Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On the upside

Obama's popularity means that Hyde Park has become the center of the media universe. This new fascination with their half-empty neighborhood must come as a pleasant break from the listlessness of the un-air-conditioned, limited Reg hours, shuttered coffee shop Hyde Park summer for U of C students.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Notes on Thomas Platter and Centuries of Childhood

Withywindle always does this, so I don't see why I can't, even if it bores you, dear reader who is not interested in Renaissance childhood.

1) Sometime in the sixth or seventh grade, for reasons that have completely escaped me, several of my friends decided to Latinize each other's names. Having so little grasp of Latin that we likely didn't even know where Rome was, we assumed that sticking "us" to the end of a normal name would pretty much do the trick, and thus we arrived at such creations as Ritus, Beckus (in occasional circulation to this day), Cathus (this one did not stick), and Lorrainus, which was soon shortened to Anus, and remained the common use through college, much to the chagrin of its designee.

At the time, we assumed this was nonsense, but it turns out that we were actually following the great Renaissance tradition of Latinizing undignified vernacular names like Erasmus (nee Gerardi) and Melancthon (nee Swartzerd). Although these people actually knew Latin, Thomas Platter became simply Thomas Platerus, so it's not entirely clear that the Renaissance humanists didn't agree with us that sticking a "us" to the end of a name wasn't perfectly sufficient to imbue it with great dignity.

2) On attempt #2 (attempt #1 having been undertaken during a truly awful history course my second year in which a lot of feelings were discussed, but nothing academic was achieved), Centuries of Childhood was fascinating. What is strangest though is the historical persistence of medieval ideas about education. If one accepts Aries' argument (and I do, because what else have I ever read about the history of European education to disprove it?), then the hallmark of modernity in education was the coupling of schooling with ideas about child development so that education ceased to be about acquiring a static body of knowledge at any age, in any order, and along with any company, and became instead a curriculum of progressive difficulty, to be acquired in a strict chronological succession determined by one's age.

But now, even though it would be deeply weird to find a 30-year-old in a sixth grade classroom and unacceptable to fill a single class with students of various ages or to teach Aristotle before teaching reading (all of which was apparently acceptable in the Middle Ages), we do still deeply believe that one can benefit from going to school at any age, that precocity in children can trump the expectations of their age group, even that teaching very advanced subjects before teaching seemingly simpler ones can be effective. These ideas are not widely practiced (except by that 50-year-old undergrad at the U of C, or the seven-year-olds in college), but that they're even widely held is surprising.

3) Thomas Platter is a hilariously morbid writer who seems to think of his life in three phases--the childhood, marked out by various experiences of nearly falling off mountains at night; the adulthood, marked by various outbreaks of the plague and the deaths of vast numbers of his townsmen, all three of his daughters, and pretty much everyone else ever, except for a couple of people who managed to die in battle; and old age, marked by excruciatingly detailed calculations of his debts. Is he so absorbed in his near-death experiences because he wrote his autobiography at 73, an age that even today might inspire morbid thinking? Because his life was so marked by the untimely deaths of everyone else? Because this is just some Renaissance-era mindset that I haven't encountered enough to understand?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Return of the Nigel

After a fraught year in foster care with Cheryl, much of which was spent peeing on things, kitteh has returned to my custody. The vet's earlier recommendation that we put Nigel on Prozac, however, was not without cause. Only after three days balled up under the farthest reaches of the bed has he deigned to emerge and be seen. And even now, the slightest unexpected movement will send him skittering back under the bed. Kitteh may have anxiety issues, but am not about to invest in pet pharmacology, so he will just have to work through his problems the old-fashioned behaviorist way.

The ants have also been destroyed in time for his arrival, lest he decide insect poison is a tasty midday treat while I'm at work. I discovered that Terro is instant ant genocide in a box. And, I got furniture, and a copy of Thomas Platter's autobiography, which I read while eating crepes on Saturday morning, so the summer to-do list is already half complete. Next up: grad school apps.

Everyday republicanism

Julia and I debate the itinerary for the upcoming 5402 reunion:

me: i yield to the vox populi
Julia: i don't
me: you are [a] patrician
Julia: yes, and it is a nice life

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Local coffee wars, part II

Some months ago, I noted that Murky Coffee on Capitol Hill had been seized, and that this pleased me immensely. Now, Beckus points me to an article that illustrates one of the many reasons that I have no love for Murky: they are assholes. While I don't hope that Murky in Arlington gets seized, mostly because it's in such a decrepit building that I'm afraid no one else would move in if they moved out, and I would prefer an overpriced pretentious coffee shop with free wifi to an abandoned and rotting hulk across from the Metro, I do hope they get humbled. And, more to the point, that they lower their prices and clean their floors. It also wouldn't hurt if they paid their taxes. And kicked out the snoring homeless dude. And got less repulsive furniture--"retro" doesn't have to mean "infested with vermin."

In the meantime, there's Starbuck's with free wifi, cheaper offerings, convenient proximity to dinner at Whole Foods, and now: smoothies!

I am such, such a yuppie.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Things done and things to do

This past weekend, Beckus came to visit, and much was accomplished. We visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which sounds innocuous enough if you've never been, but which happens to be the home of such wonders as the giant (stomach-shaped) human hairball and an elephantiasis leg in a jar. (Cheryl says I should warn you that these images are gross and you should not eat lunch while viewing them, although I am eating lunch while writing this.)

Afterwards, we went down to the Maine Avenue Fishmarket, where we had crab sandwiches and a slab of watermelon:

We did not get shot there, so I guess the experience wasn't as authentic as it could have been. This was followed by the sculpture garden, Ethiopian dinner, Wall-E, and Snap.

Beckus's flight was canceled on Sunday afternoon, so we spent the evening raiding my former roommate's art supplies (the story of my former roommate and her decision to leave one day without taking any of her stuff can be left for a different post), and producing such masterpieces as this:

(My masterpiece didn't turn out as good.)

This should cap off the first half of this summer, which was spent shuttling between roommate/moving panic and vacation. Now, it's time for the summer to-do list:
1. Re-acquire Nigel!
2. Acquire floor lamp, patio furniture, living room chair
3. Destroy the ants infesting my pantry
4. Move new roommates in
5. Study for the GRE
6. Take the GRE
7. Finish personal statement
8. Edit writing sample
9. Read about the Dutch republic
10. Read Luther and Calvin
11. Try to get a copy of Thomas Platter's autobiography in English, likely fail
12. Make crepes on Saturday mornings

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"I'm not weird; I'm gifted": The Tale of the Victimized Gifted Child

Along with the Tale of the Mercenary Asian, I'd like to bring up another, related, theme that has cropped up with alarming frequency in school stories recently: that of the Victimized Gifted Child. Now, you might think that being better at something than most people would make you better off. Common sense might dictate that an inordinately talented or precocious child should have an easier time than most in school, at least academically, but common sense would be wrong, because evidently, it's the smartest kids who have it the hardest.

In this parable, we are usually introduced to a promising young child whose very brilliance is the source of all his future woes. School is too easy for him, so he grows bored and tunes out. Boredom turns to aggression or depression or some other such pathology, the promising child becomes a delinquent, squanders his future, and winds up in prison or dead, all because he was not sufficiently challenged in math by his third grade teacher. Journalistic variants of this tale will also focus on the agony of the brilliant child's parents--maybe they should have the child skip a grade or five in school, but what if this makes him socially maladjusted? Maybe summer in a specially designed brilliant child camp to keep him stimulated, but what of the cost? Gifted academies? Homeschooling? Moreover, trade-offs are out of the question. Woe to all involved.

To some degree, of course, this is all such a first world problem. Did you know that the overwhelming majority of gifted children just happen to be upper middle class white kids? No kidding. And the majority of those complaining about how these children are "underserved" are their parents, who are simultaneously sending them to five different enrichment camps, getting them a French tutor at age six, and so forth, but somehow seem unable to take that decisive plunge into private schools or homeschooling.

Yuppie parents also tend to believe that children must be intellectually stimulated at all times, and every year spent doing unchallenging schoolwork is another year of working on the Great American Novel pre-emptively squandered. But why can't Susie Smartypants just be expected to cope with her boredom on her own? Or spend her abundant free time honing her otherwise dismal social skills just like Sally Stupidpants is expected to devote more time to learning long division? Both will eventually come to high school, where Susie Smartypants can take advanced classes and join Science Olympiad, and Sally Stupidpants can take Child Development and join the pom-pom squad.

The Tale of the Victimized Gifted Child also frequently borrows a line from the cult of slacker genius, claiming, as this mother does, that the gifted child is too smart to be held to normal child expectations, like doing homework. This becomes a matter of justice, as though homework is only just if it's specifically calibrated to challenge the abilities of each student, and schools in general exist primarily to provide individual curricula to every child, or success in school should be granted only on the basis of native intelligence (which, of course, negates the purpose of having a school in the first place since native intelligence remains about constant throughout life). The argument for special "accommodations" for gifted children is intended to mirror the argument for special education for disabled students, but it strikes me as slightly crazy to liken precociousness to disability.

What really puzzles me is the intense resistance to grade-skipping in elementary school. Why is this such a rare occurrence? It seems like the most efficient way of determining whether a child is really so advanced as his parents claim. If he can keep up in the grade or two ahead, then great, he has found a better fit. If not, he goes back to his class and his parents stop whining. When did we decide that we had such a thorough grasp of child development that we could create school curricula finely attuned to the one-year increments of childhood? Is a seven year-old really so different from a nine year-old that mixing a few younger children into a class of kids one or two years their senior will definitely screw the young ones up for life? Maybe if we pound this idea into the children's heads, they will absorb it sufficiently to screw each other up over it, but I don't see any basis in nature for the strict segregation of school classes by age, especially since it stops so abruptly once the child reaches high school. (And, according to Philippe Aries, such segregation is indeed a new development in the history of pedagogy, and one that corresponds to the idea that precocity is a bizarre anamoly.) I can see why you might hesitate before placing a 10 year-old in a high school class, but why such discomfort with grade-skipping of less epic proportions?

This discomfort seems to breed a lot of gifted programs in compensation, since gifted programs appear to be a way to enrich a handful of the highest-scoring students without imposing on them the supposed social stigma of simply skipping a grade. I can't speak for all gifted programs, but my own impression in middle school of their merits was that they have approximately none. The primary purpose served by my school's gifted program was to impress upon us that, because we had been scientifically identified as "gifted," we are both more excellent human beings than everyone else, and also more tortured. The gifted program consisted of a minimum of actual academic work. The true victim children were those consigned to regular reading classes, where they actually had to read, while we were known to occasionally begin advanced-sounding books and then give up two chapters in, either because no one understood them (Fahrenheit 451) or because our teacher forgot she ever assigned them (1984).

Instead of doing academic work, we had a lot of therapy sessions to help us cope with the curse of being good test-takers. One day, during a vocab lesson in which we had to use the word "opinionated" in a sentence, one of my classmates said, "Miss Self-Important is opinionated." (I was not a particularly lovable student, in case you have not surmised as much yet.) "That's a really interesting point," the teacher responded, "because it's very difficult for gifted girls to be assertive. They often worry that their intelligence will make them stand out and get picked on by their classmates, and so they pretend to be less brilliant than they really are in order to fit in with their peers. Gifted women often suffer from low self-esteem as a result, and this leads them into depression and anorexia..." Then we would be told about all the studies that showed that gifted children were more sensitive than everyone else, more inclined to loneliness and depression, perfectionism and anorexia. (There was really a lot of talk about anorexia. It was a big Lifetime movie topic in the late '90s, and it was assumed that we would all inevitably succumb.)

Even though I was about as sensitive as concrete slab and had never displayed a single perfectionistic tendency in my life, I came away from all this convinced that all my social failures in middle school could be attributed solely to the ressentiment of my peers towards my obvious brilliance and profound inner depth (the unconscious Nietzschean tendencies of American adolescents requiring perhaps a separate post). As a result, I concluded that all of the otherwise unlovely aspects of my character were in fact manifestations of my genius, and everyone who criticized them was obviously beneath me. Hence the silly refrain that was briefly popular among my Ubermenschen classmates, "We're not weird; we're gifted." So we concluded that we should never study for anything because the true genius can be identified by his immediate competence in all things, and instead, we spent our entire seventh grade year in the program doing nothing but creating elaborate domino chains all over the room, climbing on the file cabinets, and throwing books out the window. In the end, the correlation between being selected for the gifted program and graduating at the top of our high school class was surprisingly weak, and it weakens even more when college graduation rates are taken into consideration.

Doubtlessly, gifted programs could easily be better run than mine was. They could, for example, require the reading of entire books. But even so, why bother? The AP program seems like a much better model for tracking--it selects participants according to their interest and academic preparation in a subject and rewards them for some realistic combination of diligence and intelligence, rather than selecting them for coronation because of their IQ scores and rewarding them for that elusive "potential" that those scores might demonstrate but can never in themselves fulfill. Moreover, AP courses are independent of one another--it's possible to take AP calculus but not AP history, or to get an A in one and a D in the other. Although there is obviously going to be overlap in the enrollment of these courses, enrollment is not determined by being a member of a preselected pseudo-aristocracy, and the emphasis on producing decent work outweighs the emphasis on forming an identity as a tortured genius. (Which is not to say that students who create an image of tortured genius don't get breaks from teachers who believe their tragic brilliance is what prevents them from turning anything in on time. Anyone who recalls a certain chronically truant "Bosnian poet" from my high school will know how that scheme works.) And, if AP is too easy for you, go to college early.

Maybe I'm overstating the case for the school as a social or civic institution rather than an institution for the cultivation of the individual in these last two posts. It seems to me though that these two tales--the Tale of the Mercenary Asian and the Tale of the Victimized Gifted Child--both throw the social purpose of the school (as opposed to the more individual purpose of education) into stark relief. The argument that public education is responsible for anything more than assimilating children into our political culture and providing them all with a relatively basic grasp of the skills and body of knowledge required to be a citizen (which is not to say we have to set a low standard) seems to be mistaken just at the point where it produces demands that the school system be responsible for realizing the fullest potential of its farthest outliers. It's at that point that we cross into individualized curriculum for all land and undermine the very idea of a school, which becomes nothing more than a series of private tutors. The comparison of precocious with disabled children also fails here, since the purpose of special education is still in keeping with the overall purpose of bringing everyone up to a basic standard of civic competence, and even special education in public schools tends not to accept the most severely disabled children, who are by and large absent from the mainstream public school system even if they attend schools funded with public money.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Mercenary Asian, and other stories of American education

The WashPost has another article (overrepresentation!) about the Asian invasion of elite education, telling much the same story as always--Asians get in, whites get scared, everyone scrambles to "reexamine" affirmative action to determine how poor black kids can best be used to help out their own side. But what are we to make of this ongoing media representation (especially media that caters to upper class whites) of Asians as uber-efficient cyborgs from faraway lands come to take over our schools? Clearly, there is some palpable cultural anxiety at work here and it's interesting, even if it results in a grotesquely weird picture of actual Asians in America. In what sense exactly are supposedly "Asian values" at odds with ours, and what do we fear that the these generic Asians are going to take from us by their presence?

I suspect that this fear stems at least partially from an American school culture that is, even in the most affluent and educated areas, deeply suspicious of, well, schools (education and schooling being, as always, not quite aligned). This fear may be best understood in contrast to highly regimented school systems like Prussia's, where the school was a direct instrument of the state that competed with the authority of parents over their children and that determined a child's life trajectory. The school was the premier channel for social mobility, and in turn, community dissolution. (If Johnny wants to join the Civil Service, Johnny has to leave Podunk, Iowa behind.)

Most American primary, and later, secondary schools, have never been about that. The army was kind of about that, but the school was part of an ambivalent truce between the state (which needs citizens), the economy (which needs employees), the culture (which needs to perpetuate itself and give shape to people's lives), and the family (which needs control over its children). (Religion had a piece of the pie too.) This was worked out through a federal mandate that local jurisdictions build and operate schools, the curricula and structure of which was largely subject to local preferences. The result was that schools were "about" actual academics to the extent that most Americans learned to read early on in our history, but rigor beyond that was asking a lot, as was promoting social mobility and determining social class all that. If anything, school was about social life, community life, and the continuation of regional cultures. School attainment was not an indicator of character, or the predictor of one's class or lifestyle that it is now. And it's this looseness of social and economic arrangements, the vast number of second, third, and totally alternative chances that are available to everyone, that seems to be at least partly what the mythical Asian invasion threatens.

It might account for the repeated appearance of the Tale of the Mercenary Asian, who is mentioned in the TJ article but who is discussed at length here--a shadowy figure who is willing to split up his family and move anywhere in search of better schools for his children (a most grevous sin, especially since we are also told that Asians are extremely family-oriented). No doubt, as with all trend articles, these people are in actuality, an insignificant part of the Korean population. But a fascinating one! The American indignantly asks, "Who would do such a thing?" In fact, my parents offered to do just such a thing for me in high school, and I refused on the grounds that changing schools would mean, "losing my friends," a surprisingly community-minded consideration for Miss Self-Important, who was then suffering from serious academic tunnel vision from which she has never fully recovered.

The American view of the school, which downplays its future-determining powers, says that a good school is of course nice (though "good school" and "Andover" should not be mistaken for synonyms for most Americans) and a terrible school is bad (but not unsalvagable; we are optimists!), but a mediocre school is no great tragedy. It still contains opportunities for those who seek them out, and we love people who seek out opportunities. The main thing is that schools are, as Diane Ravitch has written in an argument against closing bad schools, "deeply embedded community institutions," not simply interchangeable machines of the state or servants of the economy or facilitators of expert prognosticators' visions of The Future. To some degree then, schools are symbolic of the particular character of the community that has built them up. People who'll drop everything (and even split up their families) to move somewhere for a school reputed to be a big Ivy feeder obviously challenge our sense of the school as a product of committed generations of local residents with a stake in its success. And, of course, such misguided priorities must have their due costs, in order that we who keep our families together and stick it out in mediocre schools may be vindicated:
After his family left Seoul, Mr. Park, an engineer, moved into what South Koreans call an “officetel,” a building with small units that can be used as apartments or offices. Hearing about wild geese fathers becoming dissolute living by themselves, he stopped drinking at home.

“I’m alone, I miss my family,” Mr. Park said grimly in an interview in Seoul. “Families should live together.”

Living apart for years strains marriages and undermines the role of a father, traditionally the center of the family in South Korea’s Confucian culture, education experts and psychologists said. Some spouses have affairs; some marriages end in divorce.
The Mercenary Asians get theirs. But bypassers of this painstaking community-building work are of course, not limited to Asians. They're basically everyone who's ever moved to a suburb for its schools, which includes millions of postwar whites, Hispanics, and blacks as well. So why this unremitting focus on ambitious Asians? Nostalgic guilt for leaving Podunk, Iowa or Newark, NJ behind to rot? A shift in school culture?

Other readings of the Tale of the Mercenary Asian?

Friday, July 04, 2008

The view from my window

Happy Independence Day from the Blue Ridge Mountains.