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    I’m an opinionated Grumpy Old Man. I enjoy the intellectual give and take that goes along with that, but have very little patience for stupid people (Note: there is a big difference between “stupid” and “educated”. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have a PhD…). Beside arguing, I like to build things in almost any media. Right now I’m mostly building in wood, Lego, and a bunch of different electronic media. I teach in a number of different venues - from preschool all the way through graduate school. Subjects range from talmud to neuroscience to engineering.

    For fun, I like to bash people with swords (OK, so they’re made of foam. It’s still fun). Although I spend a lot of my time in a wheelchair, I manage to keep pretty active (Like bashing people with swords). I am a libertarian, and have a hard time finding anything good to say about government or politicians. OK, politicians might make good sausage, but that's about as good as it gets.


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The New Dark Ages

I’ve been noticing a lot of similarities in some recent news and some not-so-recent history. The dark ages were a fun time: ignorance, poverty, disease, and war were the norm. A powerful christian government work hard to maintain ignorance, as literacy and rational thought were considered to be major threats to the mindless dogma preached by the church. By keeping the masses ignorant, the church was able to maintain power, and use war as a tool to continue that power. Poverty and disease are natural elements in an ignorant, uneducated population, and also served to reinforce the church’s stance (if you were poor, it must mean that god doesn’t like you,so you must have done something bad). A random walk through some of today’s news events shows a remarkable similarity.

Ignorance. The dark ages were rife with ignorance, superstition, and church doctrine. The general populace was not only discouraged from learning to read, but in many cases, it was illegal for them to know how to read. The dominant government (the christian church) decided what was fact, and what was acceptable for the peons to know. The idea was that all law came from the bible. Of course, if the peons could read, they would be able to figure out that most of what was being taught as church doctrine had nothing to do with the bible, so reading was reserved to the “right-thinkers” in the church. This was also a method of ensuring that the church maintained its position of authority – science and critical thinking would erode the church’s “we talk to god, so we know the truth” dogma, so the church did its best to keep people ignorant (this is the same church that threw Galileo in prison, and refused to admit that the Earth rotates around the sun until late in the 20th century). The church as an entity had an official policy of maintaining the ignorance of the populace. Among other things, it made it impossible to do any sort of business without church involvement (and taxation) – the church was the only agency that was allowed to write, so things like keeping track of shipping, sales, and land records was wholly under the control of the church. This provided a handy revenue stream to support wars against those pesky foreigners and heathens that didn’t buy into the church myth.

In the modern world, the church has much less official power – we even pretend in the USA that the church is just another social group. But if we take a look at what is going on, we can find “christian influence” (read: ‘christian ignorance’) in many places. One of the scariest is the influence that the church continues to have on education. While most of the first world laments the fact their children are not keeping up with upstart developing nations educationally, the church is working to continue to stifle knowledge and free thought. With amazing effectiveness. Depending on the surveys, as much as 30-60% of the people in industrialized nations continue to believe that creationism is as scientifically valid as evolution. The majority of people freely admit that most technology and science is little more than magic to them – it is simply beyond their understanding. Of course, in places like India and China, it is very common to find people who not only understand technology and science, but are using it to displace the “industrialized world” as the leaders of new technological developments. The first worlddoes still have the major educational institutions, but a visit to any hard science or engineering graduate program will make it clear that most of the students there are from second or third world nations. A review of the scientific and engineering primary literature shows the same thing. Take a look at journals from 40 years ago, and the vast majority of authors will have anglo-european names. Take a cruise through the journals today, and most of the names are asian, indian, or middle eastern.

Of course, the Dark Ages did end. The church was finally overthrown by internal divisions, and by the influence of educated free thinkers from other cultures – most notably Asia, India and the Middle East. In the modern world, we are faced with many dangers – a much hyped example is the militant extremists from the muslim left that kill a few people every day. A much more insidious danger is the creeping ignorance and denial of science that is so strongly supported by the christian church. So next time the bible-thumpers are at your local library or school board lobbying to get Harry Potter pulled off the shelves (it has witchcraft in it, and the bible says that witchcraft is bad), don’t just sit by and assume that rational thinkers will simply ignore them. Show up, and speak out. Make sure they know that we recognize their idiocy, and that we won’t tolerate it. When you hear or read about a school district that is buckling to the local moral minority, and is pulling evolution and science from their curriculum, go to the school board meetings and make some noise. At the very least, go read some history, and decide if you really want to live through another round of ignorance driven dark ages. We can hope that the developing world will save us from our own apathy and ignorance, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could do it ourselves?


What every kid needs: a visit to poverty.

Most of the kids I know (including mine) are spoiled rotten. Their concepts of “normal life” are insane. I spend a lot of time in elementary and middle schools, and a good bit of time dealing with high school and university students, and none of them have any idea what ‘normal’ life really is.

This is because they have all lived in the first world their entire life. This is not a bad thing. Personally, I rather appreciate the fact that my kids have never had to live in the third world. Lack of the amenities we all take for granted is a real drag. The problem I have is that the kids have no idea what the word “need” means – not just in a language sense, but in a sense of true survival. Kids “need” cell phones, video games, pizza, the latest fashion, braces for their teeth, conditioner for their hair, zit cream for their faces, and a school trip to some far-away place (usually in late middle school or high school).

I think the kids should be a whole lot better served if they skipped the Spanish club trip to Mexico or Spain or wherever, the Band trip to Disney, and class trip to DC. Instead, pack the kids onto a plane, and send them to Malawi, Nicaragua, The Comoros, or Congo. Let them spend a month in an environment where they can see how the vast majority of people in the world live. I’m not saying that they should necessarily LIVE the life, but be close enough to it to start to understand that the real definition of “need” is “If I don’t have this, I will suffer great physical harm, and might even die”.

By exposing the kids to true poverty – real poverty – they are forced to take a look at their own lives. I certainly don’t expect the kids to completely change their lifestyles, but by simply opening their eyes to how good they have it, we can help them put things into perspective. By opening our kids eyes, we can set the stage to begin to make a difference. don’t get me wrong: poverty will ALWAYS be there. All I want is for kids to recognize that its there, and to have some understanding of what it really means.

Why Obama’s Education plan is destined to fail.

President Obama gave a wonderful speech yesterday, which included an overview of his plans for education. He has some ideas that actually have some merit (such as merit based pay for teachers, school/teacher accountability,  and penalizing/taking over failing schools). The problem is, his ideas are all based on “improving” the existing infrastructure, when the existing infrastructure itself is the problem. There’s an old adage that goes “f it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The inverse of this adage is “if it’s broke beyond repair, you CAN’T fix it. U.S. Education is “broke beyond repair”.

Of course, this statement is predicated on my view of what education is. I believe that the purpose of education is to teach students what they need to succeed in life. A simple statement, but one that has some very complicated implications, and is (unfortunately) completely at odds with U.S. education.  Our “schools” have moved on from providing education to providing social counseling, mental health counseling, anger management, day care, and pretty much every other social program you can think of. In other words, they have attempted to replace a lot of the functions that parents are responsible for. It is simply impossible for ANY organization to accomplish all of those goals if it is pretending to be a school.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the need for some sort of organization to provide social services. I just don’t think it is the school. The first thing we need to do to make schools work is let them be schools. this is actually fairly simple to accomplish. All we need to do is define a minimal set of skills for each grade (or maybe cluster a few grades together to reduce testing). At the end of each school year, every single student takes an exam. If they pass, they continue on to the next year of school. If they don’t, they stay back until they CAN pass the exam. But wait! that isn’t fair to the poor student that can’t pass the exam! Well, actually, it is. If the student can’t pass the exam, there is clearly some failure, either on the students part, or the teacher/schools part. If the fault is with the student, this is a “learning experience”, and hopefully the kid will get the idea and get serious about learning. If not, well, one of the things our schools fail to teach is that decisions kids make have consequences….. If the problem is with the school or teacher, it will be self correcting. Once parents realize that their kids are going to be held back if they don’t perform, they’ll start paying attention to what is going on in the classes. Imagine how a principle/school board will react when parents start refusing to allow their kid to be in the class with the teacher that somehow can’t seem to teach their students the curriculum. Somehow, I suspect that that particular teacher will be out looking for work PDQ.

Of course, there ARE students that are simply incapable of learning the material. ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, pick your reason. Unfortunately, the reality is that attempting to accommodate these students in the “normal” classroom is a large part of the problem with our current schools. By forcing teachers, staff and resources into “corrective” programs, we simply reduce the ability to provide services to the students that CAN succeed. There are many options for these students, but the primary responsibility lies with their parents. The student can be enrolled in a special school that is targeted to meet the special needs of the student. I know that this is politically incorrect, but the simple fact is that no matter how education is approached, the “one size fits all” approach is guaranteed to do nothing except reduce education meet the abilities of the lowest performing student. “Tracking” – the idea of having different tracks for students that perform at different levels is extremely effective at allowing students to work to their ability.

So how do you segregate the students (yep that IS the right word. The concept of homogeneous student body is fiction)? How do you make sure that non-performing schools and teachers are punted out of the system? How do you pay for it all? Where does parental responsibility and involvement fit in? These are the questions that policy wonks have been kicking around for decades. Here’s my solution (Knew I’d have one, didn’t you?).

First, parental responsibility and involvement is key. A critical step is to make it possible for parents to have direct input into their children’s education. Some parents want their kids to have great sports programs, some want their kids to have great academics, some parents simply don’t care. How to provide a solution that fits them all is simple: accept the fact taht a single solution won’t work. Every head in a school (or out of it for that matter) carries a particular financial load – the “cost of education” for a given year. Instead of forcing the taxpayers to pay for whatever school happens to be in their town, allow the parents to choose what school their kid goes to, and make sure that those tax dollars (federal, state, local, whatever) go with the kid. Let the parents vote with their pocketbooks. Schools that don’t meet the parents needs (don’t forget about those skill tests at the end of each year) will disappear pretty quickly when they suddenly can’t afford to pay their staff. Of Course, in a model like this, parents with money will have the option of sending their kids to schools where tuition is higher than the base rate, but if we’re at all realistic, we already know that parents with money (at least those that care about education) make sure their kids get a better education than the current schools offer.

Wow, by simply requiring the parents to be responsible for their kids education, and making sure that they have the power to control what school their education tax dollars support, we’ve suddenly addressed ALL of the issues.

Kids will self-segregate into schools that provide what the kids parents think is important, simply because the parents will choose the schools that best fit their priorities. If the kid can’t perform, the parents have the option of putting the screws to the kid, letting the kid move at its own pace, or moving to another school that may be a better fit. Schools that can’t keep students enrolled will fail. Of course, the ADD, aspbergers, MR, MH, etc. population are left in a tough place. This is where parental responsibility kinda sucks. They’re YOUR kids. YOU figure out what’ best for them, and (just like the rich folks that make sure their kid gets to go to the expensive school), YOU are responsible for paying any additional costs for their education. The “normal” kids will be able to ride along on the”;normal” cost of education. The “special” and “advanced”; kids will have to pony up the extra bucks for their “out of the normal” needs, or will have to muddle along in the “normal” school. Kinda sucks, but that reality.