Algebra Abolitionism

There’s a pretty compelling argument in the New York Times this morning that requiring algebra (and higher math more broadly) of all students is unnecessary and even detrimental. The author reports that discouragement about math is the top academic contributor to drop-out rates, and I’m sure all of us have learned the dirty secret by now: virtually no one solves quadratic equations in the workplace.

I say this as someone who was always good at math — in fact, I often regret not continuing on with Calc II in college, and I’ll occasionally read up on math for fun. (A few years ago, for instance, I read David Berlinski’s Tour of the Calculus, which tied up a major loose end for me: why integrals and derivatives cancel each other out. I guess we would’ve gotten to that in Calc II.) To me, it seems to make more sense to make such topics available and let people with natural aptitude and inclination find their way to it, rather than drilling it into everyone.

What do you think, readers?

A sincere question

It seems to me that in popular discourse, education is uniquely susceptible to instrumentalization as compared with other quality of life issues. Getting a job is seemingly the sole horizon within which education can be discussed — even humanities scholars continually exhort each other to “make the case” that their graduates actually have the most valuable job skills of all, etc., etc. There are more “idealistic” visions of education that tend to place it within the context of democratic citizenship, but that is just a larger-scale vision of practical instrumentalization. There just doesn’t seem to be room in mainstream discourse for someone to say, “Being educated improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”

Now it’s clear that people need skills and jobs and that education should help to serve that end. Yet to understand how strange it is for that to be the sole focus, let us consider another quality of life issue: health care. Continue reading “A sincere question”

Education costs

I don’t think that education is expensive in essence. For the vast majority of classes, you need an instructor, some books, and a room with adequate seating and a chalkboard. It probably helps to pay the instructors something like a decent middle-class salary, both to keep them happy and to help make sure the students respect them, but that isn’t that expensive to do. Labs might complicate matters, but I’d imagine that adequate facilities for the basic classes can be had cheaply.

You know what is expensive, though? Continue reading “Education costs”

The Synaptic Gospel: Published!

The Synaptic Gospel habituating in my basement work area.

I am pleased to report that The Synaptic Gospel is published and I have now seen the finished product.  Thanks to everyone who pre-ordered the book.

The book is an attempt to force a conversation between phenomenology and affect neuroscience to re-think religious communities’ practical paradigms for worship and religious education.  Thinkers engaged along the way include Husserl, Stein, Panksepp, Csikszentmihalyi, and others.

Continue reading “The Synaptic Gospel: Published!”

Who assesses the assessors?

There are a lot of things to dislike about contemporary trends in American educational “assessment.” Some of the common complaints, however, seem to me to be a little ad-hoc. For instance, one can certainly object that quantitative measures are not the best way to go about assessing educational effectiveness — but that critique can also appear opportunistic in light of the fact that grades and exams were a central part of the pre-“assessment” regime.

The key critique of this regime, it seems to me, is its completely unscientific nature. There are countries that are generally agreed to be doing a better job of educating their population than the US. The way they run their systems is public knowledge, and I’m sure they would be happy to clarify about any questions we might have. Indeed, we could probably bring in a team of Korean or Finnish assessors to help us figure out how we could emulate them better.

What we’ve chosen to do instead is to implement a completely new and unprecedented system, made up of new standards of measurement and new types of “accountability.” We have no particular reason to believe that this system will actually produce better results. If anything, we have reason to believe the opposite, insofar as the most successful countries are doing nothing of the sort — to say nothing of the fact that these policies are being promoted by such luminaries as Bill Gates, whose expertise at creating cheap knockoffs of other companies’ software gives him unique insight into how to improve the American educational system.

And what if the assessment regime doesn’t wind up producing better results? I think we all know what the conclusion will be then: we need to assess harder.

The Haunting by the Angel of History

Some things stick with you. I can’t seem to shake it today, even though I want to refuse the stupidity of our political discourse. The media screaming in all our faces, “REMEMBER!” From where does this imperative come from? Why do we have a duty to remember? And perhaps I wouldn’t be so resistant to remembering – so utterly disgusted by all the public forms of remembrance with their attempts to write the deaths of thousands of American as well as the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of non-Americans – perhaps I wouldn’t be resistant if I didn’t feel like part of this imperative is to remember the way they want us to remember. It feels like this 9/11 there has been a reversal of the usual Christmas slogan, “Remember the reason for the season.” In this case we are told only to remember our fear on that day, our horror, our loss. And of course that happened, but there was a reason for it. There was a reason why this happened that none of our leaders and the majority of our citizenship ever came to grips with. I’m not sure we can give that reason a name because we refuse to think it.

Continue reading “The Haunting by the Angel of History”

The dialectic of math education

Neoliberal educational ideology would have it that education is finally about job skills. Many have lamented this narrow focus as an impoverished view of what education should do and have argued in favor of a renewed emphasis on the humanities (in the interest of more holistic formation of character, training up in the duties of critical citizenship, etc.). I am very sympathetic with all those views. I would like to suggest, however, that they do not go far enough, because they accept the notion that it’s possible for formal education to be directed purely at job skills.

Yet there’s always something excessive in formal education, something that cannot be captured in a pure utilitarian calculation — that’s what makes it “education” rather than simple “training.” Furthermore, that excessive element corresponds to society’s own self-image. In what it forces kids to learn, over and above any straightforward utility, a society is telling a story about itself and its aspirations.

Continue reading “The dialectic of math education”

Rich people know best


Why should we trust Bill Gates to overhaul our education system when the man clearly doesn’t even know how to comb his own hair?!

Maybe instead of presuming he knows a lot about education due to his success in stealing other people’s ideas, he should just give money to plug budget school districts’ budget holes — in fact, he probably has more than enough money to start up an endowment that could permanently increase the amount of funding available to school districts. But no! The “genius” CEO needs to intervene in policy matters! This from the man who can’t come up with a way to install software updates without rebooting! What a way to run our society!

Thoughts on the purpose of education

One increasingly hears that the purpose of education is to increase one’s earning power. There are many obvious objections to this claim, both practical and principled. Yet I do believe that the desire to become educated in order to increase one’s earning power does point toward a genuine goal of education: namely, to enrich your life.

What’s more, the necessity of displacing this false goal of education itself encapsulates the educational task as a whole: to broaden one’s scope of enjoyment. Obviously having money increases one’s scope for enjoyment, and obviously being poor sucks. Yet life can suck in a lot more ways — life can be boring, or unfulfilling, or lonely, or meaningless.

A person who is more genuinely educated has more resources for making life suck less in a general sense. Continue reading “Thoughts on the purpose of education”

Two Free Books On The Neoliberal University and Protest

Everybody loves a free book, so I present to you today two free books that might be of general interest to readers here, along the theme of the general battles around education and its funding occurring in the UK and globally.

The first is Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest, available as free PDF download and very reasonable (£1.48) Kindle version to save you the bother of conversion of formats. At 350 pages, it is a collection of accounts, journalistic reports, theoretical reflections, interviews and practical guides on the winter of education protests that occurred here in the United Kingdom against sweeping changes in higher education funding. These changes seek to move from a tax payer provided service for the public good to hyper-indivdualised marketised system with an ontology based upon advantage to private individuals. This programme includes a potential tripling the level of tuition fees with an introduction of variable market rates, vast cuts to central funding, particularly of the humanities, and the under-reported (and perhaps vital for US students looking to study in the UK) slashing of the numbers of student visas. This is, of course, an element of the wider austerity program, and students were keen to emphasise from the beginning their solidarity with those fighting the Coalition government’s wider austerity agenda and austerity agendas globally. It is a book that is consciously by the movement and for the movement, hoping to inform and provoke debate. With the second phase of university occupations occurring on the run up to the mass trade union day of protest (40 universities were occupied in the last round), it is an opportune time to give it a look and if you are from outside the UK get up to speed.

In a similar vein is the PDF version of the book Toward a Global Autonomous University produced by the trans-national collective Edu-Factory. Very much influenced by autonomous Marxist trends, the new thinking on what the politics of the common and thinkers like Hardt and Negri (Negri here provides a co-written conclusion), it is a provocative look at the current place of the university in capitalist society and the possibility of alternative formations. This book and their website, which includes reports from their very recent conference attended by education activists from across the world (including many UK occupations), are certainly worth a read.