Some Thoughts Concerning Contemporary Education

The assigned reading this week for the class in which I am a TA included several selections from John Locke, among them excerpts from his 1693 “Some thoughts concerning education.” In this piece, Locke argues that children need to be guided, encouraged, tempered, and, at times, disciplined, but that too much rigidity or punishment creates a “slavish” temperament. He calls the rod a lazy form of punishment that causes the student to study or learn out of fear and that it “breeds an aversion to that which it is the tutor’s business to creating a liking to.” Locke also calls for different education for different people, ostensibly because people learn at different rates and it is not necessary for everyone to know Latin. [1]

For their weekly discussion question, I asked my students to consider Locke’s proposals about education in relation to their own experiences. For a variety of reasons, I received fewer responses than usual this week and some of those responses got bogged down in the curriculum proposals rather than those about the educational theory. Some of the more insightful responses (paraphrased) were:

  1. Locke might be frustrated with the expedience of shipping kids to school because a one-size-fits-all approach will result in less efficient learning, particularly for students who learn slower and faster than “normal.”
  2. Children should not be coerced into study, but encouraged to be actively engaged. As such, students should be engaged in conversation, not lectured at. [2]
  3. Over-regulation and over-obedience results in people of slave-ish temperament, which is ill-suited for an engaged member of society. This is a tenet at least paid lip service to in education today.
  4. There should be (at least some) emphasis on skills of various sorts. [3]

The thing that jumped out at me in this exercise was the role of the teacher. The teacher’s job, according to Locke, is not just to inscribe trivia onto the mind of the students, but to give skills and interest in the subject so that the students can become engaged citizens. To wit, there are only so many hours that one can read for an English class in school, but someone who learns to love reading in school will continue to read later in life.

When the emphasis is on how well one performs on a canned test or testing the ability to produce cliched, hackneyed short essays after idly doodling through hours of lectures rather than engaging with material, it is an exercise in futility. Students are not conditioned to fear the rod or the lash, but they are equally conditioned. The topics in class are associated with drudgery that leads up to a test and so students want to know what will be on the test and what the answer is–they would just rather you skip the boring part. Of course, teachers are then evaluated on how well students perform on those tests, creating a vicious circle.

More than three hundred years have gone by and new expediencies have produced a similar result in education. Lectures, blue-book exams, standardized tests, these are all expediencies created in a world with large numbers of people and even more paperwork. Locke called the rod a lazy tool, but these new tools are not necessarily borne of sloth, but perhaps mechanization or standardization and the effects are just as insidious. I got the sense that some of my students thought I was being pedantic when I said that Locke has relevance and isn’t just another boring dead white guy rolling around in his grave. I may have been falling victim to the type of trap Locke lamented, but I wasn’t kidding.


[1] This is a somewhat gross exaggeration since Locke actually divides the curriculum by social class rather than just by ability. His divisions could still be applicable, though, if one were to assume that, regardless of actual class, there are underlying characteristics that map onto what Locke calls class. It likely behooves someone going into a trade to learn Spanish, for instance, while Latin may only be helpful for a smaller segment of the population. Of course everyone should learn Gree…oh, that is a personal picadillo? Nevermind, then.

[2] I find this answer simultaneously accurate, frustrating, and ironic since conversation is a great way to learn, but the standard for many college courses, including this one, is a lecture, and then it is at times excruciating to get the students to actually converse when given the opportunity, as if the discussion needs to be coerced.

[3] The student believed that this is something education today does emphasize to a degree, but disagreed with the idea that manual skills should be included because not everyone will need to use e.g. carpentry.


From time to time when reading I let off steam about citation styles that frustrate me. Each style (footnote, endnote, in-text) has its uses and each is also ameliorated or exacerbated by the actual style guide one follows in the reference.[1] I am militantly pro-footnote and this comment found on Twitter basically sums up my issue with most other citation styles:


Citations (in my opinion) are supposed to serve two, linked functions: to support the argument made in the main text and to provide a roadmap for the reader back to the sources that support the argument. A lack of citations either expects the reader to take the text on faith that it is “correct” or otherwise presupposes that the audience has no interest/desire/need to see the source structure underpinning the text. In-text citations, while sometimes useful, tend to disrupt the flow of the text. Endnotes (and, I would add, any citation style that defers important information) supplies the structure, but does so in such a way that, if the reader wants to find that information, s/he has to interrupt reading to flip to the back of the book. As noted above, this disrespects the reader’s time, but it also disrespects the reader’s attention and so it is endnotes that I want to turn to in more detail.

I have heard two explanations for endnotes (particularly as an alternative to footnotes), but find neither satisfactory. The first is that footnotes are preferable except where the author has chosen to write mini essays in the footnotes–in the introduction to Meta History, for instance, Hayden White has a two and a half page footnote that would, perhaps, be less disruptive to the text if it was in an endnote. Of course, putting this one note as an endnote would almost necessitate moving the other footnotes into the endnotes. And, as full disclosure, I find footnotes to be underutilized in most prose and found David Foster Wallace’s fn use pleasant. I am always aware that on this issue I may be aberrant. [2]

The second argument is that endnotes are a publishing decision trying to balance the needs of an academic audience with the need to appeal to a broader audience that may be intimidated by footnotes. What galls me about the latter argument is that it still presupposes that some significant portion of the potential audience is unequipped to grapple with, unwilling to look at, or otherwise allergic to citations. First, I want to see some sort of evidence (with citations!) provided by publishers that proves that the actual audience of a book would be turned off by footnotes. This means that the evidence cannot merely cite low sales, but would need to demonstrate that books with the same audience, density of subject, and fame of authors and differ primarily in citation styles have different sales/circulation rates AND that the citations were at the root of that difference. Second, IF the citations really did play that big a role in the sale of books, then I would suggest it speaks volumes for the state of education that showing the process of research and writing is so intimidating that given two comparable books, the reader is going to prefer the one without the reference on the page to the one with for that reason.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to prefer books that use endnotes–some of those books are valuable pieces of scholarship, but putting the citations in the back of the book is the easiest way to discourage the reader from bothering to look too closely at the sources. I do not check every footnote that I come across, either, but it comforts me to be able to easily and quickly check the source(s) in question without needing to flip the page.

[1] For instance, any style that provides minimal information and largely defers the actual reference to a bibliography or works cited is more unhelpful than helpful, in my opinion. It is possible to say that this method reduces redundancy in the text, but redundancy in the text makes it significantly easier to use.

[2] I am okay being aberrant. There are also different standards for different media. Footnotes have not caught on on Twitter, while page-length footnotes seem to work better in literary fiction, literary non-fiction, and perhaps blog posts, than the do in monographs where the point of the footnote is meant for citation rather than extended discussion. Then again, sometimes convention, even convention that is used so as not to let the form distract from the content, needs to be set aside.


I am in many ways a throwback. Some of the historical questions that interest me haven’t been reviewed in decades. I prefer to walk, my cellphone does not have a data package. I have neither a television nor a microwave. I read books in physical form, printouts of articles, take notes by hand and do a lot of my writing with pen and paper, including this post. Each of these is part of my personality, but none is haphazardly chosen. If there is a cheaper, more efficient, or more beneficial way to accomplish my goals, then I am amenable to change. Being an anachronism is not incompatible with being open to change and being open to change does not mean embracing change for the sake of change. At some point there does need to be a limit, but one should not be so intractable that change is opposed for its own sake. The corollary to my demotivational shirt “Tradition” [1] could read Change: if it worked, why did you try to fix it? The key here is that while changing something that works is a good way to make it cease working, refusing to change something because of your tradition is a good way to be relegated to irrelevance.

With such an introduction, I could easy be talking about academia, but I am actually talking about baseball. I love baseball and have for two decades or more, whether playing or watching or just keeping tabs on what goes on. For most of that time I have been a fan of the Minnesota Twins and I certainly enjoyed the run of success the team had for a good part of the last decade. But the Twins have been awful–I mean, one of the worst handful of teams awful–for the past three years. There are some good players in the minor league system, but not enough (or at the right positions) to make up for the glaring weaknesses on the major league roster. The worst part of this situation is that the Twins refuse to adjust or make changes. Not change for the sake of change or even radical changes like firing a coach before his contract is up, but little things like platooning players [2] or not renewing the contract of a manager who has not been able to maximize what is an admittedly bad roster for three years running. Drafting well and a good defensive team with an elite pitcher covered up some of the weaknesses in team philosophy for some time, but the current roster cannot do that, so to hear the manager and the front office bluntly declare that platooning players is not something they would even consider doing is infuriating. I suspect that they believe in being loyal to “their guys” and that sitting someone too often could destroy their confidence, or something like that, but it comes across as a lack of concern for winning–or even putting players in a position to succeed.

Beyond winning and losing, the thing that frustrates me most about baseball is just how anecdotal and conservative it is, particularly in large swathes of the media and on the field. I do not claim to be on the cutting edge of baseball knowledge or even to know what statistics go into the calculation of WAR [3] or what all of the other statistics mean, but I was easily reconciled to the idea that OBP [4] is the most important offensive statistic, while RBIs [5] are a statistic almost exclusively dependent on the ability of teammates to get on base ahead of the batter and the Triple Crown, while rare and a nice story, is a comparative achievement rather than a statement about how well a player performed that year. [6]

Run scoring and run prevention are the keys to baseball, after all, the team with the most runs at the end of the game wins, but while all teams agree on this premise, some deny the component parts of run scoring and run prevention. What is frustrating is watching your team fall so far behind the curve that it makes you question in what scenario they would consider change. What they are doing is stupid. It is incredibly stupid and the change they are refusing to make is not for the sake of change. It is for the sake of winning. A maximized lineup would not have made the Twins a team with a winning record this year, but it might have eked out seven wins, which would have meant that the Twins avoided the third straight 90 loss season. It is one thing if, like the Astros, you tear down the team to start over with the draft. The Astros do not have the talent to compete, though they are considered one of the more progressive teams with their current management. That is one thing, it is another if you stink and refuse to change, the situation the Twins seem to be in.

As an afterthought, baseball, just like all professional sports, is a business. We like to talk about sports as though it is a pastime, rooting for our teams, purchasing their gear, and getting lost in the excitement of the spectacle, but it is still a legal monopoly. It is slow to change as the owners seek to maximize their control and their profits and the players seek every edge both to win and to be rewarded with ever larger contracts. This is the cynical angle, but it is there. What keeps the passion alive and the illusion that the fans and the team are in it together intact is the unified desire to win. There is a constructed connection where if the team seems to be trying–even if the team is bad–then the fans can be there for the team. As a result, the owners can profit. The cycle the Twins are in right now comes across as a greater betrayal because it reads like they are refusing to even try.

[1] Given to me by my father, it reads “Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

[2] Playing batters who hit left-handed pitching well in against left-handed pitchers while sitting batters who struggle to hit left-handed pitching, and vice-versa.

[3] Wins above replacement–a measure of roughly how well a player performs in all aspects of the game (batting/fielding/baserunning for position players, pitching/fielding for pitchers) against a baseline “replacement player. No statistic is perfect, particularly when it comes to defense, and some facets of the game are not or are not yet quantifiable, but allows for a relative gauge to easy see how players are doing relative to each other.

[4] On base percentage — how often a player gets on base or, negatively, how infrequently he makes an out. In baseball there is, fundamentally, one finite quantity from which all others derive. Each team gets twenty seven outs in a regulation game, in three out segments. Sure, there are other measurements and finite quantities (e.g. three strikes and you’re out), but it all comes back to the outs. A high OBP minimizes the number of outs created by that player and therefore a high OBP team is able to maximize opportunity to score.

[5] Runs batted in– “run producers” are those batters who are supposedly better at causing runs to score. They are only able to drive themselves in with a home run, though, and the rest of the runs scored are by the men on base ahead of them. The issue here is that most of the RBIs are a feature of opportunity, rather than a preternatural ability of batters to create runs. Runs are important, but the RBI statistic glosses over how the runs are actually created.

[6] Note that Miguel Cabrera had better hitting seasons to either side of his actual triple crown (AVG – HR – RBI) victory.


The debate about MOOCs last year made me deeply uneasy. On one hand, I am not in favor of granting course credit at accredited institutions for MOOCs for a variety of reasons. I have reservations even about purely online classes within the university, but that may be a topic for another day. On the other hand, while some theoretical concerns with MOOCs were and have been proven justified, some of the rhetoric seemed borne of ignorance and fear that ones of the only marketable commodities professors have–classroom time–would become worthless. At the same time, it smacked of a desire to preserve at least a modicum of the ivory tower, though this may have largely been unconscious. Opponents condemned MOOCs without actually seeing them in action. My stance was that I would have to take a course or three before passing judgement.

So a few weeks ago, I signed up for a Coursera account. I have not yet taken a course, partly because my semester became busier than I anticipated right after I signed up, but here are some immediate impressions.

  1. Courses designed to directly impart facts and skills are better represented than are the humanities and lab sciences. This observation is hardly novel, but I think it is one of the more important components. The few English/Humanities classes I saw on the site emphasized that as a free course, most if not all of the course materials would be available free through the class or otherwise online. It is an appropriate decision, I think, but it also drastically limits the options for the topics that the classes can cover. Likewise, it would be hard to teach an online lab chemistry class in this format. Teaching a basic accounting, stat, or programming course, on the other hand, would be well suited for the online course.
  2. Could MOOCs, like many Advanced Placement classes in high school, allow students to test out of requirements without offering course credit? I know that some colleges will accept course credit for some AP courses, but the courses I took in high school could be counted towards the required courses. If the student proved their proficiency they could focus further on his or her chosen field or other electives. For instance, here at the University of Missouri, undergraduates have a laundry list of requirements, at least a few of which a MOOC completed at a high enough proficiency (or other test administered upon completion) could qualify for. The student would have to fulfill the same number of total credits for graduation, but the requirement reduced or waived.
  3. One thing that I noticed was that courses varied in length. The college semester usually runs fifteen weeks, but some of the MOOCs were over in just six weeks. I don’t want to place a value judgement on the length since some topics can be covered in six weeks, and some that really should be longer than fifteen. I am sympathetic to the idea of shaping the course length to the topic rather than feeling constrained, but if any credit is going to be granted, there should be some standard (unfortunately, the same principle behind the credit hour).
  4. Noted above, some of the courses shape the required readings around the idea that students should not need extraordinary resources to complete the readings. To my mind, this highlights one of the greatest advantages of a university campus in education: library and library resources. Before graduating from Brandeis, I used the library to access as many articles as I could because I was about to lose access to journals and I have heard multiple academics comment that one of their most pressing concerns after graduating but before being employed is library access because it is necessary to continue researching. I am not a fan of pay-walls for academic articles, but it is one of the realities faced by anyone seeking to extend the reach of college classes beyond the campus.
  5. The best thing about MOOCs is that it enables continuing education, whether that is for various certifications, workplace skills, or encouraging curiosity, all of which I am in favor of and if this was the only purpose MOOCs served, I would encourage them. Saying so may be seen as a betrayal of the university business model since I am in favor of some people who may be willing to pay for university courses, but I think that the MOOC model works for workplace certification more so than does the university. If people can get those skills that will help them more easily and cheaply from a MOOC than from a university or college, then they absolutely should do so.

Once I get a chance to actually take a few courses I may come back with some more thoughts.

September Reading Recap

I was bogged down with academic work (teaching/researching/writing/etc) in September and only managed to finish two books.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, David foster Wallace

Probably DFW’s most famous short story collection because of the John Krasinski film adaptation by the same name, Brief Interviews is an eclectic collection of stories that runs a gamut from an inventive retelling of several mythological stories set in the film world of Southern California (“Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”) to a two part story about an awkward marriage (“Adult World” I and II), the second part presented as an outline of the story, to the eponymous story scattered among the other stories. The narrator of that story is left unheard, leaving the individual men to answer unknown questions and reactions to be seen only through the interviewer’s punctuation. The stories were all over the place, and there were different levels of difficulty and different levels of reward for the stories. One (I think Amazon) review called David Foster Wallace the “Mad Scientist” of American literature. The title is appropriate for this collection.

I should also point out that I watched the movie several years before I connected it to David Foster Wallace. The reviews were universally poor, but I actually enjoyed it.

The Rebel, Albert Camus

Subtitled “An essay on man in revolt,” The Rebel is a book length essay that approaches metaphysical, historical, and fictional (literary) aspects to the concepts of rebellion and revolution. Like other French intellectual essays, this book was not an easy read, as Camus drew in discussions of sources as broad as Dostoevsky, Marx, Marquise de Sade, and Montaigne. He argues that it is all but impossible for a revolution to succeed without abandoning ethical values that the rhetoric of revolution espouses. The contradiction, he says, comes in that without transgressing the values, the revolution achieves nothing, but by transgressing the values the revolution necessarily abandons them. The Rebel is challenging, but it is both persuasive and eminently quotable. It was a rewarding read and I am now looking forward to reading his novels.

October is going to be another month with only a little time to read, but I am starting what time there is with Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

Drones and fantasy literature

In one of the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chebacca confront a machine with a glowing red eye and multiple, tentacle-like arms. Like a metallic jellyfish, it floats above the icy surface of Hoth, taking readings and observing. It fires at Han, but as soon as it is hit, it self-destructs rather than fall into rebel hands because it has been reporting information back to Darth Vader’s fleet–information used to discover the Rebel base and lead the in Imperial Fleet in pursuit of Luke, Leia, Han, and company.

The probe droid has a sinister look and with good reason. It is the embodiment of state power extended. The state is watching the citizen, even in that desolate wasteland. Big Brother was in the home and this is not that, but, in the (heavy handed) Star Wars universe, the remote state surveillance can summon Star Destroyers.

Nor is Star Wars along. One fantasy trope is that the “bad guys” use carrion feeders or other suspect animals (crows, rats, snakes, etc) to remotely spy on the heroes and normal people. Sometimes there is immediate feedback, sometimes they have to report. Sometimes the good guys make a point of killing those animals whenever they appear, sometimes hiding is a more reasonable option. The common threat is that the bad guys are watching in a way the good guys cannot replicate.

Last week on “Studio 360,” the radio show on PRI that I listen to on podcast, one of the segments was a discussion about drones. It was well worth a listen, [1] but several segments stood out, an artist designing clothing that hides the heat signatures picked up by drones,an interview with people who saw drones in action on the Mexican border nearly a decade ago, and an interview with a former pilot who is now a doctor of engineering. The last suggested that one reason drones live on in the movies and the imagination beyond something like PRISM is the drones–whether in actual shape or looking like the probe droid from Star Wars–are something that people can conceptualize. In this way drones are similar to Big Brother. One doesn’t actually need to comprehend what is going on in order to be taken by the sinister implications.

What struck me was the way in which the popular conception of drones, including the function of the drones and the alignment of the faceless government that dispatches the drones, seems to mirror not just the Empire with its malignant government, but also more traditional embodiments of evil in e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. These fantasy tropes pre-date drones, although even there the trope is not necessarily novel. The two trends also overlap in movies and television where the scrappy hero is chased by government agencies or people hijacking government property.

I suspect there is an underlying human discontent with being observed, particularly by groups of beings that are out of reach and potentially malevolent. This natural reaction, with the inhuman remoteness of drones and the right to privacy as currently understood in the US constitution mesh to make several simultaneous negative reactions to drones. Drones are also active in a way that PRISM may not been seen to be. The issue at hand is that while drones themselves may be a relatively recent addition to the US arsenal the concept is not new and the use of drones for surveillance against a population puts the government on the wrong side of a lengthy tradition in the popular imagination.

[1] As were the interview with Linda Ronstadt and discussion of Walt Whitman.