Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘education’

Brush up your Plato, start quoting him now

… at least, if you want to get recognised as religiously persecuted for your humanism.

This looks like a parody of English pseudo-education mixed with English xenophobia:

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

My guess is that he wanted to say he was an atheist, but recognised that that would subject him to discrimination here as well as in Pakistan, so he resorted to the more erudite-sounding term “humanist”, only to run into the buzzsaw of a classicist manqué.

Slippery slope

At the Kepier School, a secondary school in North England, it is reported that children were being sent home on the first day of school if their trousers were not purchased (at inflated prices) from a particular supplier. The teachers walked around with colour swatches, checking that they were exactly the right shade of grey. Lest you think this was merely an irrelevant distraction from education — if not actually evidence of a corrupt kickback — there was this explanation from the headteacher:

If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.

“Etc.” indeed. Once they have different shirts, it’s just a short step to different thoughts, and then it’s straight downhill to heroin addiction and human sacrifice in the parking lot.

Perhaps this is why the school inspectorate Ofsted wrote in their report on the school in October 2013

leaders and managers do not always focus their actions where they are most needed and do not check the impact on students’ achievement.

“Getting a bit of extra assistance is never cheating”

If I were a philosophy student with a looming deadline for an essay on casuistry, I know I’d turn to BuyEssay for expert help. The Guardian has reported on government moves to crack down on essay mills, that sell individually crafted essays for students who need “extra help” –anything from a 2-page essay to a PhD dissertation (for just £6750!) The article reprints some of the advertising text that these websites offer to soothe tender consciences.

“Is Buying Essays Online Cheating?” it asks, in bold type. You’d think this would be an easy question, hardly something you could spin a 300-word essay out of. But they start with a counterintuitive answer: “We can assure you it is NOT cheating”. The core of the argument is this:

What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead. In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating.

Given that high grades are so essential, it seems almost perverse that universities make it so difficult to obtain them. Why do they put all these essays and other hurdles in the way — “unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time”, as the essay puts it? It’s shitty customer service, that’s what it is.

The only critique I might make is that the essay is a bit generic. I’d worry that when I submitted it for the assignment “Is Buying Essays Online Cheating”, that the marker might notice that someone else bought almost the same essay for the assignment “Is Murder Wrong?” In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Wasn’t this the plot of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?

Government intervention

It seems Theresa May has found her strategy for rescuing the British economy from the political damage the Tories are planning to inflict:

The prime minister will publish the strategy at a cabinet meeting in the north-west of England, setting out five sectors that could receive special government support: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, creative industries and nuclear.

She will say the government would be prepared to deregulate, help with trade deals or create new institutions to boost skills or research if any sector can show this would address specific problems.

Great idea! As one of the people working on developing “skills and research”, I’d like to suggest that it might be a good idea to arrange an agreement to share students, workers, and researchers with our neighbours, who are similarly technologically-developed and share common scientific and educational traditions. We could call it the Anglo-European Union, or something like that.

But no, that would help “old institutions” like my own. The Westminster Pharaoh is only interested in boosting skills or research if it can create “new institutions” as a monument to her greatness.

American carnage

This is probably the best title for a reality TV show ever proposed in a presidential inaugural address. And then there’s this.

Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.

And you have to admit, most of us really are tired of our education system being flush with cash. Such a burden, and what do you get for it? Early-onset gout from the rich cafeteria food, and gold-plated textbooks that give the children scoliosis from having to lug them around, that’s what. And the rest of the economy starved for talent as the best and the brightest compete for the overpaid classroom posts. We really don’t know what to do with all that money, and our young and beautiful students won’t learn anything anyway. (We don’t care much what happens to the non-beautiful…)

That’s why we need Trump as president: Someone who has learned his whole life to cope with the burden of extreme wealth, and is willing to lift it from us.

 

Don’t do the maths!

Journalist Simon Jenkins has launched a broadside against the teaching of maths in school, or at least against taking it seriously. He goes further than Andrew Hacker, who argues prominently for a focus on more concrete mathematical skills.

No one would argue that pupils should not be able to add, subtract and multiply. But I studied higher maths, from calculus to number theory, and have forgotten the lot. All the maths I have needed comes from John Allen Paulos’s timeless manual, Innumeracy. It is mostly how to understand proportion and risk, and tell when a statistician is trying to con you.

Presumably, once you know how to count to 1000 you’ve learned enough. (I’m wondering about this claim about his having “studied higher maths”. At least according to Wikipedia his university subjects were philosophy, politics, and economics. Now, I have no doubt that some people can learn very advanced mathematics in their spare time and understand it wonderfully. I wouldn’t even object to them saying they had “studied” the subject. But if your private study of mathematics left you with no memory of what you thought you had learned, that suggests that perhaps the fault was in your mode of study, and not in the subject. It’s rather like someone who says, “There’s no point learning to swim. I spent years on it, and I still can’t cross a pool without drowning.”

And why is it that statisticians are always accused of trying to “con” people? Is it that statisticians are particularly dishonest? Or is it that statisticians make things sufficiently clear that you can see where you might disagree with them. What subject would you study to understand when a journalist is trying to con you? There isn’t one, because the journalist’s con is ambiguous, and for the most part his claims are clouded in rhetorical smog.

Then there’s this:

I agree with the great mathematician GH Hardy, who accepted that higher maths was without practical application. It was rather a matter of intellectual stimulus and beauty.

Now, GH Hardy was indeed a great mathematician. He probably knew more about higher maths, from calculus to number theory, than even Simon Jenkins in his prime (before he forgot everything). But I think we can also agree that the man who wrote in 1940

No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so for many years

did not have the most acute vision of the scope of mathematical application. In any case, Hardy’s goal was not to argue for or against the potential utility of mathematics, but rather to defend mathematics against the charge of uselessness — basically, to defend it against people like Jenkins.

Any league table that has China at the top, Britain at 26th and America at 36th tells me something more important than merely who is good at maths. If the US and Britain – among the most vigorous economies and most successful at science – are so bad at maths, it suggests their young people are applying themselves to something more useful. Chinese students are rushing to British and US universities to join them….

Maths is merely an easy subject to measure, nationally and internationally.

 

I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw in Florida, responding to the popular boastful messages that parents would paste on, saying “My kid is an honor roll student at Dingdong Middle School”; the response said “My kid can beat up your honor roll student.” This is that bully-boy bumper sticker expanded to a national scale. Let the inferior races waste their time on mathematics. Our kids will learn how to be “vigorous” and kick their asses.

Jerome Karabel’s wonderful book The Chosen describes how elite universities in the US in the first half of the 20th century, dismayed at how the meritocratic elements of their admissions process were being abused by Jews, who were simply outperforming their gentile compatriots on admissions tests, leading to the freshman class at Harvard in 1922 being more than 20% Jewish. The response, driven by fear that Jews would “drive away the Gentiles” (in the words of Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell) was to de-emphasise quantitative measures and tests, in favour of the all-important “character” of applicants, a quality husbanded mainly by WASP families in exclusive boarding schools.

There’s kind of a Nietzschean flavor here: Mathematics has replaced Christianity as the intellectual tool used by the weak (nerds) to dominate their natural superiors (men of action and vigor like Jenkins). The soul-breaking catechism has been replaced by the binomial theorem. The priests are statisticians and bureaucrats, obsessed with counting and what can be measured. I am reminded of a remark by CS Lewis (I can’t find the exact quote now), that soft virtues like love and mercy had come to be more discussed than rigid virtues like chastity and courage, because it is easier to persuade yourself that you have been loving than that you have been chaste or courageous.

Cheating at maths

One thing you get used to as a mathematician: You meet someone in a non-professional context, you tell them what you do (“mathematics” coming after they’ve pushed through vague dodges like “teaching”… “at the university”…), and they look away furtively, as though you’d gratuitously inquired after the origin of their scar or their PTSD, and say something like “I could never do maths”; occasionally a more wistful “I always liked maths at school”. I thought of this when reading this article about a recent Christmas chat by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell:

Corbyn was followed by McDonnell (“he’s about to spend all our money,” said the Labour leader by way of introduction), who thanked the Eastern Daily Press for publishing a letter from a former classmate who revealed that he used to “whisper the maths answers to me to avoid me being caned”. He joked of the Daily Mail headline he expected: “Chancellor cheats at maths again”.

Clearly, he thinks his creative solution to maths anxiety — backed up by the cane — is something that right-thinking people should, if not admire, at least condone, and possibly chuckle at in self-recognition. But as the Labour Party’s aspirant to helm the Treasury, which does presumably require some sort of numeracy, doesn’t he owe the public some sort of explanation of when, if at all, he did actually learn to do sums?

Politicians debate statisticians and philosophers

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

Confidence game: Growth mindset for the secret police

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

Halvesies

According to a report on The Intercept, a US anti-Muslim group has been pushing back against claims that Texas teenager Ahmed Mohammed, who was recently arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, was the victim of anti-Muslim prejudice, or, indeed, that he was unfairly treated in any way.

Center for Security Policy vice president Jim Hanson argued on his organization’s podcast that the clock “looks exactly like a number of IED triggers that were produced by the Iranians and used to kill U.S. troops in the war in Iraq.” He said the clock “was half a bomb.”

Rightwing organisations spouting nonsense is nothing worth commenting on, but I find the particular logical construction here fascinating. He’s right, after all. It is indeed half a bomb. It just happens to be the half without explosives. And if any Muslim teens think of bringing homemade telescopes to school, I trust they’ll be arrested for bringing “half a sniper rifle” to school. That may look like an innocent block of wood to you, but it’s actually half a combat knife; no more innocuous for being the part without a blade.

All very logical. I admit, it’s slightly odd to hear this obsession with dangerous components coming from the same side of the political spectrum that inclines to dismiss the dangerousness of firearms because they can’t kill people all on their own.

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