—but I often do find myself inclined to agree, anyway. I appreciate his nonconformist, independent spirit, anyway. And his chops on the electric guitar.

Let the sneering begin!

I'm sure I've managed to piss off everybody to some extent. I swear this isn't my intention. I'm not a troll because I actually believe what I say and think it actually important to say. I do own up to being a gadfly and possibly a pretentious, annoying git. But a troll, no.


How to pop the education bubble

1. Soul-making and the education bubble

One of my biggest pet peeves is the reduction of education to an economic transaction—to the gaining of marketable skills in exchange for fees.

That's all wrong.

Professional and vocational education is all fine and well, but education at the K-12 and college level is essentially soul-making. To be educated, we must be liberated from our prejudices, from our bad habits of lazy thinking, from our tendency to rely upon emotional reaction and dogma in place of critical analysis. To be well and liberally educated, we must learn to value the truth and how to seek it, and we must be given background knowledge and academic tools to do so.

I think there's a crying need for this today. All too much of what I encounter online that passes for argument seems to be more the spewing of reactions and dogma than the rational support of conclusions based on evidence, reasoning, and credible research.

We need to be better educated.

But let's face it: there's an education bubble. As many have pointed out (e.g., this guy and this one, both of whom were well-educated), education has become too expensive for "mere" soul-making.

Tuition at my alma mater, Reed College—one of the few colleges left that are still wholeheartedly committed to the liberal arts—rose from around $14,000 to $18,000 when I was there. (If I remember right.) The cost has simply continued to rise. The coming school year will cost $50,000. Of course, it's not the most expensive: Harvard is up to $60,000. That's absolutely insane. That does not reflect the real value of what one pays for when one attends college. It's clearly and simply a bubble.

But to say it's a bubble is to say it can be popped. How? Won't there always be an enormous demand for the connections and status conferred by an elite degree?

Well, no. Not if the price continues to rise. The market will find a way. Eventually, many of the best and brightest, even students from rich families who can afford to pay the tuition bill, will balk at the opportunity cost and seek, or create, cheaper and better alternatives.

2. What people want (and don't want) out of a college education

I made the contentious claim that Harvard's $60,000 tuition "does not reflect the real value" of a Harvard education. OK, OK, I don't really know if that's true. In fact, I don't even know what the words "the real value of an education" would mean. But let me explain what I was thinking.

Here's what's valuable about a college education:

• The credential itself.

• Knowledge and academic skill—and the liberal effects thereof.

• Marketable skills.

• The enjoyable "college experience," consisting both of the joy of learning and the forging of meaningful (not just mercenary) relationships.

• Connections formed via friends and acquaintances and within an alumni community. These can be very valuable at elite colleges.

• Recommendations professors are willing to make to graduate school or employers.

• The credential itself.

• Other things (e.g., it's easier to get into grad school at the university where you went to college; connections with researchers or practitioners in the field).

I don't know what all that's worth, but it's a heck of a lot. The thing is, we already know it's overpriced—because college tuition has gone up much faster than inflation, while the value of education has not increased. If anything, since more people have college degrees, and a lot of them are unemployed, the economic value of the degree has decreased.

The fact is, the things listed above, as valuable as they might be, can be had for a hell of a lot less than $60,000.

We also want a college education to treat us like adults with brains of our own. So there's another reason the education bubble needs popping: the system of higher education is increasingly politicized. For libertarians like me, it's ripe for revolution. A lot of people are disgusted with the fact that college, at least in the humanities and social sciences, has become as much a place of political indoctrination as of legitimate education. I remember some professors being extremely biased, back in the day; one could learn from them, but it was annoying. Things are several times worse now.

In addition, as a guy, I certainly would be thinking twice if I were getting ready for college, with so many stories of spurious harassment charges and so many students apparently incapable of handling controversial issues without freaking out (see the links listed in this Quora question). I think college should be a time of bold intellectual exploration, with students willing to fearlessly question and discuss anything together. I doubt I'd want to pay $50,000 per year in order to walk on eggshells around hyper-sensitive classmates, only to be indoctrinated by half of my professors.

Oh yeah, there's a bubble, and it's ready to be popped.

3. How to pop the bubble

The big question is, how on earth can we get the huge benefits conferred by college education, without actually going to college?

If we could answer that question, we'd have instructions for lancing the boil.

So here's my solution. (The following is an updated version of this old manifesto of mine from 1995.) This is what I might tell my boys when they're ready to start university-level study. It wouldn't be free, but it'd a lot cheaper than a college degree.

First, how to get the credential:

(a) Plan on getting your degree itself by examination. Degree-by-examination programs already exist. So that problem is solved.

But you probably need more than such a degree, particularly if you want to go to graduate school or get certain high-powered jobs. So:

(b) In addition, plan to pay a distinguished expert to test you in your major. I think that, when there is a demand, comprehensive and prestigious exam services will come into being. Basically, you register for an exam, you pay $100 or $1,000 (it really depends on how comprehensive it is and how good the examiners are) to sit the exam, and at the end, the institution awards you a degree. Until such programs come into being, you arrange to have a private written, oral, and/or practical exam with a distinguished expert. Then you'll be able to say, "Famous and distinguished scholar Dr. Knowitall gave me a final eight-hour written and oral exam about my subject area of  Wonkology. Dr. Knowitall judged my level of mastery to be 'Very Superior,' which is defined as 'superior to 90% of students awarded a bachelor's degree.'" I think you'll be able to find plenty of graduate programs that wouldn't accept that sort of recommendation in lieu of an actual bachelor's degree. And if one such examination doesn't seem persuasive to graduate schools or employers, arrange for two or three from different scholars.

But what about actually getting the knowledge and academic and marketable skills? How does one do that?

(c) With plenty of help, execute a program of independent study. When you've decided to start getting an actual college education, head on over to a city with lots of colleges and highly-educated people. Boston and the Bay Area are obvious choices, but there are many others. Audit classes—many professors don't care if you sit in on their lectures. For purposes of getting feedback on your work, hire tutors. Find the most distinguished professors you can who are willing to help (for a fee; and be prepared to pay a fair bit, as they are worth it). Get a guest library card from a large academic library. If I were advising my sons on how to do this, I would tell them to hire a freelance academic adviser to help them plan and manage their studies in the way described here. Such a person might also help motivate the student, and make sure he or she doesn't get off track.

The more people do this, the more a group of independent students might be able to get together and pay professors in the area for independent courses, a la carte. And of course if there are enough people doing that, then support mechanisms—apps, companies serving basically as registrars—would inevitably come into being. What I would not recommend is simply cracking open books and viewing The Great Courses, as excellent as they might be. Of course that could be part of your program, but I recommend against becoming an autodidact. A real education absolutely requires (a) discussion, preferably with peers as well as professors, and (b) feedback on your written and oral work, which you use to improve. It's best if both (a) and (b) are done face-to-face, but today, no doubt some of this work will be done via the Internet.

But what about the "college experience" and the social connections you get from college? Where could they come from?

(d) Seek out like-minded students to study and live with. A central part of a new ecosystem of independent study would be, one hopes, study groups and shared housing, like independent dormitories. The idea is that a group of students all starting to study the same subject might rent a house together, near some big prestigious university. This might forge relationships very similar to those found in the college setting. Such houses might invite professors to teach classes. (Speaking as a former college instructor, I have to say that that sounds like a blast.) Other academic social activities—invited lecturers, etc.—can be organized via the Internet and would no doubt be supported by a highly entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting such independent study. (Digital Badges and Uncollege are two forays in this direction.)

Perhaps, as such an ecosystem begins to cause problems for universities, some universities themselves might support the independent students in various ways. This is what happened when distance education started getting popular in the 1990s.

What about official letters of recommendation?

(e) Relationships between tutors and independent scholars would naturally be closer than between professors and students. The tutors would probably know and be better able to write letters and make other recommendations than they do for regular college students. Obviously, we won't know the details until we've done more experimentation, but there's no reason to suppose someone who has undergone a course of study described above could not find a berth in graduate school or industry, directly with the help of distinguished experts who know the students' work very well.

If enough students followed the path of independent study, there would be various competing national testing services capable of vouching for your level of expertise in a subject and for your overall educational attainment. One advantage of such a system is that it would be potentially more meritocratic: rather than saying you have an English degree from Harvard, you would say that you scored a 96 (out of 100) on the Yalvard B.A. English exam and an 83 on the Yalvard B.A. General Liberal Arts exam. To be able to reach such scores, you would not necessarily need to attend an elite school. But such scores might well get you into graduate programs, and they would naturally open other doors as well.

The system envisioned would replicate the college experience, but without the college and without the exorbitant college fees. I'm sure you could get away with paying instructors $10,000 per year or less; maybe much less. The biggest risk that I can see is that the economies of scale don't exist yet, making a bit of the plan less feasible, or harder to execute anyway, for the early adopters. But not a lot of it.

It's a little like homeschooling for college (a notion Dale Stephens was talking about a while back). Public schools in the U.S. are so unsatisfactory to so many people that a significant number of parents (like me) are opting out of the system and doing it themselves. The affordances of the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of the early 21st century could combine to enable a bunch of people to drop out of high-priced colleges and come together in a less-expensive but still high-quality, less-politicized, face-to-face system.

And it sounds like fun to me. It almost makes me wish I were a college student myself, because if I were, this is almost certainly what I would want to do.

A final bonus: the early adopters can make a business out of it after they've learned how to do it and worked the bugs out.


Report about the boys, April 2015

First, H., age 8. The trouble now is that H. is now mostly "unschooled," not by choice but by necessity. While Mama is now taking on a lot more homeschooling responsibilities, especially now that E. is no longer a baby and Infobitt requires so much of my time, she leaves a lot to H.'s choice, which means that I still occasionally (a few times a day) monitor his work. Things we still do 100% together, as ever, include Latin, piano lessons, science reading at dinnertime, and other reading at bedtime.

Latin. We're now on p. 39 of Benjamin D'Ooge's Elements of Latin, which we are studying thoroughly, supplemented by repeated readings (and vocabulary memorization) from Maud Reed's Julia, an excellent short Latin reader that begins very simply and gradually becomes more difficult. We spend about 1/3 of our Latin study time reviewing everything using SuperMemo. Note that we had already finished Getting Started with Latin and gotten to Level 3 of Rosetta Stone Latin. As a result, although we're proceeding through D'Ooge, our main text, at a snail's pace, after some review we have everything in the book up to the point we are studying down cold. Also as a result, when we sit down to do the exercise portions of the text, we generally have little trouble with them. In my experience, this is the proper way to study a foreign language: make sure you understand everything and have thoroughly practiced everything before you proceed to the next chapter.

D'Ooge is awesome. It is an unapologetic old textbook in the grammar-translation method, but that isn't what makes it awesome. It's just very well done. It's gradual, it has just the right amount of review, it's very clearly and precisely written, and it prepares the student to read Caesar's Gallic Wars, and how cool is that? At our present pace (considering we're supplementing with Julia) we'll probably take 2-3 years to get through, but then H. will be 10 or 11, and to be done with a high school level textbook at that age is fine with us!

Math. H. has been doing Splash Math exclusively for many months now and is 95% done. Should be done in another week or less. No more long struggles with Saxon, we're delighted to be completely done with 5/4. After this we'll do another fifth grade math curriculum, probably Singapore, then move onto sixth grade. Also he has watched the entire Mathtacular 3.

Literature. Here are the more literature-y books he's read recently (last year? Last six months? I'm not keeping track at this point):

  • Collodi, Carlo. Adventures of Pinocchio.*
  • Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach.
  • Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain.
  • Gipson, Fred. Old Yeller.*
  • Heinlein, Robert. Starman Jones.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Kingfisher Epics version.
  • Latham, Jean Lee. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.
  • L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Lofting, Hugh. The Story of Doctor Dolittle.*
  • London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. Junior Classics version.
  • Norton, Mary. The Borrowers.
  • O’Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.*
  • Paulsen, Gary. Hatchet.
  • Pene du Bois, William. The Twenty-One Balloons.
  • Raskin, Ellen. The Westing Game.
  • Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
  • Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.*

Several of these I'd read to him earlier, between the ages of 3 and 5 (these are marked with *). In addition I think he went through the entire Henry Huggins series once again, then read the first 3-4 Ramona books, and did more of his beloved Hardy Boys; I think he's up to #15 or so there. Other stuff too no doubt.

As to writing about what he reads, I'm afraid we've all fallen down on the job there. He rarely writes anything about what he reads, and I just don't have time to make him. I did start him doing "brain dumps" about a few books he's read lately (Johnny Tremain and a history book), which means: writing for 5-15 minutes without stopping (pauses of longer than five seconds are disallowed) in which you say basically the first thing that comes to mind about the book. Worked pretty well but we'll see.

Also, I read to him at night...not nearly as much as we used to. The reason is that I stopped making sure he does review (SuperMemo) during the day, and as a result, half the time he ends up spending our reading time in the evening doing review. It's kind of sad. I think we'll improve. Anyway, we did finish Huckleberry Finn, after H. finished reading it to himself. I did start reading the original KJV Bible, but that's of course going super-slow; we're still in the book of Genesis. We're making SuperMemo questions about it. Anyway, we mostly read other stuff at night (see below).

Writing. I've again given up doing anything systematic. I simply tell him to write something, and he typically does. My biggest regret here is that he rarely finishes anything, although he does write a lot, and he continues to write with prodigiously good spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc. Almost everything he writes these days has something to do with computers. He knows stuff about computers I don't know. My big plan at the moment is to get him to do "brain dumps" for 5-10 minutes after each half hour of reading that he does, somewhat according to the Charlotte Mason method. He's done that last Thursday and Friday and it seemed like a good experiment, but we'll see if we can keep it up. I've impressed upon H. very clearly that he must start writing a lot more about what he reads now, and that his goal is to get comfortable and proficient enough at doing so that it will not be too hard to write regular essays, rather than disorganized "brain dumps," about what he reads.

Grammar. Every Monday at dinner I read and explain to him 2-4 pages from Help Your Kids with Language Arts. Occasionally, he'll do a lesson from the Marie Rackham "Splashes from the River" Cozy Punctuation course, and I've been trying to get him to do exercises from another punctuation book, although that's very slow going. He gets plenty of grammar, of a better quality, from Latin study. But of course that's not enough, because English grammar and punctuation etc. is different from Latin.

Piano. H. continues to practice a few hours, all together, per week. I give him 15-30 minute lessons on average around three times a week, on a good week. He continues to progress, although slowly. His heart isn't really in it.

History. By last fall we had finished The Landmark History of the American People, Vol. 1, and had read the corresponding parts of our usual history books, and then I decided we'd read key historical documents at the same time, 15 minutes per day. Well, that went on for a while but then I felt like I didn't even have time for that. In any event we did carefully study, twice and with a commentary, the Declaration of Independence. Then we did all but a couple pages of the Constitution. He started (but as usual didn't finish) some very impressive explication documents about the Declaration and the Constitution. We made SuperMemo questions about this, so H is pretty awesome for an 8 year old at his basic civics stuff. He read some other supplementary chapter books about American history, one about the Revolutionary War, one about Thomas Jefferson, one about Tom Paine; other stuff too I think. But sadly I'm now long out of the habit of reading history to him. I do intend to go through the Amendments with him. I did finish reading to him a Q&A USA book section about Indians (native Americans); I think he read another book about Indians himself. More recently he's started and got halfway through Beesly's Stories from the History of Rome, a very easy old text for elementary grades. I was happy that he volunteered to read this himself, when I told him, "You have to start reading history on your own." He's read bits from different books in the "Horrible History" series, but doesn't do that so much anymore. I told him he needs to read a bunch more history stories on his own, like 50 pages a day preferably, and I think I might be able to get him to do something like that.

SuperMemo/review. H. does some amount of review every day, aiming at 150 questions reviewed per day. His recall percentage has dropped to something like 80%, of course because there are so many questions and he doesn't do all the questions the software wants him to do. He can do his 150 in 30-60 minutes, and rarely reviews for longer than that, no matter how many he's gotten through. Again, since we're more or less unschooling, discipline has fallen down here and he ends up doing only 50 per day a few days per week. If you were to ask me whether SuperMemo has magical effects on memory, I'd say probably not. It is a good way to review, but the effects seem similar to what he'd get from re-reading old notes occasionally. On the other hand, he is phenomenally good at remembering passwords, even ones I'd never bother to try to remember, and other numbers. But this might have nothing to do with SuperMemo.

Science. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, ideally, at dinner, I'm reading chemistry books to H. We've got 3/4 through the two very meaty Usborne Science Encyclopedia sections about chemistry, and have written and reviewed questions about all that as well. Then I got tired of writing questions so much so I decided to start reading What's Chemistry All About? to him. We're close to finished with that now. The great thing about dinnertime reading is that E., at age 4, is actually able to understand 75% of what I'm reading to H., so the time isn't wasted. He read a whole coffee table-type book about the elements (a two- or more page spread about each element, with emphasis on what they are used for), and also has continued to read or re-read the Horrible Science series. In that series he reads across all scientific subjects, so I am pleasantly surprised to find that he knows basic stuff about DNA etc. Also, we have continued to do occasional simple experiments, for the benefit of both boys. H. has done some stuff all by himself; he took my kitchen scale (for calorie counting, you know) and made a big long table of items and how much they weighed. Then he gave the same treatment with a ruler and yardstick. I made sure he included metric columns as well.

Dinnertime reading: Poetry, Religion, Logic, occasional Art History. On or around Wednesdays every week at dinnertime, I read H. (and E.) poetry. We're still doing mostly children's poetry but some of the stuff is getting pretty advanced. Occasionally I aim the poetry reading at E. as well as H. and we do easier stuff. I don't know what book we're using...does it matter? We've gone through many thick poetry books by now, one dinnertime per week at a time. Typically I read the poem, but if H's attention seems to be flagging the least bit (and it often does), I make him read the poem. Then we read it again. Sometimes we read for meaning first, then quickly a second time; sometimes it's the other way around. Occasionally we read a poem three times, and occasionally only once (if it's really obvious). We usually get through 2-3 poems per day, depending on how long they are.

As to religion, we've been going through two pages at a time a book called What do you believe? It suffers from the usual problem of these sorts of encyclopedic-type books, viz., it doesn't make up much of a narrative, and understanding religion is all about understanding narratives. Still, it's a good general introduction, and we'll gradually get into the details of each major world religion, as we've already been doing with regard to Christianity. Anyway we do religious studies every Saturday (no particular significance of that).

Every Sunday it's logic (OK, maybe this one does have significance); he does two pages of that long Bonnie Risby/Prufrock Press series of logic books, or only one page if they're very hard. He's about to finish Logic Liftoff and to start Orbiting with Logic, the very last book in the entire series. After this I greatly look forward to moving to some basic but actual logic texts and none of this analogies stuff. Still, as I said before, I don't regret going through this stuff. It's a good brain builder and I think has been a good preparation for the more difficult logic stuff. And there has been some legit logic in the series, especially the last few books; I had to explain the difference between inclusive and exclusive or, and he immediately started working on an unfinished essay explaining why "or" must be understood in the exclusive sense (a common beginner mistake—made by college freshmen).

As to art history, well, we've been reading the rather crappy Art Book for Children, Book Two. I don't know why we haven't given it up. Maybe the spectacle of pretentious crap that goes under then name "art." That's part of our world too. But after this I think I'll start reading from the "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" series (e.g., Degasso E. and H. can both be exposed, or newly exposed, to some actual art at once. It's always nice to have stuff that can be enjoyed and learned by both an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old.

Geography. The only geography we do these days is occasional readings from a U.S. atlas at night. We used to do more, when I read/studied 15 minutes of geography to/with him daily, but no time for that now. I think I'll be having him do a lot more geography reading himself.

Law. Oh, I almost forgot about law. We've been reading Everyday Law for Young Citizens by son-mother/lawyer-teacher team of Eric B. Lipson and Greta Barclay Lipson. It's a general introduction to the law, aimed at 5th to 9th grade. H. read ahead through the entire book months ago but now I'm reading and discussing in some detail everything, and making SuperMemo questions. We're almost done...p. 86 of 109. At one point the book referred to Brown v. Board of Education, and for whatever reason H. decided he wanted to read the case. So we printed it out and I attempted to try to read and explain it to him, but it was pretty hard. He was later reading it to himself, although I have my doubts as to how much of it he actually understood. So anyway, since he likes the subject of law, I also bought him Law 101 and started reading a bit in that, but we won't get to that until we're done with Everyday Law.

Computer stuff. I rarely try to teach H. computer stuff anymore. He's off enthusiastically on his own, learning everything he can about computers. Yesterday he got all excited and we went to the bookstore to buy a book about building your own computer. He has thoroughly mastered the capabilities of Scratch, has learned many of the basics of Python, and is now interested in Small Basic and Visual Basic. He also makes batch files and started learning command line stuff. He installed two different versions of Linux (some basic Ubuntu and then Uberstudent, which he continues to use). For writing he's supposed to be researching for and writing a research report about processors. Anyway, this is obviously his hobby—his obsession, really—and if he keeps it up (and we don't take the computer away from him, as we sometimes threaten to do), he'll be ahead of me in his general technical knowledge in a couple years.

OK, that's it for H.

As to E., age 4:

Latin. We're now officially and reasonably far into Rosetta Stone Latin 1. Lately only a couple of times a week, but maybe that's enough; generally, after his nap or just before dinner. I'm a little surprised that we decided to do this, but now that I see better the effect it had getting H. ready for the Latin he's doing now, I think it's time well spent. The main reason that's the case is that it's just easy and yet it does teach Latin. It doesn't teach the grammar or the most of the traditional vocab (e.g., the words needed to read Caesar), but it does expose the student in an entertaining way to the basics. Anyway, E. insists on making all the sections "green" i.e. nothing wrong, so we go back over everything he gets wrong. OK with me I guess.

Math. Like big bro, E. is doing Splash Math, but at Grade 1 level. He's about 25% through. We also do Tower Math and some other apps. He's also been practicing writing his numbers. I tried to get him to work through first grade Singapore Math but that just isn't much fun. So E. is very much into electronic learning when it comes to math and Latin both. Also he has been watching Mathtacular.

Literature. So...this is a little crazy. I don't know when we started this, but after the whole family watched the entire Harry Potter series, E. declared that he wanted to read Harry Potter. So I started reading it to him. Pretty soon it was all Harry Potter, all the time. Every breakfast and lunch, for at least the last six months and I think more like the last nine months, I read E. Harry Potter. So now we're on Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). This has me torn. On the one hand, wow! What a huge amount of vocabulary and grammatical structure he's getting exposed to! On the other hand, ugh, more Harry Potter? And no exposure to much science, history, etc., for that long? But when a kid is this enthusiastic about something that's good for him, you follow the kid's lead. I just look forward to being done with this series. BTW I read it all once before to myself when the books came out. My appreciation on second reading is increased. She really is a master storyteller!

I think due to all the Harry Potter reading, every. friggin. day., E. is no longer into being read to at night. When he does let me read to him, we read from a wide assortment of unfinished books such as Ribsy and The Jungle Book. I know we've finished a few books in the last few years; I just don't know what they were off hand. He does let his Mama read stories and poetry to him in her language. (H. too. He's gotten quite good at reading/translating there too.)

Penmanship/spelling/typing. Well, he's improving. He knows his uppercase letters reasonably well and he's learning lowercase letters. He's graduated from individual letters to whole words. As to spelling/typing, he messes around on MS Word fairly regularly, plays with various spelling apps, and we had an interesting Skype exchange recently, which I think speaks for itself:

[4:43:14 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:07 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:43:14 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:07 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:44:44 PM] Papa: [E] is foofy!!
[4:44:54 PM] Papa: Ha ha ha ha!
[4:45:14 PM] Papa: [E] is the Foofmeister!
[4:51:21 PM] E.: papa !! is foofy !! ha ha ha ha papa is the foofmeister
[4:52:28 PM] E.: papa is foofy
[4:52:52 PM] Papa: Wait, there can be only one Foofmeister, and that is [E]!
[4:55:38 PM] E.: papa you are the foofmeister
[4:58:32 PM] E.: papa you can be the foofmeister and you are
[5:07:20 PM] E.: papa is foofier than foofy
[5:10:04 PM] E.: papa is foofy ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
[5:11:03 PM] Papa: [E] is foofy because he farts at the table!
[5:15:31 PM] E.: papa is foofy because he farts at the table
[5:16:11 PM] E.: (chuckle)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
[5:17:49 PM] E.: [e] is not foofy
[5:20:04 PM | Removed 5:20:33 PM] E.: This message has been removed.
[5:25:13 PM] E.: papa this message has been removed

Grammar. E. has sat in whenever H. watches the Marie Rackham videos. He also occasionally does grammar apps. As a result he's started learning the basics such as what nouns and verbs are.

Piano. He demands lessons which I give sometimes. I could probably teach him a lot more and would if I had time. This makes me sad.

History. We only read a few history books before getting into Harry Potter, e.g., the Usborne Young Readers Rome and Julius Caesar and a few other things. I tried to start The Story of the World with him a few times. No dice.

Supermemo. Haven't done this in the last year. Will start when we start The Story of the World.

Science. E. has absorbed a surprisingly lot of stuff from H.'s Chemistry lessons and has declared that he wants to be a scientist, although not enough to want to give up Harry Potter. We've read various other books.

Reading. E. has been reading more to himself than H. did at the same age. He has read Catwings 1 & 2, and I think another chapter book, but otherwise he's stuck to relatively easy picture books. I think it helps that I give him occasional financial incentives which can be turned in for small toys at the store...but he often reads to himself anyway.

Chess. In the last few weeks, both guys have decided chess is fun and want to play all the time. They are starting to annoy Mama with how much they're playing Chessmaster, which is an awesome program that I highly recommend. E. is much, much more interested and talented than H. was at this age. He just gets stuff right away and can already play a legit game, although it's quite easy to beat him. This won't last long, if he keeps it up. As to actual study, he's been going through the Chessmaster series. As to H., he's rediscovered chess and that he likes it, and is better than ever.

E. stopped requesting my old presentations (originally written for H.) several months ago. I think H. stopped asking for them at around the same age.

P.E. Both guys get out and play quite a bit, and inside on the gym. They've finally learned why soccer is fun and have started playing that. Lots of gymnastic type stuff from E., but H. as well, and bike riding and scooter riding from both of them. We've had some play dates/visits in which the usual running around occurred.


How to introduce your young child to Greek mythology

My Greek mythology-obsessed 3-year-old remarked as he splashed in his bath: "It's as fierce as Poseidon's waves!"

Here he is reading from Mary Pope Osborne's version of The Odyssey a few months ago:

Some Facebook friends were asking how we got him so interested in and able to follow Greek myths. Well, first of all, we just give him more of what he asks for, and he kept asking for Greek myths. That is certainly not going to be the case with every kid. H. (now age 8) at age 3 wasn't as interested, for example.

Anyway, if you did want to introduce a child to Greek mythology (which I've done with both of my boys, in approximately the same order but not at the same ages), I can recommend the following. I've divided the books into stages, and within a given stage, it might not matter what order you go in. Note that not even stage 1 consists of "baby books." We didn't start these until E. was 2, I think, and he didn't really get into it until he was 3.

STAGE 1
Usborne, Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths
Never read this one, except maybe particular stories in single volumes, but given Usborne's track record I'm sure it's awesome.

Others in the single-volume "Usborne Early Reading" series such as this one but there are several others (Hercules, Jason; these might or might not be included in the above collection).

My five presentations. If you start with these and they like them, great. E. didn't like them when I tried them out on him before reading any myths. Later, after we read quite a few myth books, he absolutely adored them. So for E. these would have gone in Stage 2.

STAGE 2
The combination of the next two worked very well as a good general intro for H.:
Usborne, Greek Myths (not a baby book, but not as hard as it might look)

E., who didn't like this one right away, made it through this one later than H. did; still pretty good:
The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus

The various (at least a half a dozen) Graphic Myths & Legends series comix like this one about Hercules.
Whole series by Graphics Universe is highly recommended

This "Step Into Reading" version of the Trojan Horse story.

This is a rather nice one, pretty well-illustrated and well-written:
McElderry Book of Greek Myths

We also read this one but I barely remember it; it was OK; there are doubtless much better options we didn't read:
Greek Myths and Legends

STAGE 3
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths

Osborne, Tales from the Odyssey (in two volumes; E. loved this to death, we not only read it but listened to it in the car; H. loved it too, we listened to it two times in the car when he was smaller)

We only listened to this one in the car, but the narrator was awesome and the versions were second to none. Arguably superior to both D'Aulaire and Osborne.
Evslin, Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths
Here's the book version, which we might pick up.

There are many, many others. These are just the ones we used.

We own several "reference" type introductions to Greek myth, and we find them boring, so I don't list them. It's much better to learn about Greek myths by actually reading the stories, rather than lists of facts about gods, etc.

After that...

STEP 4
Percy Jackson books, Black Ships before Troy, Edith Hamilton's Mythology

STEP 5
The originals in translation; Homer, Hesiod, Apollodorus, Ovid

STEP 6
The originals :-)


How to end Western civilization

[A video version of this post is at the bottom of the page.]

I was reading Climbing Parnassus, a book-length defense of learning Greek and Latin, and it goes into historical depth about the role of education as a preserver of the best of culture. This resonated strongly with me, because I think it explained my own revulsion at most educational practices today: perhaps what bothers me the most about the way children are educated by our schools is the fact that they are left almost completely ignorant of the substance, the foundation, and the beauty of Western civilization.

But the problem is not just a matter of ignorance of books and art. The problem is that knowledge of Western culture has a moral function—it is enculturating. Despite spending thousands of hours in school, students learn little of what can be called the ethical culture of Western civilization, apart from a few lessons drilled home especially hard, such as empathy, ethnic tolerance (not intellectual tolerance), and egalitarianism. Heard only in faint echoes in most classrooms, or in many cases long gone from them, are the texts, the art, and the discussion that would inculcate the rest of the great virtues: self-discipline and hard work, critical thinking and suspicion of superstition, love both as a romantic ideal and as the agape that drives our regard for all humans and maybe all life, good sense or wisdom, and so on. This has been the case since I was a student, and probably since before that, and I think it's gotten worse. As a result, our popular culture has become crass, rude, and in a word (which would not sound so quaint if we all studied classics more) barbaric.

In largely the same way, despite a few perfunctory efforts here and there, most of our students emerge from high school largely ignorant of the Constitution and our civic culture. First, they lack the education to appreciate The Federalist and The Anti-Federalist, or even to read and understand the founding documents themselves, but beyond that they are simply ignorant of the concepts and the defenses of them that, together, undergird our free republican form of government. They have virtually no clue about such things as freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless search, division of powers, and many other things that one must understand well in order to criticize politicians who, today, are actively trying to limit these aspects of our government. And as a result, the government of what was once supposed to be "a city on a hill" standing for freedom, tolerance, and civic virtue has become a nanny state, constantly rescuing us from ourselves, and one of the largest and most powerful governments in history. As the three branches of government each slowly, gradually remove more and more of our liberty, most of our people lack the tools to articulate or even appreciate objections, and those who have such tools are misunderstood and smeared.

Two historical movements, among others, have brought us to this situation. The first is progressivism in education, beginning with Dewey and his colleagues in about the 1920s. This was a profoundly anti-intellectual movement and transformed education from being a force for the teaching of the entire body of Western culture and values to a bland, smothering force for vague "life skills" and "socialization" and "creative self-expression." It is progressivism that has left our students incapable of understanding and appreciating our civic culture and values, leaving us open to gradual but inexorable domination of what might aptly be described as a new empire.

The second—and please don't misunderstand here—is the decline of religion as a serious cultural force for most people. I hasten to add that I'm agnostic, not a Christian, and I know very well that religion still does influence politics, mostly on the right. That's not what I'm talking about. Apart from a small percentage of evangelical Christians, few Americans (and of course many fewer Europeans) take religion seriously, as providing a broad moral basis that structures how we live our lives. Critics of the religious right often seem to forget that Christianity as a moral culture, beyond its religious and political tenets, instructed people to work hard, to hope for a better life, to treat others kindly and donate to charity, to practice the graces of humility and self-respect, to rein in our passions and practice moderation, to take responsibility for ourselves and our dependents, and much more. It wasn't all good, but much of it was. It taught the very idea of obligation, which has grown much weaker for many of us. It was an organizing, all-encompassing, core part of the Western civic culture. But really no more. Many don't go to church; many of those who do go to church don't believe; even those who do believe don't take religious moral strictures very seriously; even if they do, they probably don't understand them well; and finally, those who understand them aren't supported by most others, who are both ignorant and deculturated, and all too willing to "tolerate" all manner of sins. So, as I say, as a serious cultural force, inspiring us to live well, religion is a pale shadow of its former self. Even as a nonbeliever, this strikes me as a truly profound loss.

So we lack both the education and the cultural strength to resist enslavement both to our passions and to our government.

This is why it is so important that we reinvigorate our commitment to the liberal arts and that we show educational progressivism the door. I don't know or particularly hope that we will get religion per se back; I think relearning the classic virtues and the civic culture of the early United States could heal many ills. But if that is not enough, then perhaps we do need some sort of ethical cultural movement, something not associated exclusively with the left, as what goes under the name "ethical culture" is.

We can hope and we can make efforts. But I fear that we'll simply continue to leave our children largely incapable of assimilating Western culture, while we allow our governments both in North America and Europe to grow and become more authoritarian and centralized, running up massive debts. I fear the results of that situation. Our children and grandchildren will be very lucky if it ends well.


Reasons We Do Not Have for Homeschooling, and a Reason We Do

Here are several reasons we do not have for homeschooling:

•  We are religious "nuts" who want to shield our children from the theory of evolution, etc.? Nope. I'm a nonbelieving rationalist.

•  We are social climbers? Nope. I don't especially care if my boys go to the best colleges. I am not preparing them for Harvard (or even Reed, where I went). I want them to succeed, of course, but by their own lights, not according to society's common notions of success,  or even mine.

•  We are just generally competitive and want to be ahead of other kids? Nope. Already, there are plenty of kids who are ahead of H. But I'm not going to push him. He'll find his level and I'm sure I'll be proud of him regardless. I just want him to learn all he can, while still having a happy, reasonably relaxed childhood.

•  We want to shelter our boys from the bad influences at public schools? Nope. H. actually attends "specials" twice a week (art, music, P.E., and computers).

•  We can't afford private school? Nope. We probably could, if we sacrificed. But no, there isn't any private school in the area that would help our boys achieve the goals we have for them.

Here is the main reason, far and away the single most important reason, we do have for homeschooling:

•  We want our children to get a solid liberal arts education, which means:

In literature, I want them to know, appreciate, and understand the classics, and to be morally improved for having wrestled with them. I want them to be able to write persuasively, creatively, and thoughtfully, with flawless grammar and spelling, so that they could enter any writing-oriented profession. They should also be able to speak well. In math, I want them not only to study math through calculus and statistics, but to understand it; they will also study logic and, probably, mathematical logic. I want them thoroughly familiar with history, both U.S. and the rest of the world; I want them to know about the world itself, so geography and foreign languages are a must; so in general, I want their understanding of human society to be filled with facts and nuance. I want them to be able not only to do scientific calculations with facility, but actually to understand scientific concepts—well enough to succeed as science majors, or at engineering, if they so desire. I want them to be able to become excellent scholars, and to be able to understand their own language and the roots and nature of western civilization, so we'll probably study Latin and Greek for several years at least. They'll learn philosophy with me, reading and digesting a half-dozen of the main classics, such as the Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations, Locke's second treatise, and a few others. I want them familiar with music and other fine arts.

Of course, they'll have plenty of opportunity to pursue interests of their own choosing. H. is really into programming and I'll continue to support that.

Public schools can't provide this sort of education, because:

I've looked for private and charter schools in the area that I thought might be able to support these goals; I couldn't find any, except maybe St. Charles Prep for high school, and that's Catholic...


The opportunity costs of progressive education

 

 

I have created a video version of this post!

There is a surfeit of great ideas in education. They are "great ideas" for various reasons: children will learn a lot; they'll be really happy or enthusiastic; they'll have vivid memories of what they are taught; or they'll learn very efficiently. It is easy, as an educator or homeschooling parent, to get excited about ideas for education. Heck, every good (level-appropriate) book and every good experiment is a "great idea." Yet there is such harsh disagreement over educational methods that debates could be called a "war over educational reform." Why?

There's a conundrum here, but I'm not explaining it well enough, so I'll elaborate.

Goals and opportunity costs: what the war over educational reform is about

Theorists have posited many different goals for education. The explicit purpose of progressive education is to "socialize" students by teaching them practical knowledge, and to do so as equally as possible. The purpose of liberal arts traditionalists like myself, by contrast, is something like developing the liberating potential of as much knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual skill (reading, writing, calculation, etc.) as possible. Of course, as you can see in any number of laundry-list "goals for education," educators love to endorse all goals. If asked, they will say, "Of course we want your children to learn as much as they possibly can. What, do you think we're stupid or crazy or something? We're doing our best at teaching them, using all the latest techniques. We're professionals, of course!"

This sounds very reasonable. It is difficult to contradict.

Here's the thing: as a critic of public schools and a supporter of liberal arts education, I don't need to contradict it. I believe the professional teachers completely. I think they want our children to learn as much as they can. Of course they do. And of course they're doing their best (many of them, anyway), with the latest techniques, and they're professionals (mostly). All true.

The problem is not with their willingness to endorse the goals of a liberal arts education, their intentions, or their professionalism. The problem is with overriding goals: contemporary U.S. teachers want their students above all "engaged," to be motivated and paying attention and excited—and, in the interests of equal educational opportunity, to be following roughly the same curriculum as other kids in the same grades following the same standards. This too sounds reasonable, as far as it goes. It's so reasonable-sounding that it sounds radical, or at least unreasonable, to object very strongly to it.

Therein lies the problem. On the surface, everybody agrees. If we're not thinking too hard, we can endorse a huge variety of educational tasks, methods, and goals. But beneath the surface is a little thing called opportunity cost. This, of course, means basically "what you're missing out on by doing this rather than taking another opportunity."

Every time Mrs. Brown's third grade class puts on an exciting, interdisciplinary, highly educational drama project—great idea!—that occupies two hours of class time for two weeks in a row, she's choosing not to let her students read twenty easy picture books, or a half-dozen easy chapter books, etc.—another awesome idea. But that's only one example. There are many, many more.

The opportunity cost problem is about much more than individual tasks. It's really about the entire system. As I said, a core feature of education systems that make Deweyan "socialization" an overriding goal is that all the kids have to follow roughly the same curriculum in the same grades. But this means that, for example, even if Jack read Tom Sawyer last summer, he will still have to re-read it if the class is reading it, or maybe he'll just twiddle his thumbs. Or if Sarah is two years ahead of her peers in math, because she loves math or because her parents are afterschooling her, maybe she'll be supported by her teachers and principal, but it's also very possible she'll be made to do work that is two years behind her current skill level, suffering in boredom.

I've mentioned some examples of opportunity costs in education. Let me elaborate.

Example 1: the benefits of Latin as the opportunity cost of doing anything but Latin

Consider this. I know talk of Latin sounds ridiculous in the 21st century to some people, but please hear me out. A very strong case can be made that getting several years' worth of Latin under one's belt produces a much better scholar. Latin improves English vocabulary and grammar, teaches mental discipline and acuity, gives students an intimate familiarity with Western civilization, and in particular, the origins of its core concepts, its intellectual and rhetorical traditions, and the works that originated many disciplines and written forms. I might go on, but suffice it to say that setting time aside to learn Latin in some depth will make much better scholars out of many students. If the goal is to foster academic skill, learning the classical languages is among the very best of ideas.

But there is today virtually no chance that public schools would, in any great numbers and anytime soon, introduce Latin except as a high school elective, mostly for honors students. I suggest two reasons. First, Latin is a "dead language" and has no obvious "practical applications." So it runs counter to the Deweyan emphasis on practical knowledge, on "know-how." Second, it is too difficult for many ill-prepared students, who already struggle with more difficult, technical subjects like math, hard science, and grammar. So it also runs counter to the goal of equalization.

We could teach our children, or at least some of them, Latin when they're ready for it; it might be difficult, but it's also extremely efficient to do so; but it won't happen because progressive educational goals make the suggestion completely untenable.

Example 2: "language arts," or the low-literature costs of basal readers

One educational practice I love to hate is the use of basal reader systems. You know—that series of "language arts" textbooks you suffered through from first grade through fifth or sixth grade. These are written with the very best of intentions, I'm sure, and they look impressive. Crack some open and you might find a first grade explanation of what a noun is, a third grade reading selection that seems perfectly reasonable and interesting for that grade, a set of challenging fifth grade vocabulary words, and various explanations of the conventions of poetry and drama. All seem like meaty, necessary, excellent topics for study. What's not to like?

Yet, when a child emerges from careful study of such systems, do they end up knowing about all those things? Not very often.

Suppose instead that you were to take the same ten hours per week spent on language arts and instead do just two things: read books chosen by the students themselves (perhaps from a list), and write daily on topics of student choice (with some specific assignments mixed in). This is essentially what I've done with H., age seven, since he was five. As a result, he is now reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a children's book usually assigned to high school students, and writing things like this composition (randomly selected) that I was rather surprised to find in his writing folder, which I reproduce here verbatim:

Grammar

An adjective is a describing word. Here are some examples: thin, tall, short, long, wavy, soft. These words can be used to describe a great many things. Now, there is something special about adjectives: they come in 3 forms, which are called positive, comparative, and superlative. Here are some examples:

Positive

Comparative

Superlative

quick

quicker

quickest

small

smaller

smallest

speedy

speedier

speediest

great

greater

greatest

circular

more circular

most circular

big

bigger

biggest

frightening

more frightening

most frightening

 In advertisements, superlative adjectives are used to exaggerate the quality of things that are on sale: books, toys, video games, or even rides (rides aren’t for sale) or circuses (they aren’t for sale either, rides and circuses just cost money to ride or look at)! Here are some examples of the words they use: biggest, greatest, fastest, cheapest.

 Nouns are words that mean a person, place, or thing. Here are some examples: library, Jane, John, garbage dump, house. Nouns are very important, too. Without them, you couldn’t even say your name (because all names are nouns)!

Verbs describe action, possession, or existence. Here are some examples: throw, catch, mine, yours, his, hers. [sic!]

Conjunctions are used to connect strings of words and make sentences make sense. What sentence is really a sentence if it doesn’t have a conjunction like, for example, and?

I was surprised to find this composition in my second grade son's writing folder, I say, because I didn't assign it and in fact I don't think he ever even showed it to me. As you can see, he was correctly using (and explaining) some pretty advanced words, in excellent grammatical sentences, with flawless spelling. (Although his examples of verbs did contain a couple howlers.)

My point is that after we assigned an hour of reading many classics and other high-quality books, while assigning 30-60 minutes per day for daily writing (mostly on topics of his own choice), our son's abilities in reading and writing have blossomed, and he has quite naturally picked up everything taught in the basal readers, and more.

We could slog through basal readers and grammar workbooks and do long, regular, boring spelling and vocabulary tests. But it would be a comparative waste of time. Instead, he spends a substantial amount of time reading excellent books, and writing a lot; the result is a far better and more efficient method of learning "language arts" than school language arts programs provide. His intuitive grasp of grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and spelling results from extensive reading and daily practice writing hundreds of words. He does study grammar from time to time, albeit not from workbooks that (in the early grades) teach students what proper English is. Our son already knows that from copious reading. Instead, he studies the fundamentals systematically, as older students do.

Example 3: the high costs of grade tracking in math (and other subjects)

One more example.

The equalization goal of education entails that we teach the same level of math to most students, that we don't let them work at their own pace, and that we don't tailor our textbook choices to them. If our overriding goal were to teach our students as much math as possible and as well as possible, then we would toss grade levels and track students by ability. As soon as a student passes a test on some material with a 90% grade, the student proceeds to the next level. Meta-analysis reportedly shows that ability grouping works wonders.

This makes sense. Kids finish stuff at different speeds. Grade level tracking, especially in subjects like math, ensures that smarter kids will spend much time in class bored, while slower students will constantly be playing catch-up, naturally getting discouraged, and not getting the help they need. Consider this: homeschooling parents tailor textbook choices to their children, of course, who are not forced to complete exactly one grade level in exactly one year. Just look at the average math scores of homeschoolers, who are naturally tracked by ability in each subject: 84th percentile, on average.

One guess as to why ability grouping is so rarely tried.

As this NEA page helpfully explains, ability grouping discourages more poorly-performing students, never mind that those students benefit from extra time and help where it is really needed. Are they really much more discouraged than in classrooms where they are constantly trailing their age peers, rather than doing as well as others in the room?

Grade level tracking might support the overriding progressivist educational goal of equalization, but the opportunity cost is students that are learning less, and less well, than they do when forced to learn all at the same time.

My point here is that the "war" over educational reform is not about whether various practices are good ideas, and whether various goals are worthwhile. In education, ideas and goals are abundant and easy to endorse. The war, instead, is ultimately about the enormous burden in terms of opportunity cost that contemporary educational practices place on the student. If you think education should be about knowledge, wisdom, and academic skills, the situation is appalling.

The bottom line for me is that the total opportunity cost associated with the overriding progressivist goals for public schooling (and this would also apply to a lot of charter schools and private schools) means that most of our students are simply not learning nearly as much as they could be.

We could see to it—if we were committed first and foremost to teaching and not just entertaining students, if we wanted to help each student achieve his or her best potential and not just equalize them, and if we chose the most efficient methods for making learning happen—that all of our students would learn far more than they are now.

Some day, I think we'll look back at the period from the 1920s or so until the early 2000s as a sort of "dark ages" of education. I just hope real change comes sooner rather than later.