Thursday, March 30, 2006


I noticed this bit from an article about international adoption:
Qiu Meng Fogarty, 13, prefers her Chinese name (pronounced cho mung) to Cecilia, her English name.
I've always wondered about this: If you're transliterating a Chinese word into English, it's not as if you can maintain the same spelling (as you might with words adopted from French, such as "colonel"). Chinese doesn't have the Roman alphabet. You have to choose some English letters that represent the sounds heard in Chinese. So why on earth would you come up with "Qiu Meng" as the English representation of the sounds "cho mung"? I vaguely remember that there is a standard transliteration system that requires these sorts of bizarre outcomes, but why would anyone use it?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My Health

It's now been two years since I had the stroke. My health has never been better. Not only is there no impairment whatsoever, I've been running and lifting weights more than ever. I used to run a lot when I was a teenager, but I quit when I was in college, and have lifted weights for the past 12 years or so. The past year or so has been the first time in my life that I've been doing both at the same time. I figure it's important to do both, to keep as healthy as possible.

A typical week is something like this: Tuesdays and Thursdays, run 1.5 miles at about a 6:45 - 7:00 pace. Saturdays, 6-8 miles at an easy jog (9-10 minutes a mile). And then somewhere in the week, maybe Monday or Wednesday, do a light weight workout.

By "light," I mean that I may bench up to 205 or so; some chinups for the back; some dips for the triceps (sometimes with 10-15 pound dumbbells between my legs); some lateral raises for the shoulders (25 pound dumbbells); and some curls (30-35 pound dumbbells). A few months ago, a more typical workout would have been 6 reps at 225 on the bench; 6 reps at 255; and 2 reps at 275. But lately I've been backing off. For one thing, building too much muscle simply makes it harder to run. I can definitely tell that running long distances is much harder than it was in high school, when I was about 40 pounds lighter. Also, it just felt risky to be lifting so much weight without a spotter (I work out alone). I used to think it would be cool to be able to bench 315 (with 3 plates on each side). But now I think: What's the point? All I need to do is enough to stay in good shape.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Conservative and Liberal Personalities

Lots of publicity over a study purporting to find personality differences in liberals and conservatives:
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding.

But the new results are worth a look. In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings — the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.

A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.
Thanks to one of Michelle Malkin's readers, the actual study can be viewed here.

One of the first things that I note about the study is its extremely small sample size: The researchers looked at 104 adults who had been subjected to personality tests while in one of two nursery schools in Berkeley and Oakland in around 1969-1971. The researchers admit that their sample was very liberal:
The sample, born in the late 1960s and achieving young adulthood about 1990, grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, an enveloping cultural context appreciably diVerent from much of America—a factor that should be taken into account. Widely and properly perceived as reflecting liberal, even sometimes extreme left political views, the San Francisco Bay Area provides a context that unsurprisingly and unembarrassedly encourages liberalism and looks askance at much of conservatism. Accordingly, it is understandable that, in its entirety, the present sample as young adults is liberally oriented.
Given the very liberal nature of the adults studied, I wondered exactly how many of the 104 people were "conservative." Oddly enough, the researchers apparently don't include hard numbers on that point. Instead, they say this:
The LIB/CON score distribution in this sample leans toward liberalism, with relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism. However, the crucial composite score, on which all data analyses are based, displays a wide, albeit somewhat skewed, distribution.
Relatively few? What does that mean?

For example, when the authors report in Table 1 that "conservatives" are 27% more likely to have been labeled as "suspicious, distrustful of others," this could mean merely that 20% of the liberal adults fit that characteristic while out of 10 conservative adults (let's say), 3 rather than 2 had been so labeled. In other words, the researchers could be perceiving a "correlation" based on the fact that one of the "conservative" adults had a nervous personality.

Given that the researchers don't report more of the data, I'm going to assume for now that the sample size of actual conservatives is embarrassingly small.

The second thing that I notice about the study is that the researchers are apparently doing a one-shot correlation. That is, they just look at childhood personality scores and correlate them with adult liberal/conservative scores. (See page 6 of the study.) I don't see that the researchers made any attempt to control for any other factors that might affect political alignment.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Damon Linker on Neuhaus

Damon Linker certainly seems to have had a falling out with Father Neuhaus, whose magazine First Things used to be edited by none other than Linker.

There are two passages in particular that I find puzzling:
All of these and many other problems, he claims, can be traced to an insidious culture of dissent infesting American Catholicism. The proper response, according to Neuhaus, is for Catholics to learn how to "think with the Church"--by which he means to submit absolutely to the authority of the Vatican. Readers of Neuhaus's magazine column, "The Public Square," will recall this line of argument from his response to the sex-abuse scandal. For many Catholics, the scandal raised serious questions about what it was in the institutional practices of the Church that made possible such sordid crimes. The fact that so many priests were accused of sexually molesting children and teenagers--as opposed to, say, embezzling from church coffers--seemed to point directly to a problem in the Church's teachings and practices regarding sex. But not according to Neuhaus. In a series of essays published throughout 2002 and 2003, he argued instead that the scandal should be blamed on a widespread lack of "fidelity" among clergy to the moral and sexual teachings of the Church: "If bishops and priests had been faithful to the Church's teachings and their sacred vows, there would be no crisis." This was, to say the least, an odd interpretation--one that was about as enlightening as saying that theft would never occur if people obeyed laws against stealing.
Linker is right that it's not very "enlightening" to put forward a tautology -- i.e., that if bishops and priests had obeyed the Catholic Church's teachings on sexual issues, they wouldn't have been caught disobeying the Catholic Church's teachings on sexual issues.

But what's really "odd" is Linker's suggestion (not explained) that the problem arose from "the Church's teachings and practices regarding sex." To use Linker's analogy, this is somewhat like saying that if too many people are caught stealing, the answer is to do away with the laws against theft.

The practical consequences of such fanciful and willfully uncritical thinking can be seen most vividly in Neuhaus's discussion of the Church's sexual teachings, especially on contraception. Pope Paul VI re-affirmed the absolute ban on all artificial birth control, over the strenuous objections of theologians whom he had convened to discuss the possibility of liberalization, in the notorious encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. More than thirty-five years later, the ban is ignored by a vast majority of the Catholic laity in the United States. So few Catholics in their twenties and thirties accept the Church's teaching on the subject, in fact, that the percentage who do falls within the margin of error (less than 3 percent).

Many have concluded from these trends that the ban on birth control lacks a basis in natural law and instead reflects the Vatican's desire to uphold an antiquarian and sexist ideal of order in the family that clashes violently with the way most modern Catholics think and live. But not Neuhaus. As far as he is concerned, the widespread disregard for Church teaching on contraception can be traced entirely to the failure of the American clergy to defend Pope Paul's encyclical. If only parish priests had obeyed the pope's edict--if only they had railed from the altar for the past three decades against the use of condoms and the culture of "disordered sexual desire" that pervades modern America--then American Catholics today would enthusiastically embrace the ban on contraception. Needless to say, this position makes a rather extreme assumption about the power of Church authorities to mold the minds of the laity. Neuhaus's Catholicism is supremely a religion of credulity.
I gather that Linker is using the typical journalist's trick of presenting his own beliefs under the cover of claiming that "many" unidentified people have claimed that, etc., etc.

In any event, Linker's point is deeply confused. The social practices found in America (or any other nation) on a particular date in history do not undermine a conclusion of "natural law" (i.e., reasoning based on human nature), any more than the argument that "natural law proscribes torture" would be refuted by pointing to various nations (including our own, on occasion) that have defended or secretly used torture. If the term "natural law" has any meaning at all, "natural law" cannot be decided by democratic vote any more than people could vote on whether the sun revolves around the earth.

UPDATE: More on Linker's article here. And here, Linker's overstatements inspire my friend Rick Garnett to write a blistering denunciation; given that Rick is normally respectful to a fault, even to the most undeserving of opponents, this is quite an achievement on Linker's part.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Today's Supreme Court Decision in Georgia v. Randolph

An interesting Supreme Court decision today in Georgia v. Randolph. Justice Souter, writing for the liberals as well as Justice Kennedy, held that if a man's wife consents to have their home searched by the police but he himself refuses, the police cannot perform a warrantless search based solely on the wife's permission. (The holding wasn't specific to husbands and wives; that's just how it arose in this particular case.)

Souter's opinion points out:
The constant element in assessing Fourth Amendment reasonableness in the consent cases, then, is the great significance given to widely shared social expectations, which are naturally enough influenced by the law of property, but not controlled by its rules.
Souter then claims that --as a general matter -- no one would enter a house if one of the inhabitants wanted to allow entry and the other didn't:
To begin with, it is fair to say that a caller standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence that one occupant’s invitation was a sufficiently good reason to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, “stay out.” Without some very good reason, no sensible person would go inside under those conditions.
To say the least, this is a very dubious assertion on Souter's part. How does he know what "no sensible person" would do in such a hypothetical situation?

Chief Justice Roberts had an excellent dissent, which was joined by Justice Scalia (but not Justice Thomas). In a well-written flair that already seems typical, Robers handily points out that Souter's reasoning is unsupported and unsupportable:
Today’s opinion creates an exception to this otherwise clear rule: A third-party consent search is unreasonable, and therefore constitutionally impermissible, if the co-occupant against whom evidence is obtained was present and objected to the entry and search.

This exception is based on what the majority describes as “widely shared social expectations” that “when people living together disagree over the use of their common quarters, a resolution must come through voluntary accommodation.” Ante, at 6, 9. But this fundamental predicate to the majority’s analysis gets us nowhere: Does the objecting cotenant accede to the consenting cotenant’s wishes, or the other way around? The majority’s assumption about voluntary accommodation simply leads to the common stalemate of two gentlemen insisting that the other enter a room first.

Nevertheless, the majority is confident in assuming — confident enough to incorporate its assumption into the Constitution — that an invited social guest who arrives at the door of a shared residence, and is greeted by a disagreeable co-occupant shouting “ ‘stay out,’ ” would simply go away. Ante, at 8. The Court observes that “no sensible person would go inside under those conditions,” ante, at 8–9, and concludes from this that the inviting co-occupant has no “authority” to insist on getting her way over the wishes of her co-occupant, ante, at 10. But it seems equally accurate to say — based on the majority’s conclusion that one does not have a right to prevail over the express wishes of his co-occupant — that the objector has no “authority” to insist on getting his way over his co-occupant’s wish that her guest be admitted.

The fact is that a wide variety of differing social situations can readily be imagined, giving rise to quite different social expectations. A relative or good friend of one of two feuding roommates might well enter the apartment over the objection of the other roommate. The reason the invitee appeared at the door also affects expectations: A guest who came to celebrate an occupant’s birthday, or one who had traveled some distance for a particular reason, might not readily turn away simply because of a roommate’s objection. The nature of the place itself is also pertinent: Invitees may react one way if the feuding roommates share one room, differently if there are common areas from which the objecting roommate could readily be expected to absent himself. Altering the numbers might well change the social expectations: Invitees might enter if two of three co-occupants encourage them to do so, over one dissenter.

The possible scenarios are limitless, and slight variations in the fact pattern yield vastly different expectations about whether the invitee might be expected to enter or to go away. Such shifting expectations are not a promising foundation on which to ground a constitutional rule, particularly because the majority has no support for its basic assumption—that an invited guest encountering two disagreeing co-occupants would flee — beyond a hunch about how people would typically act in an atypical situation.
Finally, Roberts points out that in domestic violence cases -- in particular -- it is often important that one party be able to consent to a search over the other party's objection:
While the majority’s rule protects something random, its consequences are particularly severe. The question presented often arises when innocent cotenants seek to disassociate or protect themselves from ongoing criminal activity. See, e.g., United States v. Hendrix, 595 F. 2d 883, 884 (CADC 1979) (wife asked police “to get her baby and take [a] sawed-off shotgun out of her house”); People v. Cosme, 48 N. Y. 2d 286, 288–289, 293, 397 N. E. 2d 1319, 1320, 1323 (1979) (woman asked police to remove cocaine and a gun from a shared closet); United States v. Botsch, 364 F. 2d 542, 547 (CA2 1966). Under the majority’s rule, there will be many cases in which a consenting co-occupant’s wish to have the police enter is overridden by an objection from another present co-occupant.

What does the majority imagine will happen, in a case in which the consenting co-occupant is concerned about the other’s criminal activity, once the door clicks shut? The objecting co-occupant may pause briefly to decide whether to destroy any evidence of wrongdoing or to inflict retribution on the consenting co-occupant first, but there can be little doubt that he will attend to both in short order. It is no answer to say that the consenting co-occupant can depart with the police; remember that it is her home, too, and the other co-occupant’s very presence, which allowed him to object, may also prevent the consenting co-occupant from doing more than urging the police to enter.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the majority’s rule is its operation in domestic abuse situations, a context in which the present question often arises. See Rodriguez, 497 U. S., at 179; United States v. Donlin, 982 F. 2d 31 (CA1 1992); Hendrix, supra; People v. Sanders, 904 P. 2d 1311 (Colo. 1995) (en banc); Brandon v. State, 778 P. 2d 221 (Alaska App. 1989). While people living together might typically be accommodating to the wishes of their cotenants, requests for police assistance may well come from coinhabitants who are having a disagreement. The Court concludes that because “no sensible person would go inside” in the face of disputed consent, ante, at 8–9, and the consenting cotenant thus has “no recognized authority” to insist on the guest’s admission, ante, at 10, a “police officer [has] no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have in the absence of any consent at all,” ibid. But the police officer’s superior claim to enter is obvious: Mrs. Randolph did not invite the police to join her for dessert and coffee; the officer’s precise purpose in knocking on the door was to assist with a dispute between the Randolphs — one in which Mrs. Randolph felt the need for the protective presence of the police. The majority’s rule apparently forbids police from entering to assist with a domestic dispute if the abuser whose behavior prompted the request for police assistance objects.
Remember, of course, that John Roberts is "insensitive on women's issues."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


I've been watching this season of 24 on Fox. I can't seem to find any commentary on the fact that this season's plot (so far) is something that sounds like a leftwing conspiracy theory about the Bush administration. Consider:

  • The main problem is that a Russian separatist group somehow got its hands on nerve gas here in America. How did this happen? Turns out that there was an adviser to the President who (along with persons unknown) deliberately gave the nerve gas to the Russian terrorists, with the notion of booby-trapping it to go off inside their camp back in Chechnya (I think).

    When asked to defend his actions, the adviser said (and I paraphrase): "This was the perfect way to prove that there are WMDs in the Middle Eastern region, thus giving us an excuse to boost our presence and control the oil there."

  • The President is weak, waffling, and easily manipulated. In the past couple of episodes, the Vice-President -- who appears to be smarter, more resolute, and more authoritative -- has convinced the President to declare martial law in Los Angeles (which is where the Russian terrorists are). The President's wife and his chief of staff tried to convince the President that this was outside the law (I believe they referred to the need for Congressional approval).

    Nonetheless, the President followed the Vice-President's advice. In last night's episode, after a news report saying that experts were debating the legality of the President's action, the Vice-President told the President that he had his "legal staff working on it." In another scene, the Vice-President actually said something like, "I've got it under control."

Anyway, the whole season thus far feels like something that a leftwing conspiracy theorist would put together to satirize the Bush administration -- and it's on Fox. I'm not complaining about this at all, but I'm surprised that I can't find more commentary about it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Alister McGrath on Daniel Dennett

Alister McGrath skillfully undermines Daniel Dennett's recent book on religion:
Whatever the benefits of religions, Dennett and these writers believe that they arise entirely inside human minds. No spiritual realities exist outside us. Natural explanations may be given of the origins of belief in God. Now I hesitate to mention this, but this is clearly a rather circular argument, which presupposes its conclusions.

So what models does Professor Dennett propose for the origins of faith in God? I was delighted to find a rich range of explanatory approaches in this book. I read the first – the “sweet tooth” theory. On this approach, just as we have evolved a receptor system for sweet things, so in a similar way we might have a “god centre” in our brains. Such a centre might depend on a “mystical gene” that was favoured by natural selection because people with it tend to survive better.

Just a moment, I thought. Where’s the science? What’s the evidence for this? Instead I found mights and maybes, speculation and supposition, instead of the rigorous evidence-driven and evidence-based arguments that I love and respect. These theories are evidence-free and wildly speculative.

We are told, for example, that – I quote from the jacket blurb – religious “ideas could have spread from individual superstitions via shamanism and the early ‘wild’ strains of religion”. There’s no credible evidence for this. There’s no serious attempt to engage with the history of religions. It reminds me of those TV ads; “this could help you lose weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet”. Could. The TV ad writers would love to be able to say their product was “clinically proven” to do these things. But they can’t. There’s no evidence.
There's more good stuff, especially about Dennett's unscientific reliance on the notion of "memes."

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Crunchy Con Blog

Another insightful post.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Movie Pricing

Nearly three years ago, I wondered why movie theaters don't price discriminate. Luckily, someone has now written an academic paper on that question:
Uniform Prices for Differentiated Goods: The Case of the Movie-Theater Industry

The University of Arizona
Stanford University - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
January 2006

Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 06-07
NYU, Law and Economics Research Paper No. 04-02
Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper No. 337

Since the early 1970s, movie theaters in the United States employ a pricing model of uniform prices for differentiated goods: At any given theater, one price is charged for all movies, seven days a week, throughout the year. This pricing model is puzzling in light of the potential profitability of variable pricing that corresponds to demand characteristics. Another unique characteristic of the motion-picture industry is the legal regime that prohibits relational arrangements between distributors and retailers (exhibitors) and allows only certain forms of spot contracts. We study the persistence of the uniform pricing regime in the motion-picture industry and argue that the extreme legal constraints on the form and substance of vertical relationships in the industry could be the prime cause of the persistence of the uniform pricing regime. We explore additional hurdles to the transition to variable pricing in the motion-picture industry and argue that these hurdles could, in principle, be individually overcome. Nevertheless, the combination of these factors may have an impact on the persistence of the practice.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Baude's Response

I asked: "What plausible reason is there to think that giving a seventh-grader a free laptop is going to improve the learning process in any way?"

Will Baude responds:
Now, I do not mean to argue that a cheap laptop is a better buy, from an educational point of view, than a pile of books. But it seems hard to deny that computer-users, even children, are likely to learn things from their computers. When I was in middle- and high- school I used the internet to learn about the interactions between objectivism and libertarianism, a lot of arguments about the moral character of Shakespeare's Hamlet, how (not) to flirt with girls, lots of poems, and more. Now it may well be that these things (and gossip about celebrities, which he mentions and derides) are not things that Mr. Buck values particularly highly, or not things that it makes sense for the state of Illinois to subsidize the acquisition of, but it seems hard, and indeed quite odd, to deny that they constitute learning of one sort or another.
A clarification: I don't mean to say that it is impossible to learn anything from computers. I meant to say that dollars spent on free computers for seventh-graders are not likely to be an improvement on the books or other materials that those dollars might otherwise have purchased. From Baude's first sentence above, I think he agrees with me on that point.

Another thing to for Mr. Baude to keep in mind is that he is a brilliant and well-read individual, and the fact that he personally has used computers for intellectual enlightenment probably doesn't generalize to the average seventh-grader. There are some wonderful educational materials on the Internet, but as an overall matter, the signal-to-noise ratio is very low, and I suspect that the average seventh-grader will have more of an appetite for the noise.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Laptops for Students

Here's a good post on the Illinois governor's proposal to buy laptops (at $300 apiece) for 169,000 seventh-graders in that state. Seems like an extraordinary waste of money to me. With $300 of books, the kids might actually learn something. It's possible that they might learn something from the computers as well, but not likely: They'll far more likely use the computers (for the most part) for such crucial tasks as email, instant messenging, looking up news about celebrities/movies/music, etc. What plausible reason is there to think that giving a seventh-grader a free laptop is going to improve the learning process in any way?

The post also reports on a similar program in Maine, which unsurprisingly has had no benefit on test scores. A professor had this response:
But David Silvernail, a University of Southern Maine professor hired to evaluate the program, said he didn’t expect the laptops to make much difference on state tests. ‘’The test doesn’t test the right things . . . except possibly in writing,” he said. ‘’Our test is like most tests. It’s still kind of testing recall — ‘Do you know this fact?’ ”
I've never understood these sorts of paeans to ignorance. Yes, as a general matter, it is more important that a student be able to describe and analyze historical forces than that he remember the exact date of the Gettysburg Address. It is more important that a student be able to perceive the important themes of literature than that she be able to identify specific quotes from Hamlet.

But in reality, the ability to think on a higher level comes only after many long hours of immersion in the details of a particular subject. It's not as if students can understand the principles behind quadratic equations without ever having learned how to solve a quadratic equation. It's not as if students can learn to analyze literature without having ever actually read something (in which case, they ought to have some familiarity with what they read). And it's not as if students can learn to analyze history in the abstract, without knowing anything about who did what, and when.

Thus, a test based on factual knowledge is probably going to correlate very well with "ability to think." A student who has been deeply immersed in the "facts" of history/literature/whatever may well have picked up the "ability to think" about that subject along the way. And conversely, a student who is ignorant of all the basic facts about a subject cannot conceivably have "learned to think" about that subject, any more than you could be a professional basketball player without having spent countless tedious hours in practicing basic skills (as well as mastering the rules).

Anyway, back to laptops: If giving students laptops doesn't help them to learn any particular facts, what does it help them learn?


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Coleman Report

UPDATE: I got an electronic copy of the Coleman Report, and uploaded it to Scribd here, and to Google Docs here.  

I've previously complained about the fact that I can't find a published copy of the famous "Coleman Report," the 1966 study of educational achievement among some 600,000 schoolchildren. Since that post, I have corresponded with the Government Printing Office, which originally published that report. But the GPO says that it is out of print. I'm still puzzled that such a monumental and groundbreaking study is unavailable.

I have had a bit of luck, however, in finding out that Coleman later put together a collection of essays, academic articles, and selections from the Coleman Report in a book entitled Equality and Achievement in Education. As of right now, Amazon has one used copy available for $103.71, and Abebooks has one copy available for $34.57.

A bit on the pricey side, but still a very good purchase.

In addition to featuring excerpts from the Coleman Report, the book also has several selections from Coleman's later works, such as the study Trends in School Segregation: 1968-1973 (which is ALSO out of print, by the way, as I found out when I contacted the original publisher, the Urban Institute).

That study was very controversial, because it showed that whites tended to depart for suburbs when cities began desegregating their schools. Why so controversial? Because researchers at the time preferred to believe that desegregation could not conceivably lead to any bad consequences for any reason. Indeed, Coleman writes (page 167) that the then-president of the American Sociological Association "proposed to have me censured by the association" for having reached a politically incorrect conclusion. Now, of course, the notion that "white flight" occurred in the 1970s is the conventional wisdom.

The book also has excerpts from a 1980s' study wherein Coleman and other researchers found that Catholic schools were superior to public schools in several dimensions -- students performed better on several tests even apart from selection effects, the positive effect of Catholic schools was strongest for poor minorities, and Catholic schools retained more students with disciplinary problems (as opposed to expelling them, which is what some people had claimed was the case). Again, a hugely controversial set of findings, at least in the eyes of pro-public-school ideologues.

Anyway, I highly recommend that book, if you can get your hands on it.


Saturday, March 04, 2006


An interesting post from David Friedman defending "unschooling," which is how he raises his own kids. I think there's something to what he says, although I'd bet that a lot of his experience springs from the fact that his kids are obviously smart to begin with (not surprising considering their family history), Friedman's home is full of intellectual stimulation, etc.

Anyway, all of the following strikes me as largely correct:
One of the assumptions built into the conventional version of K-12 schooling, private and public, is that there is some subset of human knowledge, large enough to occupy most of twelve years of school, that everyone needs to know. That assumption is false. There is a very short list of skills–reading, writing or typing, and simple arithmetic are the only ones that occur to me–that almost everyone will find worth learning. Beyond that, education involves learning things, but not any particular things. The standard curriculum is for the most part an arbitrary list of what happens to be in fashion–the subjects everyone is required to pretend to learn.

Consider, as examples, English composition, American history, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Each will prove very useful so some people, occasionally useful to more, and almost entirely useless to quite a lot. And, although practically every high school graduate is supposed to have learned each of those things, many, probably a majority, have not--as anyone who has taught college freshmen can testify.

A second assumption is that the way for children to learn things is to be told "this is what you must learn today," assigned some reading, and sat down to listen to a teacher. One result is that children spend most of their time being told things they have no interest in knowing. Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning. A sufficiently good teacher can improve those numbers somewhat–but sufficiently good teachers are scarce.

One observed result is that most children regard education as unpleasant work, to be avoided when possible. Another is that schools spend six years teaching things–arithmetic, say–that the average kid could learn in a year or two. If he wanted to. A third is that we end up with high school graduates many, perhaps a majority, of whom do not actually know many of the things they have spent all those years pretending to learn.

There is at least one more thing wrong with the conventional model. Judging sources of information on internal evidence is a very important intellectual skill. In the classroom, that skill is anti-taught. The pupil is told things by two authorities–the teacher and the textbook–and his job is to believe what they say. Here again, a sufficiently good teacher may be able to overcome the logic of the setting and teach some degree of critical thinking–but here again, sufficiently good teachers are rare.