American Elephants


Is The Internet Making Us Stupid? by The Elephant's Child
December 16, 2008, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Freedom, History, Literature | Tags: , , ,

One of the great problems of education has been the desire to make education easier — easier and more interesting for the teacher, who finds it boring to have to do it all over again each year with a new batch of children, smarter or dumber, quieter or more obstreperous.  And of course, if a way could only be found to make kids enjoy learning the basics of civilized life, then it would all be so much easier, and more fun.  After all, things should be fun, shouldn’t they?

When television first arrived on the scene, everyone was sure that we had found the magic key.  Symphonies, uplifting plays, history as it was being made. That turned out well.

The computer and the Internet are still thought to be some sort of magic in the education of children.  President-elect Obama apparently believes that much good will come from greener school buildings and more computers in the schools.

An elementary school principal noted that “fifth graders proceed as follows when they are assigned a research project; go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in.” This is not knowledge formation, but information retrieval.

Anyone who has Googled for information knows the difficulty of separating the valid websites from the junk.  Keywords get you keywords, not necessarily deeply informed information from a reliable website, and not even correct information at that.  Discernment is not much taught in fifth grade.  That takes long education in reading and history and the other basics.

A number of writers are suggesting that reading on the web is changing the way we read and the way we think.  Nicholas Carr has written recently in a piece titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic Monthly that he is now having trouble with lengthy reading.  The deep reading that used to be so enjoyable has now become a struggle.

[M]edia are not just passive channels of information.  They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.  And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it’ in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet ski.

I’m not the only one.  When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances — literary types, most of them — many say they’re having similar experiences.  The more they use the Web, the more they  have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

James Bowman expands on Mr. Carr’s essay in The New Atlantis with his recognition of the changes in his own reading patterns, and evidence from other authors that there is something going on here that is as yet untested by those who explore and test the functions of the brain.  If  you have children and are concerned about their education, these two essays provide food for thought.

I would suggest that schools have it backwards. Students need to learn deep reading, discernment, judgment and how to cope with the overflow of information characteristic of our age before they learn about how to retrieve information.  In elementary school math classes, students are taught with the assumption that they will always have a handy calculator.  Cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools, for it is assumed that students will always have a handy keyboard.  Is there a relation here to declining math and science scores and the decline in SAT scores?

There is, however, plenty of time to teach children of the dangers of global warming and the importance of recycling and the pressing need to save the polar bears.  Go figure.



District of Columbia Charter Schools Make Big Progress. by The Elephant's Child

The financial crisis and the travails of Governor Blagojevitch of Illinois have dominated the news, and little is to be heard about the debate about our public schools.  There is good news, however.

In the District of Columbia, known for some of the worst schools in the country, Charter Schools have shown big gains on tests.  In spite of  Congressional Democrats’ objections to charter schools, Congress approved a pilot program over ten years ago.

Students in the District’s charter schools have opened a solid academic lead over those in its traditional public schools, adding momentum to a movement that is recasting public education in the city

The gains show up on national standardized tests and the city’s own tests in reading and math, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.  Charters have been particularly successful with low-income children, who make up two-thirds of C.C. public school students.

A dozen years after it was created by Congress, the city’s charter system has taken shape as a fast-growing network of schools, whose ability to tap into private donors, bankers and developers has made it possible to fund impressive facilities, expand programs and reduce class sizes.

With freedom to e xperiment, the independent, nonprofit charters have emphasized strategies known to help poor children learn — longer school days, summer and Saturday classes, parent involvement and a cohesive, disciplined culture among staff members and students.

Read the whole article. The reasons for the success of the charters will probably not surprise you, but rather reaffirm your beliefs.



“Minimum wage lowers earnings, produces unemployment.” by The Elephant's Child

Over at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey reviews Minimum Wages, a new book by a professor of economics at UCI and an associate director of research and statistics at the Federal Reserve Board, which argues that efforts to increase the minimum wage do more to hurt the working class by lowering real earnings and eliminating job opportunities.

Mr.  Morrissey says:

The minimum-wage increases that enjoy such popularity among politicians generate much less enthusiasm among economists, and for good reason.  It artificially inflates the cost of labor, especially in low-skill markets, which pushes employers to either reduce their labor through automation or scale back on staffing.  The higher the cost of labor goes, the less competitive the lowest-skilled workers become.  Those n that cannot absorb the costs will pass them along to their customers, raising the cost of living and eventually  eliminating whatever transient increase in actual buying power the wage increase produced — which prompts politicians to raise the floor again and start the cycle over.

I couldn’t agree more.  Beginners have to start somewhere.  Studies have shown that most people who start out at minimum wage move up within 6 months.  Politicians, anxious to raise the minimum wage, assume that someone is trying to support a family on that wage, but that is not usually the case. Politicians just distort the market once again.

Do read Hot Air’s review of Minimum Wages by David Neumark and William Wascher.  Might make a perfect Christmas gift for someone on your list.  As Ed says: “Told You So.”




%d bloggers like this: