Summary Thoughts On Learning New Languages

English is my primary language. Growing up in the United States I’ve really had no reason to learn any other, although I’ve been tempted at various times to learn Spanish as a practical matter.

I did study Spanish in my early schooling, and Italian in my later schooling. Despite a combined 7 years spent learning foreign languages, my fluency and literacy remains limited with both.

I’ve long considered the idea of learning another language to be romantic. Speaking other languages can open up new opportunities in life– a whole group of people you previously couldn’t communicate with are now people you can exchange ideas and value with. Studying many of my philosophical heroes of the past, I noticed how many were not just bilingual but multilingual, able to read, write, argue and convince in a variety of languages. I once bought a copy of Wheelock’s Latin after realizing I had missed the opportunity to study this dead language in high school like the other nerds; I convinced myself I might take up an independent study in my abundant free time (this was being imagined when I was still a college student and so my use of “abundant free time” is less sarcastic than it would’ve been intended if I referred to the present) and maybe even convince a friend or two to learn some phrases so we could converse in front of others on the subway or at a bar and confuse the hell out of them. To this day I read about early political figures in American history and their classical (read: European) education consisting of studying Greek and Latin grammar and I feel a twinge of regret.

And with all the talk of the inevitable rise of China and its coming economic dominance, I have often considered picking up some Mandarin so I can continue doing business under new overlords.

But I never quite get to the part where I seriously dedicate myself to learning a new language. And rather than beat myself up as lazy, stupid or otherwise incompetent, I’ve instead spent some time trying to rationalize why this has not come to pass. Here are my thoughts to date:

  1. English is the third most widely spoken language in the world (by native speakers) and based upon my travels to Central and South America, Europe and Asia, it appears to be the secondary language of choice for a “universal” non-native tongue and is part of the mandatory curriculum in many developed and developing country school curriculums.
  2. It is difficult (for me) to learn a language if I am not going to be using it frequently for practical reasons; my language learning has accelerated whenever I’ve been in the place the language is spoken on the street when I am learning it formally. Until I am living in a place where English is not the primary language, it will be inefficient and impractical for me to learn another language and gain fluency
  3. Without a practical reason such as #2, my decision to learn any language besides English is entirely arbitrary; I could set a goal for myself such as “Become fluent in German” but why is that worth doing as opposed to “Become fluent in French” or “Become fluent in Mandarin”? There needs to be a specific goal for the learning besides “acquiring the language for its own sake”
  4. While many of my intellectual heroes spoke, read and wrote in multiple (European, typically) languages, they did so out of necessity, not to prove an intellectual point. They were either international scholars who needed to be able to communicate in languages beside their native one for purposes of research or idea-sharing, or they inhabited border regions or cosmopolitan political centers where speaking multiple languages had a functional or official benefit. I don’t face those circumstances in my own life.
  5. I have many competing demands on my time and many other subjects I’d like to master besides gaining a secondary language fluency. I could learn another language, just as I could learn an instrument such as piano or guitar, but it would mean purposefully giving up another valued activity or area of inquiry and I haven’t been prepared to make a tradeoff like that so far.

One life activity I derive a lot of enjoyment from and which I hope to continue to do not only for myself but with my family is traveling around the world. I think one of the highest values learning another language with fluency would have for me is making such travels more accessible. However, because these travels are usually limited in duration and because many of the locals speak English more passably than I can learn bits and phrases of their language, it’s usually a better use of time to brush up on key words and phrases or stumble through in English than to try to learn a whole language for a couple of weeks on the road.

For now, it seems, language learning will be relegated to a high ideal without practical implementation in my life. However, I have been considering whether formal language instruction (immersive or otherwise) would be an important part of my future children’s education.

Update: here is a strongly-written article arguing 10 reasons why Westerners should still be studying Latin.

What Education, At What Cost?

In “The Big Uneasy“, the New Yorker explores what some students are taking away from their liberal-arts educations:

If you are a white male student, the thought goes, you cannot know what it means to be, say, a Latina; the social and the institutional worlds respond differently to her, and a hundred aggressions, large and small, are baked into the system. You can make yourself her ally, though—deferring to her experience, learning from her accounts, and supporting her struggles. You can reach for unity in difference.

It also profiles some of the students who are learning these important concepts:

Eosphoros is a trans man. He was educated in Mexico, walks with crutches, and suffers from A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder. (He’d lately been on suicide watch.) He has cut off contact with his mother, and he supports himself with jobs at the library and the development office. He said, “I’m kind of about as much of a diversity checklist as you can get while still technically being a white man.”

The epistemology of this paradigm appears to be relativism, which is to say that it is a subscription to denial of a universal human reason. It’s hard to understand what the point of attending an institution of learning is if it has nothing to teach you because your personal experience is the only truth to know.

It’s also hard to accept that this paradigm is representative of a universal truth and thus part of an enlightened human knowledge, not just because that would be a contradiction in terms according to the paradigm itself, but because so many of the correspondents seem to suffer from a multiplicity of dysfunctions.

It seems many of today’s students really need help sorting out their personal problems, not “access to higher education.” When they arrive at even the most accommodating, out-there institutions like Oberlin and find the curriculum is not about them but about something else, they develop severe inferiority complexes that result in frustrated, emotional outbursts.

But, imagining for just a moment that the common mainstream trope that “access to higher education” really is a missing social panacea, are these the students such supporters have in mind and are these the ideas they think are important that they receive as part of their program?

“Students believe that their gender, their ethnicity, their race, whatever, gives them a sort of privileged knowledge—a community-based knowledge—that other groups don’t have,” O’Leary went on.

[…]

“People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

What is the value “to society” in these factionalizing lessons, and are they really worth borrowing money, in many cases, to have them taught?

Is Education Fundamentally A Technology Problem?

What happens when the computer engineering bubble hits the Silicon Valley finance bubble in a collision directly overhead of the philosophy of education?

AltSchool.

In “Learn Different“, the New Yorker surveys a for-profit, tech-inspired elementary education startup. Some key takeaways of the company’s approach to education, according to the reportage:

  • No professional school admin; school is run by teachers
  • “Micro-school” with small total enrollment
  • Mixed classrooms; pre-K through 3rd grade in combined learning environment
  • “Franchise” model; locations in major cities throughout the US
  • “Highly tailored” education that uses technology to track student progress
  • “Playlist” driven lesson plan; students work through pre-assigned steps on tasks of interest
  • Surveillance; students are recorded with video and audio for later playback and analysis by teachers
  • Big data; used to analyze student progress and adapt lesson plan to strengths and weaknesses
  • Private tuition, approx. $30,000/yr

According to the editor’s tag on the article, AltSchool is an example of “Silicon Valley disrupts education.” In the disruption literature there is the idea of disruptive and sustaining technologies– disruptive technologies create a paradigm-shift in the strategic world upon which the industry in question competes, while sustaining technologies simply allow for more efficient continuation of the existing competitive dynamic. Better horse breeding practices are an example of sustaining technology in the era of the horse and buggy, while the internal combustion automobile is an example of a disruptive technology in personal transportation.

If AltSchool is disruptive technology, then the questions are:

  1. What is the primary strategic principle for mainstream education?
  2. How does AltSchool represent a paradigm-shift?

It’s perhaps difficult to say exactly what the principle of mainstream education is. There are many interest groups who vie for influence over the system so it is by no means a monolithic group. That being said, there is perhaps a cohesiveness of interests: provide jobs and economic resources for “educators” and administrators (including the politicians who are the ultimate stewards of the system) while creating a student body that will be cooperative with the political system around it and willfully integrate into the various economic relationships that sustain it. “Question everything” this is not.

The AltSchool gives meek lip service to the idea of an individual-oriented learning experience, but upon further investigation it seems that this is not about making the student the master of his education, but making the education a more subtle component of the student’s social indoctrination.

Ventilla [the founder of the company] also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.”

While there isn’t necessarily anything blame-worthy in being mindful of conditions in the workplace which students might one day be interacting with, it also isn’t exactly revolutionary to incorporate job-worthiness into one’s educational philosophy. The “workplace of the future” is an extrapolation of the “workplace of the present” into future periods.

In San Jose, students’ scores on annual state tests were made available only after the end of the school year. At AltSchool, Seyfert could keep tabs on her students’ daily, if not hourly, progress. Every task card on a student’s playlist is tagged to denote not just academic skills, like math and literacy, but also social and emotional skills.

What is the value of all of these statistics? If you are teaching to a standard (ie, you have an end goal in mind of what your student should “look like” when their education is “complete”), then being able to measure progress toward that standard would be instrumental. The application of technology to this problem of measurement might introduce some efficiencies or even  capabilities that are impossible without it. But then, this wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation but rather a sustaining innovation.

If your methodology is centered around the development of the individuality of the student himself, then the best such statistics can provide is a description of strengths and weaknesses. There would be nothing actionable as there would be no specific goal. Suzie is good at math. Jerry is good at reading. But what of it? And even then, these descriptions would only be valuable to compare Suzie and Jerry to others, but what value are such comparisons to the individual being compared? He cares not for it.

Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.” (Ventilla may question the utility of foreign-language acquisition, but fluency in the jargon of Silicon Valley—English 2.0—is required at AltSchool.)

The obsession of the school seems to be in building excellent quantitative measurement tools. These pieces of software can be updated and tested rapidly. But the educational principles themselves produce effects which are long in both maturation and duration. We can’t be sure of their results until many years have passed, if even then, and they’re most easily tested through logical inquiry, not mathematical interpretation. As human nature and cognitive capability are not improving any faster than iteratively through “geologic time”, it’s unclear what value these rapid upgrades to the software provide to the improvement of the philosophic principles of education that have supposedly been disrupted by AltSchool.

There was some humorous contrary evidence:

The previous day, Otto said, a guest teacher had come in to lead several students in a 3-D-modelling project, using a Web site called Tinkercad. “We built little models online—some people built phone cases, or little towers, or yo-yos,” Otto said. “I built a toilet, because I thought it would be fun. It has lots of different components—you have the base, you have the seat, you have the back.” He clicked to the site and pulled up his model. “I was looking around at pictures of toilets online,” he said. “I think I want to make it a bit more shaped for your back. I also want really sanitary toilets. And I want to make it really comfy. I’m quite bony, and I’m small, and if they don’t have a cushion they hurt.” Eventually, Otto said, he planned to 3-D print his prototype: a model toilet, fashioned to his personal specifications and preferences.

I really enjoyed this comment and I am glad the journalist captured it. First, it suggests that maybe the AltSchool is creating some spaces for the individual student to explore their interests, deeply. Second, Otto comes from a financially successful family whose parents are accomplished corporate types. It seems that, given the freedom to pursue his own interests, he can think of nothing better than building a comfortable toilet. That must give mainstream educators (and maybe even his ambitious parents) the chills!

If you can pull your own preferences out of your head for a moment and just look at this boy’s effort from his own perspective, though, isn’t it glorious?

The point of the hackathon was to sketch out in code potential solutions to “robot tasks”—routine aspects of a teacher’s job that don’t require teaching skills. Kimberly Johnson, the head of product success and training, addressed the team. “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it,” Johnson said.

Since the previous hackathon, three months earlier, teachers at AltSchool had filed more than a hundred digital “tickets” to Johnson, indicating how AltSchool software might be improved. Some teachers had asked for a more streamlined way to input data. Johnson acknowledged, “It is a lot of work to go into each card and click the learning objective and click the score and click ‘save.’ It’s just four or five clicks, but it adds up.” The teachers also wanted to enter assessment scores to groups of kids at once. “If you say, I want to give all of these kids threes, and all of these kids fours, there must be an easy way to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it would look like, but you could probably hack something together.”

Again, the emphasis on data technology over teaching philosophy. Now, it sounds like the school is trying to free up the teachers to focus on teaching by improving their technology interface. But the question begged is, “What makes the technology interface so central to their teaching philosophy?” This comes back to the question of disruptive versus sustaining technology. How is the student served by all the assessments? Life is its own assessment.

But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

We turn now to that great social philosopher, Ludwig von Mises, who said of genius and the creation thereof in his “Human Action“:

The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

Now here are two very different philosophies. At AltSchool, “individuality” and creativity are being taught as part of the lesson plan and the methodology of the school in service of the demands of a future workplace so envisioned. For Mises, the creative individual is something natural, inexplicable and uncontrollable and he is in service to himself first and foremost.

I think it is Mises’s ideas that are disruptive here.

AltSchool’s perspective does not necessarily require abandoning texts that have long been considered central to a humanist education, but it does mean approaching them anew. One middle-school class undertook a lengthy study of the Iliad by focussing on the theme of “rage” and designing a spreadsheet that logged instances of it. They then used data-visualization techniques to show their findings, and wrote persuasive essays based on their results. Afterward, their teacher, James Earle, wrote, “Analyzing a piece of literature this way turns the work into a piece of robust data that can be understood quantitatively, in addition to allowing a qualitative reading.”

But what is the value of this new understanding? What does it add that is new and different? Yes you can do this, but what thinking informs the should?

Mediratta [vice-president of product] envisaged a time when AltSchool technology would get “into the sci-fi realm.” What insights might be drawn from aggregated data culled from video and audio? He spoke of the video moments that teachers were bookmarking. “The next useful thing would be for us to analyze all the things that are bookmarked, and to draw inferences,” Mediratta said. “Like, bookmarks seem to happen when the classroom is noisy. So let’s generate a few other interesting moments that the teacher might want to look at—say, a moment when the classroom was full of kids but was dead quiet. What was happening there? Is this good? Is this bad? Or you could look at a moment when it was absolutely chaotic—but maybe that is what the activity called for. So we can start applying machine learning to this data to start driving inferences. Maybe what we should be doing is detecting when the classroom gets noisy, and then we could have the head of the school, who is also an educator, stop by your classroom and participate and help.”

The meta-philosophy of modern education is control, the schooling agenda is a by-product of the aim to control others. The desire to control the schooling environment seems to be what is behind the focus on applying technology to surveil and measure the students and their activities.

AltSchool is not disrupting anything as far as I can see. From my understanding of what education is and what education isn’t, I don’t see a place like AltSchool meeting my needs, but that does not mean it won’t be successful in terms of the paradigm of mainstream education, within which I believe it is situated.

Crude Economic Analysis: Government Student Aid Edition

This is a funny headline from the WSJ.com:

College Tuition Hikes Slow, but Aid Falls
The rate of tuition increases at colleges has slowed for the second year in a row, but government aid has fallen, continuing a cycle of rising costs and debt for students.

There seems to be a correlation in the data here. As government aid lessens, rate of tuition increase lessens.

But it would be crude to jump from here to the conclusion that there is a necessary causation in the data. Right?

“But” implies there is no causation and that the status of aid availability is a separate problem.

“And” or “As” would imply causation. Interesting how the WSJ editors chose their words on this one.

The True Principle Of Modern Education Exposed: To Make Us A Means To Others’ Ends

What is the true purpose of public education?

According to a new research study reported in the WSJ, it appears to be all about career-prep:

Can finger-painting, cup-stacking and learning to share set you up for a stellar career?

Research says yes, according to Dr. Celia Ayala, chief executive officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a nonprofit that funds 325 schools in Los Angeles County, Calif., using money from tobacco taxes.

“When they enter kindergarten ready to thrive with all the social, emotional and cognitive skills, they perform at grade level or above,” she said. “When they don’t, that’s where that achievement gap starts.”

Note: don’t ask why money from tobacco taxes is being used to fund preschool research nonprofits.

There’s a lot at stake here– not only does pre-school appear to grant an advantage, but NOT doing appears to confer disadvantages such as increasing the likelihood of becoming a “special needs” student:

Kids without that early boost have been shown to be more likely to get special-needs services, be held back a grade or two, get in trouble with the law and become teen parents. Preschool alumni have a better chance, she said.

Today, a child’s life ends before it even begins:

“Those who go to preschool will go on to university, will have a graduate education, and their income level will radically improve,” she said.

Implication: don’t go to preschool, don’t go to university, don’t get a graduate education, watch your income level stagnate or decline, eventually you’ll probably kill yourself through obesity or suicide in a depressed state of lifetime unaccomplishment.

The article goes on the explain that preschool could hold “the key to job success in adult life” and warns of the sorrows of children who don’t receive an education in preschool because they’re spending time with “parents or caregivers.” Yes, there is nothing being learned there, apparently. Nothing valuable, at least.

But valuable to whom? And for what?

Why, valuable to society, for the purpose of making the child a good little worker! The definition of success is one who works productively for others. The purpose of education is not to develop a society of individuals, but a society of workers.

Or, as one French director of an “ecole maternelle” put it, the object is to give them social skills “to be students and citizens,” a “citizen” being one who obediently does what others ask of him.

Meanwhile, policymakers in the US are big on preschool:

Policymakers in the U.S. are most concerned about eliminating the gap between kids who do well in school, going on to college and successful careers, and those who fall behind. Preschool, say policymakers, offers educators the best shot for getting children of varying backgrounds on equal footing.

There’s a codeword in there– “equal”. Equal means same. Same means, “not different.” But wait, individuals ARE different. They have different likes and dislikes, different skills and aptitudes. How can beings who are inherently different, ever be equal? And why would policymakers care? How does being “equal” help one succeed at living ONE’S OWN life?

Answer– it doesn’t. It isn’t about living one’s life. Sameness, equality, is being sought to create an army of interchangeable cogs to go on society’s wheel. Then, the elites spin the wheel. And round go all the equal people, never asking why.

Don’t worry, though. Policymakers at Department of Education won’t let anyone fail to be equal. They’re “equal” to the task:

“We’re really focusing on the cradle-to-career continuum,” said Steven Hicks, special assistant for early learning at the federal Department of Education, where there has been a recent shift as officials realize “we need to start earlier.”

Once people are in the work force, the Social Security Administration is responsible for the “career-to-grave continuum”. Which means no matter what point in the continuum you’re at during your life, the State is there to help you out, with kid gloves, of course.

Although most education funding happens at the state level, the federal government has been trying to fuel a preschool wave with a half-billion dollars in challenge grants funded in January. The next five states in line will share $133 million in preschool money this year. Call it a pre-job-training program.

Are you starting to get the picture here? You’re being trained from the moment you develop the mental, emotional and conceptual faculties to see yourself as a differentiated “other” in the world, to prepare to work for someone else. This is scary stuff. And it’s all coming in the innocuous guise of “equality” for all.

Most teachers and parents would agree that early-childhood education matters to a child’s trajectory in life. But with budgets stretched around the country, a lack of money is forcing some states to make choices about scarce education dollars. Too bad, the DoE thinks.

“Secretary Duncan says there are smart investments and some things you can do that are not so smart, and one of those is cutting early childhood education,” Hicks said.

To calculating socialists running short on Other People’s Money, future worker bees are like hot dogs from the corner stand– “Get ’em while they’re young!”

This article, intentionally or not, is coincidentally the most timely and blatantly obvious confirmation of Stirner’s false principle of education. Nobody in this article is aiming at an educational system which produces “self-developed” individuals. The name of the game is forming human clay into pre-determined molds appropriate to other people’s ends.

It is distinctly anti-individual. It’s a quiet and brutal form of slavery-as-virtue.

Exercises In Imagination

A friend sends along the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKfuS6gfxPY

Ignoring the pitch for Ron Paul’s political campaign at the end of it, that’s about as good as a libertarian video comes. The key is the identification of one moral standard for all people. It is hypocritical to expect any other person or persons to appreciate a “foreign policy” that you yourself would not appreciate if applied to you.

Here’s another good video about libertarian philosophy from Stefan Molyneux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd-SLRyuRq0&w=560&h=315

The reality of government financing is exploitation of its citizens. The people are not fully and fairly compensated for their labor as the exchange being made (via taxation) is not voluntary and deemed to be mutually beneficial.

I’d like to help produce more videos like these. I think YouTube is a powerful medium for spreading the message of individual liberty through the use of economies of scale.