I Learned Everything I Know from Wily Coyote

We may not like it, and we may not understand where it is leading us as human beings, but this is what is happening.
I sit here at a computer screen and I feel nothing for it, for it is a soulless and uncaring thing. I had teachers I loved and teachers I hated. With more maturity, of the thousands of students who passed through my classrooms, I had hundreds I truly loved as if they were my children–and some I was glad were someone else’s children, and I made a personal effort to do something good for even those. I never wanted to be rich or famous, but I wanted to be appreciated, and even loved a little. And I think maybe I was loved, a little. I am a human being, after all.

 

What is this brave new world we live in? And how is it that, in creating this new world, those I once cherished, now sitting on the other side of a computer screen, will blindly abandon their own children to the sterility and isolation of such an education? I at least lament their loss.
I retired with tears. And society may leave me beside the road to die at some point. Still, I am so thankful to have gotten out when I did. I did my teaching with passion and dignity. And I am rich beyond the wildest dreams of any plutocrat or their science and technology minions.

Fall, Calm

Fall, calm,
A solstice solemn,
But not sad–
Preparation for gravity
Grounding in the present
Freeing from the moment
A test of hope,
Looking beyond today.
 

Autumn, poignant,
A time reflective,
But not terminal—
Inhalation awaiting uncertainty
Appraising the past
Becalming ambitions
A test of faith,

Looking beyond ourselves.

October 2014

Why they are called the humanities

Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.

So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!

Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.

The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.

The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.

With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.

The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.

If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?

Art in the Age of Narcissism

   She had flown to Paris in the high season with three friends. They were staying in a typical European economy hotel; a double room meant a double bed and a small sink in the room, shared showers and toilets, a three-story walk up. The four women’s two rooms up different staircases. The rooms not big enough for the four to visit and talk about the creepy people on the plane, in the airports and those French customs people. And drink a little wine. This was France after all. The shot: two twenty-something faces mugging, backed by a bit of dormered window on the left and a quarter of a pillow, some of a metal headboard and a dingy wall on the right.

   Getting to the Louvre had been a nightmare. A taxi driver they approached just stared blankly at them. Using a smart phone they mapped themselves and the Louvre, started off in the wrong direction for a couple of  blocks before checking again, not finding streets names on sign posts, corrected direction and trudged on anew. Then it took twenty more minutes to get there – walking! “My God, we’re only here for a couple of days.” And once, at the Champs they found lines a block long. The shot: four grimacing faces squeezed together against a backdrop of one of humanities favorite activities: waiting in lines and crowds.

   Once inside, the density and intensity of crowds increased. Some of Europe’s masterworks in linseed oil and pulverized stone framing a shuffling mass of pained expectation. The goal is the Mona Lisa, undoubtedly the most famous and certainly the most viewed, albeit in reproduced forms and photos, painting in the West. A remarkable accomplishment for an industrial and military engineer, and meticulous researcher and draftsman, especially appreciable in this time when engineering is the great hope of the middle classes, much as prize fighting was held to be the great hope of the poor Irish a century ago.

   Finally our traveler manages to reach the cordon, forcibly held in place by a substantial matron in a grey guard’s uniform. Pushed and jostled, our traveler turns to face the murmuring crowds, her back to Leonardo’s enigmatic smile. The shot: a young American woman, carefully made up, hair long and flowing, perfectly crafted smile looking directly into the lens, over her left shoulder, an eye, forehead and hair, slightly out of focus, possibly the Mona Lisa.

   On the streets of Paris again, they search out a sidewalk café, where they will sit and noticeably watch people passing, as they nurse their coffees and discuss their plans for conquering Amsterdam. But what now? Window shopping, maybe? “How much money do we have left?”

 

There is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

There’s only now, and that’s the sorrow.

Philosophy tells us who we are

While I have not read widely on the subject of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation, I have read enough to see what appears to be a common core of arguments.

  1. We need national standards to be competitive in the global economy; vs. we need local control to assure our national character and integrity.

  2. We need the content and levels, specified in the CCSS, to assure quality in education across the whole country; vs. we need to honor choice, and regional and local values that are nurtured through our education system.

And my favorite:

  1. We need to be able to compare schools on a consistent scale; vs. we need to support every child in every school to maximize every individual’s innate potential.

Put another way, these might line up as:

  1. Globalism v. parochialism

  2. Uniformity v. individuality

  3. Free-market competition v. Marxist socialism

This analysis is based on a cursory examination of the commentary, to be sure. I would say “the literature,” but that would suggest a higher level of academic study on the part of the commenters. After all, implementing a nation-wide formula for education based on presumed outcomes is implementing a strictly probability-based inductive rationale. It’s a bit unrealistic for anyone to speak with grounded authority on the outcomes, though many might assume such a posture.

Something that I see in my analysis is a similarity to other arguments afoot across the world. All these argued positions are similar to positions taken in economics and corresponding social structures. And while this might be a loose relationship, it bears some consideration, because it invites the question, “What underlies the discourse on the Common Core State Standards?” In other words, why are we having these debates in education, economics, ethnic identities, and religious beliefs? Isn’t what’s best for the most over the longest time the goal? Apparently not.

I would say we spend far too much energy arguing the road to take and far too little energy trying to discover a goal upon which we can share consensus. In the CCSS debate, little seems to be said about what we agree on as the goal of a public education system: assimilation of diverse peoples into a single national identity? (1890-1910) The development of the human psyche as a spiritual being? (1920’s) The creation of a core of technical elite to direct and manage cadres of practical crafts and labor? (1920-1940) To establish an informed electorate to form a true democracy? (1940-1960) All right, these are rough, broad strokes, but they certainly represent raison d’État in public and, concordantly, private education in the U.S. in the last 150 years or so. And how unlike the gymnasia of Athens 2,500 years ago.

Thirty years ago, I puzzled over what was really expected of me in the classroom. Think for a moment about all the voices, many quite demanding and even threatening, If education is anything, I think, it is the institutionalized effort to acculturate and socialize emerging generations—to bring the rising population into the culture and society of a people. If that’s the case, then the problem seems pretty clear; The United States, by its design and history, is not a single people. At least not in the 21st century. We don’t have a common culture or a common society.

The debate, it seems to me, that we need to resolve is where we want to be on several spectrums. Where do we want to be, for instance, between absolute conformity – very efficacious, e.g. the Nazi war machine – or total individuality – apocalyptic anarchy where feudal war lords rise and fall trampling the masses. Please don’t be naïve; there are a few who would happily embrace the extremes. But there are deeper questions that we avoid even mentioning in practical arenas such as education. What is success? What is the balance between reality and fairness? What should determine what is right and what is wrong? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean that we can even ask such questions?

Philosophical (and religious) questions have plagued, entertained and elevated human beings throughout recorded history. Only physical conflict can compete for longevity, but cannot be said to elevate humanity; although it has elevated science and engineering. While STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) might suggest preparation in the field of conflict, though certainly very many other more humane fields as well, there seems to be little in the CCSS to promote the idea of questioning—the mean by which we clarify and understand—the philosophical puzzles. The world of science tells us what we are, but the world of philosophy tells us who we are. It is the philosophical that raises humans above the rest of the physical world, and leads us to ask “Why?” – the little child’s question that seems hardwired into humans.

So here’s what’s going to happen with the CCSS. It will be implemented poorly and unevenly and even incompletely across the states over the next five or six years, and will be overtaken by the next reform effort. During that time, it will spawn a sea of books, articles, research efforts and college programs—in their own reformed shapes—that will become an exhausted source of profit in the end. The new reform debate will generate a new wave of the same sorts of profitable sources in its turn. Cycles happen. The linden tree has a heart shaped leaf and, when viewed from a little distance, has a heart shaped profile as well. Patterns result from underlying, often mysterious, causes. Education reform cycles, and repetitions, I imagine, are in the underlying gene structure of society.

I gave up listening to all the voices (not in my head as it happens) telling me what education should be doing. Now that my career in the classroom is over, I feel satisfied that as the years passed, I was more and more able to get my students to ask why, in effect,  returning one starfish at a time to its home in the sea. I put my energy into starfish these days. I don’t see much point in trying to STEM the tide.

Complexity Theory

I’ve heard about Complexity Theory. It sounds like reductionism to me, though I’m told I’m wrong there. Dwelling somewhere between chaos and determinism, complexity theory seems, perhaps nobly, to be trying to understand the structure or natural laws governing the existential balance between chance and order. It seems a bit like divining the principles of an engineered universe. And certainly there are things that seem very highly engineered, in physics for example, positively deterministic systems, until we encounter quantum mechanics. Then our understanding is pushed perilously close to chaos. The weakness in seeking an understanding to predictable outcomes for highly complex events is the somewhat quantum nature of the causal agents, you and me. We defy reductive reasoning.

If reductive reasoning presumes that the complexity of a thing can be defined or reduced to a single cause or formula, its logic hangs on causal networks that are patterned or replicable in some way. If the exact same state exists in all aspects, then the exact same effects will descend from a single causal event. Expanding the cause to a set of causal states, changes little. There are two possible shortcomings in this theory, which do not falsify it, but may certainly dilute if not neutralize it.

The first is an easy shortcoming to predict: the exact same state existing in all aspects. This is an extremely improbable, if even vaguely possible occurrence. If the universe began with a big bang or has always exist, with our understanding of it deriving from passing through time and space, then, whether or not it is progressing, it is always changing as we see it. Therefore, we have already passed through the time and place where things were as they were, and can never pass through that time and place again, we assume. Even if we were there again—and there’s no reason to doubt that that ‘there and then’ with us in it hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t always exist—it would still be the only time and place where “the exact same state [is] existing in all aspects.” So much for exactness; what about similarity?

There is promise of usefulness in this notion of reductionism at a less exacting level. The weather forecast is based on gathering aspects of climatology patterns, on which meteorologists’ computers, applying algorithms based on past results of similar states, can predict the probability of a range of outcomes. The forces of the irrational deterministic world seem pretty well subject to the reductionist theory. But what about the rational world?

The second shortcoming is degree of predictability on non-deterministic events. First of all, in human interactions, past data of the specificity needed to formulate reasonably reliable algorithms may not very well exist. Take for example the cases of Iraq, Libya and Syria. How much critical data can be collected from the first two situations from which to predict a reliable pattern for events as outcomes of the third? In the first place, there was only the slightest number of aspects in Iraq and Libya to call them so much as similar, and Syria shares an even smaller number with both. And it hardly matters how many conflicts we examine, in comparison with the more than 30,000 days of weather data from which to draw positive probabilities. We get what amounts to a weak guess of the final outcome. What’s more, weather is highly regular in its patterns due to our solar cycles compared with human events that have a slight daily and annual pattern and a life cycle. None of these cycles are very regular, especially in a world of global, continuous communications.

The second shortcoming is also subject to rational disruption. Reductive reasoning can easily be applied to poker; there are a known number of cards of each value in the deck and in play. The game is pure chance, except that players fold and bluff, rationally disrupting the course of chance. Even if we come up with reasonably reliable predictors of probability for massively complex human events, or even for our own life events, we will always have to deal with the folding and bluffing of other players in the guessing games of life.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Maybe people are changing. I have always found one pattern of complex human behavior to be consistent: the more we learn of history, the more we know how little we’ve learned from history—the  more we see that history simply repeats itself. The meteorologists don’t change the weather either. Makes ya’ wonder, doesn’t it

Of Cabbages-and Kings

“As the years have gone along,
Our love it seems has risen and fallen
Like the chorus of a song,
Not sadly or coldly,
Nor badly nor boldly.”
“Not so,” says she.
“There was a time when it was clear,
When love and laughter,
Like sun and rapture,
Wrapped us in warmth and good cheer.”
“Not so much,” she says.
“But this is how it seems to me.”
“The love we have is what we’ve always had.
It’s not the love that’s changed;
It’s the lover.
Not the song but the singer.”
“How can you say that?
My love is part of me,
And thine of thee.
Our sharing is blending of these.”
“No,” says she.
“Love is greater than we.
It binds us to one melody.”
“For me, that cannot be.”
“Let us speak then of truth and other things
Of cabbages—and kings.”

The Ape Ariseth

We have become the most advanced apes, and we wallow grandly in our apishness. Tool use, once thought to be the haute domain of humans has been grudgingly relinquished to the ape world. We hardly even talk about other tool users, dolphins, elephants, crows, octopuses (octopi?)…

We have far outrun the pack in tool use though. With the entrance of the computer and the dawning of the Information Age, we took tool use to its farther extreme—emulating the gods with our use of tools. Elevating science, technology, engineering and math to the supreme arts, we have banked our education, business, wealth and future on our use of tools. Planted before the stony backdrop of an obdurate universe, the ape has risen to swing his awful club in the face of God. En garde Ahuramazda!

Now we have 3-D printers. We can recreate our world in bits and pieces. One day, it is predicted, we may be able to use such tools to recreate food. If food, why not sexual partners? STEM is pretty sexy—the reddest apple, dangling just within the touch of our finger tips, soon to be fully in our grasp. Imagine life on the holo-deck, lounging on the holo-beach, munching holo-lotus seeds.

The earliest Star Treks were, for the adolescent minded, fascinating in their gimmickry, scope and power. Yet Rodenberry used these to deliberate upon matters of sociology and philosophy, for those of us who troubled our minds grappling with such things. These vagaries were the places no one dared to go. How will we use our godlike power tools then? And for whose benefit? To whose detriment?

But it is much more fascinating monkeying around with our newest tool—a word not far removed from “toy”—than it is to grapple with abstractions. Ah! Making sense of abstractions, bringing order to the chaos of what is only imaginable. Attempting to understand our place in the incredible fabric of the universe. Now that sounds like something even an octopus might struggle in coming to grips with.

Humanity is not data-driven

There is much concern about the “Learning Gap.” The learning gap is really two undeniable things: a shame for our purportedly egalitarian society and a measurable fact. The ‘shame’ is in many aspects comforting and the ‘fact’ bears all the weight of the fact that there are three sheets of paper sticking out from under my computer monitor. We choose shame; it’s a feature of our Judeo-Christian cultural origins. We worship facts because they are sure and fixed and immutable. And the Learning Gap is characterized by the gap between the objectivity of the facts—data, and the subjectivity of the shame it engenders.

The ninety-second of the Roman Catholic dogma, one of a set of beliefs treated as fact for nearly two thousand years, states, “Original sin is transmitted by natural generation.(1)” We have been working on our inherent shame, treated as fact, since the conceptions of Cain and Abel. Meaning no disrespect for the great good done by Catholicism toward alleviating pain and suffering, The Church has like so many power structures simply cultivated, if not having actually manufactured, a need that it was prepared to meet for a price. Our hereditary shame, our original sin, deprives us of eternal bliss, but the Church provides an avenue to redemption. We need only do a few simple things: admit our undeserving state, accept the course our spiritual leaders offer and behave as we are told. And it’s not just Catholics. Is it?

We must admit to our sin in creating the Learning Gap. And they tasted of the fruits of class privilege and they knew their sin. We must accept the sanctity of the education reform movement. And on the seventh day they will be tested. And we will be redeemed. And the winged graduates ascended into college. And the “big data”(2) pushers should like this neat pattern correlation too. They ‘discovered’ the Learning Gap correlation, after all.

I say “discovered” because I don’t want to go right to the heart of the problem yet. You see, data are facts, and like the number of sheets of paper on my computer desk, they ‘mean’ nothing. When data are gathered, they can be sorted and arranged to create patterns, which in ‘data-ese’ are called correlations. Just before B goes up, A goes down—every time. Correlative fact, no cause, no opinion, just fact. This is the language of statistics, and we remember what was said about statistics, “Select the data that tells us what we want to know.” Could this be the case with the Learning Gap correlation? Could it be that the reason we find a difference in the performance in one racially defined group students from another racially defined group students is because something is or was going on to cause the difference? No. Because there is no cause to correlations, only data patterns. But we want things to have reasons.

“Why,” we ask, “are we here?” not just “Are we here?” Even Church dogma starts out by using the fact that we can ask as proof that there is a reason. Here’s what David Books says, with which I concur, in the New York Times, 16 April 2013:

“…I’m trying to appreciate the big data revolution, but also probe its limits. One limit is that correlations are actually not all that clear. A zillion things can correlate with each other, depending on how you structure the data and what you compare. To discern meaningful correlations from meaningless ones, you often have to rely on some causal hypothesis about what is leading to what. You wind up back in the land of human theorizing.”

Brooks contends that we seek meaning even in the meaningless and cause for the effect, and we do. It is probably deeply rooted in our psyche.

So why is the Learning Gap occurring between white students and students of color? Well, it is: no question about that. But that’s the learning gap: small “l,” small “g.” Why isn’t there isn’t the Learning Gap (capitalized) among rural, suburban and urban students, or between rich and poor students, or among the states or anywhere else that there is a gap? Well, we use race because that gap sticks to our inherent shame, our unresolved racial discrimination that we so proudly – no wait, make that, shamefully – celebrate in this country year after year. So shame can be made useful.

And the policy makers of today, like the Church leaders of the past, know how to leverage their influence and shepherd the sheep. “Close the Gap to relieve your shame.” But it may not be in the interest of that leadership to resolve the Learning Gap; it may be more useful to keep it in play. How much top down management, often in the form of cost containment, has sprung from the Learning Gap Card? Where does the power rest in dealing with the Learning Gap? And here’s the big one – If the Learning Gap were actually closed, what meaningful goal will have been achieved? How will it be more that a statistical non-correlation of data? Will the color lines go away? Will wealth be distributed more equitably? Will opportunity be truly equal? Will the nation become de-Balkanized?

_____

Those who know me know I have been railing against the obsessive elevation of data, the passionate collection to these completely dispassionate pieces of stuff, often with no prior purpose, and the religious commitment to the value of any correlation divined in the data for years now. I am increasingly convinced that data, as the raw material of the Information Age, can be capitalized, that it can be used to our benefit, or abused to cost. Moreover, similarly to iron or coal or oil, data can be manipulated to greedy ends in this Age of Greed.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the data are indisputable and non-judgmental. The choice of which data to bring forward is certainly disputable and the judgment about which correlations to divine must be highly suspect for hidden causes. Humanity is not data-driven.

_________________________________________

(1)   Loughnan, F. John. Dogmas of the Catholic Church, The Divine Work of Creation, The Doctrine of Revelation Regarding Man or "Christian Anthropology," Revised Feb. 16, 2001. retrieved from http://jloughnan.tripod.com/dogma.htm, 16 April 2013.

(2)   Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (March 5, 2013).

Letter to the Legislature

Greetings leaders in Minnesota education,

The education of America’s and especially Minnesota’s young people is never far from my thoughts. We are at a time when the drill in learning is very narrow and intense, but neither as deep nor as broad as the human potential. Even my own children seem governed by finding the right answers, and looking no farther until those answers falter. Yet in recent years we are seeing a resurgence of the thought process over the right answer, as if thinking were the diamond long buried in the mud of modern education policy. Critical thinking is coming back.

For over thirty years, a proponent of critical thinking, I urge you to consider the outcomes of our educational system in terms of human beings and quality of life over corporate profits and quantity of data. Critical thinking must take a front seat in the learning process. How we think is how we will be able to learn that which is not yet known. We need a future generation capable of shaping a world that we cannot now imagine, not a generation shaped by the last two decades of wealth acquisition in a digitized environment.

Here is an article supporting my contention that the sterility and superficiality of our bubble test education system is failing our children and youth: “Deep Education,” Francois Victor Tochon, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Beside feedback from academics, there is similar reaction from the business world to say schools must look beyond today to prepare young people for tomorrow, not yesterday.

Outside the politicized arena of schools as data factories for the world economy contest, there is still hope for schools as places to educate a Great American Society. Innovation must be more than a catch phrase; it will be the reality in a future of constant and untested re-invention. The foundations of learning are a vital jumping off place, but will our students have the stuff to take the leap into this unknown?

For the sake of our young people, please step back and consider the wisdom of our current policies. What would teaching and learning look like with the politics taken out? Put Minnesota back in the lead in education.

Respectfully,

Jay C. Ritterson

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