A grim start to Spring Break

Spring break starts…NOW. I’m done with classes for the day, and just have to make a trip out to St. Cloud to pick up my son for the weekend and my obligations are temporarily over, sort of.

Way back at the beginning of the term when spring break seemed far, far away, I scheduled an exam for my physiology course (75 students) and my introductory biology course (35 students) for this week; I also had my intro students turn in a writing assignment this week, and because they had done poorly on one rather important exercise, had also assigned an extra paper, also due now. There is a rather terrifyingly full box of papers sitting on my desk, growling softly to remind me of its existence now and then. I know that if I neglect it it will glare more ferociously and grow claws and fangs and get increasingly vicious; if I wait until the last weekend of the break to deal with it, it will try to kill me. So I’m going to take it out early. I swear, I will annihilate the contents of that evil box this weekend, splattering every page with red.

That box is evil. I hate it. I will gut it soon, one page at a time.

My only problem with email is the quantity

Maybe it’s Minnesota, or maybe it’s me, but this situation with professors complaining about student email doesn’t really affect me. It’s been my experience here that UMM students are usually friendly and trouble-free with email (haven’t you heard? We’re all nice up here!), and I even welcome the complaints—I’d rather hear from the students than not hear from them, especially if they’re worried about something. I also like my email terse and to the point, so I’m not at all discomfited by a message that would be rudely abrupt if said to my face.

One thing would absolutely drive me nuts, though, and it’s this horrible piece of advice.

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor’s response to an e-mail message.

“One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back,” Professor Worley said.

Ugh. Email is a communication medium, and the less we clutter it up with rank and power and hierarchical crap the better; there’s enough real power disparity between me and my students that I don’t need it acknowledged, and I’d prefer it were minimized. As for bouncing back with a superfluous “thank you”…no, thank you. That’s just noise in the channel, one more scrap of clutter in my mailbox.

(via The Washington Monthly)

I think Tim Burke and I agree on this one, and I note in the comments that Worley was misquoted—what she was suggesting is actually much more reasonable.

Summers is out for school

I can’t say that I’m surprised by anything in this except for the length of time it has taken: Summers has stepped down from the presidency of Harvard. I suspect he still doesn’t know what hit him, but I think stupidly belittling the intrinsic capabilities of a significant number of successful, hardworking, and intelligent faculty for an irrelevant difference has led to some just desserts.

I get no respect

Here’s the difference between me and Michael Bérubé: he gets labeled a dangerous radical and profiled in David Horowitz’s new book, while all I get is a
mild squeak in our weekly campus newspaper and our local conservative rag.

While perusing the UMM main page, I happened upon the website http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula which belongs to UMM’s own Professor of Biology Dr. Meyers. Upon closer inspection I found content relating to my religious beliefs that offended me beyond belief. Not only was this speech sacrilegious and offensive, but it was readily available to anyone who happens across the UMM main page. The portion of content which I found most offensive was written under the label “humor,” and his blog is in fact up for an online award. Yet despite my outrage I must defend Dr. Meyers. He has the right to state his opinions and it is not my place to try to stop him. I may suggest the administration take the link off the campus website, but that has more to do with the fact that the website speaks for the University as a whole.

He is a bit of a junior Horowitz—I kind of like how he’s bending over backwards to insist I have a right to free speech while calling for the university to censor me—but you know, he put this up almost two weeks ago and the only reason I noticed at all is that my wife ran across it. It’s just sad. I mean, if what I wrote was really sacrilegious and outrageous and offensive beyond belief, couldn’t they get a condemnatory petition going, or a protest march, or even get one of Horowitz’s junior sub-alterns to come out and give a talk in which he complains about not being allowed to give a talk, while my kidneys threaten Western Civilization?

Man, I’d even be satisfied if they just spelled my name right.

Richard Cohen, advocate for ignorance

Here is a serious problem:

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know—never mind want to know—how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later—or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note—or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

That’s Richard Cohen, who is supposedly the ‘liberal’ columnist for the Washington Post, giving advice to a young girl.

It’s outrageous.

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.

Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it’s about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It’s basic stuff—I know many students struggle with it, but it’s a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it’s a basic requirement for getting into a good college—here, for instance, are my university’s mathematics entrance requirements.

Three years of mathematics, including one year each of elementary algebra, geometry, and intermediate algebra. Students who plan to enter the natural sciences, health sciences, or quantitative social sciences should have additional preparation beyond intermediate algebra.

This isn’t what you need to be a math major. It’s what you need to just get in, whether you’re going to major in physics or art. Richard Cohen is telling Gabriela to forget about a college education.

I’m sure that he has never once rued not being able to use algebra. If I had never heard a poem or listened to a symphony or read a novel or visited Independence Hall, I could probably dumbly write that I don’t miss literature, music, or history…never heard of ’em. Don’t need ’em. Bugger all you eggheads pushing your useless ‘knowledge’ on me!

That kind of foolish complacency is what we’d expect of the ignorant, but it takes the true arrogance of the stupid to insist that others don’t need that knowledge…especially after you’ve dismissed the utility of algebra because they can just use calculators. What, Mr Cohen, you don’t think the engineers who make calculators need algebra?

Cohen insists, though, that algebra is useless and doesn’t even teach reasoning.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.

That’s easy enough for a man to say, especially when his very next sentence is an example of the quality of the reasoning he believes he mastered with his ability to write.

The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.

Maybe it’s because I was bamboozled by all those teachers who taught me algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, but I don’t think a bogus anecdote (seriously—the college prep crowd at my high school were taking math, languages, English, etc., and doing well at all of them) is “proof” of much of anything.

It’s about what you’d expect of a fellow who brags elsewhere in his essay that his best class in high school was typing. That’s right, figuring out mindless, mechanical reflex action, rote memorization, and the repetition of stock phrases from a book were the height of intellectual activity in Richard Cohen’s academic career. And the highlight of his elementary school education must have been mastering breathing. This is the man whose advice about education should be taken seriously?

After all, education isn’t important to live a happy, contented life.

I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used—or wanted to use—algebra.

If sheep could talk, they’d say the same thing.

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It’s so easy.

Or we could push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more—skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn’t asking much. It’s knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.

We’re supposed to be living in a country built on Enlightenment values, founded by people who knew the importance of a well-rounded education—people like Thomas Jefferson, who had no problem listing the important elements of a good education.

What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history, civil history and ethics. In natural philosophy, I mean to include chemistry and agriculture; and in natural history to include botany, as well as the other branches of those departments.

Note “mathematics”, which would have included geometry and algebra. In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

While Cohen may think a little more English or history is an adequate substitute for elementary mathematics, Jefferson would suggest otherwise…and if anything, this sentiment has become more true in these modern times.

[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.

I can’t resist. I have to let Jefferson dope-slap Cohen one more time.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

(via the SciAm blog)

This is a disturbing coda to the story. Gabriela gave up on school and got a job at the local Subway sandwich shop, but now she has new aspirations:

“I don’t want to be there no more,” she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Ahem, what? She can’t do basic algebra, and she’s going to be a medical assistant? That is terrifying—remind me not to ever get sick anywhere near LA.

I know this irritates my critics…

…but my university actually supports me. There’s a profile of yours truly that’s part of a random rotating collection of links on UMM’s main page (if you don’t see it there, reload the page; it’ll appear eventually.)

I am aware that I am slightly harsher and more radical than many of my colleagues on some issues (others have their own domains of expertise and radicalism), but one of the great things about UMM is that even if they don’t explicitly endorse all of my opinions—and that acknowledgment on the main page is not an admission that this university is a hotbed of militant atheist evilutionists—they are appreciative of the diversity of ideas that make up a great university.

Required reading

Pablum for the masses

An Angry professor led me to an article on Inside Higher Ed, which discusses a document by the Wingspread Conference by the Society for Values in Higher Education (pdf). I knew when I saw the word “Values” up there that I was in for some platitudinous academe-speak slathered around a set of bland pieties, and I was. Poking around on their website, I see that the Society for Values in Higher Education seems to consist of a lot of well-meaning and rather wordy types who see religion as an important “value” to inculcate in higher education—a nest of those liberal Christians everyone tells me I’m supposed to appreciate more, I think.

I think I’d like them much more if they’d just practice their religion, and stop telling me it’s so important to get their sanctity into my classrooms and politics.

We recognize and value the contributions of religious studies scholars and programs at many universities, yet they alone cannot achieve these objectives. We challenge colleges and universities to examine their courses and curricula to put into practice new ways to educate students about religion’s dimensions and influence. Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines – sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences – and the professions.

Sciences? What, exactly, am I supposed to tell my students about the relevance of religion to biology? I suppose I could tell them that it has been a corrupting influence, that dogma, revealed knowledge, and obeisance to authority are the antithesis of scientific ideals, and that religion has an astonishingly bad track record on scientific issues. I could sit down with them and tell them to apply a little critical thinking to their favorite religious myths, and I could give extra credit to everyone who rejects organized religion.

But no.

I already know that that particular rational point of view is not what they are looking for, and I’m sure it’s not what the SVHE is thinking of—they want only respectful comments about religion. Different points of view are welcome, but only as long as they reinforce religious indoctrination. Take a look at what they really want:

Higher education must direct more attention to teacher education. American public schools avoid the study of religion partly because it is viewed as too controversial and also because of the scarcity of adequately trained teachers, texts, and tested curricula. Of primary importance is the need to train teachers to infuse religion in student learning without overstepping First Amendment freedoms and limitations.

That emphasis is mine. I find that a repellent suggestion.

It has a whiff of that old Indian school mentality about it—”if only we teach them White Christian values, they’ll abandon their savage, heathenish ways”—there’s that implicit assumption that their way is the only way, that religion needs to be smuggled into the classroom (carefully, carefully, though—mustn’t break the letter of the law!), that others lack values. They want to insert virtue into the university, their religious values are the path to virtue, therefore, they must teach religion. Hey, why not teach virtue without the contradictory nonsense of religion?

Higher education must foster a spirit of tolerance and actively champion an attitude of mutual respect and affirmation of the value of pluralism in a democracy without implicitly or explicitly privileging secular-rational worldviews or particular religious perspectives in the search for truth.

Here’s a translation from religious speak: “respect and affirmation” means “you aren’t allowed to poke holes in my ridiculous ideas.” Promotion of religion doesn’t mean letting students pray or practice their faith—they’re already fully allowed to do that as they will—but protecting weak ideas from the inquiry and skepticism that is supposed to be the natural environment of the university. We already mollycoddle everyone’s religious beliefs enough in this country.

And I’m sorry, but I will privilege the secular-rational worldview. It works. It provides the tools we need to work towards the truth, and is central to the role of the university. Religion already claims to have the truth—too bad it’s wrong.

And guess what? You can be a practicing Christian or Muslim or whatever, and still adopt the secular-rational worldview. Our problem, I think, is with those religious people with the strange idea that praising Jesus requires a rejection of rationality and secularism.

The study of religion and its public relevance is a crucial dimension to liberal education for all students that should be pursued in ways that affirm academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and reason. It should never compromise rational discourse on campus nor should it subvert knowledge attained through disciplinary inquiry. Challenges to disciplinary or professional knowledge and practice should be raised through reasoned debate and academically accepted methods that enrich student learning.

This is just wrong—it’s not crucial in the sense they imply at all. Sure, it should be studied as a slice of history or sociology, like we study the Black Plague, wars, and the afflictions of drug abuse; an atheist can study religion, no problem. But that’s not what this group wants. They want religion on a pedestal, as an implicitly desirable attribute in our students, and they want to inculcate religious beliefs in our students.

I reject that. If they want faculty to “infuse religion in student learning”, they’re going to get my uncompromising views as well as the soppy views of the indoctrinated. Do they really want to open that door?

(Maybe they do. I know I’m outnumbered; maybe they’d welcome an opportunity to actively suppress freethought.)