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Showing posts from May, 2012

Memories of Dear Old Commie Martyrs

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For a long time I have meant to write something about the alternative high school I attended in the long lost days of the Ford and Carter administrations.  It existed for only a brief time and was something of a last gasp of 1960s radicalism. Somehow, in a way I'll never understand, four or five young, idealistic teachers had convinced a fairly conservative suburban school district to transform its dropout prevention program into a true alternative high school. I doubt that the board members who approved the plan really understood what these teachers were up to.  Indeed, the proposed school had a fairly subversive lineage.

The ostensible model was the St. Paul Open School, a successful alternative education program in the Twin Cities.  The real antecedent was A.S. Niell's Summerhill, a radical experiment in democratic education founded in Germany in 1921 and later transplanted to England.  Niell gave students an equal role in running the school and shaping its curruculum.   Ev…

Home is So Sad

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In Henry James' short story The Jolly Corner, the main character, Spencer Bryden, comes home after having spent 30 years abroad.  His parents are dead and a builder has offered him good money for the family's New York townhouse.  Bryden finds himself compulsively going through the old house night after night in the days before it is to be demolished.  One evening he encounters a ghost, but not just any ghost.  It's the ghost of who he would have been had he never left New York all those years ago. I've always been struck by the idea that there are ghostly selves of who we might have been had we married that person, taken that job offer, moved to some other city. 
Perhaps, however, there are just as many ghosts if you remain.  Take me, for example. I never intended to spend the bulk of my life in the city where I was born.  It just turned out that way.  Most of the time I am glad I am where I am, but sometimes I do run into the ghosts of who I used to be. 
In fact, it&…

Xenophon's Cliff

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In Anabasis, Xenophon recounted his role leading 10,000 Greek mercenaries back from a failed mission to oust the Persian king.  Harassed, outnumbered and finally cornered in Asia Minor, he drew up his weary troops to fight, positioning them with a sheer cliff immediately at their rear.   When one of his lieutenants questioned the move, Xenophon pointed out that their position made it clear to both the men and the Persians that there would be no running away.  We either fight or... 
In other words, Xenophon was choosing not to give himself a choice, which is not always a bad idea.  I've done it a few times.  I'll want to reformat a course but know I'll likely procrastinate once summer comes.  So I list all new texts on the Spring requisition form.  Now I have to change the course.  There is no choice.
On a larger scale this is where my institution is right now.  Last year we voted to adopt a new core curriculum.  We gave ourselves a year to design new courses around new core…

Struggling Through Stupid

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For the past two weeks I've gone fly fishing three or four times for smallmouth bass on a nearby river.  Other than some fingerlings and chub, I've not had much luck.  More than once I've felt like a fool.  But I come home, read up on the subject, go back to the river the next day and am foolish again. As with any complicated thing, there is this stage of stupidity  you unavoidably must get through.  
When I was younger I took up a lot of projects and pastimes but dropped them when they did not come easily: musical instruments, martial arts, writing short stories, drawing...  The list is long and a bit wince-inducing.  Now that I'm older I find that I don't mind the obligatory stupid stage.  It's fun and oddly pleasing to figure it out. 
I wish there were some way to impart this to my students, many of whom have a learned helplessness about learning.  In my Humanities sections I'll have them reading texts that are often over their head.  Last spring, for exa…

Striped Whistlers*

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This last weekend, theTimes ran a story about a student who graduated from Ohio Northern University with loans and debt totaling $120,000.  The young woman was working two waitressing jobs and her mother, who co-signed the loans, had taken out a life insurance policy on her daughter just in case something happened and she had to eat that debt.

The story also featured some eye-opening data about student loan debt and some disturbing trends.  For example, 45 percent of students borrowed to finance their education in 1980.  Today, 94 percent are taking out loans.

Far be it from me to dismiss the high cost of higher education, but the "sky is falling" tone of these articles (there have been several of late) belie the truth that it's still possible in this country to get a degree without encumbering yourself with insurmountable debt. 

As the Times article pointed out, fewer than 3 percent of students borrow more than $100,000 and the average debt is $23,500.  That's stil…

A Cock and Bull Story

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Well the big boys have finally decided to plunge into the on-line education field.  Harvard and MIT announced this week that they will invest $60 million to put free courses on-line.  This will be something more than the camera at the back of the lecture hall yawners you can download on I-Tunes U, or the University of Phoenix's cost effective ram and jam approach.  No sir, this effort will harness all of the latest whiz-bang doo-hickeys.  There will be true interactive capability, testing and even the opportunity to receive a grade, although not a diploma or credit toward graduation.  Apparently, this is the distance learning game changer we've all been waiting for.

Of course claims that technology would revolutionize education were made when radio took hold in the 1920s.  It's what they said about TV in the 1950s.  And, sigh, it's what they said about wiring every classroom in America to the Internet back in the 1990s.  But this time it's different.  Really.  This…