Posts Tagged education

More on education

Ludwig von Mises
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I wrote earlier about whether universities have a future, a subject I’m obviously interested in as a I work in one. After writing that entry, I came across these quotes from the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises on the subject of education and schooling:

It is often asserted that the poor man’s failure in the competition of the market is caused by his lack of education. Equality of opportunity, it is said, could be provided only by making education at every level accessible to all. There prevails today the tendency to reduce all differences among various peoples to their education and to deny the existence of inborn inequalities in intellect, will power, and character. It is not generally realized that education can never be more than indoctrination with theories and ideas already developed. Education, whatever benefits it may confer, is transmission of traditional doctrines and valuations; it is by necessity conservative. It produces imitation and routine, not improvement and progress. Innovators and creative geniuses cannot be reared in schools. They are precisely the men who defy what the school has taught them.

In order to succeed in business a man does not need a degree from a school of business administration. These schools train the subalterns for routine jobs. They certainly do not train entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur cannot be trained. A man becomes an entrepreneur in seizing an opportunity and filling the gap. No special education is required for such a display of keen judgment, foresight, and energy. The most successful businessmen were often uneducated when measured by the scholastic standards of the teaching profession. But they were equal [p. 315] to their social function of adjusting production to the most urgent demand. Because of these merits the consumers chose them for business leadership.
– Human Action, Chapter XV The Market


The emphasis laid by sociologists upon mass phenomena and their idolization of the common man are an offshoot of the myth that all men are biologically equal. Whatever differences exist between individuals are caused, it is maintained, by postnatal circumstances. If all people equally enjoyed the benefits of a good education, such differences would never appear. The supporters of this doctrine are at a loss to explain the differences among graduates of the same school and the fact that many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities. They fail to see that education cannot convey to pupils more than the knowledge of their teachers. Education rears disciples, imitators, and routinists, not pioneers of new ideas and creative geniuses. The schools are not nurseries of progress and improvement but conservatories of tradition and unvarying modes of thought. The mark of the creative mind is that it defies a part of what it has learned or, at least, adds something new to it. One utterly misconstrues the feats of the pioneer in reducing them to the instruction he got from his teachers. No matter how efficient school training may be, it would only produce stagnation, orthodoxy, and rigid pedantry if there were no uncommon men pushing forward beyond the wisdom of their tutors.

It is hardly possible to mistake more thoroughly the meaning of history and the evolution of civilization than by concentrating one’s attention upon mass phenomena and neglecting individual men and their exploits. No mass phenomenon can be adequately treated without analyzing the ideas implied. And no new ideas spring from the mythical mind of the masses.

  • Theory and History, Chapter 11.
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The end of universities

An Oxford degree ceremony — the Pro-Vice-Chanc...
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Been finding a few articles on the end of universities recently.

1) Universities will be “irrelevant” by 2020, says professor. This doesn’t say much that is new (“institutions that do not adapt will will out to those that do”), and I’m still waiting for all these universities to go belly-up and for students to take courses by iPod.

2) Seeing things as they really are. A Forbes article on Peter Drucker and his predictions:

“Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book. “Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? And for the middle-class family, college education for their children is as much of a necessity as is medical care—without it the kids have no future. “Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.” Crisis means that things will get either much better or much worse. Things will get much different, Drucker says.

3) Donald Trump vs. The Mandarins. Gary North, a libertarian and Austrian economist, compares the great Chinese bureaucracy with the present-day American educational system, focusing on the MBAs. Apparently, like the expensive running shoes, you don’t necessarily get your money’s worth.

4) The Scourge of University Socialism. THE website for Austrian economics,, has an angry blog post about Obama’s wish for government to assume direct responsbility for making student loans. One commenter believes,

The truth is that this has nothing to do with education. This is a method of paying the Teacher’s Union directly from the government. There is always a hidden agenda in anything Obama does because his people know that if he says or does it directly the political backlash will be overwhelming.

3) Will the University Survive? by Tim Swanson. A well-researched article that has, erm, maybe too many hyperlinks, and footnotes. A thorough roundup of the key issues, obviously biased towards the free-market point of view.

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Teaching in Japan: the Way of the Dragon

Cover of the first volume of Dragon Zakura manga
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The scene: a highschool gym which also serves as assembly hall. The hall is filled with rowdy students.  A stranger takes the podium. No-one pays him the slightest attention. He stands there gazing around at the chattering students. “Why don’t you say something?” asks a girl at the front, “you peed in your pants?” “Teachers are teachers, students are students. Pay attention to what I have to say, damn you!” he shouts. The crowd goes silent.

“You all look really stupid. You are going to be losers all your life! I mean, you will be cheated and tricked. Society is run by clever people: they make the rules so that they come out winners and you come out losers.  They create complex systems that are deliberately hard to understand, like taxes, insurance, pay scales, especially for idiots like you for whom thinking is just too much trouble! You end up paying your hard-earned money to the clever folk; they will always be taking you for a ride. If you don’t want that; if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life on the losing side, then there is just one way out: STUDY!!! And I’ll tell you one simple way: go to Todai!”

So begins “Dragon Zakura“, the 2005 TBS drama (based on a manga by Mita Norifusa) of a man who dreams up a scheme to save his lawyer business by turning around a failing high school that he is assigned to close down, and sending 5 of its students every year to the most prestigious university in the country – Tokyo University (Todai).

The series gives an interesting insight into the realities of high school life in Japan, as well as common attitudes towards education and society. I found Sakuragi’s attitudes and values refreshing: he hates the word “gambare”; he refuses to run after tearful students who run out of the classroom; he frequently makes bets with others about student outcomes; rather than supporting students with “encouraging” words, he prefers them to face reality as quickly and directly as possible; he believes, and tells students, that society is run by the clever, who make the rules and exploit the others; if students want to change this, they have only one choice: educate themselves.

The strongly individualist and rational lawyer Sakuragi Kenji himself takes on the job of teaching the “special class” (those going to Todai) , as no-one else in the school will take the responsbility. In the process, he comes up against a lot of opposition: from the other teachers, the students themselves, the chair of the board of governors, and the students’ parents. Each of these people or groups of people represent different philosophical positions; they act as philosophical “foils” for the lawyer Sakuragi, and help to clarify the principles his values are based on.

Here are a few points of opposition. The interesting thing about these is that they are mostly drawn from “mainstream thinking”; they represent the “norm”, the majority opinion, the accepted wisdom of today.

  • “Adults should always praise students/children”. Sakuragi’s communications with his students are frequently shouted and often contain the word “idiot!” (In a scene with the students’ parents, he challenges them on their ways of raising their children.)
  • “Teachers should devote themselves to students and do whatever is necessary to help them learn”. This is a recurring theme, and a sentiment frequently repeated by Sakuragi’s unwilling assistant (or slave), Ms Ino. Sakuragi has occasion to throw back at her her own phrase “my beloved students” in a manner which makes clear his contempt for people who use such expressions. At one point he asks, “how long are you going to go on helping them? After they’ve graduated, even?”
  • “An attractive school (i.e. a “good” one)  is one which respects students’ individuality and develops their humanity, empathy and kindness”. This sentiment is expressed in similar language in just about every school’s prospectus around the country. Sakuragi pointedly asks the teacher who proposes this kind of educational philosoph what her particular value as an educator is – her individuality? Her humanity? As she stumbles for an answer, Sakuragi dismisses her proposal as vague and such thinking as partly responsible for bringing about the school’s ruin. She demands to know what HE thinks would make the school attractive to prospective students, and he replies “getting 100 graduates into Todai.” Education is a business, he states, and figures prove competitiveness.
  • “Adults should not raise false hopes in students but should keep their ambitions realistic”. Sakuragi – people underestimate students and then they can’t see their unlimited possibilities.
  • “Heart is more important than the head.” There’s  a scene where the students get emotional and angry and confront Sakuragi. His response: “that’s right – let yourself be ruled by your emotions. That’s the way to stay stupid and exploited like you have been up to now!” This is unusual for a Japanese drama, in my limited experience: most of them rely on sentiment to attract viewers and create the dramatic highlights (when this series was on telly 4 years ago, I ignored it, thinking it was another one of those sentimental school stories filled with the usual platitudes about “sentiment is more than skill” or “heart is more important than academic knowledge”.  (Tangential point: a commenter to a review of a book about problem-solving for Japanese teenagers pointed out some revealing sentences in the foreword to the Japanese version; the sentences reveal a common Japanese attitude towards logical thinking).
  • “Sympathy, empathy, supporting each other (i.e. the group) is more important than personal desires or ambition.” In one episode, the students rally round to help out one of their number whose single mother is hospitalized. Ms Ino, predictably, thinks it’s a noble gesture. Sakuragi is not impressed and worries they will merely waste time that could be more profitably spent studying. Contrary to his nature, he is strongly tempted to intervene, but decides against it, well aware of the risk. The arguments pro and con are discussed in two separate conversations Sakuragi has with a couple of teachers.
  • And of course, almost everyone in the drama is intimidated by Todai’s reputation. Sakuragi knows differently. First, Todai these days is not that hard to get into (Sakuragi has done his homework and has the numbers memorized). Secondly, he has little respect for those who are intimidated by reputation: “Most people in Japan suffer from ‘Todai disease!'” he sneers.

The bulk of the series describes the various scientific methods, tricks and tips that Sakuragi and his cohort of eccentrics lay out as a year-long plan of study for 5 (later 6) students who, for various reasons, decide to take up Sakuragi’s challenge (although acceptance of his plan is conditional on getting at least 5 students, he does not make it easy for any of them and lays out their choices with sometimes brutal frankness). The series developed a cult following, and the Mita, author of the original manga, came out with several follow-up books on how to study effectively. The TBS drama starred the 6′ 5″ model and actor Hiroshi Abe as the charismatic Sakuragi.

The DVDs on sale in Japan only have Japanese subtitles (of course), but someone has kindly created English subtitles and gokuesen2gokusen kindly uploaded some (first 3 of the 9) episodes to YouTube. Click the link below.

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What is the value of schooling?

2nd half of 14th century
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I have been visiting the website daily since I discovered it a few months ago.

Today, I came across this blog entry by Tim Swanson, Is there a future for b-schools? (= business schools) which led me to this article Did Joseph Wharton Cause the US Financial Meltdown?(Oct. 21, 2008). I don’t have any kind of opinion about business schools, and all I know about the Wharton School is that that is where Catherine Austin Fitts graduated from, but a couple of paragraphs in the article caught my attention, because they refer to a theme I’ve been thinking about a great deal over the last few years: what is the point of going to school?

It is worth noting that among the most highly regarded presidents of the 19th century, only one, Thomas Jefferson, attended college or university. Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Grover Cleveland were all self-educated. These three are generally recognized as more original and independent than most of their executive peers.


Andrew Carnegie was a telegrapher and then worked his way up in the Pennsylvania Railroad; his book learning was extensive, but he acquired it from the library, not a blackboard.

I like to tell the story about a good friend of mine, highly educated and intelligent, who graduated from a British university without attending any lectures: being smart, he quickly figured out that the lecturers were all spouting information which was already available in the library, so that was where he spent most of his time (he no doubt had seminars and other small classes which he had to attend).

So, if you can acquire an education without going to school, just by making judicious use of a good library, then what is the point of going to school/university?

Or to ask the question a different way: what (if any) value can a school/university add that a good library can not?

One thing books cannot do is talk back. A book cannot question or challenge the understanding which the reader takes from it; to some extent, a real live teacher can. A teacher can challenge a student’s understanding by asking questions, by requiring the student to express his/her opinions with supporting arguments, a teacher can challenge a student’s reasoning; a book can do none of these things.

This post will be tagged “the bleeding obvious”.

The rest of the article takes a long time to make a fairly simple point: that business schools taught their graduates they could ignore reality, or create their own, and that this led to the financial meltdown. It contains some nuggets, but I’ll blog about them separately. I’m surprised the article made no mention of David X. Li and his mathematical formulae.

A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li migh someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li’s work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

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Digital pens and intrusive pedagogy (or good and bad advertising)

penRecently I attended a demonstration of a digital pen by Hitachi (sorry, Japanese-language only) at my university. The plan is to distribute 100 of these digital pens to various teachers and students and see what they come up with in terms of evaluations of its usefulness or new ideas for exploiting this technology. Altho the technology is impressive, I was left rather cold about the possible applications that were outlined by the presenter.
The presentation was given to teachers and staff, and there was much time spent on how having STUDENTS use this could be useful for TEACHERS. The Hitachi digital pen, unlike the the little smartpen from livescribe that Prof. Wesche describes, has no audio-recording facility: it just records what you write. You can send the data either as a jpg or a txt file by email to your computer or cell-phone.
The Hitachi pen records not only what you write, but also how much time you spend writing, how long the pen is (and is not) touching the paper. This data, the presenter told us, could later be analyzed by the teacher to investigate exactly where or at what point students have difficulty in understanding a subject. That put me off right there. Next, we’ll be having students plugged directly into electrodes to “study” (i.e. normalize) how they are (or are not) studying; and giving them electric shocks to keep them concentrating, perhaps.

A further example given was this: a lecturer could analyze the notes taken by students to count the frequency of the lecture’s keywords: did students take accurate notes?
The presentation was of course in Japanese, but I took notes of it mostly in English: had my notes been analyzed in this way, NO keywords would have been found. Or, suppose a note-taker, instead of using the lecturer’s keywords, translated or substituted their own, preferred, terms or expressions? Again, the “keyword analysis” would show very few or no keywords, but this would not necessarily mean that the note-taker had not understood or been delinquent in note-taking.
When I pointed this out, I was told that, in Japan, most university students just take verbatim notes, so this kind of simple analysis was perfectly valid.
On reading Prof. Wesche’s enthusiastic blog entry about the “smartpen“, and watching livescribe’s product demo videos, I find the smartpen more attractive than Hitachi’s digital pen. Is this partly because the Hitachi presentation was pitched to teachers as supervisors of other people (students) using the pen, rather than as direct users of the pen themselves? Perhaps. In any event, I found that emphasis was on the data that can be collected by the pen, rather than on the practical usefulness of the pen as a consumer product. In addition, rather than nurturing student autonomy and independence, collecting and using such data to “help” students seems to me to re-inforce a false belief that is already unfortunately all too prevalent and seems to be gaining rather than losing ground: namely that “education” comes only from licensed and authorized experts who have the learners’ best interests at heart and are therefore justified in almost limitless intrusion into learners’ personal behaviour. Counting how many minutes or seconds a person’s pen is touching the paper, using that information to draw conclusions about that person’s cognitive abilities, then from those conclusions giving guidance or instruction to that person, strikes me as overly authoritarian, if that’s the word I’m looking for. Lines from a song float into my mind: “You raise the blade, you make the change, you re-arrange me till I’m sane”.

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Compulsory sex education in UK

Startling statistics in this BBC article about sex and relationship education in schools in the UK.

Lessons about personal, social and health matters including sex and relationships will be compulsory in all England’s schools from ages five to 16…

A BBC poll of more than 1,000 people found two thirds would support sex lessons from the age of 11…

A UK-wide poll commissioned by the BBC from NOP found that the majority of those questioned believed sex and relationship lessons should be compulsory in schools. 87% say sex and relationship lessons should be compulsory.

Of those, 64% believed lessons should not start until children are at least 11 years old.

Just over a third (36%) said they did not think children should learn about contraception until they were at least 13.

However, some people have concerns! Who are these idiots? Don’t they trust the govmint? But, fortunately, it’s not mistrust of the govmint that motivates them:

The national director of Christian Voice, Stephen Green, said the proposals would only encourage experimentation and contribute to the rise in teenage pregnancy and infertility.

He said the idea of teaching young children about sex is “a wickedness” from a government that wants to see “a whole generation fornicating”.

You’d think they’d be pleased, considering the future holds a drop in UK students.

Another foot-dragger:

The head of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), John Dunford, has written to the government complaining that secondary schools have only just begun implementing major changes to the curriculum including highly regarded but non-statutory material on PSHE… “It should not be the subject to further central prescription and certainly not compulsion.”

What a Luddite, eh?

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Revisiting “A Vision of students Today”

I’ve been an admirer of Mike Wesch, anthropology prof at Kansas State University, ever since I saw his very cool and slick video The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version)

He then had some of his Cultural Anthropology students help him make another YouTube video to tell the world what they think of their education: A Vision of Students Today.

I subscribed to his blog, and watched his presentation where he talked about the background and meaning of his videos and his anthropological interests. His blog just got updated with a couple of entries, in one of which he revisits the “Vision of Students Today”.

With rare exception, educators around the world expressed the sad sense of profound identification with the scene…Surely it can’t be as bad as the video seems to suggest, I thought…By the end of the summer I had become convinced that the video was over the top, that things were really not so bad, that the system is not as broken as I thought, and we should all just stop worrying and get on with our teaching. But when I walked into my classroom for the first day of school two weeks ago I was immediately reminded of the real problem now facing education. The problem is not just “written on the walls.” It’s built into them.

This picks up the theme he wrote about in “Anti-teaching: confronting the crisis of significance” in which he writes “The most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself”, i.e. that so many students fail to find significance in the education they are getting.

I have come to the conclusion that “teaching” can actually be a hindrance to learning.

I’m reminded of a colleague, a teacher of education, who, back in the days when we actually had discussions about pedagogy, used to repeat, “Don’t teach! Don’t teach!!” Perhaps his words need to be taken in the context of Japanese further education: we have a population who have been largely stunned by 10 years of compulsory education, most of which is 1-way; students don’t ask questions because teachers don’t like to be asked questions and most make that plain; in this vertical society, teachers are much higher than mere students, so the flow of communication can really only go one way.

My university is now having its “FD week”, 10 days or so of peer observations. I went to see this colleague’s class today. He is having some success with having students read then discuss a difficult text about educational discourses. When I spoke to him a couple of years ago about teaching, he said that he encouraged students to express themselves by using no textbook but having them take part in small group discussions after a simple “show-and-tell”, in which each student had to bring in some article or book or experience about education and present it to the group. Students are so accustomed to being passive in class, he said,  that had he started by using a textbook, students would immediately have clicked into their intimidated mode and would not have been able to express any meaningful responses to it.

While I find Wesch’s videos a trifle too slick, and risk becoming the message themselves, instead of transmitting it, he certainly knows how to make ones that challenge people’s thinking and provoke rich responses. What do you think?

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Japan news: over 100 teachers opt for demotion

For one of the classes I teach, I need to find news items in English about Japan (especially items that look at Japanese society from an unusual or non-Japanese point of view), and Japan Probe is a good source of such news. Japan Probe is a Japan news blog in English that focusses on general-interest news items, and sometimes usefully includes embedded video taken from Japanese TV. An item I found today, and bookmarked for my class, is Foreign tourists feel the pain as dollar/euro weaken against yen

The news class I teach is at a university, and, naturally, behind a firewall. Previously, some videos have been inaccessible to these students. If YouTube were blocked, that would kinda cramp things.

Another Japan news blog I subscribe to is Japan Today, which led me to this news item about Japanese public school teachers choosing demotion over the presumably high stress-levels of managerial positions.  I was interested in the ministry official’s statement,

‘‘Teachers in these positions tend to be saddled with heavy workloads and we will urge (schools) to improve their working conditions so that they do not get too much work,’’

and in one of the commenters who thought that the Education ministry

should provide more money for more teachers and fewer students per class rather than ‘urge’ schools to improve their working conditions.

If the teachers don’t like it, why don’t they negotiate for better conditions (fewer classes, for instance), or quit? Why do they need some higher power to fix things for them? What do you think?

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Is evolution a fact or a theory?

School Gate is a (UK) Times Online blog about schools and schooling in Britain. I read it to keep abreast of what is going on in British education. Today’s entry is
This Science expert says that children should be taught creationism at school

The comments are particularly interesting and mostly well informed, but even more interesting is the post and comments on the September 10th blog entry Sarah Palin, the creationist debate and what our children should be taught about the big bang…

This second one has received a flood of comments, many of which are intelligent, informed and informative. If you want a quick education about creationism and whether evolution is a fact or a theory, or the difference between macro- and micro-evolution, head on over there. Some are downright hilarious, like this one:

Can’t we just form two queues? Those from lineages that have never evolved over there. Those who wish to continue evolving over here.
It’s sad for the children of creationist parents, of course, but maybe that’s evolution at work.

My faith is that some people are credulous, superstitious fools that are a burden for the rest of us, and I expect my faith to be respected by anyone invoking faith-based arguments.

Perhaps the best one is by Meredith. I won’t reproduce it all here, just follow the link. Meredith points out the difference between a fact and a theory.

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