[Blogathon] Maaaaaaaaath

Have I scared you yet? Talking about math seems like one of the easiest ways to terrify people, make them feel stupid, and cause them actual pain. I think that’s a shame, because math is AWESOME. I’m going to try to convince you of that in the next few hundred words.

What is math?

Math is the study of patterns and logic. Any repeating pattern or system analyzed rigorously and logically can be math. The coastline of Britain? Sure! The spread of diseases? Absolutely! What the relationship between the number of sides of a shape where all sides are the same length and the area of the shape? Definitely.

Since any pattern or system is up for grabs, math is incredibly creative. You get to just pick whatever rules or approach or framework you think might yield useful or interesting results and see where they lead you. Let’s say you were interested in triangles. You could take the points of the triangles as coordinates (like (2,5) and (3,4) and stuff) and do all kinds of calculations to see what the area was. OR, you could not care at all where the points are and just take lengths of sides. OR, you could not bother with calculations or algebra at all and do the whole thing geometrically. You can even prove things with gifs!

Ok, why are you getting so excited right now?

Because that makes math AWESOME. Anything can be explored. Look, pick some rules you’ve decided to follow. See where they lead. BOOM, you’re in an entire world of your own making. Those rules are axioms. Seeing where they lead, logically, means you prove things with them, sometimes you call those conclusions theorems. And now you have a totally new mathematical world. It might as well be writing fiction or LARPing.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. There are 5 axioms called the Euclidean axioms. They are as follows.

  1. A straight line can be drawn between any two points
  2. A finite line can be extended infinitely in both directions
  3. A circle can be drawn with any center and any radius
  4. All right angles are equal to each other
  5. Given a line and a point not on the line, only one line can be drawn through the point parallel to the line.

You can have all kinds of fun with just these. Take a piece of paper and see if you can convince yourself, even informally, that these seem to be true. Use crayons, markers, pencil, whatever.

Now throw them all out. Fuck ’em. We’re going to start our own mathematics with blackjack and hookers. What if instead of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points, a semicircle is. Seriously. You just invented geometry on a convex (curving inward, like the inside of a beachball) plane. It’s called hyperbolic geometry.

It looks like this.

And this.

And people freaking crochet hyperbolic curves.

You could have done basically the same thing by saying, ok, I learned in like 7th grade that all triangles have 180 degrees. Well, what if they don’t? A triangle is a shape with three sides, right? What if I want more than 180 degrees? Well, you can have whatever you want. In math, the only rule is that you have to follow your own rules. What those are, you get to decide. So draw a triangle with more than 180 degrees. Ok, it’s hard, I grant you. It seems like it would have to have more than three sides. What are we missing? What assumptions are we making? Oh! That the sides have to be straight! What if they curved out! Like a triangle you blew air into?

Congratulations, you just invented elliptical geometry. It’s the geometry that explains why planes fly like the curved line instead of the straight one:

Because the earth is curved, not flat, so the geometry changes. And triangles, just like you wanted, have more than 180 degrees.

Then Why Does Math Feel So Awful to Learn?

There are a few reasons why people hate math. For one, no one teaches math as something fun and creative. They teach it as something boring and rote, where the rules are set up beforehand and totally unchanging. To get fun math, you have to go to youtube to see people like Vi Hart make math the beautiful thing it is.

Second, because math is so abstract, it can be hard to visualize, and it makes it feel mysterious, even after you understand the problem. Like in biology, once you understand why evolution works, you get it. You know how it works. Sometimes, I’ll prove something for a class, and I’ll know it’s right, and that everything follows logically, and still not really know what I just did. For instance, visualize a line for me. That’s one dimension. What’s the two dimensional form of that? Right, a square. And three dimensions? A cube, great. And next? That question is the intellectual equivalent of moving both index fingers together in front of someone’s face, asking them to follow the fingers with their eyes, and then suddenly moving them in different directions. You just don’t know what happened to you. (For readers of Flatland, there’s a reason the sphere gets very upset when asked if there are more than three dimensions)

That shape, by the way, is called a tesseract, and it looks like the picture below in three dimensions, even thought it’s a four dimensional thing. But what does the next one look like? At some point, visualizations run out and logic and proof must take over.

Thirdly, math has a language, and it’s not an easy one to learn. There are all the symbols, for one: numbers, logical operators, less than, more than, exponent, subscript, and on and on until you think you’ll drown in them. And then there are the rules for how they fit together. This implies that. Why again? Oh yes, because this. And that makes sense because? Oh, right. But eventually, if you follow math far enough, you develop a deep respect for mathematical notation, its minimalism, its utility, and you begin to deeply distrust anyone who says, “Math would be fun, but why are there so many symbols?” (Though of course, there’s tons of math to be done without them. You get to make the rules, remember?). But you also get to criticize notation, decide that some is better than others, and take sides on Newtonian vs Leibnizian differential notation.

Proofs Without Words

But because it is in some sense, a language, I wish it was taught like one. I wish that young children read proofs without fully understanding them, just as we are encouraged to read texts in Spanish without looking up every single word. I wish we contented ourselves with the gist of the proof, the point, so that we learned to prioritize the meaning over the form, just as we may not be able to word-for-word translations of our French teacher’s request, but we know it’s time to sit down.

What’s the Point of Math? And of this blog post?

Well, math is beautiful. And fun. And creative. And the point of this blog post was to convince you of that. But if pure practicality is important to you, know that if you set up the rules properly, in that they reflect the way the universe works, then you’re going to get empirically verifiable predictions from the logical conclusions of the rules. That’s how physicists knew there had to be a Higgs Boson long before we could even in principle find one. That’s how we started building bridges.

Math can describe with incredible accuracy how the world works. But it can do so much else besides. It is a powerful discipline, and it deserves our respect. For some of us, it has commanded our reverence.

(If you’re still not convinced math is awesome, I really encourage you to check out Vi Hart’s videos and these math gifs)

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How to Stop Bullying

Nicholas Kristof ran a contest which ends today about bullying. I love that he decided that American teens were the experts on teen bullying. I know when I was in middle school and being bullied, I would spend my time in class critiquing every one of my teachers’ bungling attempts to make it all better. Most of their failings came from the fact that they were more interested in ridding their lives of conflict than of making my life easier or less painful, but they also lacked any understanding of teenage social dynamics and had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. So I composed lists in my head of things I would do differently when I was a teacher. I’m not sure I’m going to be a teacher anymore (though still a definite possibility), but I still have plenty of ideas on how to stop bullying. I’m technically still a teenager, but I’m three years out of high school and it’s possible all my advice is hopelessly out of date. I wrote this as an open letter to teacher, and it’s a little didactic (I had a lot of options for format, and I decided against heartwrenching anecdotes from my bully-stricken past), but I like it anyway. Let me know what you think!

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Open Letter to Teachers: Here’s How You Actually Stop Bullying
Hey there teachers,
Bullying is complicated, so I don’t blame you for not knowing how to stop it. You’re wrapped up in the immense difficulty of being friendly enough to be liked, strict enough to be respected and spectacular enough to be remembered. That is the job of a teacher, and it’s hard enough to teach the material effectively and walk the tightrope of student perception without getting involved in the nitty-gritty of student interpersonal relationships, especially if you have as much chance of doing harm as good.
So here’s what you need to know: students, bullies and bullied alike, need friends and advocates, and to varying degrees, teachers can be both. Students who are being bullied are hurt by far more than the words hurled at them; they are also being harmed by the loneliness of going through the experience alone. If you see students being bullied, reach out to them gently, reminding them that the teacher is always available for talking, comfort and a safe space. Then follow through, listening, giving advice and affirming that bulling is unacceptable and that it is not a reflection of the worth of the bullied. And do the same for bullies. Bullies gain social power by taking it away from others; they could use a friend. As a  teacher, as an authority figure but also a kind presence, you can speak firmly against the behavior of a bully, retreating not a bit from your position against the bully’s actions while still reaching out to a student, a child, who might need nothing else than a trusted adult to remind them that they are a worthwhile person and can be popular and respected without doing harm.
The advocate aspect of the your role is important, too. Any time bullying, of any degree, is witnessed, you should make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. Importantly, it is the behavior that is being attacked, not the bully, and the bullied student is not being made a focus of attention. Rather, the mistreatment of fellow students is simply not to be tolerated at any time. The fact that the bullying can shift to times and places where you are not around is to be addressed by being a resource for any students involved in bullying, even as bystanders, as mentioned above. Students should know that you can be trusted, and that you will go to the administration or parents only when necessary, but then without hesitation, for example if there is any physical violence involved. This fairness and ability to analyze a situation serves you well when they suspect plagiarism or cheating, and it will serve you well here.
Bullying is a problem. It hurts children on either side of conflict as well as those who are not involved, and if it continues to stymie teachers, then children will have to fend for themselves while facing treatment that no person, let alone a teenager, should ever have to endure at the hands of their peers. The job of a teacher already encompasses the roles necessary to stop bullying; you must only appropriately act on them. No more excuses. Start now.

The Philosophy and Politics of Education, Part 1

Author’s note: This was going to be one post about how the ideas contained in my last post might be applied and seen being applied in events taking place across the country, but then it ended up being almost 3000 words, so I’m splitting it up. Also, I’m trying a smaller font. If I have any readers, I would appreciate them letting me know which they prefer.

Actual post:

At the University of Chicago, where I go to school, there is a tradition of the Aims of Education speech. Every year, the first years, during their Orientation Week, are asked to go to Rockefeller Chapel with their houses to hear that year’s speaker discuss the aims of education. This is an honor for the speaker, not only because it’s a long tradition, but because this school so strongly prizes the investigation and application of exactly that question, of what it is that a school is for. Their attempts to reach the proper aims are clear, from the Core to the Fundamentals major. But the search goes on. The tradition stems from Alfred North Whitehead’s address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, which was as far from a detailed tractate on the teaching of mathematics as can be imagined. Instead, it was a paean to vision, a plea to progressivism, a fervent request that education and learning never be allowed to stagnate, so that we would create a generation of thinkers instead of simply knowers. As he says, 

“A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

And he’s simply not the only one. I know I’ve discussed this before as I see it, and also as countless others have, but I’m struck by how present these lovely images of the role of education are, even if they do not manifest themselves so proudly in our educational system. And it’s intriguing to me to see how these ideas do and do not play out.

For example, Bertrand Russell, in his own piece on education, said, 

“The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilization, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own profession, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of life. In communities, civilization demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends. If these are to be the purpose of education, it is a question for the science of psychology to consider what can be done towards realizing them, and, in particular, what degree of freedom is likely to prove most effective.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? That in the midst of an imaginative discourse (which is still more rational than most of the uplifting manifestos about the cultivation of excellence in a citizen), he appeals to consequentialism, pointing out that we have a fairly solid idea of what we’d like to see, even if we can’t formalize that quite yet. After that, the role of philosophy is over, and we look for effectiveness in achieving that goal. That’s really all I meant by my support for testing, and for pilot programs, so that we can see what works. It’s also deeply important that once we have a sense of some truth or another, we acknowledge it and work with it.

So I applaud the efforts of many around the country who are following exactly this thinking. For example, in New York, there’s this: “100 New York Schools Try Common Core Approach“. It’s a trial program, put in place to try to change education to be more engaging, more general and more the type of education that could produce well-rounded thinkers. If it doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. Essentially, exactly what we should be doing. I especially like this teacher who “On a recent Wednesday closed a unit on the meaning of the American dream not by assigning a first-person essay, as she once did, but by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person.” 

It not only gives the students a better understanding of the issues involved, but it teaches them personal skills, including how to conduct an interview. It allows them to put a human face to the abstract English and history they’re learning, and is all-in-all a fantastic idea. I hope the students got a lot out of it. I also feel that the program demonstrates a smart approach because it relies on an understanding of pedagogy and the importance of teaching in reformulating education. This trial is not only about the students, but about teachers, and giving them freedom to try new tactics that just might work, as well as encouraging them to raise the standards of the classroom. But the best part is the criticism, which in this article came from Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who that “the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books”. It excites me because it’s a criticism from within the system, seeking to improve what is a good idea by pointing out the unfortunate fact that exterior circumstance often impact the success of education in powerful ways. It leaves the discussion open to keep looking for what might work better.

And that, in fact, is addressed here: The Limits of School Reform. Social factors, which I discussed last time, play a major role in education. That shouldn’t be something so-called reformers are scared of admitting. Firstly, it’s not as if the schools themselves don’t need changing; clearly that work is still immensely valuable. Secondly, as previously discussed, schools themselves can affect the social environment around them, and in fact, where possible, would seem to have an obligation to do just that. And thirdly, if you’re a reformer, you should be welcoming data which will help you do your job better. This is hard, and it doesn’t have simple answers. Clearly, children who work to support their families, or are often sick, will have difficulty being present in class. If things are difficult at home, they may fail to complete their assignments, or they may exhibit signs of attention disorders or learning disabilities. They’ll also tend to score poorly on IQ tests. But again, that’s an unfortunate truth we should be facing head on. Consequentialism – we all have the same goals in the end, for the most part, don’t we? So, as is said in the article, “To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. “
Always a goal worth striving for, indeed.

Evaluating Education, Evenhandedly

A story went around the interwebs a couple weeks ago that garnered many stories and more opinions. Unsurprisingly, it focused on a traditionally controversial subject which features prominently in politics at various levels, and a divisive figure. Given that that description could refer to any number of topics, I’ll end the suspense (if you didn’t figure it out from the title): education. (Which I’ve talked about before, by the way).

You’ve probably heard about Michelle Rhee: wonderwoman, education radical, fearless reformer, draconian, unfeeling witch who wants to pump students out like so many mass-produced cans of tuna. By which I mean to say, there are a range of opinions regarding Ms. Rhee and her testing paradigm, which came under some scrutiny in the media after reports surfaced that may have indicated widespread cheating by the DC teachers during Rhee’s chancellorship of that public school system. All of the traditional divisions came up in full strength, with conservatives, anti-teacher unionites and Ms. Rhee herself defending the results as well as the program itself, and liberals, pro-unionites and teacher advocates leaping on the reports and declaring that not only had there been cheating, but that such cheating was an inevitable part of the overly pressurized, teach-to-the-test system imposed on DC schools.

Such a range of opinions does not exist when it comes to the state of public education in this country in general. It’s awful. We know. So what do we do about it? When faced with a problem this seemingly intractable, my first reaction might be to either throw up my hands in the air or go with the liberal opinion, given how often I tend to fall on that side. But this is actually a great example of an issue which is important enough to spend time researching and considering, complex enough to warrant some attention and distillation of the maelstrom of information and viewpoints that exist on the internet, difficult enough to be interesting and political enough that one needs to be cautious wading into the mix. Which means that it’s a great subject on which to practice rational, disinterested analysis, given in particular that it’s incredibly difficult, because children and the next generation and our dearly beloved public school teachers and all that are at stake. I say this with some sarcasm, but also self-deprecatingly, because this all worries me as well.

So, the basic story is that Michelle Rhee thinks that the problems with the school system are that the incentives aren’t in the right place, because teachers have tenure and aren’t held accountable for their skill at teaching or the results they produce. Her system gathers empirical data from standardized tests administered each year, ruthlessly fires bad teachers regardless of seniority and makes sure that kids keep doing better every year. It turns out that this system seems to have worked. A good, if perhaps overly generous summary is here. The problem is that there are suspicious patterns of erasures from wrong to right answers which might indicate cheating.

Here, Michelle Rhee defends herself. A friend sent me this article, and asked me to respond, which is really how this blog post got started (which also explains why this is written in a somewhat less formal tone). In the piece, she really doesn’t say anything new or radical, she just defends her record against all the allegations of cheating that have been going on. I think the evidence is very murky. The evidence in her favor is certainly considerable, but much of it may not have been her at all. Testing district based on a few years of data is notoriously difficult, and some of the work, such as facilities upgrading, is done by a completely different agency than the DC Public Schools System. More can be read at the links above. The cheating is hard to prove, especially since the testing service only releases certain data.

But, as a broader issue, my brilliant rational analysis has led me to the following…I’m loath to say conclusions, since most of the work that I’ve done here is, I think, asking the right questions. That’s almost always my approach, since if we can agree on the important values and ends we’d like achieved, the rest is just empirical. With that caveat, I’m pretty sure the main points are as follows:

1. What is education for? Whose interests are at stake, and which need to be protected?
2. How do we find out whether it’s happening?
3. How do we fix it if it’s not? What are the underlying causes of the difficulties in our educational system?


Obviously, this is political, social, sociological, economic and everything else you can think of, which is why it’s so damn complicated. Preliminary answers, from a progressive concerns with outcomes rather than means:

What Education is For:
1. Education is for creating a certain type of citizen. It’s often emphasized that we need to encourage math and science education, which is to say we are trying to create productive, economically fruitful citizens for the purpose of our national economy and for their own ability to sustain themselves. For example, I say this with some knowledge of the values of a system that includes vocational schools, and the arguments in favor of making an institutional distinction between those with working class skills and jobs and those with service class skills and jobs. It might be the case, for example, that that sort of division makes it easier for everyone to develop a minimum level of skills needed to succeed and become economically independent and to be a productive member of society.

Others argue, and I tend to agree with them, that what we need is broader than that. I still think it needs to be firmly defined and if at all possible, operationalized, so don’t think I have some nebulous conception of an idealized Montessori-for-everyone system (as awesome as those schools are). I think we need to be cultivating critical thinking, logical reasoning, the ability to amass and process data in productive ways, argue, employ and critique rhetoric, understand abstract concepts. We should be instilling the valuing of knowledge, of empathy and understanding, of science and its capacity to understand and change the world. We should be teaching science as well as scientific thinking, math as well as formal logical thinking, history and an understanding of narratives and politics, economics, politics and how they work, and absolutely the ability to write well. These qualities are necessary for a functioning democracy, they serve national interests, and they are also vital for allowing people to self-actualize.

How we gain insight into our educational system:
2. Testing. Absolutely. I would never argue against the use of empirical data to understand whether or not important things are happening. I get fairly apoplectic when I see the phrase, “policies that over-rationalize teaching and learning.” Over-rationalize? As if rationality isn’t the way to go? The problems are: what are we testing, and what are the effects of testing? The answer to the second is clear: not always, but often, teaching to the test, overly standardized classrooms and teacher cheating. The reason for this, I think, is because of the answer to the first question, which is mostly multiple choice questions about specific knowledge bases. If we had broader questions, more essays and questions about critical thinking, (tests for which have been developed. Mostly, they’re just incredibly expensive to proctor and grade), then it would be hard to teach to the test, and even if it happened, the kids would be being taught the right things. I’m still in support of specific knowledge, of course; people need to be mathematically and scientifically literate. But we absolutely need to test better. I happen to agree with Michelle Rhee that cheating is probably not that common, and anyway, it would be much harder to cheat on these tests.

What the problems are:
3. Poverty, race, marginalization, poor parent involvement, not enough money, not enough ideas, poor health and yes, in some part, bad teachers. So what do we do? A few things. We should absolutely be funding, probably on a federal level, extracurricular activities, after school programs, breakfasts, clubs, sports, medical facilities on campus for free, etc. These are proven to raise student performance and also increase the well-being of entire communities. See here, here and here. They allow parents to work throughout the day and make more money, make school a safe and healthy environment, keep kids off the streets and reduce the disparity between wealthy neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

As for ideas, somehow we need to encourage alternative learning methods like plays and dance and projects for students who learn differently. We don’t have to test them differently, but we should teach differently. We should definitely be launching pilot programs. Charter schools are great for this, when they’re not funded by corporate interests who want all schools privatized. Longer school years would be great.

And sure, we should fire bad teachers. With good tests as well as a good understanding of pedagogy, we can see who those are. There’s a metric, for example, called “value added“, which measures how much teachers add to a student’s ability in a year, regardless of the starting point. We know that bigger classes with better teachers are better than smaller classes with worse teachers. I’m ok with bonuses and performance pay mostly, I’m just worried about what that’s going to incentivize, because it may not be creativity. What would be really helpful would be higher standards (they should have a degree in what they’re teaching and we should pay for them to get masters degrees in education) and pay them all much more money to get the good ones. Unions can play a great role in this. We focus so much on teacher tenure and such, but unions do other things as well. I worry, for example, that this more dynamic, market-based system might cause more movement of teachers between schools, and that lack of continuity can be bad for children’s learning and development.

These are my ideas, and they’re probably overly idealistic and would cost a lot of money, but it might help us rethink how we approach education. At least we should be asking the right questions.


EDIT: I forgot to mention that many of the ideas I have here about the importance of alternative methods of learning and the construction of citizens I got from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Not for Profit. Although, I suppose I should point out that the ancient Greeks pretty much had those things figured out, with the balance between gymnastics, music and mathematics, and education as cultivation. Also pretty much every political philosopher ever had this opinion about education.

Public Reason and the Treatment of Knowledge

Sounds like a book title, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the previous post is important by itself, but it brings us to a larger issue of public reason and the way decisions that affect government policy are made.

Certainly, as a first principle, decisions about textbooks and anything like them should, by any means necessary not be left in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in getting their point of view across, evidence be damned. This is dangerous if we care at all about our children, their education, and in general the route that knowledge takes to get through this country. Knowledge is valuable, it is a gift, and it should be treated with reverence. We need to be sure that we are teaching the best we have available, along with the appropriate critical thinking skills that will allow the next generation to improve on what we have.

One way to do both of these things is to teach several sides, which will not only expand on the knowledge we are imparting to students, but also allow them to see how many sides there really are, and how they are all important and inform what might be mistaken for a coherent body of knowledge without dispute or dissent.

If you want to teach the controversy, teach something that’s actually instructively controversial, like the validity of evolutionary psychology as a field, or FDR’s reactionary attitudes towards immigration, or the value in having both militant and diplomatic groups within any political movement in order to shift debate. These things are interesting, instructive and important, and set the stage for vastly more inclusive studies and approaches to learning. Also, keeping the decision making within the field allows experts to take over. Because at the end of the day, there are people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of knowledge, and their expertise, in a given field as well as in the instruction of knowledge generally should be brought to bear.

Basically, my rationalism leads me to the obvious conclusion that once goal-related decisions are made, the path should be charted essentially by the experts. The goals are difficult to ascertain, true, but that’s not the issue at hand. Depending on the topic, they might be decided by the people, derived from first principles or empirically obtained. At that point, however, consequentialist ethics demand that the best way to attain the decided-upon goals must be put into place, and in cases like this, experts are definitely called for. What do I mean by ‘cases like this’? Well, it regards facts (in this case historical) that are studied and ascertained by experts. The disputes within the field must be analyzed and a conclusion arrived at by experts who well understand the arguments for and against any particular analysis of history. The right mix of experts, too, can ensure a diversity of approach and opinion. Political stances certainly come into play even in expert analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that for another post. Nonetheless, any difference of opinion can be treated as an academic exercise and thus analyzed properly, within its directed field. Any assertions must be backed up with sufficient evidence and be subject to criticism from the academic community.
The same applies, not only to the subject at hand, but to the subject of education generally. People who work in education and who understand cognitive development and neurobiology probably ought to be in on this. They have the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how children learn, what methods might be the most effective in getting across the information, and where the line might be drawn between instruction and indoctrination. We may worry that children will be taught only one side, or that no matter how many sides we try to teach we will still not be teaching what it means to go after the truth, wholeheartedly, with an open mind and the tools of rationality required. These are valid concerns. However, while it might be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to discuss these topics in a casual setting, when the time comes for real decisions to be made, the only people who ought to be at the table are people who actually know what they’re talking about. They might be able to add to the debate instructively, informing the masses, for example, at what age children can begin to be taught abstraction rather than fact, or which should come first at all.

This is important in history, where children must be taught to understand that objective truth may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, in science, where they must be taught to understand that the scientific process is an arduous one characteristically marked by a great deal of failure, in math, where abstractions are as important as formulas and any other subject that might come up in a textbook.

These are actually really important discussions, of the type that most people, even those who enjoy entering philosophical or intellectual debates, might never realize are the most crucial. And at this level, once the goals are enumerated, it really needs to be left to the experts in the relevant fields. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Which fields are included, who is asked to join, how those individuals happen to interact – these are all variables that range from needing to be tested by the most rudimentary method of try-and-see to the generally unforeseeable. It also might be the case that eventually you just have too many people at the table, and that creates problems in and of itself.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Firstly, because that will give us knowledge of its own kind, and secondly, because it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

And we fight, because knowledge, the way we treat it and the way we pass it on – these things are that important.

The Nature of History

So this is fairly late in terms of when the news broke and outcry erupted across the interwebs, but this is something I wrote at the time, and I want to use it as a basis for talking about something else.
You all know, I’m sure, about Texas and the textbooks. A recap: every year, the textbook curriculum standards for a different discipline are reviewed and changed. Last year, science was on the table, and that was also highly contested. This year, the stakes were generally thought to be higher because California, the largest purchaser of textbooks in the nation, put a moratorium on purchases for budgetary reasons, meaning that Texas, the second largest purchaser, has an inordinate amount of influence. Things have changed since, and there was lots of controversy and lots of things to talk about, but there’s something I think people missed.

The liberal/progressive blogosphere was freaking out about Texas and the textbooks, specifically talking about the closing of the gap between church and state. But what I’m much more worried about is the scope of minority influence on America that’s being diminished. Maybe I’m just a Howard Zinn fangirl, but when you stop talking about blacks, latinos, women, nineteenth century catholics, native americans and their contributions and interactions with the mainstream American culture, you are perverting history. You are allowing history to be a one-sided account written by the winners. I know in many ways it already is, but if we know that, we can work to change it, to allow ourselves to be informed by the vast amounts of information and stories that are often ignored.

If you hope to ever be considered a well-informed intellectual, or a well-researched social scientist or a well-instructed student, you need to be very careful about allowing your view of history to be constructed solely out of mainstream history/culture. I’m not one to have a knee-jerk reaction to the ‘mainstream media’, but pretty much by definition, some stories are going to be left out. And no matter how you perceive this country, whether through the lens of American exceptionalism or as a nation of immigrants or whatever, you need to learn about Castro, not just as evil, but as having improved the literacy rates in Cuba to above ours. And not just Rosa Parks or MLK Jr, but the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey and Mumia and blacks now, in this country now, having median earnings ten times less than those of whites and maybe never being able to achieve parity, even with an African-American president. And how immigrants to this country looking for freedom from religious persecution turned around and persecuted others and how the temperance movement was targeted against Irish, Polish and Italian Catholics and how Muslims in this country are marginalized and pushed aside and are not. all. terrorists and how violence in the middle east might be a backlash against American actions.

Political affiliation aside, if you don’t understand history as more than a series of events, as a history of people and movements and ideas that need to be studied from the point of view of both the culture in which they existed, and often were submerged in and fought against and the point of view of that movement and they way they saw themselves, you are missing something. Something big. And you may always be missing something, I suppose. What did the Jews think of the anti-war hippies, for example? But missing the massively obvious question of what at least one other side thought is a fairly egregious error, and it will send you to Social Science Hell. Willful ignorance tends to do that.

If you don’t care to read the whole post, though it’s one of my shorter ones, just check out this comic.