Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Going to school instead of getting an education

Overheard while out at lunch today: a Canadian college student was discussing football with an American. The subject turned to the CFL, the Canadian Football League. The American was gamely testing his limited knowledge of this country's version of the NFL by attempting to name off all the teams in the league, from having peripherally followed the league over the years. As he ticked them off one by one, he eventually paused; he felt he had neglected one, and was frustrated with not being able to remember it. “That one in southern Ontario”, he said, snapping his fingers, “the city south of Toronto… begins with ‘H’… it’s.. it’s…”

“Oh yeah: Halifax!” says the CANADIAN college student. In dead seriousness. At which point I couldn’t keep out of this conversation any longer, and offered Hamilton as the answer. The AMERICAN was all smiles, agreeing that this was the name he had been trying to remember. I pointed out to the CANADIAN college student that Halifax was considerably further east than Toronto. The CANADIAN sheepishly explained that he had terrible geography teachers all throughout school. So that's why he thinks Halifax is near Niagara Falls!

I wonder what else he "knows"... say, about middle east politics.

With that sad conversation still ringing in my ears, I soon found this study on the literacy of college students, released by the American Institutes for Research, referenced over at my favorite blog on homeschooling, Why Homeschool :

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty percent of U.S. college students completing 4-year degrees – and 30 percent of students earning 2-year degrees – have only basic quantitative literacy skills, meaning they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies, according to a new national survey by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.


From our ongoing experience, they may not know how to calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies, but they "know" Israel is bad, bad, bad and that the islamist threat to western civilization is merely the illusory mirage conjured up by oil-hungry neocons working for Halliburton. Why, it was all so carefully explained on the Colbert Report video clips that they were shown during class!


truepeers said...

Assuming for the sake of argument that a kid who doesn't know the difference between Halifax and Hamilton will likely be a sure believer that Israel is bad bad bad, why is it easier to "know" the latter, but not the former? One might assume the average Canadian would find it easier to know the former?

I think an answer might be found by extending your observations: while it's difficult to perform a cost accounting of needed office supplies (once need has been carefully negotiated and determined), and to take responsibility for same, it's much easier to understand oneself as being in a debtor/creditor relationship. And the appeal of the leftist white guilt interpretation of Israel/Palestine is that it reduces the parties to a legalistic plaintiff/defendant, debtor/creditor relationship.

This is to remind us of the difference between the uncertainties of independence and the relative certainties of bondage. For the kid, journalist, or university professor who is not yet ready to take on the responsibilties of independence from an ideological party line, it is so appealing to portray Israel - and this is the party line - as a big nasty creditor who has bled his debtor through various usurious devices. Because if this is assumed, instead of the weaker party having to negotate with his neigbor in recognition of his real position in this hard world, there may be appeal to some court where fair dealings can be determined and the alleged lack thereof on Israel's part punished. Thus "the Palestinians" can be placed in perpetual appeal to the UN and the "international community" for assurance that their "rights" will be guaranteed and their historical "oppression" rectified.

BUt this is to imply that the Palestinian leaders are like the kid who doesn't know the difference between Hamilton and Halifax or the graduate who can't order office supplies (and who are thus no doubt somewhat resentful of the parents upon whom they liikely still depend for survival). In other words, the Pali "leaders" are not true responsible representatives of an actually existing existential reality delimited by the real situation of Palestinians today, and people willing to negotiate with their neighbor and rival the facts on the ground - e.g. the fact of Jewish settlement in places beyond the original borders of the modern state of Israel; the fact that the "right of return" is non-starter in a serious negotiation of demographic, national, and military realities that would seek some realistic peace between two responsible, independent, self-governing nations. Instead, the Palestinian "leaders" and their friends live in a fantasy world in which the international community or some generic Muslim Brotherhood will one day step in and deal with a hard reality by seriously beating it back or eliminating it. They are like the kid waiting for mom and dad to come to the rescue while lost somewhere on the road between Halifax and Niagara Falls. They have faith they will be saved because they are sure that ultimately all this land belongs to Islam and no one has the right to negotate anything else.

If we assume that membership in any renewed national covenant in Canada will require people to know basic things like the existence of Hamilton and the Tigercats, we can say that the education system is not preparing them for national membership but rather for a life of appeals to the "experts" of the "international community", i.e. to the academics, NGOs, bureaucratic imperialists, and the MSM.

Thus we may assume that one of our basic tasks here at Covenant Zone is to teach young Canadians how to order office supplies :) BUt first, if it is true that God (or a secular understanding of subsistent Being) prefers to make covenants with nations - i.e. God and man have evolved that nation state as an essential unit of democratic and international responsibility - and that there can be no democratic covenant negotiated with unaccountable UN burearucrats and their elitist media mouthpieces, we Canadians have a right to take the salaries of all our failed treasonous academics, with no right of return, and give them to responsible Canaidans who are willing to make up the educational deficit.

dag said...

I figurerd people have opinions about israel and other things they don't know the first thing about because it's cheap. It literally doesn't cost a dime to voice an opinion, and the pay-off is that one gets to sound important. The result is horror and death and suffering, but so long as someone else pays for it it makes no difference at the mall or the uni. It's a fashion statement, and without the credit card bill at the end of the month. Opinion? Two cents' worth. Ignorance? Priceless.

truepeers said...

In a healthy covenant zone, people would take pride in their opinions, and they would cultivate them with care because they would know that, when voiced, their opinions would act as invitations to others to covenant with them to do something about these political opinions. Opinions are only cheap where people don't rule themselves and where "citizens''' opinions circulate in a secondary market that exists only to show who is best at mimicing the experts in the professional markets that really count.

We need to make each citizen a worthy priest in a sacrificial theatre that really counts, or we need to stop pretending that we believe in freedom.

Charles Henry said...

we can say that the education system is not preparing them for national membership but rather for a life of appeals to the "experts" of the "international community", i.e. to the academics, NGOs, bureaucratic imperialists, and the MSM.

My disregard for institutions of higher learning is derived a lot from this idea of having “experts” trying to freeze their temporary status in place, rather than subjecting it to reality’s undeniable component: change. People change, mentally, physically, spiritually… all living things can change; fruit grows and rots, bodies increase in size and stamina then atrophy and wither away, minds expand to accept new facts (or contract in the face of how many more facts need to be accomodated). Living things should be able to change, because things change around us whether we want them to or not, therefore we need to be able to live with, recognize and negotiate change, if we are to survive as species and as individuals. If our very inviduality is to be sacred in any way, we have to presume no such thing as a fixed status, where none may rise and none may fall.

In the brief flash of time I got to spend in college, I sensed that my good instructors were testing their ideas by how they tested me on mine. I was not to merely repeat what they thought was true, I was expected to be a participant in advancing towards the truth. My good professors would not have minded in the least if by the end of my studies I emerged somehow as more learned than they were on the subjects which they were teaching. This would give them a change to add to their knowledge, believing as they did that there existed many holes to be filled, many new revelations still to be made… no ‘final word’ written on much of anything, yet.

What a stark contrast such people make with a professor who insists on absolute mimicry as a sign of learning. Clearly such a teacher fears his students, fears them actually accumulating genuine knowledge, as each such step brings them that much closer to the edge of an unmasking and disillusionment: the teacher is supposed to be still learning, still in a state of becoming learned, and if they instead pose as standing at the end of this trail, rather than merely further along the road than their student, they’re fooling themselves more than their students. No wonder contrary opinions must not be tolerated in today’s academia; if I lived a lie I would worry about exposure as well.

Surely a good teacher is the one capable of learning from his students, much in the same way a good parent is one capable of learning from their children. Especially, capable of learning about parenthood itself; that way, the student can surpass the teacher, as the child may surpass the parent at parenting, allowing each new generation access to a higher standard of life.

Merely copying without reasoning offers no added value, no individual contribution to the gathered whole, therefore no glory, and reduces our species to the status of any other animal, still sacred to God perhaps but not held to be sacred by each other.

truepeers said...

Yes, if we are too resentful to admit that each individual is sacred, we will find ourselves on the path back to human sacrifice, as we are at present.

There is always a place for good teachers and teaching, hence a role for non-elitist universities, if they want it. But the role of the "expert" in human affairs is much more questionable. Either the expert admits to the reality of human freedom that Charles so eloquently expresses, and thus throws into doubt the continuing validity of his own expertise (which has been gathered by studying a past that is being transformed by freedom), or he works to substitute elite expertise for democratic freedoms. THus the elite university that fosters ever narrower fields of expertise, only known to duly-initiated insiders, acts to protect the experts at the expense of students who are no longer taught how to think the big questions like true generalists, the kind of thinking that might set them free. They are, most usually, taught to mimic the quest to acquire the narrow in-group expertise and ideologies of the elites. This process can't continue indefinitely. All imperialistic houses of cards eventually fall under the weight of reality, the fact of human freedom and the need for real self-understanding. And then the coventanters go to work again, bringing ordinary people back into history.

Anonymous said...

A moronic youth incorrectly suggests that Halifax is in southern Ontario and you folks wonder about his opinions of Israel. Why? Is there a strong correlation between geographical retardation and anti-Zionism?

Either the expert admits to the reality of human freedom that Charles so eloquently expresses, and thus throws into doubt the continuing validity of his own expertise (which has been gathered by studying a past that is being transformed by freedom), or he works to substitute elite expertise for democratic freedoms.

What are you arguing here? And what is a ‘non-elitist’ university? I know this is an ‘in-group’ conversation and all, but I still want to push you a bit to clarify your critique in the section above.


truepeers said...


Yes, sorry this is a bit of an in-group conversation since we were talking last week to a young man who had politicaly "correct" "post-colonial" views about Israel, and we are projecting the same onto this "geographic moron" on the assumption that many young people today tell each other that Israel is the bad guy, because this is what the attractive worldly experts on networks like the CBC and BBC are saying.

As for my critique of the expert, I'm thinking about experts who set themselves up as social scientific managers or analysts. The value of such expertise is ultimately dependent on the degree to which we think human interaction is reducible to any scientific paradigm or method. But to the extent any paradigm captures anything essential about a human system, the knowledge inherent in this paradigm will enter into circulation and change the system, in the process discounting the value of that knowledge pretty quickly. In other words, a social scientist or journalist cannot avoid being a participant in the world he studies; he cannot sit outside it with an all-seeing eye and act on it or describe it with god-like objectivity.

Social science best realizes its power when it is taken as prescriptive, for example when the economists of a central bank make predictions about future interest rates and players in the market behave accordingly because they know the central bank has some power in determining interest rates and money supply, or simply because they revere the prophetic qualities of the central banker; or when a business acts on the results of a social scientific survey because it has no better means with which to make a somewhat arbitrary but necessary decision in order to set a course in face of many imponderables and uncertainties.

But this is just to say that the managerial effectiveness of social science depends on the scientist having administrative power. To the degree that the scientist recognizes that human systems are open, and governed by a dynamic human freedom and necessity, and by the ability of all players in any human system to assimilate any useful information the social scientist may provide, so as to discount the value of that information in the marketplace and leave the future open-ended, the scientist cannot presume to be a manager.

The more a vain "expert" attempts to reduce the complexity in any human system to the terms of some static "scientific" model or method, the more he simplifies reality and loses touch with it. Method is ultimately utopian because it attempts to fix a vision of the future in terms derived from the past.

Thus the expert either admits that human freedom is an essential factor in understanding unpredictable human systems that respond to all variety of market inputs and outputs - thus throwing into doubt the claimed useful function of his expertise; or, the expert attempts to gain power in the state in such a way as to limit the freedom of market players, so as to make his word mean something authoratative in the system. The social scientific manager is only important to the degree he can control the freedom of those he would manage; and this is why the role of expert manager is always dubious morally if not also intellectually.

Think of it this way: if we have the appearance of a truly neutral decision maker, say a judge in a court of law, he appears neutral only to those parties that come before him with a reverence for the law. The more we believe the law and its processes are sacred, the more we can put our faith in the judge. The "scientific" (if we can call it that) authority of the judge thus depends on his maintaining the sacrality of the legal system. This means the judge accepts to a large degree the freedom of the parties that come before the court in giving shape to his final judicial decision; the judge interprets their tragic conflict as a creation of their free decisions for which they must now be held to some "divine" accounting.

If, however, the judge sees himself as a reformer who wants to shape the social system to some "progressive" end, one or more of the parties that come before him are going to think the sacred neutrality of the court is being eroded in the name of some ideology. They will thus begin to question the expertise of the judge, and they will thus begin to behave in ways that help them avoid coming under the judge's authority. This will have all kinds of unforeseen consequences, but in general it will entail a declining respect for the judiciary. Judges have social authority to the extent they foster reverence for the sacred, mysterious, unpredictable, qualities of their profession and institution. We increase sacrality not by trying systematically to understand it and reduce it to some science, but by respecting it as a necessary mystery full of paradox.

By "non-elitist university" I was implying a kind of institution more devoted to teaching, through humble dialogue, than to claiming expert authoratative status for its professors. This applies especially to the humanities or liberal arts, to valuing generalists therein over claims to expertise in social science or ideological "theory". Today's elite universites encourage the growth of an ever more specialized and politicized professoriate but this specialization has, as I've just suggested, a dubious social function if we take human freedom and democratic self-rule seriously. The more we wish to foster democratic values, the more it is important to create broad minded-generalists who know how to think from the beginning of things, and not people who know the latest research but cannot put it in context by understanding the history of the disciplines on which this expertise is based. Only those who can deal effectively with a world in which all useful knowledge is rapidly discounted in free marketplaces are truly educated. This means valuing learning how to learn and adaptability over credentialled, elitist, expertise.

truepeers said...

Judges have social authority to the extent they foster reverence for the sacred, mysterious, unpredictable, qualities of their profession and institution. We increase sacrality not by trying systematically to understand it and reduce it to some science, but by respecting it as a necessary mystery full of paradox.

Re-reading what I wrote, I don't think I have this quite right. Judges are revered both for maintaining the sacred, open-ended mystery of the law, of justice, and for being somewhat predictable in terms of established law and precedent. In other words, they are revered to the extent they preserve the appearance of neutrality in the law and this entails a paradoxical mix of predictability and unpredictability.

Anonymous said...

As always, Truepeers, you’re courteous to a fault.

I don’t disagree with everything you say. Yes, a good professor should be willing to learn from his/her students. And they shouldn’t try to produce intellectual clones. Generalists have their place. However, a university is, by its very nature, always going to be an ‘elitist’ institution because the student-professor relationship implies some form of educational hierarchy. It really doesn’t matter if the prof is training a generalist or specialist. I tend to think the bigger problem we have with undergraduate humanities programs in North America is less specialization and more the minimal amount of professor-student contact.

I don’t think that the presence of chaos (or human freedom) negates social scientific learning. We can find patterns and tendencies in human action. Method isn’t ‘utopian.’ It should just challenge us to be cautious with our research and assertions.

As for this:

But to the extent any paradigm captures anything essential about a human system, the knowledge inherent in this paradigm will enter into circulation and change the system, in the process discounting the value of that knowledge pretty quickly.

This is true sometimes. However, it also discounts the regularity of some patterns of human behavior. For example, anybody who has ever thought about electoral systems pretty much knows that PR tends to produce a multitude of parties. That knowledge doesn’t have an affect on voters or political actors for the most part. They just respond to the system that is presented to them. Not all patterns are so sensitive that knowledge of them is going to have some kind of transformative impact.

truepeers said...


I have no beef with the idea of an educational hierarchy. Students should be able to show respect to their professors; the question is whether today's specialist professors have much of use or wisdom to teach to earn that respect. For example, how many feminist professors today who spend a lot of time criticizing "patriarchy" have a very illuminating account of what patriarchy (or matriarchy) is? In my experience, few if any - most are simply demonizing the past, portraying historical process as some kind of conspiracy, which I am sure it is not. The reason for this is that a wise understanding of patriarchy requires a certain insightful respect for and substantial knowledge of patriarchal religions, especially Judaism. This was standard subject matter for traditional humanist generalists but not for the anti-religious secular specialists of today.

Thus we have professors who, say, might be able to teach you in detail about the lives of Creole women in the seventeenth-century West Indies, while relating this detail to a feminist narrative that berates the patriarchy, but never really explains what it was, or how it gave rise, among other things, to the kind of gnostic political ideologies which the feminist professor advocates. I find this kind of situation intellectually crippling, notwithstanding the role I do acknowledge for new specializations that can give voice to stories previously suppressed by "the patriarchy". The problem is perhaps in good part to do with how specialization is politicized, how it is detached from or remains within a general respect for our tradition.

I disagree with you about method. I think it is always utopian to some degree, which is not to say it is completely avoidable or unnecessary. No doubt some forms of utopianism are less offensive than others. And a social science that carefully critiques and evolves its method is not particularly offensive to me - compared with, say, Marxism. Yet the fact remains that all method entails an attempt to sustain conceptualizations from their inevitable erosion over time. What is utopianism (or dystopianism) but an attempt to project a vision of the future that will stabilize the meaningfulness of some terms derived from present and past as if the end of history were somehow knowable? If you take that attempt too seriously, you are a problem. But you might well just think that methods - which are just standardized ways of collecting data - have their time and place, notwithstanding their utopian implications, but that they should not be made to serve any seriously utopian political purpose and should be replaced as soon as they start to become institutionalized for all the wrong reasons.

In other words, if method does not attempt too much it may be a necessary way of making discrete observations within a system whose total complexity or end is beyond methodological considerations.

As for your comment on PR systems, there is no doubt much that can be said by a political scientist that will be of little interest to non-experts. But this raises the question of what is the use of this knowledge in the first place beyond protecting expert's jobs with soem kind of aura of knowledge? If some new insight into the system truly has important implications for effecting electoral outcomes, the parties and media will be talking about it, and soon enough it will trickle down into common parlance. Today, expert knowledge of PR does effect our debates over whether to change our electoral system. But that's to say it is important knowledge to the extent it is in circulation beyond the elite academy.

Always On Watch Two said...

I love the title of this posting!

How many millions of students are more concerned with the social aspects of school than with getting an education? I see that twisting of the meaning of education in my own family.