Sunday, August 7, 2011

Marty Nemko's Prescription for Babbit-hood

Over the years I've encountered two species of humans involved in the educational process: 1) educators, and 2) educational evaluators. In most cases, I've been severely disappointed in the latter category, mainly because despite having Ph.D.s they lack that precious commodity called common sense. Thus we see them bloviating (as in a recent artice posted at that there "actually isn't any evidence that larger class sizes make any difference" - especially to a "good teacher". Of course, this is absolute twaddle and balderdash and any one who's spent real time in the classroom setting can easily disprove it (and fortunately, many actual teachers who responded in the article's comments section, did!)

Then there is the irrepressible Mensa member Marty Nemko, who I've had to take to task before, because he recklessly parlayed his educational creds (Ph.D. in "Educational Evaluation" from UC Berkeley) into climate change creds. In my blog from 2 years ago, 'Ten Answers for Marty Femko' I provided ten answers to 10 specious questions Femko asked about global warming-climate change.(Mensa Bulletin of March, 2009. p.28)

For example, one of Femko's questions was:

6. If the climate change debate is over, why will 100 scientists argue against the “consensus” at the International Climate Science Coalition conference on March 2-4, 2008?

To which I replied:

The “International Climate Science Coalition” (with its "100 scientists" - most not climate scientists) doesn’t represent the views or conclusions of mainstream climate science but rather a tiny subset of contrarians, many of whom are supported by the oil, coal and gas lobbies. Indeed, the “Coalition” itself is a think tank proxy for the fossil fuel lobbies. Thus, it is neither mysterious nor astounding that global warming deniers will continue to be heard in whatever forum they can garner even if their own!"

Undeterred by that earlier slapdown, Nemko has now launched into the field of educational strategy and curriculum development, which is at least more aligned with his qualifications. In his latest article (Mensa Bulletin, August, 2011, p. 22), he argues for a "critically selected curriculum". He states matter of factly:

We should ensure that kids graduate with the knowledge needed by most people before we try to teach knowledge needed by few. Can anyone argue that it's wiser that all high school graduates have taken four years of math filled with quadratic equations, geometric proofs and trigonometry than a course in rational decision making?

Well, uh yes, Marty, I can! "Rational decision making" can be mastered at any stage, but it is the young, most exponentially growing minds which are the most fertile soil for reception of humanity's knowledge legacy...which YES - includes math such as algebra (one of the most fundamental avenues to logical thinking) and geometry (which proofs embody basic exercises in logic that would be prerequisites to any "rational decision making" course!)

What Femko is suggesting is that all HS students will find HS math tedious, difficult and a waste of time, and hence they'd be better fitted to learning: "how to buy a house", conflict resolution, and basic budgeting. Thus, he advocates for "ethical entrepeneurship" over foreign languages (asking 'How well do you speak that language after you studied it?') and "parenting education" over simultaneous equations. (Of course, he never considers that not all students wish to be parents!)

But he largely misses the boat, as he did with his 10 climate questions. It seems even having a Ph.D. is no assurance one can himself reason properly.

In my own high school experience, I found that taking Euclid's Geometry in 10th grade was the BEST early preparation I had for later university courses in Logic, and practically applying logic to a wide spectrum of daily life examples - including managing money! (E.g. I learned early that the stock market is more a gambling casino, and if you lack sufficient disposable income it's not a place you ought to park your money, no matter how many talking heads and pundits tell you to!)

The very specific exercise of mastering a proof, say that the supplementary angles in a parallelogram add to 180 degrees, conferred the practice of mental discipline. By the time one got through all the basic proofs, he was then ready to master more difficult ones. When one then confronted logical analysis, say in 2nd year university, the foundation had already been laid for more exacting applications of rigorous thought. At the same time, slapdash thought and nonsense could more easily be recognized!

As for algebra, including quadratic equations and simultaneous equations, that is not only a preparation for disciplined rational thought (by manipulating the basic symbols to form or solve new equations) but also the stepping stone to doing calculus. If you aren't very good at algebra, you likely won't be very good at integrating by parts, obtaining partial fractions, or any of the other specialized tasks that calculus requires.

If you're not very good at calculus, you won't be very good at advanced physics, including quantum mechanics and electrodynamics. You also won't be able to master solar physics or astrophysics, so better had put off that dream of becoming an astrophysicist. Maybe stick to "rational decision making" and you can become a stock advisor, as if we needed any more! Or, if you're apt in "conflict resolution" you can help couples considering divorce. (And with this nation's divorce rate, I suppose it at least ensures one will stay employed!)

But if we follow Nemko's prescription, what do we get? Well, a nation of Babbits - of parochial- minded, one dimensional bureacrats and bean counters, lacking imagination and the rudiments to enable any deep creative thought that requires more than simple cartoons. This is, of course, after the famous novel Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, about a middle-aged real estate agent in a humdrum little midwestern town whose life is circumscribed by his own lack of imagination and education, which more or less matches what Femko seeks to push on our high school students. So now, I guess far from being able to identify the Ukraine on a map of the world, they won't even be able to pinpoint Oklahoma! Maybe shrinking academic aspirations to match our obviously shrinking national vision! What might that lead to?

Babbit's whole existence is wrapped up in what he considers a "sensational event". On page 7 we behold an example:

A sensational event was changing from the brown suit to the gray, the contents of his pockets. He was earnest about these objects

To me, having had the benefit of a genuinely rich education - including those 'quadratic equations', a "sensational event" is seeing the gibbous Moon rise on a dark night and being able to compute - using differential calculus- how much of the 'far side' of the Moon can become visible to me (via nutation) over a synodic revolution.

Of course, I fully admit this is not everyone's cup of tea. But because some students might not appreciate an "esoteric" or "elite" curriculum, let's not just assume ALL wouldn't! That's not reasoning to which any person, let alone a Mensan, ought to aspire.

After all, we don't want any more Babbits in this country than what we already have!

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