Why can't our education system be more like theirs?
September 7, 2014 8:45 PM   Subscribe

In China, there are now more than 200 Waldorf elementary schools, filled with the children whose parents are looking for a more child-centered alternative to the test-driven state education system. Why can't Chinese schools be more like American schools? Meanwhile, in America, Stephen Pinker argues that Harvard and other elite universities are wasting their resources on athletes and musicians, and should select students by standardized test scores, the way Chinese colleges do. Why can't American schools be more like Chinese schools?
posted by escabeche (56 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Funny how I'm still hearing a lot about American schools here, and not so much about Chinese schools.

I wonder though, do Chinese universities impose the heavy debts of American universities?
posted by oceanjesse at 9:12 PM on September 7, 2014


oceanjesse: "Funny how I'm still hearing a lot about American schools here, and not so much about Chinese schools. "

From your profile, you're in the US, right? I don't see what's funny (or ironic or telling or whatever you meant by "funny") about hearing more about local schools than those of other countries. I'm pretty sure that's true everywhere in the world. The post is about a "grass is greener on the other side" thing, not a "people only talk about the grass on the other side" thing.

I've seen the same thing with Japan: when I first came to Japan, the US media kept talking about how the US education system should be made more like the Japanese one (not identical, but "more like"). And then when I got to Japan, the educational discourse had a lot of focus on how the Japanese education system should me made more like (not identical, but "more like") the US education system.
posted by Bugbread at 9:20 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Pinker understands why Harvard doesn't use academic merit for admissions (beyond 5-10%) and says so. He implicitly makes the case that whatever they are doing already works, if preserving power and class is the goal.
posted by Brian B. at 9:21 PM on September 7, 2014 [10 favorites]


This is an old debate. I remember watching a television show where they had these educators from Japan and the US, and they explored each other's education system. The same thing happened: the Japanese educators thought that Japanese schools should be more like American schools. The American educators thought that American schools should adopt much of what the Japanese were doing. Then they all had a laugh about it.

Right now schools in the US are going through the 'commons core' change. From talking with teachers, this means a couple of things:
1. All state schools will have common standards, so they can be compared. Apparently they were not before, so there was no way to compare test results. The way this particular California teacher put it "For example, this means that Tennessee will have to improve their standards to match California's." Hey, I didn't say it.

2. There is a strong move away from memorization. All the standardized tests are getting rewritten to reflect this. While there is still testing, it is a move away from the typical standardized tests of the past.

The English and history teachers I talked to love it and the math teachers hate it. There is more emphasis on working together, getting information from several sources, and actually understanding the result. Supposedly it is more like what is being done successfully in Scandinavian schools. But the math teacher I talked to said "I don't care what they say, getting the right answer is important! It is as important as understanding the math. Would you cross a bridge designed by someone who didn't care about getting the right answer?"

So far, my kids like it. We don't know what the standardized tests look like yet. Yes, the SAT test is changing too.

This may seem like a derail into a controversial subject, but this is what is really going on right now in American schools. It is a nationwide experiment, and it is a bit exciting.
posted by eye of newt at 9:36 PM on September 7, 2014 [12 favorites]


After studying abroad in Beijing and making friends with the students at Peking University, I can say that the standardized testing is incredibly stressful and ill-managed.

For example, as a high school student, you study a ton for the college entrance exams, and if you don't do well enough, you must wait a year to take it again.

Universities are strict about the scores they accept. In some areas though, you don't know your score while you're applying to schools and it's easy to screw yourself over.
posted by lalunamel at 9:38 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ugh, eye of newt, that quote made me so mad. I would have failed math completely and not graduated at all if I wasn't lucky enough to get a tutor who helped me understand how to get right answers outside of memorization.
posted by bleep at 9:40 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is a strong move away from memorization. All the standardized tests are getting rewritten to reflect this. While there is still testing, it is a move away from the typical standardized tests of the past.

I haven't been following the common core stuff, since I'm no longer in school and I don't have kids, but that makes me sad. I avoided memorization as a child as much as possible, but it was only as an adult that I realized how much that limited me. You can't really having understanding without also knowing facts.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:52 PM on September 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs.

Hey kid, I'm Steven Pinker. I teach at Harvard. I heard you saying SAT scores and IQ tests measure access to dominant power structures. But have you ever heard of a little phrase called "correlation doesn't imply causation"? Wheeee!
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 10:01 PM on September 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


Correlation may well imply causatiion, it simply is not causatiion.
posted by carping demon at 10:10 PM on September 7, 2014 [5 favorites]


My wife is reading a book now whose title is (translated into English) "Half of Americans don't know where New York is". From what I gather, it's largely lamenting the state of education in the US, but from an outside perspective, not a US right wing/left wing/"things were better in my day"/"we must move away from the regressive past" thing.

Which got me to thinking about my own knowledge of geography, which all came down to one US high school history teacher who decided, at some point in his career, "it's not on the mandated syllabus, but I'm going to require all students to learn the location of every state and its capital, and then the location of every country and its capital". And while that teacher was a good teacher (a really good teacher), and I learned a lot of great stuff from him, that was the best thing I learned; the knowledge that I've used the most in the two decades since.

Exclusively focusing on rote memorization is bad (looking at you, Japanese high schools), but if the starting-point level of rote memorization right before the commons core change was anywhere close to the level of rote memorization when I was a US high school kid (early 90s), which is "almost none", a "strong move away from memorization" doesn't sound like a great decision.
posted by Bugbread at 10:10 PM on September 7, 2014 [7 favorites]


You can't really having understanding without also knowing facts.

To a point. In today's world, knowing how to search for and find facts and data with which to solve problems is at least as important (arguably more so) as rote memorization.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:13 PM on September 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Why can't American schools be more like Chinese schools?

Because Americans are not Chinese. What's so hard about that?
posted by carping demon at 10:13 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Correlation may well imply causatiion, it simply is not causatiion.

It's like that post the other day about the "not-anti-slavery" book review in the Economist--sure, you can say that the SAT correlates to something and could be socioeconomic status or it might be gene-borne bell curve intelligence that can be quantified, but one is probably the way to having a society and the other, based on how we've been using it, is the path to a peepee-soaked heckhole.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 10:23 PM on September 7, 2014


carping demon: "Because Americans are not Chinese. What's so hard about that?"

There may be great reasons for US schools not being like Chinese schools, but the country name on the passport isn't it. The hard part is figuring out what part of Americans not being Chinese makes it impossible for American schools to be made more Chinese-like. Or if that premise is even true in the first place.
posted by Bugbread at 10:28 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


He hadn’t read a word of Steiner’s works, but he immediately accepted.

Well, I think maybe he should have read something. At least google it, and not under "Waldorf education", as this seems to lead to Waldorf sources and the Wikipedia article is thoroughly bleached of any dissenting views.
posted by hat_eater at 11:47 PM on September 7, 2014


I liked Pinker's essay a lot and somewhat against my will, but I think he has no eye for the extent to which Harvard's admission policies are already optimized to serve the needs of the greater society, in that the legacy admits are actually most important of all because their families own everything and they'll inherit it, and it is therefore crucial to educate (and socialize) them as much as possible; in that the kids "crazy busy" with extracurricular activities are the accomplished and genial people who will run the world for the legacy admits, and the two groups will naturally be drawn to each other; and in that it's the academic stars who are outsiders and a bit of an afterthought, meant to repopulate the faculty of the university itself as necessary, and keep the rest of the US university system close to the Ivy model by taking up important faculty posts across the country after they get their PhDs.
posted by jamjam at 11:50 PM on September 7, 2014 [26 favorites]


To a point. In today's world, knowing how to search for and find facts and data with which to solve problems is at least as important (arguably more so) as rote memorization.

It's ideas like that which regretfully convinced me to avoid memorization when I was in school.

Unfortunately, even if you have the best research skills, if you don't have a solid foundation of facts built through memorization, you won't even know where to start. And even if you do get started, you'll get bogged down quick, since you can't truly think about anything if you always have to hit this book or that reference at every step of your thought process. A big part of thinking about things is just having a lot of facts in your head and rolling around in them.

It's all about balance, though. I think a lot of the anti-memorization people have this idea that it's mindless. Memorized facts and the ideas that tie them together go hand in hand.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:58 PM on September 7, 2014 [11 favorites]


The US's university system is the best in the world, bar none. It's one of the only things we're best at, save building bombs. The problems it has largely have an easy solution: throw money at them. California did it in the 60s and 70s; we all can do it now. But beyond funding our universities properly (and shutting down DeVry et al.), leave them alone! We don't need MOOCs. We don't need to overhaul our teaching so that it is like that in China or Japan or wherever.

We in American society are so used to fucking things up that we can't even see the places where we're getting it right.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:37 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


The growth of Waldorf education in China was interesting. I had no idea. It seems to fit with something in a recent Dave Davies Fresh Air interview A 'New Yorker' Writer's Take On China's 'Age Of Ambition' where Osnos noted,

"Well, over the course of a generation, people had gone from living almost a religious experience in their devotion to Chairman Mao. ... And then all of a sudden, that disappeared overnight. Socialist economics was finished. And all of a sudden, people were left to figure out, well, what do I want out of life? What am I here for? What am I a part of? What is the basis of public morality? And so it's really been an extraordinary awakening over the last few years, where all of a sudden, you have people going off and looking for philosophies and religions..."

For the third of parents that buy anthroposophy, this is a way to fill that void. Probably similar for the middle third that like the school environment, too. And for the third that think anthroposophy is woo but do it anyway, it's a way of covering the bases.


From Pinker, this jumped out, "A failing grade is like a death sentence: just the first step in a mandatory appeal process." Death sentence for the student and the instructor. Having taught at Japanese universities pre- and post- introduction of high-stakes, US-style GPA systems, the whole GPA focus is killing teacher-student interaction. I can only assign a very limited number of A's, and F's are anathema. It used to be OK to fail a course or three but come back to try again and do the work the next semester. Not anymore. At even many highly-ranked unis, assigning a failing grade just opens up endless meetings, required re-assessments set by the instructor, and inevitable passing.
posted by Gotanda at 1:47 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


"it's not on the mandated syllabus, but I'm going to require all students to learn the location of every state and its capital, and then the location of every country and its capital". And while that teacher was a good teacher (a really good teacher), and I learned a lot of great stuff from him, that was the best thing I learned; the knowledge that I've used the most in the two decades since.

Bugbread, can you (or others) explain this to me? Because I have never understood why I needed to memorize the capital of Wyoming, or be able to distinguish the locations of Guatamala and Paraguay.

There are so many things that I don't understand too well: why the Middle East seems to always be a-warring, all the political wranglings that happened in the US during the Restoration (which was covered in a very good post on the blue,) what happened geologically to make the city in which I live exist in it's current physical state and not, say, a desert.

I understand they're more complicated, but I wasn't ever required to learn about these things in school. What I WAS required to do was memorize the locations of all the US states and capitals as well as countries of the world. While I'd like to think that was a good use of my time, I don't know that I ever use that knowledge really. And if I hadn't learned it, I could locate any country/capital in about 10 seconds w/ Google maps or an atlas/world map.

I'm not saying memorizing facts isn't a good thing: I'm a firm believer that to truly understand math, you have to understand the concepts, but you also need to do enough drill and kill to make doing many functions muscle memory: if you can't rattle off your multiplication tables without hesitation, you're just going to have a harder time with the more complicated stuff.

But that said, it's easy to make kids memorize things, and it's easy to test whether they've done it. So it doesn't surprise me that educational systems push memorization because they can show you results. It's a lot harder to justify critical thinking or learning about complex, nuanced problems without a simple black&white solution because it's a lot harder to prove that what you're doing works.
posted by nushustu at 1:51 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


nushustu: "Because I have never understood why I needed to memorize the capital of Wyoming, or be able to distinguish the locations of Guatamala and Paraguay."

Okay, to be fair, the US states and capitals section was useless, but the countries and capitals section has been really useful in just plain understanding the world, how different countries relate, what different pressures and tensions there are, which countries have an enmity that is basically theoretical versus which countries have an enmity that's very real due to having long adjoining borders, etc. Or in more ordinary life: which cuisines from some countries are related to which others, due to where they are. Language similarities. Cultural similarities. Etc.

None if it is stuff that I couldn't look up, mind you. But if we think about, say, just saving time alone: Googling takes 10 seconds, provided I'm already on a computer. 20 or 30 if I'm not on a computer. I'm pretty sure that in the 20 years since I've learned the capitals, the amount of time I've saved by not looking up stuff exceeds the amount of time I spent learning it in the first place.
posted by Bugbread at 2:12 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I recently realised the contrast of some Zen-influenced Western books about teaching I'm reading, which advocate all that freedom, versus the rigorously structured and cramming based reality in Asia.
posted by yoHighness at 2:37 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


The grass really is greener on the other side is what I'm saying I guess.
posted by yoHighness at 2:38 AM on September 8, 2014


The US's university system is the best in the world, bar none.

America has many of the best top schools but it also has many of the worst. I guess it is a reflection of America as whole. I am not sure I would say that is the best overall system.
posted by srboisvert at 5:20 AM on September 8, 2014


If you are unfamiliar with the philosophy behind Waldorf schools, it's worth checking out http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3853 which shows Steiner's diagram of human evolution from apes through the lower races (American Indians, Jews) to the highest (Aryan).
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:24 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


the correlation could simply mean...that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs.

Ha ha. Oh, you.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:06 AM on September 8, 2014 [8 favorites]


> I have never understood why I needed to memorize the capital of Wyoming, or be able to distinguish the locations of Guatamala and Paraguay.

Part of it is to teach you how to learn and how to memorize. So when time comes when you have to memorize what's important, you have that skill developed. Because memorization is a skill, not an intuitable behavior.

And part of it is because you're six, or eight, or ten years old, and your adulthood doesn't start for a decade or more. In which time, shit might go down in Guatemala, or you might find your own sorry ass there for some reason, and knowing where it is and where you are in relation to it might be useful.

Now, Guatemala, specifically? Dunno, probably not likely. But there are a lot of places in the world, a lot of time for some place or another to suddenly be important. When I was ten years old, shit was going down in Argentina, Peru and Chile. Not to mention South Asia. Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq were comparatively peaceful. Deciding to be selective about what parts of the world map to memorize is like learning only part of the multiplication table because your teacher considered threes to be more important than sevens.
posted by ardgedee at 6:14 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]




Meanwhile, in America, Stephen Pinker argues that Harvard and other elite universities are wasting their resources on athletes and musicians...

In other words...only focus on the things that are widely believed to lead to mainstream jobs? (the classics, reading, writing, arithmetic, etc)

I think it's convenient to think this way, who doesn't want to learn subjects and skills useful in the mainstream job market? But it can also be dangerous. I tend to view this more from Sir Ken Robinson's perspective. In a nutshell, we've already stifled a lot of our future generation's creativity with our current approach on education which is ultimately rooted in the industrial revolution and age of enlightment. Just because we pursue a passion for art, dance, theater, or music doesn't necessarily mean we'll end up without a job. Sure it might be a more difficult path depending on the areas applied...but what's the point if we are not encouraging our youth to follow their dreams, learn what they're drawn towards to do amazing things...even if that means athletics or the arts? In many ways we still do great things in these areas despite of our educational system (especially the way 1st grade through high-school is structured, batched grade levels, assembly line production of "educated" individuals...supposedly) because the opportunities to branch interests still exist through college. It's not until college that many get to explore and decide upon the areas of study we're really drawn towards....and while our college systems aren't the greatest universally, they do create opportunities that would have been otherwise missed. Take those opportunities away, or cut funding for them, and sure...it could become more cookie-cutter industrial like China.

But that being said, who wants to live in a country that doesn't value the arts or athleticism? It doesn't have to be everyone's calling, but we can at least appreciate the degree in which these things exist here in the U.S. They form a symbiotic bond within our industry, trade, and culture. They define what make us great, regardless of market value.
posted by samsara at 6:28 AM on September 8, 2014


We actually have very good controls for the analysis of what the Ivies and Stanford would look like if they paid little or no attention to leadership, interview charisma, arts and athletics in their admission, because that's exactly how MIT, Cal Tech, the University of Chicago and Berkeley fill most of their freshman seats. Quality of instruction at those schools is the same or better, and their prestige is, while not the same, certainly high enough that their alumni aren't meaningfully foreclosed from opportunities accessible to the schools under scrutiny.
posted by MattD at 6:28 AM on September 8, 2014


MIT, Cal Tech, and U of C require neither essays nor interviews as part of their process?
posted by JPD at 7:14 AM on September 8, 2014


Also the French system is based nearly entirely on a series of tests, and yet the grandes ecoles look a lot like upper class France.

Class and wealth are sort of pernicious even when you are honestly trying to be meritocratic.
posted by JPD at 7:15 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


rather than arguing over who's right and wrong, i find that it's usually helpful to try and depersonalize the situation, ask what works (how would you know?) and focus on what it would take to 'make it so'; on that note, these might be of interest!

-The Science Of Smart
Over the next month, American RadioWorks will explore the changing face of education in the United States. "The Science Of Smart" is part of a new four-part series from the acclaimed documentary unit of American Public Media. Meet the researchers who are unlocking the secrets of how the brain acquires and holds on to knowledge. And hear from the teachers and students who are trying to apply that knowledge in the real world. We'll head to Toronto to meet one of the world's leading experts on bilingualism and the brain. Then it's on to Utah where schoolchildren are learning to speak Chinese in a statewide effort to boost overall school success.
-So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class: "Should one of the world's richest men get to dictate the future of how we learn about our past?" big history kind of sounds like an extended version of cosmos or connections :P
posted by kliuless at 7:35 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


samsara: "In other words...only focus on the things that are widely believed to lead to mainstream jobs? (the classics, reading, writing, arithmetic, etc)"

That's not really what he says in his essay. What he says is that Harvard should be focusing on the areas in which Harvard's faculty and facilities excel. The end results are the same (focus on the classics, etc.), and perhaps the origins of the current situation are the same, but given how much he sneers at the idea of a diploma as a way to just get a paycheck, I doubt his own motivation is "teach subjects that lead to mainstream jobs".
posted by Bugbread at 8:03 AM on September 8, 2014


There is a strong move away from memorization.

This is largely true, but there's also a big emphasis on "fluency", at least for elementary school math. Yes, you need to know how to get the right answer, but the Common Core also recognizes that it really, really helps if you know all of your addition/multiplication/whatever facts off the top of your head.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:04 AM on September 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


JPD: I believe all those schools require essays and allow or require interviews (with the likely exception of Berkeley) ... but their admission decisions for most students are based overwhelmingly upon quantified academic qualifications.

In other words, if 5%-10% of Harvard freshman are admitted on pure intellectual merit, with leadership, legacy, athleticsm, musicianship, diversity, development prospective parents, and amiable clubability and good looks being a driving factor in 90%-95% of freshman admits, that 5%-10% rises to 60% to 75% for Berkeley / Chicago / MIT / Cal Tech freshman.
posted by MattD at 8:19 AM on September 8, 2014


According to Pinker, the Ivy League will help you "find a more desirable spouse and earn 20 percent more" than if you attend "off-brand institutions" like "Tailgate State," "famous for their jocks, stoners, Bluto Blutarskys, gut-course-hunters, term-paper-downloaders, and majors in such intellectually challenging fields as communications, marketing, and sports management." There is a bigger problem here than just admissions policy.
posted by No Robots at 8:56 AM on September 8, 2014 [3 favorites]


kliuless - thanks! Helpful links. I had no idea Bill Gates was up to that.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:57 AM on September 8, 2014


No Robots: no kidding, I mean it's been pretty clear for a while that Pinker is a entitled douche, but his level of obliviousness is just gobsmacking.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:04 AM on September 8, 2014


This essay really bothered me, mainly because he starts to get some things right but then mostly gets them very wrong. I don't have time to write a whole critical take-down, but as a lifelong teacher and professor, I want nothing to do with the kind of university he describes.

Pinker is a very smart man, but knows less about education than he thinks and much of his thinking outlined really smacks of values projection and argument from authority--an easy error for a brilliant person writing outside (but near to) his areas of expertise to make. (I should be clear that there is a distinction between teaching--the day-to-day classroom delivery of instruction about which I imagine Pinker knows a great deal--and education, the building of systems to determine content, deliver instruction, and develop a human being, which he has on the evidence here not considered very deeply.)

After two decades as a teacher, I think I can confidently say that teaching well (person-to-person and up, all the way to designing curricula, methods/modes of instruction, and operating institutions) is the most difficult, ongoing professional challenge I meet regularly. Teaching and learning are extremely complex activities and there are experts who have spent their whole adult lives studying and thinking about it right on Harvard's campus, and I would have hoped that Dr. Pinker would have availed himself of their work in shaping his opinions on this matter. (For example, these folks would pretty vehemently disagree with Pinker's blithe dismissal of the intellectual value of artistic work, and have decades of data to back their perspective; or this group might have a lot to say about standardized testing and how it affects actual public school teachers and teaching; etc.)

Mostly, though, this essay really felt like its title should be "Get Off My Lawn: Why Harvard Students Need To Value the Things That I Do."
posted by LooseFilter at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2014 [5 favorites]


Does he not get that the groundbreaking academic work in ...like every field is invariably done at big research schools like 'tailgate state'? Harvard's a prestige posting for folks whose best days are behind them. This means faculty are more likely to spend their days playing public intellectual, often writing pop pieces for public consumption. You know, like Stephen Pinker.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2014 [12 favorites]


leotrotsky, imma step back over here so as not to get scorched by that magnificent burn.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:13 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying he's wrong about China, but 200 is a really tiny number of Waldorf schools on which to base your whole argument. That's gotta be less than a hundreth of a percent of all Chinese preschools.
posted by subdee at 9:17 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


In other words, if 5%-10% of Harvard freshman are admitted on pure intellectual merit, with leadership, legacy, athleticsm, musicianship, diversity, development prospective parents, and amiable clubability and good looks being a driving factor in 90%-95% of freshman admits, that 5%-10% rises to 60% to 75% for Berkeley / Chicago / MIT / Cal Tech freshman.

Point one - the second you use essays and interviews you are building in bias in favor of the children of people who went to those same schools.

Point two - The reality is that all of those schools are essentially selecting a random assortment of qualified candidates. Probably 10-15x the number of students the accept can handle the work at those schools. None of these admissions processes actually do a great jpb of selecting candidates.

Its probably better to say that this is how these schools select out of a pool of acceptable candidates.

Outside of a small percentage of legacies and athletes none of these schools are willingly accepting people who can't graduate.

If they were actually good at figuring out who to accept the statistical differences in outcomes for graduates would be a lot more obvious.
posted by JPD at 9:20 AM on September 8, 2014


Bugbread, can you (or others) explain this to me? Because I have never understood why I needed to memorize the capital of Wyoming, or be able to distinguish the locations of Guatamala and Paraguay.

There are so many things that I don't understand too well: why the Middle East seems to always be a-warring, all the political wranglings that happened in the US during the Restoration (which was covered in a very good post on the blue,) what happened geologically to make the city in which I live exist in it's current physical state and not, say, a desert.


Geography is a really diffuse subject, but it's essentially an investigation of why things happen where they happen: the intersection of environment and history. So yes, the memorization of state or national capitals is itself an exercise in trivia, but it's also a basis of ready knowledge to illustrate (and build knowledge of) the principles of human habitation, which get more and more complex.
  • Like, OK: Once you've actually identified them on a map, you may notice that most capitals are on rivers or near other water features. That's mildly interesting (and especially crucial in a desert environment), but that's true of most important settlements, since you need water for drinking, crops, and transportation. (Coincidentally, state borders are also often drawn along rivers.)
  • Then you may find out a bit more about demographics and discover that there's a divide between states where the capital is the biggest city and those where it's somewhere small and remote. That's kind of weird, right? Well, it reflects a divide of political philosophy between having a strong central locale and having some distance between the corridors of commercial and legislative power.
  • So then when you come across a study that says, "Hey look, the farther a capital is from the state's major metro areas, the more corrupt it is," you know the places they're referring to and why that happened.
And bam, geography explains the world a little bit more clearly.

Plus, if you want to be taken seriously by people who care about the outside world, you should know that Guatemala is close enough to the U.S. that thousands of young children are able to make the trek from there to the U.S. border unaccompanied whereas Paraguay is not, and that the U.S. has not had a Restoration (Bush jokes aside) because it has never been a monarchy.

To be fair, it is nearly impossible to completely explain or understand the Middle East.
posted by psoas at 9:42 AM on September 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


Because I have never understood why I needed to memorize the capital of Wyoming

Thanks to that blasted state capitals song, I will always, ALWAYS know that the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 10:29 AM on September 8, 2014


Then you may find out a bit more about demographics and discover that there's a divide between states where the capital is the biggest city and those where it's somewhere small and remote. That's kind of weird, right? Well, it reflects a divide of political philosophy between having a strong central locale and having some distance between the corridors of commercial and legislative power.

That's a bit optimistic, isn't it? My impression is that in many cases it reflects an incorrect guess by the founders as to which city was going to be the commercial center of the state, not a deliberate choice to separate them.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:27 AM on September 8, 2014


The first half of the essay was phenomenal. I especially enjoyed this:

The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

And then he went all Pinker on us in the second part. Which is too bad, because it would be awesome if there was a real solution to this admissions question.
posted by graphnerd at 3:41 PM on September 8, 2014


My impression is that in many cases it reflects an incorrect guess by the founders as to which city was going to be the commercial center of the state, not a deliberate choice to separate them.

I may have simplified somewhat, but it was definitely a choice in some places to have a more pastoral capital city. Did you read the links? [From the Daily Beast: "The notion at the time of the nation’s founding, and even earlier, was that one way to check possible tyranny was to disperse power physically, by locating the seat of government away from the center of population."] Most planned capitals (like DC) wouldn't exist otherwise. Also, if you consider places like Jefferson City, Harrisburg, and Tallahassee, they were selected deliberately to sit in between bigger cities (in the latter case, St. Augustine and Pensacola).
posted by psoas at 5:22 PM on September 8, 2014


From Pinker's essay: Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege. "

But the SAT over-predicts men's grades by about .11 and under-predicts women's grades by about .1 (See this paper about sex-differences in grade achievement). And GPAs predict success abotu as well.

I actually do believe that standardized tests are really valuable, but I think that as they're used in the real world there are some big flaws — fewer with the SAT/ACT than with earlier education standardized testing regimens, in large part because the institutional incentive to corruption is lessened by not tying funding to the test results — but the level of competition at elite schools means that small variations in test score are interpreted as determinative outside of their predictive value and that is something that can be mitigated by (public, transparent) other criteria for admission.
posted by klangklangston at 5:23 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


Did you read the links?

ah, no - I moused over the first several and thought they were all going to be wikipedia city links. Didn't realise there were some articles in there too. Doesn't look convincing, after some more looking I did find several other people saying they've heard of this physical dispersal of power explanation, but nobody saying where they heard it and no citations - do you know where it comes from? I'm much more familiar with the explanation of most of these places as either bad guesses (eg; Sacramento, Olympia - sometimes also explained by bribery and competition amongst cities at the time) or compromises between geographically separated factions (eg North v South for DC, NYC v upstate farmers for Albany).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:27 PM on September 8, 2014


To this day I still don't "get" the rote memorization of multiplication tables. Don't all kids learn how to multiply at least whole integers up to ten without a table or paper? Then realize that I can multiply in my head effectively but I have effectively memorized the whole table by doing exercises in grade school.

We weren't expected to memorize the table, just get the answers right. To this day, 6 X 8 and 9 X 7 hold a special place in my brain registers, because all of the other combinations feel "more intuitive" or rapidly accessible. 11 x 11 and 12 X 12 are locked away too.

The fundamental problem for me with school is that the best students typically want to be there and learn, and how do you get enough people to feel that way and remove the pathetic social conditioning that makes kids shun being perceived as smart or interested without socially isolating them? Maybe it's not the fundamental problem but hip hop fans think about the smart ass rappers who were proud of their interest in education and were able to "come up" because of their lyrical prowess? Biggie, Nas, Z-Ro, Kendrick Lamar, Will Smith...it's a long list, that's my off the top summary.

And the smartest students are often profoundly bored by school and end up in the teacher's sights as a troublemaker.
posted by aydeejones at 8:06 PM on September 8, 2014


Joe Budden really drives it home. That song makes me tear up on the right day.
It started as a kid at my school desk
Aced every quiz but I wanted to pass the cool test
Ain't nothing cool about school shopping at the thrift store
And living in an abandoned station wagon because you was piss poor
So I started stealing all of the clothes that the other kids wore
That’s when the skeletons moved into my mind on the sixth floor
And more came through Crooked I’s youth
I slowly started moving them out the closet to this mic booth
For real, bro
posted by aydeejones at 8:12 PM on September 8, 2014


The one point of Pinker's that I definitely do like is that "well-rounded," while a noble idea, in reality becomes one more thing rich kids and their parents can game.

I also buy a little bit into the old-school egalitarian interpretation of standardized testing. I can't be the only one who knows a number of talented people who simply were not served by the high school available to them but got into state schools on the strength of their SATs and excelled when presented with more challenges and less drudgery. I actually wonder if the recent trend away from anything that resembles an IQ test treats some of these people poorly. Yes of course IQ is basically just solving puzzles, but a lot of people solve puzzles for a living. And the more you try to test what kids have "learned" in a four-hour test the more opportunity for kids with money and time to learn the test by rote.

On the other hand, just because I think "IQ skills" might be worth something doesn't mean I think they're the only kind worth anything - thanks for condescending to every field that doesn't fit into your personal view of academia, Steve. Music is too an intellectual pursuit! Really I think private schools ought to enroll as many different kinds of people as they can.
posted by atoxyl at 9:14 PM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


To this day I still don't "get" the rote memorization of multiplication tables.

You mean because you would have learned them over time anyway? Because certainly having instant access to the simple results makes more complex mental arithmetic way faster.
posted by atoxyl at 9:21 PM on September 8, 2014


Hey kid, I'm Steven Pinker. I teach at Harvard. I heard you saying SAT scores and IQ tests measure access to dominant power structures. But have you ever heard of a little phrase called "correlation doesn't imply causation"? Wheeee!

Kidding aside, he did drop by once.
posted by Brian B. at 7:02 AM on September 11, 2014


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