Thursday, December 18, 2014

An Ancient "Ghost", Yet to be "Exorcised": Precision

Indicate precisely what you mean to say,
Yours sincerely wasting away.
-- Paul McCartney, "When I'm Sixty-Four"

A Comparison? An interesting picture is given by McCartney's lyric: there is
a. something that a person means to say; and, also, a second thing that is
b. an indicator of that something meant.

What is being asked for is precision of the indicator to the meaning. But how would we judge that?

If I ask you to tell me precisely how long your left foot is, you grab a rule and hold it alongside your left foot and make a comparison with your heel at the beginning of the number scale and the measurement mark most in line with the end of your toe. We know how to go about that.

But what kind of comparison can we make between what you mean to say and something offered as an indicator of it?

This is a problem very similar to what we encounter if we believe that when we read aloud a text, we are describing the thoughts of its author. What can we compare? Can we independently get at the author's thoughts to see if the words he chose are "fitting" to them? (See "An Ancient View of Authorship".)

Impossible Correspondences? This is actually an old chestnut in a different guise: the correspondence theory of knowledge. If we imagine that "knowing" indicates a correspondence between your thoughts and "objects in the real world" we face the problem how we can determine that that correspondence exists. And why would we ever want to "correct" ourselves?

But, actually, we have a very similar problem with our foot and the ruler. Some rulers are scored in full inches; others, in fractions of the inch. We are trained to think that using a finer scale gives us more precision. Sometimes it does. But consider this: what happens if the length of something varies depending on the fineness of the scale we use to measure it?

Things like that don't happen, you say? Wrong. Measure any natural coastline. Begin by indicating its length in miles but stepping a mile long ruler (do this on a map) from one end point to the next. If you use a 1/2-mile long scale the coastline measurement will INCREASE! Why? Because you will catch more variations in the coastline at a half-mile than at a mile.
Increase the fineness of the measurement scale and the length of the coast will increase even more as every little brook and stream and inlet gets marked by that scale. Theoretically, it would seem that every coastline expands to infinity as our scales become finer and finer -- except for the fact that as we approach molecular levels there would be variation, if not confusion, as to what would be the length of the coastline.

(You can check this out on Wikipedia at "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension")

Is This Proof of No Meaning, No Knowledge, No Length? Not at all. But it does show that the ideas of precision that were drummed into us as part of our basic education deserve a more critical review than we might think.

If you've ever wondered what the criticism meant when you were told that your speech, or your writing or your ideas were "imprecise," you were not exhibiting stupidity. What precision is, exactly, as regards speech, writing or thought, is seldom explained: either from lack of knowledge on the part of the critic; or, from the critic's desire to maintain a position of dominance over you -- no doubt for reasons of "moral discipline."

In much schooling, quantification is appealed to precisely because it seems to enhance "precision" in discussion and investigation. However, Deborah Stone offers some telling criticisms about this practice especially as it is used to support the domination of some people by others. See for example, "Using Quantitative Procedures Wisely".


--- EGR

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Does a Consensus Mean, Anyway?

It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree.(C'est par le malentendu universel que tout le monde s'accorde.) – Baudelaire

We might be inclined to agree with Baudelaire. In many situations, people caught up in the enthusiasm of a crowd or hypnotized by the rhetoric of a ceremony claim to be in agreement with one another -- and, they often fervently believe it to be so.

The bride and groom at a wedding ceremony may agree to "love, honor and obey." But question them privately afterwards and you will find discrepancies between what each of them explains is their understandings of those words. If no discrepancies initially turn up, ask them after the honeymoon is over.

However, what Baudelaire seems to overlook is that an agreement is often little more than an expression of concession or acquiescence. Faced with a potential impasse, parties may make concessions or acquiesce in a formulation of mutual responsibilities that none really find optimal.

Why would they do such a thing? Because, by examining their options parties to a negotiation may find out that concession or acquiescence is less costly than disrupting relationships with their opponents by, say, walking away. You don’t sever relations with someone you might need to depend on in the future, even if, for the moment, you might strongly disagree with them. (See Choosing The Lesser Evil: a Moral Failure?)

Such realities keep unsatisfied voters from switching political party, bad marriages from divorce or antagonistic nations from war.

To examine these issues further, see The Indeterminacy of Consensus

--- EGR

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Common Sense, or Merely Common Hubris?

“Nothing is more fairly distributed than common sense: no one thinks he needs more of it than he already has.” ― René Descartes, Discourse on Method

Hume was on to something. John Locke had proposed that our senses responded to our experience by presenting sensations to the mind. The mind in turn worked to store these sensations as memories or to connect and then store these sensations as complex memories.

David Hume saw Locke’s theory as disabling the distinction between what we nowadays call “correlation” and “causation.” Our sensations are of events in our experience. All we can observe through our senses, even our senses amplified by instruments, are events. But we are in the habit of believing in cause and effect if one kind of event is consistently followed by events of another, different kind.

Indeed this tendency to connect one predecessor class of events to another following class gives rise to the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, “after that, therefore because of that.” For example, people more often feel queasy after eating raw clams, than after eating zucchini; so, they think, "Raw clams cause queasiness more so than does zucchini.” (But what if people who eat raw clams stuff themselves more frequently than those who eat zucchini?}

Between correlated event-classes we do not observe an intermediate event, a causal nexus, as it is sometimes called, that helps us distinguish between causation and “mere” correlation. True. But there is another way to look at this.

Maintaining Cause and Effect. Immanuel Kant attempted a rescue by proposing that Locke had gotten it wrong. The Mind (in German, Verstand, translated both as “mind” and as “understanding,” -- not Seele or Sinn also translatable as “mind”) does not merely make connections of sensation brought in through the senses. The Mind’s very structure tends to process correlative event classes as cause and effect. We can hardly help but understand -- at least initially -- repeated correlation as indicating cause. This theory has been found to be much more attractive in the US since the withering of radical Behaviorism in the later 20th Century. (See A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy )

However, invoking some logic, there is a more direct way of thinking about it. We can accept Hume, yet maintain the distinction between correlation and causation. Consider universal negatives, which are statements that propose that, at any place or at any time, something is not; or, that nothing is, a certain way or thing.

For example, “There are no such thing as dragons,” or, what is logically equivalent, “There are no dragons, anywhere, ever.” The issue here is not whether the claim of the non-existence of dragons is true or false; but, whether there is an observation we -- or beings like us, of limited breadth of experience in space and time -- can perform to establish it.

Note that it is easier to disprove a negative universal than to establish it. The find of one dragon disproves it. But despite a very, very large number of failures to find a dragon, any claim that they don’t exist is not proven by that failure. It was, in fact, widely believed in the 19th Century and earlier that there was no such thing as a black swan. There are, in Australia. Also, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous, e.g. there was no such thing as a tomato that could safely eaten by humans. We know differently.

Reconsider the example given above about the relation of eating raw claims and queasiness. The very argument against its being causation demonstrates that we bring much more to such a causal claim than a narrow consideration of correlation: we consider possible alternatives, or intermediaries, standardly characterized as confounding or mediating variables. A host of assumptions and presuppositions supports our observational reports.(See Identifying Trans-ideological Epistemological Presuppositions)

The “Common Sense” of American School Reform. There is always the possibility of hidden, overlooked or disregarded causes or effects that undermine an assertion that one situation causes another. As many have discovered, an apparent “common-sense” causal relation can disappear under closer scrutiny due to confounding or mediating variables.

There are a host of causal myths involved with American education, primary, secondary, and higher, be it public, private or parochial. For example:

Bad or insensitive teachers are the primary cause of failing students.

Students have learning styles. Teachers can teach to them, i.e. no child is unteachable.

College is a pure waste of time, i.e. nothing worth the cost is learned.

Today’s schools are in a position to forestall 21st Century employment problems.
(See References to Schooling Myths.)

Such “common sense” beliefs underlie the hubris that drives a great many of today’s school reform undertakings. Their prospect is to continue on in a century-long American tradition: the cavalier waste of mis-aimed scarce resources leading to reform failure.

To examine these and related issues at greater length, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?)

--- EGR

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Looking for Authors

A new education policy journal, New Educational Foundations seeks articles, book reviews and columns.

New Educational Foundations is an independent, refereed, electronic education journal created by the former editors of Educational Horizons. (Phi Delta Kappa repurposed Horizons when they purchased Pi Lambda Theta.)

In addition to provocative reading, the journal offers publishing opportunities for faculty, and capable students.

Here are links to those issues:
Issue 1, New Educational Foundations

Issue 2, New Educational Foundations

Issue 3, New Educational Foundations

Send submissions to:

A decision will be made within three weeks. We are more interested in substance than form, so we accept any standard academic style. To facilitate blind review, the author’s name and institutional affiliation should not be on the article itself.

Unlike most journals, NEF is free. Readers are asked to contribute only if they find the journal valuable. Our first three issues have been downloaded more than 50,000 times to date.

We also want to let you know about the multi-interest website, It was painstakingly constructed pro bono over the past decade and now serves over 3 million yearly visitors. It offers an abundance of free resources and welcomes worthy new content and links. Send them to:


Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed.D.
Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Support Disappearing for the “Common Core:” what that tells us about education reform.

by Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed.D.

A fundamental lack of agreement concerning the means and ends of public schooling is the basic reality that has troubled, presently troubles and will continue to trouble every serious national school improvement effort. The only way to generate broad national consensus is by formulating goals that are so vague as to be practically useless.

This even applies to goal setting at the local level. Google search a sample of school district mission statements and see for your self. Most consist entirely of happy talk and buzz words. It is in this way that a broad, but mud puddle shallow, consensus is maintained. But if we press for details, the broad consensus invariably disappears.

At first it looked as if the “Common Core,” which focuses on “core skills” and is supposed to promote “real understanding,” was the exception. It appeared to enjoy wide public support. Forty-six states initially joined in. But the latest PDK/Gallup poll of the public’s attitude toward public education shows that as people learn more about the “Common Core,” their support vanishes.

The early absence of public opposition was apparently born of ignorance. A year ago two thirds of those polled said they hadn’t even heard of these standards. Now more than three-quarters have heard of them; and 60% of those surveyed don’t like what they heard.

This isn’t the first time public support for national education standards have evaporated. Two decades ago President Clinton urged standards-based school reform; and Congress responded by passing the Educate America Act. It featured wildly ambitious, although vague and sloganistic, goals. One objective, for instance, was that by the year 2000 every child was would enter school ready to learn. Other goals were that: U.S. students would be first in the world in mathematics and science; every school would be free of drugs, violence unauthorized firearms and alcohol; and every school will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

Who wouldn’t welcome such utopian, if vague, outcomes? But experienced educators could only wonder what Congress had been smoking when they passed such a law, because it certainly could never be realized. But before their unachievable goals went up in flames, Congress wisely backed off, deemphasized standards, and substituted a loosely linked string of projects and computer purchases.

Then, in 2002, came No Child Left Behind. Here again, Congress attempted to set national standards. But they dodged the consensus bullet by defining key standards so vaguely that it gave states lots of wriggle room. For instance, states are required to employ only “highly qualified” teachers and set “one high, challenging standard” for every student. But each state is permitted to establish its own definitions of these terms.

The wimpy result was utterly predictable. With few exceptions, state officials did their level best to adopt definitions that suited their existing circumstances. With the shameless aid of President Obama, for instance, California officials circumvented a federal court ruling and straight facedly declared novice interns “highly qualified” teachers — which is the logical equivalent of declaring black, white. Why do this? They are unwilling or unable to make teaching in California’s educational Calcutta’s sufficiently attractive to draw and retain teachers who actually are ”highly qualified.”

No Child Left Behind also requires schools receiving Title I funding (based on the number of impoverished kids enrolled) to make “adequate yearly progress.” But here they made the mistake made in writing the Educate America Act: namely, instituting impossible requirements. In this case they prescribed that all students must reach 100% proficiency in grade level math and reading by 2014, under penalty of mandatory intervention. Well, 2014 is here, and the patent ridiculousness of this goal now is obvious to all. Or perhaps I should say, obvious to all but the most incorrigible Pollyanna’s. Of course, any competent educator could have told them this demand was preposterous — had they condescended to ask.

Predictably, these would-be reformers are now confronted with a long and rapidly growing list of abject failures to meet NCLB’s requirements What should be done? Well the feds certainly cannot intervene as the law prescribes. The disruption would be epic. So, the practical “solution” is to grant waiver after waiver. In fact, since February of 2012, 43 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers. In fact, NCLB might eventually be washed away by a tsunami of waivers that were necessitated by the law’s unrealizable requirements.

Federal politicians, past and present, claim that they build wiggle room, discretion and definitional laxity into their educational goal setting to avoid excessive federal oversight. But tightly defined national standards would, in fact, be political suicide. Why? Because their formulation collides head-on with the fundamental reality that Americans cannot agree on what the nation’s school kids should know or be able to do — or, for that matter, how they should learn it.

What is to be done? Well, to avoid the consensus problem, “leadership” will continue to concoct vague goals. This strategy pushes more and more actual decision-making onto frontline educators. The closer one gets to actual classroom practice, the more counterproductive vague goals are. When it’s time to actually teach somebody something, you can’t feed that bulldog bullshit. Real decisions have to be made. That's why the motto that Harry Truman displayed on his presidential desk fits every frontline educator: "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!" Of course, where the buck stops, so does the blame.

For examples and to examine these issues further, see The Nature of Consensus)


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Public Schooling Discourages Critical Thinking
by Gary K Claubaugh, Ed. D.

Exploring A Fundamental Conflict

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and just about all of them say they teach 'critical thinking.' In fact if you combine "critical thinking," "school district," and "mission statement" in a Google search you get 1,650,000 results.

Click on any one of them and you will find mission statements like this one from the Mountain Crest High School in Utah's Cache County School District.

"Students will have the ability to acquire new knowledge, solve complex problems, and apply learning to new situations with creative and critical thinking."

Friends, we have trouble …

A laudable goal; but imagine encouraging Utah youngsters to apply it to the Book of Mormon. This Mormon source authority asserts that the Amerindians have, among their ancestors, remnants of the House of Israel. So let's suppose that a Mountain Crest High School teacher attempting to fulfill his school's mission statement, asks his students to research what contemporary scholars have to say about the Amerindian's gene pool; then apply what they have learned to the Book of Mormon.

The students would soon discover that scientific experts all agree that there is no trace of the House of Israel in Amerindian's DNA. This discovery would demonstrate their "ability to acquire new knowledge." Now they are expected to apply their learning to new situations. In this case their discovery that the Book of Mormon's account is incorrect. What sort of creative and critical thinking might come out of that? One possibility is that if a Mormon holy book is wrong about this, it might be wrong about other things.

Plainly this lesson is in keeping with Cache County School District's mission statement. And there is little doubt that this is critical thinking in action. But would the youngster's parents— especially those that are Mormons — celebrate this achievement? What about the general reaction of Mormons in Cache County? Think they would be happy? Or would this lesson stir up a ton of trouble for the teacher and the district.

Note that the critical thinking described is not mere logic chopping. The "these are the premises" and "this is a conclusion," sort of stuff. Formal logic sometimes passes for critical thinking in school districts, but it rarely results in a serious challenge to anything of consequence. We're talking about high impact thinking that systematically searches out and reconsiders deep assumptions that suppport our basic beliefs. We're also talking about the thinking that questions authority. Real critical thinking has to include these kinds of things or it is hardly critical.

Transfer of Learning

Some argue it isn't necessary to tackle sensitive issues head on; that if we teach generic methods for critical thinking, learners will eventually bring these tools to bear on important issues.

Too many things interfere with transfer of training to depend on this. To become critical thinkers, students must have well-focused opportunities to consider things that really matter. The trouble is, school officials understandably avoid fostering any thinking that might anger important components of the community. Their caution is understandable but this almost universal weaseling out gives the lie to thousands upon thousands of critical thinking mission statements.

Critical Thinking v. Socialization

There is a deep-seated but largely unnoticed conflict at work here. Yes, in the abstract, educators are expected to teach youngsters to think. But they also are expected to socialize students to think and behave in ways that are accepted in their community. And to the extent that students do, in fact, think critically, to that extent they might decide to reject these community norms.

This does not vex educators whose minds are untroubled by critical thought. They champion critical thinking while remaining blissfully unaware of where it might lead. But thoughtful educators know that teaching kids to think can lead to their questioning deeply held community values and beliefs. And this will result in epic hassles with parents and other community members. So it's no surprise that thoughtful teachers tend to be cautious and typically try to avoid such conflicts by adopting the pedagogical equivalent of a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.


Public educators routinely celebrate critical thinking; but they characteristically avoid setting that process in motion. Luckily, bright students with inquisitive minds find lots of food for thought outside-of-school. And that is where most of them will have to do their critical thinking.

A consideration of other basic tensions in schooling is available here:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Rites, Rules, and Regulations:
constraining, or enabling competition?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. -- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter X, Part II

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. -- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chapter 13.
Taming Leviathan. People tend to fear guns and pitbulls, unless they can control them for their own purposes. Similarly with competition. Corporations work to forestall inroads by employee unions. Unions, once accepted, struggle to establish closed shops. Sectarian priesthoods struggle against each other even as their laities, unless severely tamed, pursue religion despite priestly warnings against going beyond Church walls.

Bluntly put, whether competition is looked upon as a benefit or a threat depends upon who is looking and whose interests are threatened. But it is a widely-used, critical stratagem to obscure or deny this insight into idiosyncrasy.

So it is that we often hear those who feel threatened by possible competition -- whether “liberal” or “conservative" -- to decry “selfish individualism,” “lack of social conscience,” or “pernicious relativism.” Those who see that same competition as offering them an advantage welcome it as “personal liberty,” “transformative social benefit,” or “a fundamental social dynamic.” (See Believer vs Atheist, Conservative vs Liberal, and other distracting frauds.)

Moral Talk. The assumption of the moralist -- and I don’t mean to dismiss or demean it here -- is that human actions can be evaluated not only on a scale between effective-ineffective, or wise-unwise but also as good-bad. What makes the moral dimension special is that good-bad characterizations are intended to prescribe or proscribe for everyone, whereas a single individual’s action may be judged as effective-ineffective or wise-unwise for his purposes alone without prescribing or proscribing that action for others.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin is purported to have said, dismissing Winston Churchill’s concern with the Pope’s influence. Clearly, moral importunity can be proferred where either knowledge or power is lacking. The ancient philosophical chestnut is accurate: Is is not Ought. And even evils themselves can be morally recommended, whereas non-facts and unwisdoms are not.

”Moral” Language as Constructive. There is an interesting use of moral language which has little or nothing to do with Good or Evil. Imagine that you are involved in a game. You and your competitor are being closely watched by a referee of some sort. Ask yourself, why, when you play, say, chess, (or baseball, or scrabble…) you should follow the rules of the game?

Well, if your intent is to best your opponent at chess, (or baseball or scrabble) then (being caught} “cheating” invalidates any result you might accomplish by your deviance. “Game-morality” is constitutive morality: what it is you are doing is only recognized and awarded as such if you concede to the restrictions of the game's rules.

Whatever game-competition occurs, only occurs by virtue of the moral framework of the rules. All your boxing skills matter little if you bite your opponent’s ear off.

But to play a game you have to concede consensus to a framework of rules and regulations. Game-moralities are generally not controversial for consensual participants: mostly because participation is optional. An interesting point: although people may compete with each other within a framework of rules that constitute a game, competition among people is not possible across the boundaries that distinguish one game-type (say, chess and checkers). from another. Rules and regulations define what is recognizable as within-game competition.

“Life-Morality” is not a Game. By way of contrast, morality when pursued outside of well-defined games, is not proposed as merely optional, a matter, say, of choosing a pasttime. People who propose life moralities, e.g. religions, ethical systems, class or tribal mores, etc. are not usually offering choices among competing options.

A strategem used by moralists of this sort is to not recognize differing views as competitors, but as deviants from the Truth or from Right Thinking, e.g. heretics, apostates, the invincibly ignorant, etc. Moral language in this context insinuates a consensus that tends to be highly restricted to “the faithful.” Such language is highly sloganistic, generating, even among members of a given congregation, false consensus on the meanings of basic concepts of faith. (See Slogans: junkfood, dead-weight or poison? )

So it is that you can find increasing numbers of people who hold that their personal faith alone guarantees their salvation, although their consensus on what defines such things as faith, charity, mercy, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and even God, is rather haphazard, even when they refer, for example, to a common Bible. (See God, Church and Schooling for Democracy: American Faith in "Faith.")

Can Competition Be Moral? Those of us who see competition as an expression of individual liberty have to (a moral “have to”?) face an interesting conundrum. It is rules and regulations which provide the frameworks within which competition can be judged to be something more than merely efficient or wise. For Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, morality -- for them, Enlightenment Christian morality -- provided such a framework within which economic competition could be allowed to be “free.”

Present-day claims that fewer governmental constraints must necessarily increase benefits to society as a whole, are not so much the conclusions of arguments based on the theories of Smith and Burke. Rather, they are masks for present-day agendas of dubious morality. (See Masks: Words That Hide Agendas)

For more information on these and related issues, see Choosing The Lesser Evil: a Moral Failure?

--- EGR

Sunday, August 3, 2014

School Reform and the Pathology of Domination
by Gary K. Clabaugh

Present school “reforms” involve non-consultative top-down changes that are force-fed to gagging teachers. Research reveals that this approach not only doesn’t work, it is counterproductive. Successful innovation requires voluntary, highly motivated participants.[1] Forced change, on the other hand, produces frustration and anxiety while it increases resistance to change.[2]
Unfortunately, this imperious style of school reform is bipartisan. It characterizes both conservatives and liberals. William Bennett, the blowhard Clown Prince of Education in Reagan’s day, gave top-down school reform a distinct right wing edge. But these days the left wing Arne Duncan, President Obama’s conspicuously unqualified Secretary of Education, is up to the same tricks.

Since teachers must implement classroom change, their resistance to strong-arm tactics can be quite effective. They have numerous opportunities to suffocate imposed change, ranging from half-hearted, foot dragging to outright sabotage. And, when they close their classroom door, some of them do resist. Too often, though, they just stew silently or even blame themselves.

Autocratic Reform and Teacher Morale

The condescending style of school reform dates way back to the days when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were self-satisfied males. Today’s “reformers” are far less chauvinistic but every bit as patronizing.

Sometimes it does seem that teachers, or at least teacher’s unions, reflexively oppose change. And the widespread perception that teachers stand in the way of needed reform is a major motivation for imposed change. But resistance is a common response to any major change in any organization.[3] And if those changes are being pushed on you by people who are disrespectful and don’t even ask for your opinion, resistance is sensible. But the would-be “reformer’s” react to the resistance they themselves provoke by becoming even more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful.

To neutralize teacher resistance they design straightjacket policies, dramatically reduce teacher authority, and ratchet up coercion via so-called “accountability” measures. And they do these things with complete disregard for its impact on teacher morale. They seem incapable of imagining the negative state of mind their actions promote. In fact, the most authoritarian reformers have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their “reforms” on those who must carry them out.

The Myopic View from Olympus

One reason policy makers fail to appreciate that they need teacher cooperation is how far removed they are far from classroom realities. Many top-down “reforms” seem plausible when viewed from the Olympus of Capital Hill or the White House. They also seem reasonable in the think tanks of plutocrats. They even seem credible in the rarified atmosphere of a state capital. But on the ground, at the classroom level, non-consultative, out of touch, top-down change fuels resentment and mistrust, lowers teacher morale, and decreases teacher effectiveness.

Sure teachers must be held accountable for being informed, caring and doing their best with the resources they command. But contemporary reformers go way beyond that. They demand that teachers be miracle workers who can somehow nullify anything that impacts school achievement. Never mind what goes on in the home, on the street, in the community, the economy, and so forth. There are “no excuses.” In other words, if a child fails in school it is ultimately attributable to some teacher’s failure! What humbug!

The “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

Teachers know from bitter experience that what the boss calls “excuses” are often well-founded explanations. And researchers have found that a major source of employee resistance to change is fear of failure in a new environment.[4] So what are the reformers doing? They are demanding change that literally allows no room for failure no matter what intrudes. Who wouldn’t be fearful of that craziness? And who, with any guts, would fail to resist?

Reformers say they simply are requiring teachers to outgrow “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Common sense says this is rubbish. And, because it trivializes the misery, hardship and suffering that many children daily endure; it’s heartless rubbish as well. Push aside the privacy concealing what goes on at home can be horrifying and inexpressibly sad. Do these horrific situations influence what the child learns at school? Of course they do. Can teachers change these situations? Generally they cannot. In fact they often remain totally hidden.

Adding to out-of-school difficulties are the many in school things that influence educational outcomes yet are beyond teacher control. If those in authority build inhumanly large schools, if penny-pinching results in overcrowded classrooms and inadequate support, if school boards wrangle while school buildings fall apart, if school managers select wretched textbooks or badly constructed instructional packages, if school administrators fail to curb bullying and/or tolerate chaos, teachers must live with the results.

Accountability Without Authority

Teachers endure all of these limitations, yet in today’s “no excuses” environment they still are held to account when kids get “left behind.” In fact, if President Obama were to get his way on incentive pay, teachers will take a hit in the wallet if the kids score poorly on those misbegotten high stakes tests.

Research reveals us that accountability without authority fuels frustration, generates feelings of futility, feeds resentment, causes anxiety, worry, depression, aggression and, if the stress continues, a decline in performance.[5] It eventually leads to resignation and learned helplessness.[6]

Moreover, those unfairly held accountable hold back information, refuse cooperation and suppress dissent within their ranks — all in self-defense. Researcher Kenwyn Smith describes this sort of reaction formation as “the pathology of domination.” Pray tell, how is inflicting this on teachers going to improve our schools?

[1] Paul Berman and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. VIII, Implementing and Sustaining Innovations, R-1589/8—HEW (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, May 1978).
[2] Piderit, S.K. (2000, Oct). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management -794. A, 783
[3] Albert Bolognese, Employee Resistance to Organizational Change, 2002 (
[4] Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L.A. (1979). Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review 106 - 114.
[5] Stress, Shared Resource,
[6] Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict: Prisons in Disguise (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1982).

For more information on school reform see:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What’s Wrong With Teacher Accountability?
by Gary K. Clabaugh

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s simple-minded and dehumanizing! And here is why.

Think back to the best and worst teachers you ever had. Then ask yourself what you learned from each. I’m not just asking about subject matter, mind you. I’m asking what you learned.

Here is what I’m getting at. The best teacher I ever had was Dr. Frederick Fuhr. He was my 7th grade world history teacher. Sure he taught me some history. But 60 years later I can’t remember what it was. What I do remember, and what made him the best teacher I ever had, wasn’t his presentation of the subject matter. It was his courage and determination.

Crippled by a bout of childhood polio, Dr. Fuhr’s legs were paralyzed. Encased in full-length metal braces he had to swing this dead weight pendulum-like as he struggled forward on his crutches. But although he had difficulty even standing, he still stood head and shoulders above all my other teachers. Why? Because of the way he daily conquered adversity. I marveled at his guts and determination.

So what did he teach me that has lasted all these years? He taught me how important true grit really is. Would Dr. Fuhr’s students have faired well on a standardized test? I don’t know. What I do know is that every kid who had him enjoyed a unique opportunity to learn things of great personal worth.

Now to the worst teacher I ever had and what she taught me. Since there may have been extenuating circumstances for her transgressions, let’s allow her to remain nameless. We’ll just call her Miss Smith. Anyway, Miss Smith presided heavy-handedly over my 4th grade class. Obese, unattractive and mean-spirited, she sucked the joy from learning like a shop vac. Worse, she was ever vigilant for opportunities to inflict psychic and/or physical pain on her 10 year-old charges. (In those days teachers could do that with relative impunity.)

What did I learn from her? So far as subject matter is concerned, I don’t remember. But I vividly remember learning to tread carefully in the presence of a tyrant. My father reinforced this lesson. I complained to him about Miss Smith early on. Her reputation was well established, and he acknowledged that my complaint was likely valid. But knowing there was only one 4th grade in my school, and having been knocked about quite a bit by life himself, he explained what I must do. “Your job,” he said, “is to figure out how to deal with her. You’ll have to deal with more like her in the future.” I eventually did figure out how to shield my soul from her withering presence. And, just as my father predicted, this lesson is one I have used over and over.

Would Miss Smith’s students have done well on a high stakes test? They might have. She sure scared hell out of everyone and fear might well have been sufficient motivation. But would this mean she was a good teacher?

The point of all this could not be simpler. The most real, the most lasting, aspect of schooling is not the subject matter, but the teachers. In a very real sense, they are the curriculum. Why is it necessary to remind “reformers of this elemental fact? Perhaps because this fact doesn’t matter if all you care about is U.S. workers besting foreign workers at compliant efficiency. But it surely does matter if your aim is to educate wiser and more decent human beings.

If the past is prologue, we will eventually get over this latest of school “reform” crazes. (We ultimately shook off a remarkably similar obsession with school efficiency during the second decade of the 20th Century.) In the meantime, though, it is foolish and destructive to continue this focus on standardized test scores as the key measure of teacher effectiveness.

Instead of trying to assess teachers as we do assembly line workers, let’s focus on whether they are knowledgeable persons of integrity and honor who are caring, in touch with human feelings, capable of inspiring hope, and of igniting imagination. Is that a tall order? You bet. But so is good teaching. Are these things hard to measure? Of course they are. But, they are supremely important nonetheless; and it dehumanizes both teacher and student to pretend otherwise.

For more on this see:
See also:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

by Gary K. Clabaugh

Well, I got my window shield so filled

With flags I couldn't see.

So, I ran the car upside a curb

And right into a tree.

By the time they got the doctor down
I was already dead.
And I’ll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said …

But your flag decal won’t get you
Into Heaven any more …

John Prine, Lyrics: “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More”

A super-patriot in my community plasters his car with American flags and right wing bumper stickers. His latest reads: “Liberalism = Socialism = Communism = Treason!” I’ll bet most liberals don’t even know that they are socialists, much less communists and traitors.

By fanatically embracing the black and white world of dogmatic ideology, this fellow escapes the irksome burdens of freedom. He knows all the answers and keeps his mind as tightly closed as a bear trap.

Imagine him showing up at a school board meeting, accompanied by a coterie of like-minded fanatics, and fueled by righteous indignation about, say, the “un-American” content of a history text. His dogmatism would make reasonable discussion impossible. Conversation would inevitably become confrontation because his blind embrace of the politics of the end-time forbids the give and take required for democratic living.

It is the nature of true believers to allow no room for compromise. In their world one can chose only from false dichotomies: white or black, God or Satan, true Americanism or treason. They will not grant that their opponents might even be a little right. Anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong; they are either a fool or a scoundrel. And if the true believers are of the religious variety, those who disagree with them can only be dupes or agents of Satan.

America’s diversity makes it difficult to establish in-depth consensus about much of any thing. That’s why school policy is debated, then re-debated. In a diverse democracy this is to be expected. But that is not what happens when true believers hijack these debates. Then things quickly turn ugly. Insisting that they, and only they, have been entrusted with absolute truth, these dogmatists quickly destroy all thoughtful deliberation and attempts at compromise. And their arrival is typically accompanied by anonymous hate mail, harassing phone calls, character assassination, deliberate lies and non-negotiable demands. When it comes to end-time conflicts, the end justifies the means.

Public schooling is a favorite target of true believers — probably because locally elected school boards are relatively easy to pressure. Reelection concerns and an understandable desire to avoid ugly confrontation can encourage board members to try appeasement. If religious zealots charge that including the Harry Potter series in the district’s libraries serves Beelzebub, for example, board members are tempted to quietly remove them.

If they do so, however, they soon will discover that true believers are never satisfied. With Harry Potter gone their attention will turn to other books, then to more vital matters.

When school leaders cave in to these coteries of true believing fanatics, it disembowels public education. Board members must take a stand against these zealots wherever and whenever they appear. Should they lack the guts to do so, or should they actually be one of these zealots, toss them out on their ear. Today’s educators have more than enough problems. They don’t need the school board abandoning them when extremists attack.

-- GKC

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Are Colleges Still Doing "Their Job?" (What is it?)

Were college academics better in the past? Were there real intellectual ivory towers?

From 1750 to 1800 the college curriculum was pretty much unchanged. For example, in 1802 - as Samuel Miller[1] tells it -- Harvard, for example, offered:
First Year: Arithmetic, English Grammar, French, Geography. Greek and Latin writers, Hebrew, Logic, Rhetoric, Universal History.

Second Year: Greek and Latin writers, Algebra, Arithmetic, French, Geography, Hebrew, History, Logic, Mensuration, Philosophy (Locke and Blair).

Third Year: Conic Sections, English Composition, Euclid, Forensic Disputations, Greek and Latin writers, History, Mensuration, Trigonometry.

Fourth Year: Astronomy, Elements of Natural and Political law, English Composition.Greek and Latin writers, Paley's Philosophy, Spheric Geometry and Trigonometry, Theology.

Don't some of these items seem rather elementary? Before we try to compare this curriculum with today’s college curricula, we should attempt to get answers to the following questions:

1. Who were the students this curriculum was prepared for? Ages? Background? Prospects?
2. How many attended college in 1802? How regularly?
3. Who taught this curriculum? How were they likely prepared to teach it?
4. How strict were the testing conditions? How frequent the tests?
5. What was at stake? Was the test retakable? How was it prepared for? (e.g. cram sessions?)[2]

College and University then were not what they are now. A lot came in between. And what they are now is not, unfortunately, what all too many people imagine them to be.[3]

For examples and to examine these issues further, see Are American Universities "Productive"? Definitely.)

--- EGR


[1] Samuel Miller, A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century in Two Volumes: Containing a Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science Arts, and Literature, during that Period (New York: T and J. Swords, 1803)

[2] A Classic on American Colleges is Frederick Rudolph. The American College & University. A History. 1960. U of Georgia Press.Throughout.

[3] For multiple essays on college and university organization, see Aspects of organizational functioning and culture.

Monday, June 23, 2014

by Gary K. Clabaugh

Immigrant children from every niche and cranny of the globe are flooding into our public schools; and bringing with them a bewildering array of cultural beliefs and practices.

Multiculturalists see this as an opportunity for teachers to turn their classrooms into multicultural rainbows where every shade of the worldwide social spectrum is encouraged to shine. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that the foreign values and behaviors brought into the schoolhouse can and do often clash with one another. Some cultures even define themselves, in part, by their deep and abiding animosity toward other cultures.

Worse still, foreign cultures not only clash with one another, they often clash with core American values. For example, Americans have finally concluded that women’s rights should equal those of men. But the cultures of some immigrant children oppose that entirely. Some even tolerate honor killings while insisting that it is acceptable for wives to be beaten by their husbands.

Americans also are slowly coming to accept homosexuals as worthy of the same rights as other human beings. Some other cultures still prefer stoning them to death.

Then there is the matter of religious tolerance. Americans have, over time, wisely decided to agree to disagree. But some other cultures still enthusiastically persecute any religion other than their own.

Despite all the present day multicultural hokum, it is child’s play to assemble a long list of cultural values and behaviors that are utterly unacceptable if America is to retain its hard-won tolerance. Plus, let’s keep in mind that many immigrant children do not even want to be defined by their parent’s cultural practices and affiliations. They long to escape these confines and join mainstream America. Should educators join forces with their parents to keep these kids in the old-world fold?

Immigrants bring much that is of value to America. We have no corner on living wisely. But that does not alter the fact that multicultural education is far more problematic than it’s evangelicals would have us believe. Let’s forego all their mindless happy talk and give this matter the serious consideration it deserves.

For a more detailed version of this blog see The Limits and Possibilities of 'Multiculturalism' also offers a number of other commentaries on multiculturalism.

--- Gary K. Clabaugh

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Affirmative Action: Who Deserves Special Consideration?
by Gary K. Clabaugh

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!"
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Affirmative action is intended to compensate for past and/or present bias, maltreatment or exploitation. Typically, however, this remedy is misapplied because policy makers fail to recognize numerous classes of victims.

What kinds of people are clear-cut victims of bias, but never included in affirmative action plans? Here is a sample:
The Physically Unattractive. Social psychology researchers have repeatedly documented the physical-attractiveness stereotype. Namely, the tendency to think that physically attractive people possess a greater number of positive traits such as: confidence, strength, assertiveness, candor, warmth, honesty, kindness, friendliness, sensitivity, poise and sociability.
Logically, then, physically unattractive people must be stereotyped as: more insecure, weaker, less assertive, more deceptive, meaner, more introverted, less sensitive, less poised and less sociable. Does that seem like a bias to you?

The Obese. Obesity is another, often overlooked, physical characteristic associated with discrimination and unfair treatment. Social psychological research on attitudes toward overweight people has shown they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive. Moreover, several studies have demonstrated that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals may contribute to discrimination in the work place. Why are the obese not included in affirmative action plans — particularly if obesity is less an achieved characteristic than an acquired one?

Short Statured Males. Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. Short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men. Moreover, short men experience discrimination in the workplace. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants, short men earn less on average than taller employees and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates.
Looks like a significant handicap to me. Why aren’t they entitled to affirmative action?

Some Other Factors. The various groups who experience discrimination are extensive. For instance, people with red hair color are stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" And negative stereotyping is also based on language and dialect. For example an African-American dialect or a Southern accent both trigger negative stereotypes accompanied by discrimination.

Negative stereotyping and discrimination victimize numerous classes of people. But what does all this have to do with affirmative action? The answer is, "everything." To avoid violating their own cardinal principle, affirmative action advocates must be prepared to apply compensatory measures to everyone victimized by prejudice? But this is not now the case. Currently, some people profit from affirmative action only because their particular group has sufficient muscle to be so qualified. Other groups are similarly disadvantaged, but their plight is completely ignored.

How About This? Here is an interesting way to put all of this together. Whom do you think would most likely land a well-paying executive position?
• An intelligent, well qualified, handsome, slim, tall African American male with cultivated speech, or
• An equally intelligent, well-qualified, but unattractive, obese, short Caucasian male with red hair and a thick Southern accent?

O.K., now which one of them is legally entitled to affirmative action?

Conclusion. The fact is there are many classes of people who are unfairly stereotyped and discriminated against. But it is practically impossible to grant them all compensatory treatment. What is more, since individuals differ, often very significantly, within groups, we risk injustice whenever, whether for good or ill, we shoe horn them into groups.

Admittedly, some individuals do deserve special consideration. Those who are physically and/or mentally handicapped are the clearest example. The limiting effects of things like brain trauma, cerebral palsy, blindness, and the like, can be so dramatic that it is perfectly reasonable to grant victims extraordinary considerations. Even here, though, individual differences matter.

I recall one of my college students who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy. This was before the Americans With Disabilities Act so he was not guaranteed any special accommodations. He was unable to print, much less write, so he asked to tape-record our classes. He also requested oral exams. I agreed. Nevertheless, I still required him to do all of the work at the same level of mastery as his classmates. To lower learning standards solely he was physically handicapped was unfair to them and to him.

He turned out to be one of my best students ever. He went on to law school and ultimately became my lawyer and friend. The individual differences that distinguished him, cerebral palsy notwithstanding, were that he was smart, hard working and courageous.

When all is said and done, there is only one fair, if far more complicated, course of action. Reject labels and rely on individual differences. This is far fairer than cramming people into carelessly considered categories then granting some special consideration while entirely overlooking others who merit the same special treatment.

For the original article, complete with references, see What's Fair? Equity in Educational Practice..

-- GKC

P.S. See also "Fair Share or Fair Play?"

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why American Educators Should NOT Prepare Students for the World of Work
by Gary K. Clabaugh

I once interviewed a candidate for Director of my university’s Graduate Teacher Education Program. She was a twenty-year administrative veteran of a big city school system who also had been superintendent of two suburban districts. During the interview she kept emphasizing preparing children for the world of work. So much so, in fact, that I began to wonder if she thought schools should do anything else.

I asked her if she also embraced other priorities. Looking puzzled, she replied, "Like what?" “How about encouraging the development of decent human beings?” I suggested. She frowned and said that sort of thing was up to parents and other non-school agencies. Then she added with a measure of condescension, "I seem to have a broader vision than you do of what education is about."

I still wonder how she came to that curious conclusion. But I have never wondered about the origin of her mindless commitment to schooling that focuses myopically on making the U.S. workforce more internationally competitive. That misbegotten priority has dominated every governmental education "reform" since A Nation At Risk— that 1983, Reagan-inspired, blanket condemnation of American public education.

An educator’s primary concern should not be making American workers more competitive. That goal is buncombe. American workers will remain uncompetitive so long as they earn more than their foreign counterparts, so long as public policy actually rewards the export of American jobs, and so long as corporate plutocrats care more about the thickness of their wallets than they do about America.

This is why educators should forget international competitiveness and concentrate instead on things like encouraging compassion, cultivating wisdom, sharpening thinking, searching for what is universal in the human experience, and helping kids to focus on value, not just price. No matter what our politicians and their minions urge, corporate interests should not be given priority over transcendent goals such as these.

Besides, this misdirection of public education is based on a phantasmagorical world of work that has little counterpart in reality. Far more radical changes in schooling would be required to actually prepare kids for the real world of work.

For instance, school leaders might want to further accelerate the rapidly growing outsourcing of school bus driving, cooking, janitorial services, and the like. Then more kids could actually witness loyal employees they may have known for years being discarded like an old shoe. The soon-to-be discarded might even be directed to visit classes and share their experience. Then students will be better prepared for the day when they too might be thrown away.

Periodically screwing the kids out of their lunch money would also be instructive. Leaving them hungry and frustrated would prepare them for the sort of corporate shenanigans that make retirement funds disappear.

Devoting ever-larger amounts of the school budget to administrative salaries and fringe benefits might also be helpful. It would prepare kids for a work world where employees are made worse off so that corporate chieftains can be even more ridiculously well off.

Educators might even want to close American schools, put the youngsters on the street, then open new schools for cheap-to-educate kids in places like India. That way students will be better prepared if their adult job is exported.

U.S. politicians have bullied educators about this world of work thing for so long that some have actually begun to think this is their proper prime directive. It is time for them to wise up and pursue more worthy objectives.

For additional thoughts on this topic, see Tracking in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?.

Best of Luck,

Gary K. Clabaugh

Friday, May 16, 2014

Oppositional Disorder: In Praise of the Therapeutic
by Gary K Clabaugh

There was a time when insufferable children were thought to be a product of parents failing to set limits and impose responsibilities. "Spoiled brats" was the common lexicon. But we now know that “brats" actually suffer from a medical condition called “oppositional disorder.”

According to the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, oppositional disorder's symptoms include:
(1) violations of minor rules
(2) temper tantrums
(3) argumentativeness
(4) provocative behavior
(5) stubbornness

We can easily see why it was thought to be “brattiness.”

Think how terribly misguided a trip to the woodshed was. Reflect on how off the mark more modern remedies, like "grounding," still are. Even now, well into the 21st Century, we lack adequate appreciation of the disorder and its insidious subtlety. Parents are still trying to "cure" Johnny by means of time-outs and the like. They must be brought to realize that he instead needs:
• Clinical diagnosis via psychological testing and assessment
• Chart notes, a case history, test reports, and probably
• Psychotherapy and/or behavior therapy possibly combined with
• Psychopharmacological treatment using drugs such as: Ritalin, Librium or Haldol.

Reactionaries claim that the therapeutic model of child rearing (and schooling) has gotten out of hand. They think that brats still exist and blame the absence of firm, consistent, loving, discipline. Extreme skeptics even think that the therapeutic approach enjoys growing popularity chiefly because it:
• Enriches clinicians,
• Increases drug company profits and
• Relieves parents (and school officials) of the onerous responsibility of actually enforcing their own rules.

Those of us who have achieved a therapeutic view know better. We recognize "brattiness" as a dangerous relic from a blame-happy past. There are no brats, only sick children. And thankfully, given adequate therapy and appropriate drugs, the illness that torments them can usually be controlled.

For a more personalized version of these thoughts, see:
Oppositional Disorder

-- GKC

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Sorrows of A Life-Long Teacher Educator
By Gary K. Clabaugh

I retired recently after having worked at preparing teachers for forty-three years. I ultimately concluded that I had chosen the wrong line of work. Why? Because my colleagues and I were trying to do teacher education right when no one of influence really gave a damn.

I spent my career at a Catholic college run by a religious teaching order. I reasoned that a school run by such an order would take pride in its teacher education program. But I failed to adequately consider that this was a liberal arts college.

In that environment the education department was Thursday's child. First-class teacher education was a second-class concern. The administration’s focus was not on the skill of our graduates but how much tuition we generated. Even when we developed trend-setting programs, no one in power could be persuaded to come and take a look. Unlike the win-loss record of our varsity basketball team, no one important really gave a damn.

Decade after decade the resources we worked with remained embarrassingly meager. The vast bulk of the ample revenue we generated disappeared into the General Fund. Very little was reinvested in properly equipping our program.

When I retired I still was teaching in a classroom that was embarrassingly similar to the first grade classroom of my childhood — vintage1946. The only difference was that the desks were not bolted to the floor and lacked inkwells. The room did not even have a bulletin board much less modern electronics.

I really shouldn’t blame college management for their unconcern. In America, indifference to the quality of teacher preparation bubbles all the way to the top. Consider that President Obama and his political hack Secretary of Education reclassified teacher interns as "highly qualified teachers." Why would they do a crazy thing like that?

So that states like California could hire thousands of rank amateurs to staff classrooms in their educational Calcuttas but still “meet” the No Child Left Behind requirement that all teachers be "highly qualified." This may have been the first time in history that rank beginners were officially declared "highly qualified." It was Orwell’s 1984 all over again! War was Peace! Love was Hate! Ignorance was Strength! Novices were Highly Qualified."

If I could start my life’s work over I would choose a career the American people really care about. On-line porn might be good, or devising ways to make napalm stick more tenaciously. The nation seems eager to invest in these sorts of things. But absolutely no one of influence gives a damn if teacher preparation is done well or not. So best leave that task to those who enjoy futility.

For more on this topic, see Cannonfodder: Preparing Teachers for Public Schools )

-- GKC

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Critical Thinking About “Critical Thinking”?

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them say they teach critical thinking. Google “critical thinking” and “mission statement” and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”

Commendable; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters in Lordstown learned to truly, seriously and boldly scrutinize the nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose they even learned to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? No doubt that they would be thinking critically. But would educators who facilitate this sort of inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?

Let’s be clear, by “critical thinking” we do not mean mere logic chopping. You know, the “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing that sometimes passes for critical thinking. That sort of thing is harmless because it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed.

No, by critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that most of us take for granted. And we also include questioning authority — including sacred and semi-sacred source documents as well as those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include this sort of thing or it is hardly critical.

To get kids thinking, for instance, educators could familiarize them with the well-known argument from evil. It maintains that a loving God would permit only as much physical suffering as is absolutely necessary to achieve the greater good. Yet the world is stuffed full of seemingly unnecessary misery. What, we could ask students, is one to make of this?

Is that one too religious for public school? Then how about a high school assignment such as this? “We are often told that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. Working together, decide what standards you think should be used to measure a nation’s greatness; then use those standards to compare the United States with other nations.

Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle such issues head on; that by teaching generic critical thinking methods learners will eventually bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But such transfer of learning cannot be relied upon. If we want young people to really think critically, we must provide them with direct and well-focused opportunities to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter.

T0 examine these issues further, see Additional Reflections on Critical Thinking)


Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Why Web Usage Statistics Are (Worse Than) Meaningless

This post, "Why web usage statistics are (worse than) meaningless," clears up many misconceptions about website statistics. Take special note about what a "hit" designates; and, why many hits may be insignificant for judging the amount of interest in your website.

Also, see why you should be skeptical about purveyors of SEO, especially those who promise substantial increase in "hits" as though they were necessarily significant.

Just take any html document and add graphics. For each occasion of access, the html document counts as one "hit" and each associated graphic adds another "hit." Such increase in "hits" does not indicate a substantive increase in text document traffic.

Take careful note of the issue of caching.

Here is the link for the article: On Interpreting Access Statistics


EG Rozycki

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Worm Turns: Testing the Candidates

The current governmental infatuation with one-size-fits-all standardized testing is a concern of many. But there is a remedy for this illicit love affair. Require every candidate for political office to take a battery of standardized tests. Then we will widely and repeatedly publicize the result. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes the net, we will also require aspiring high level government appointees, such as candidates for Secretary of Education, to also take the tests.

We could require every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he/she prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for high schoolers. Imagine him sweating and scratching his noggin.

Similarly we could require every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they propose requiring of aspiring teachers. In Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, and Listening Skills, (The later would be a tough one for any politician.).

An alternate plan is to design office specific skill and knowledge tests. A candidate for President of the United States, for instance, would be tested on their knowledge of world geography test, US and world history, basic economics, the environment and so forth. We could turn to ETS or the Psychological Corporation to craft the items. And they would be finalized only after a painstaking vetting. Blue ribbon boards would appraise and reappraise every question. Then every candidate’s test results would be announced to the world.

We could also test their moral and ethical views. Admittedly, dishonest answers would be a problem and safeguards clearly are required. One possibility is to administer this particular test while test-takers are hooked up to lie detectors. Imagine a candidate sweating and squirming as the polygraph relentlessly tells the tale. “Is that your actual answer? Is that your final honest answer?” (Philadelphia’s infamous late Duce/Mayor Frank Rizzo once failed a lie detector test while trying to prove the device’s reliability. Evidently the polygraph was more discerning than voters.) Alternatively, we could inject test-takers with scopolamine, a truth serum favored by secret policemen the world over. The test would be administered orally as the subjects drift guilelessly on a tripped out cloud.

Regardless of the method, however, we would have to be absolutely certain that our subjects answer truthfully. And we should keep in mind that most of them would be unaccustomed to doing this.

That, in broad outline, is the plan. But it needs filling in. That’s where you can help. Tell us what you think. Should aspirants for public office take the same tests they prescribe for others, or should they be required to take brand new custom designed tests of character and job-related knowledge. And should we test just once, or every year the person is in office? (Longitudinal testing has the obvious advantage of measuring whether or not the subject is improving while “serving.”)

You also might like to suggest specific test items. They need not be multiple choice. All types of questions typically found on standardized tests are welcome. Rush your comments and test item suggestions to The Worm Turns Foundation, c/o Newfoundations, P.O. Box 94, Oreland, PA 19075, or post them here.

To examine these issues further, see Justice Through Testing .

Best Wishes,

--- G K Clabaugh

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Choosing The Lesser Evil: a Moral Failure?

Must Moral Rules Be Taught as Universally Absolutely Binding? Yes, by definition, it would seem. Otherwise, what makes them morals, “sacred values,” rather than merely effective procedures pursing likely only narrow, even, individual ends? There is a big difference between “Love thy neighbor” and “Love thy neighbor in order that thou be invited to his cookouts.”

Such moral precepts can be taught in schools with strong religious or moral uniformity. But would they provoke many a parent’s fears of indoctrination? (See Education without Indoctrination: is it possible?) And why, do most people in today’s United States of America -- though not, one suspects, Socrates' Athens -- reject the idea that “Love Thy Neighbor” might rationalize pederasty?

When are Moral Rules absolutely binding? Kant’s advice not to lie, even to a murderer seeking his victim, makes one wonder. Clearly, there is a lot of slippage as to what teaching morals -- or “values,” to use more au courant terminology -- amounts to. “Teaching” is a highly ambiguous term: its results, i.e. values taught, can vary greatly. To be able to repeat a rule does not indicate, in itself, that one would follow it when not supervised. (See What is Worth Knowing About Values)

Just preaching Do’s and Don’t’s doesn’t go very far to inculcating them -- as “Do as I say, …” jokes suggest. Mere preaching does not teach how to use moral precepts accurately in real situations. (See What is it to know how to use a principle?)

Moral Priorities in Context. One approach to applying rules -- not only moral rules -- coherently and consistently in varying situations is to prioritize them according the degree of “sacredness” you accord them. Thus, if protecting innocent human life is of higher priority than telling the truth, you will lie to the murderer seeking his victim. (See Prioritizing Principles)

Even “sacred values,” i.e. those values you most strongly resist changing, can conflict. To invoke two Biblical commandments: Does informing about your parents’ criminal behavior honor them? Suppose they are political opponents of a dictator?

Consider also the conflict between virtues: telling the truth, and being kind. Your child draws a picture of you and asks, “Do you like this?” You are very likely to say, “Yes,” despite the picture’s being grotesquely different from your reflection in a mirror. Absolute morality tends to generate hypocrisy, or force choices between competing evils or goods. (See Teaching Values: early lessons in hypocrisy.)

Whose Evil? Whose Virtue? We live in a pluralistic society comprising many different cultural groups. Civil law binds us to behavior that does not infringe on many of the cultural practices of different groups. We even have public rituals of acceptance in this 21st Century for groups who were -- not so very long ago -- publicly despised and deprived of legal rights, e.g. Blacks, Irish, Chinese, females, disabled, etc. However, despised differences persist today although their public expression is either legally forbidden or “out of style.” (But public schools still have to deal with such animosities. See “Sacred Values” in US Public Schools: pretending there is no conflict.)

Why Not Teach Situation Ethics? If there is one persistent educational side-show, it is the business of educating various groups in ethics. Captive audiences, scholastic or corporate, learn to talk a good line to meet both federal and local standards of “civility.” Offenses, even in the use of recently tabooed vocabulary, merit headlines in proportion to the celebrity of the offender.

The trouble with situation ethics is that it promotes, indeed, requires individual freedom of choice. Situation ethics is ultimately based on what each individual considers fundamental, be those values idiosyncratic or social. This opens up the possibly of rejection of the values which other autocrats would have us commit to.

So, blather and obfuscation, presented in many venues, often with abundant libation (school kids, excepted), in order to loosen tongue and muddle thought, lard expatiation on ethics or morals.
(See Teaching Values: a waste of time?)

But Sacred Values Universalized Restrict Individual Freedoms! Morality, “sacred value.” presumes a Leviathan, whether individual, e.g. a secular or religious autocrat or institution, that demands constancy of allegiance. Otherwise, as Thomas Hobbes puts it, we are in a condition of war, each of us against the other. (See The Quest for Constancy )

However, we face a conflicting demand: Individual freedom is no virtue lacking morals, i.e. commitment to common sacred values.
What is liberty without … virtue? …It is the greatest of all evils… -- Edmund Burke

Adam Smith would have agreed with him.

--- EGR

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Can Criminal or Immoral Behavior Be Dealt With Objectively?

To be objective is to aspire to knowledge that bears no trace of the knower -- knowledge unmarked by prejudice or skill, fantasy or judgment, wishing or striving. Objectivity is blind sight, seeing without inference, interpretation, or intelligence. -- Daston & Galison, (2010) Objectivity, p. 17

... only those (experiments) that produce quantitative results are really susceptible to scientific evaluation. -- D. L. Hand, (2014) The Improbability Principle, p. 29 [1]

Behavior. Harry punches Sam in the head. Sam falls to the ground. Can you imagine a human, much less a robot, or Martian, able to “objectively” judge, on the basis of what it has just seen, whether a criminal act -- much less an immoral act -- has been commited?

Even wanting to carefully avoid “subjectivity” in their characterizations, few humans would venture such a judgment as being “objective” without believing or wanting to “know more” about the situation. A trained computer scientist would not bet his or her retirement savings on a specific characterization of “what the computer is now doing” from merely photos of the machine and its outputs -- even if cheating a little on “objectivity” with a record of data recently entered.

”Looking Like” ≠ “Being.” As the ancient dictum expresses, “Appearance is not Reality.” But this is not merely an ancient prescription. As Daston and Galison describe in their important book, Objectivity, the concept of objectivity in the quote above is, has been and continues to be common to many scientific undertakings, particularly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century.
Although newer, less restrictive variations of this “blind-sightedness” have developed, the “traceless” notion lingers on in many contexts.
(See Daston, L & Galison, P.2010 Objectivity. New York. on: Structural Objectivity, p. 253; Trained Judgment, p. 309; and, Einstein’s “wholistic” approach to the objective/subjective distinction, p. 305)

This is especially true in public education and social services, where, even as they mostly act in disregard of the “theory” in their practice, special educators, planners and administrators give lip service to behavioristic notions, e.g. functional analysis, stimulus, and reinforcer, as though their efforts were rendered more “scientific” by the adoptions of such vocabulary.

Pedagogy and Community. Which is more “objective?” A beautifully detailed painting of a bird; or, a photograph of that same bird? 17th to early 19th Century scientists worried that if every detail of a real bird were depicted, students, scientists to be, would take the variations to be critically definitive of the species. Thus, they idealized their expensively produced instructional lithographs for the sake of objectivity, e.g. being true to nature, and normative to classification.

Beginning in the mid 19th Century, scientists, having instruments which enabled them to see many, many deviations in phenomena from what people commonly thought to be normal, were concerned not to let local prejudice, cultural assumption or technical ignorance dictate reality. More importantly, machine-aided observation and duplication was cheaper than lithography, and enabled the development of geographically broadly distributed scientific communities.

Neither approach has surpassed all others and later conceptions of “objectivity” developed which still “share the stage” with them, depending upon which scientific discipline or community is involved. (See Daston & Galison, throughout.)

Morals, Law & Ethics. Partisans of different approaches to the objectivity-subjectivity distinction believe(d) it to be a moral duty to assert their position against their mistaken opponents. Truth, enlightenment and moral fibre depended on it. And yet none of them could employ arguments for their positions that were recognized as purely scientific; they required, at least, commitment to ideals of science that were basically a priori philosophical.

An interesting question is whether commonly expressed concerns for improving society, legally and morally, at both communal and individual levels, can be dealt with sufficiently “objectively” to employ science, some science, any science, to answer problems such as criminality, learning, equity, health, and the like. (See Can Science Improve Moral Education, Too?)

The notion of objectivity, particularly the one mentioned in the prologue, is a kind of one-size-fits-all approach. There is reason to believe that practitioners -- recall D. L Hand, above -- who demand that would-be objects of their science be strictly measurable (as “objective” a characteristic as one might want) will discover that their quests are as likely of fruition as is squaring the circle. (See Measuring Educational Outcomes: truth, tricks and hype)

The point? Categories of human behavior, human actions, to the extent that they are purposive, e.g. mens res commissions, deliberate and/or intentional, will not be considered to be “objective” enough for scientific treatment.

This conclusion will no doubt be found obnoxious by those who have long looked to the “human sciences” to lead us into a shining future. (As a long-time practitioner in a “helping profession,” I find it somewhat dismaying, myself.) However, despite doubters continuing their long practice of disregard (i.e., distracting, “non-reinforcing” responses) one awaits a logical, reasoned argument to the contrary.

For examples and to examine these issues further, see The Functional Analysis of Behavior: 
theoretical and ethical limits.)

--- EGR


[1] Hand, D J (2014) The Improbability Principle Scientific American. New York.