The Race is Not Always to the Swift
The Science is Not Always to the Fair

Science Fair 09 by DrBacchus


"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."  
— Noel Coward, Private Lives 

Today a music video, just because.

Because I have liked this song for the past several years.

Because, although it was made in 2006, this is a pitch perfect recreation of a certain sort of video that would have been in constant rotation on MTV circa 1983.

Because it is empty-headed fun.

The band here is Novillero, proud sons of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the song is "The Hypothesist" from the 2005 collection, Aim Right for the Holes in Their Lives.  I cannot say for sure whether the band still exists in any active way.  Through most of the last decade, however, they embraced a Mod Revival style not far removed from Paul Weller and The Jam.  I will confess that, particularly during the horn parts, this song sets my head to vigorous rhythmical nodding almost every time.

Join with me now and let us reel in the years and revisit the school Science Fair.  As we go, let us each frame our own hypotheses in answer to these burning questions:  

  • Will the unhip, put upon kid with the box prevail over the (presumably) rich girl with the elaborate chemistry set?  
  • Will the students maintain decorum in the face of a chugging rhythm section and those horns?  
  • Will the pretty teacher with glasses and her hair in a bun still have either in place by the end of the song?  
  • Will it all end in a celebratory freeze frame?

The questions practically answer themselves.

Be sure to show your work, as we go to the tape:


Photo: Science Fair medals, Lexington, KY, 2009, photographed by Flickr user DrBacchus, used under Creative Commons license.

Dr. Seuss and the Wisdom of Popovers


Dr. Seuss was already comfortably established as a children's author when I was in short pants*, so comfortably that it was and is easy to forget that he was an inveterate upsetter of apple carts and skeptic of received wisdom.

The National Association of Scholars has been running a series of articles on higher education reform, somehow built around themes from the Good Doctor's If I Ran the Zoo.  On her weblog, Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor has reproduced her contribution (with Maurice Black) to the discussion: an essay built around Dr. Seuss' graduation speech to the class of 1977 at Lake Forest College, the entire text of which speech is here reproduced:

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
'To eat these things,'
said my uncle,
'you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!'

as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

Theodore Geisel became "Dr. Seuss," as Erin explains, while attending Dartmouth in the 1920s, in response to "Geisel" being banned by collegiate authorities from contributing to the school's humor magazine.  Variants on "Terwilliger" or "Terwilliker" had a recurring importance in Seuss World, including the authoritarian appearance of the latter, in the person of Hans Conried, as the titular "T" in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the very "embodiment of the worst sorts of pedagogical abuse."  The young narrator of If I Ran the Zoo, she suggests, in his utopian glee is not necessarily an improvement, as "he sounds a great deal like that generation of academic reformers, now reaching retirement, that has worked so hard to do away with traditional ideas of what is worth knowing largely because they are traditional ideas of what is worth knowing."

When he reemerges at Lake Forest many years later, the now-avuncular Terwilliger achieves his most benevolent form:

Having mellowed over time, Uncle Terwilliger appears at the Lake Forest graduation not in the capacity of a teacher, but in the special incapacity of an uncle -- who by definition has no real authority over his nieces and nephews.  His graduation advice reflects his comfortably powerless position.  When he tells students to be wary of hot air, he is telling them to think for themselves.  When he points out that popovers contain hot air, he is urging his audience to recognize that the good and the bad come jumbled together, and that in order to get at the one you have to be able to identify and reject the other.  He is, in other words, going to the heart of what education ideally enables one to do: to think independently, and to come to one's own conclusions about what to do, be, and believe.

As Thomas Mendip mused, "What a wonderful thing is metaphor." 

Read the complete O'Connor/Black/Seuss essay at Critical Mass or (with illustrations) at NAS.


Photo: "Popover with Ocean Backdrop" (at the Cliff House, San Francisco), by Flickr user Cameron Maddux, used under Creative Commons license.


*  Yes, I actually was in short pants.  There exists a photo, which I'll not reproduce here because it's not been scanned in to digital form, showing me in my bow-tied and short-pantsed Sunday Best in the company of my long-suffering Bear.  We were both of us much younger, and much closer to the same height, in those days.

Them Crazy Poets Ought to Be Committed . . . to Memory [Updated]

Here's another argument Mike Snider may want to trot out in his continuing fight for rhyme and meter in poetry: the classical examples of English language poetry in form are Good For The Children. Writing in the summer issue of The Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Michael Knox Beran sets out to make the case In Defense of Memorization.

Beran writes: "If there’s one thing progressive educators don’t like it’s rote learning. As a result, we now have several generations of Americans who’ve never memorized much of anything." While the memorization of exemplary poetry -- be it Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake or the unduly maligned Longfellow -- and important prose -- the Declaration of Independence or Gettysburg Address, perhaps a Psalm or two -- was once a mainstay of public education, it was effectively blotted out by the 1970's. The result, Beran argues, was a loss to American youth:

From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.

What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development. Classic verse teaches children an enormous amount about order, measure, proportion, correspondence, balance, symmetry, agreement, temporal relation (tense), and contingent possibility (mood). Mastering these concepts involves the most fundamental kind of learning, for these are the basic categories of thought and the framework in which we organize sensory experience.

Invoking Bill Cosby's recent jeremiads, Beran suggests that it is underprivileged, inner-city students who have lost most from the disappearance of memorable and memorizable verse in the curriculum: "To kids who have never known anything but demotic English, literary English is bound to seem an alien, all but incomprehensible dialect. Kids who haven’t been exposed to the King’s English in primary school or at home will have a hard time, if they get to college, with works like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. In too many cases, they will give up entirely, unable to enter the community of literate citizens—and as a result will live in a world of constricted opportunity."

He concludes that educators who drove memorization out in the name of freeing students succeeded instead only in imposing a different set of chains:

[T]he progressives’ educational philosophy is only superficially a philosophy of liberty. The progressive exercises in 'guided fantasy' and 'sensitivity training' that have replaced memorization and recitation do little to free kids’ selves. The older techniques, by contrast, are genuinely liberating. They build up in the child a more powerful mental instrument, one that will allow him, in later life, to make good use of his freedom. They cultivate those critical powers that enable an educated adult to question authority intelligently. The older techniques also unlock doors in the interior world of the soul. Classic poetry and rhetoric give kids a language, at once subtle and copious, in which to articulate their own thoughts, perceptions, and inchoate feelings. They help awaken what was previously dormant, actualize what was before only potential, and so enable the young person to fulfill the injunction of Pindar: 'Become what you are.'

This kind of memorization does not impose upon young minds a single dogma, nor does it exalt, as the Islamic madrassa does, a single text above all others. If anything, it is the progressive liturgies—with their 'diversity' drills and cult of self-esteem—that embody a narrow and intolerant ideology, one that imprisons kids in the banal clichés of the present and puts much of the past off limits, as though the moral and spiritual inheritance of Western civilization were somehow taboo. The literary culture at the heart of these exercises in memorization, by contrast, is a record of how men and women have, in various times and places, struggled to understand themselves and make sense of their natures. Such culture does not repress or enslave: it enlarges and strengthens and frees.

Update: I hadn't noticed it yet when I linked him in my introductory sentence, but Mike Snider is offering scientific evidence for the salubrious health effects of accentual-syllabic verse.

Updated, again: At About Last Night Our Girl in Chicago jumped on this article right away. She's also showing off her feat in memorizing one of Theodore Roethke's tricksy poems, "Wish for a Young Wife," which looks at first like an innocent piece about a lizard -- especially if you have the poem without its title -- but is a bit more simmeringly erotic 'pon reflection. (With Roethke, one is always in the hothouse.)

I think my own best feat of poetic memorization -- other than than the dialogue for my roles in divers plays over the years -- was the side effect of nightly readings to our sons as they were growing. I am tolerably certain that I can still recite all or nearly all of Edward Lear's "The Dong With a Luminous Nose," praises of which I posted last September, here.

A Little Learning

We've had no links to education issues in quite a while here, so in the interest of posting something/anything, I'll offer you these:

♣ Kimberly Swygert notes a new initiative to help those left behind.1 The beneficiaries of the proposal in question are members of the journalism fraternity, but Kimberly is prepared to take an analogy and run with it:

Continuing on in this vein, doesn't this mean that homeschooling is the analogy to blogging? Let's see, both are becoming extremely popular with 'ordinary' people who want to bypass the power structure, in order to impart truth rather than ideology...yep, I'd say they're analogous. And the powers-that-be who believe bloggers are 'irresponsible' and 'inaccurate' (due to a lack of editorial bureaucracy) are probably the same who spread the word that homeschoolers are 'backwards' and 'uneducated' people who do a poor job with their kids (due to a lack of educational bureaucracy).

♣ Elswhere, Erin O'Connor opines on offensive language, here defined as "words one hates. Not words that mean hateful things, necessarily, but words whose sheer phonetic misshapenness repels us." Abundant examples ensue, and continue into the comments. [Caution to sensitive readers: a few of the more patently unpleasant words in the language make fleeting appearances.]

1 The Rand Simberg piece that serves as the hook for Kimberly's did not amuse me as much as it appears to have amused her. It is of the sort found all too frequently across the political spectrum these days, finding self-consciously clever ways to state positions with which the sympathetic reader almost always already agrees and of which the unsympathetic reader will hardly ever be persuaded. The phenomenon is neatly anatomized by P.J. O'Rourke in the current Atlantic.

Home School Hysteria Watch: New York Times Weighs In, Contradicts Self

An editorial in today's New York Times, under the title "Make Home Schooling Safe for Children" sets itself solidly on the same path as last month's much-criticized CBS News "exposé" on the subject.  As did CBS, the Times finds a single case of authentically ghastly mistreatment of children -- here, four young boys being more or less starved to death by their adoptive parents -- and extrapolates it to support its chosen to the question of "how could this have happened?"

Part of the answer was that they had been home-schooled, and New Jersey is one of a number of states that provide no supervision over parents who decide to keep their offspring out of the public and private school systems.
"Most teachers," the Times adds in a marvel of straight-faced understatement, "would immediately have sounded the alarm" upon noticing the excruciating emaciation of these children.  (Query whether the Times would care to identify the teachers who apparently wouldn't have sounded that alarm . . . .)  A history lesson follows, as do some remarkable and unsupported innuendos and the Times' view of the relative merits of individual citizens and the State as guardians of those citizens' children:
New Jersey is not alone.  Nine states allow parents to remove children from school without reporting that they are doing so.  An additional 14 states require home-schoolers to report that they are keeping their children at home, but require very little else.  These lax regulations stem in some instances from the old patterns of American farming communities [!], where parents needed to keep their children around to help with the crops. In some states, the rules remain unchanged because the groups that hold home schooling sacred [?!] have political muscle.  In others, the desire to save money and avoid responsibility [!?!] obviously comes into play.

While parents have a right to decide how their children will be educated, the state most certainly has an obligation to ensure that every American child is learning basic skills.  The [home] schooling laws fly in the face of compulsory education statutes that have been on the books throughout this country since the early 20th century, not to mention the new national push to raise standards and improve student achievement.

Diligent readers will have noted by now that whoever wrote the title for this editorial can't have bothered to read it first: our anonymous editorialist is clearly not interested in "making home schooling safe," except perhaps by eliminating it or intruding the monitoring powers of the state on a regular basis.

How soon they forget: can this be the same New York Times that only five days ago was praising the merits of the uniquely home-school-based experience of "conjugat[ing] French verbs while cuddling a kitten"?  Meow, sez we.  And harrumph.

Update: Joanne Jacobs has more, including the fact that the New Jersey children in question were visited by social workers some 38 times without any protective measures being taken. Further comment from Daryl Cobranchi can be found here.

Further Update (with extra sarcasm content): And what about those French-conjugating kittens, eh?  Shouldn't PETA or some such be lobbying to require pet owners to deliver their animal companions to the shelter on a regular basis, so that the quality of their health and safety can be assessed by a duly qualified, publicly employed professional? Just asking.

Homeschooling: It's Not Just for Ideologues Anymore [Updated 11/11]

If it's in the New York Times, it must be true, eh?  The popular conception of homeschoolers as ardent religionists or countercultural dropouts is put to the test and found to be . . . a gross over-simplification.  Seems an increasing number of homeschool families really are pursuing it For The Children and in pursuit of Quality of Life.  Thus saith the Times:

Newcomers to home schooling resist easy classification as part of the religious right or freewheeling left, who dominated the movement for decades, according to those who study the practice.

They come to home schooling fed up with the shortcomings of public education and the cost of private schools. Add to that the new nationwide standards — uniform curriculum and more testing — which some educators say penalize children with special needs, whether they are gifted, learning disabled or merely eccentric.

'It's a profound irony that the standards movement wound up alienating more parents and fueling the growth of home schooling,' said Mitchell L. Stevens, an educational psychologist at New York University and author of 'Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement' (Princeton University Press, 2001).

'The presumption of home schooling is that children's distinctive needs come before the managerial needs of the schools,' he said. 'And, it's easier to do than it was 10 years ago, because the ideologues were so successful in making it legal and creating curriculum tools and organizational support.'

Thank you, ideologues!

[Link via Joanne Jacobs.]

Update: Jesse Walker at Reason magazine's Hit & Run has picked up on this story as well. Plenty of interesting comments attached, not all of which I would endorse but nearly all of which are worth reading.

We're the Government, We're Here to Help . . . Convince You to Home School

I haven't weighed in on homeschooling on these pages recently, but Professor Glenn Reynolds is thinking about it, inspired by a display of Zero Tolerance in Goose Creek, South Carolina:

Sadly, this sort of behavior is far from uncommon in government-run schools. But more and more parents are looking at private schools, vouchers, charter schools, and home schooling as alternatives. To a lot who haven’t made up their minds, I think that Principal McCrackin’s behavior may provide an incentive to move their kids out of public schools that are looking increasingly like prisons, and into more congenial environments. And the ranks of public-school educators who are unhappy about such a development will have only themselves — and McCrackin — to blame.

They're Educators, But Can They Be Taught?

At California Insider, Daniel Weintraub continues to offer helpful suggestions to California's next governor. Responding to a rumor that former Los Angeles mayor (and almost-candidate in the gubernatorial recall) Richard Riordan may be the choice for California's next Secretary of Education, Weintraub suggests an alternative: eliminate the position altogether:

In California, the education secretary is a glorified adviser to the governor with few real duties and only a handful of education programs to administer. We already have an entire department full of bureaucrats run by an elected superintendent (Jack O'Connell). And we have a policy-setting state board of education whose members are appointed by the governor. The job of education secretary was created by Pete Wilson in 1991 to prove that he was a pro-schools Republican and to give him more bodies in the battle against the bureaucracy. The office has grown steadily since then, even as its authority remains fairly limited. . . . The move [to eliminate the office] would save only about $1 million and would be criticized by status-quoists who equate government departments with concern about an issue. But it would be a gutsy step showing that the new gov is not wedded to the old way of doing things.
Extra levels of bureaucracy are rarely a good thing, and public education is notoriously rife with such levels. Next exhibit: this Washington Post report on a study finding that systemic flaws in many urban school districts actively thwart the hiring of better qualified teachers for high-need schools. For example:
It was standard procedure to let impressive applications sit in file drawers for months, the researchers found, while the candidates, needing to get their lives in order, secured work elsewhere. One district, for example, received 4,000 applications for 200 slots but was slow to offer jobs and lost out on top candidates.

In some cases, the report said, big-city school boards -- with teachers union support -- approved vacancy notification policies that allowed veteran teachers to announce retirements or resignations late in the summer, long after many good potential replacements have given up and accepted other jobs. Three school districts in the study had either a summer deadline or no deadline for notification by departing teachers.

State lawmakers and budget officials also were notoriously late with the projections that school superintendents needed to figure out how many teachers they would be able to hire, according to Levin and Quinn.
And so on. Plentiful cooks credited with this unsavory broth. [Post link via Hit & Run.]

It is a continuing scandal that not one state requires background checks to determine whether their education administrators have a lick of sense.