James D. Stein: Putting Excitement Back in High-School Education

High school has been failing its students, according to James D. Stein, mostly by presenting to disinterested students an overwhelming mass of information that they aren’t likely to find interesting or useful. As the author of L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein is an expert at keeping subjects interesting for the most reluctant math students.

by James D. Stein

Let me start by repeating something I said in the last post. Where we’ve shortchanged students is at the secondary level. This is where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education, which is to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen. So here’s what I’d recommend: revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and give them a full dose of that.

In 1961, Richard Feynman delivered an introductory lecture at Caltech in which he made the following oft-quoted statement. “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

Let’s tweak what Feynman said a little.

If, in some cataclysm, all of the knowledge of humanity were to be destroyed, and only one book passed on to the next generation of creatures, what book would contain the most information about humanity in the fewest words? It would be a book summarizing the Top Ten most important achievements in the most important areas of natural science, social science, the humanities and history, ranked in order of importance by a panel of experts who have devoted their lives to the study of these subjects.

All of a sudden, acquiring a broad general background becomes both achievable and enjoyable – and in a reasonably short period of time. A basic education should tell you what’s important in the important subjects —AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE!!! Oh, sure, in the sciences you could probably come up with a fairly good list (although the ORDER of the items would not be known, and that’s a key part of this idea) —but other than World Wars I and II, what are the important events in world history? How can we teach the important material in the important subjects, when we don’t even have a consensus as to what they are?

And let’s do it using the Top Ten format, because not only can we find out what are the most important achievements—which should form the basis for a broad general background—but because the Top Ten format is almost universally engaging. Publish a Top Ten list backed by experts, and you’ll know you’ve got a reasonable approximation of the biggies. Moreover, Top Ten lists invite further study and critical thinking.

Just think of the following assignment in a high-school history course: using the Top Ten list in American history as a guide, construct your own Top Ten list of the ten most important events in American history, and justify your choices. I’m guessing that you’d see raging debates in the classroom, with teachers serving as enlightened moderators rather than just ‘sages on the stage’. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but instead of arguing about Top Ten football teams or Top Ten TV shows, you just might find students suddenly arguing about the relative importance of the Civil War and the American Revolution in American history. You might find students actually doing research to support their points of view. You’d find students thinking about important ideas, rather than memorizing stuff to regurgitate on standardized exams.

Two decades ago, Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, in which he decried the deplorable lack of scientific knowledge in the general public. I’ll bet if you simply had a list of the Top Ten achievements in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and if you taught that in a one-semester course, you’d have taken a giant step toward rectifying the problem that so concerned Sagan.

Almost every teacher in every subject feels the same way: students just don’t know what’s important. Let’s find out what is the important stuff in the important subjects, and give every high school student an opportunity to acquire that knowledge—relatively quickly and enjoyably. And then let’s get on with the business of enabling students to become productive members of society by enabling them to take courses at the high school level in what really interests them. It hurts me—a little—to say this, but if a student wants to become a video-game designer, I’d rather have them become a really good video-game designer than a barely passing algebra student. School should be a place where you go to help you fulfill your dreams. And I’m willing to bet you’d find a lot more students getting interested in science and history once they know what experts think is important—and once they’ve had an opportunity to think critically about it for themselves.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent work is L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.

James D. Stein on teaching math in the liberal arts

Time and technology have changed the education system, but James D. Stein insists that we still have room for improvement, particularly in how the mathematics curriculum is handled in high school. In his latest book, L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein offers a unique approach that teaches mathematical techniques through liberal arts, making the subject more accessible to those who might otherwise avoid it. Today Stein discusses the challenge of providing students with a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t pursue professionally.

Abraham Lincoln and American High Schools

by James D. Stein

February 12th was Lincoln’s birthday.  Like almost everyone in my generation, I was given the official story of Abraham Lincoln and the value of education. You probably know it, how Honest Abe, realizing at an early age the value of education, would trudge miles through snow-covered forest from his log cabin in order to attend school.

I have no doubt that he did indeed so trudge, but over the years I’ve become skeptical of this ‘realizing at an early age the value of education’ explanation. I think Abe, like the vast majority of children (and adults), was basically a pleasure-seeker. Put yourself in his shoes – no TV, no video games, no Facebook. Which is better – a lonely log cabin in the middle of the woods, or a small school, with other children and the opportunity to hear stories far more interesting than anything he could find at home? I’m guessing he went to school in large part because it was a lot more interesting than what he found at home.

Today, however, schools face a problem – its students DO have TV, video games, and Facebook – and they’re stiff competition. Let’s be honest with ourselves; although there are a few students who will find factoring polynomials as interesting as Facebook, most won’t. And let’s continue to be honest with ourselves; although students who plan on entering a career in a STEM subject – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – need to be familiar with algebra, the only time anyone else will encounter an algebra problem during the rest of their life is when one of their children asks them for help with algebra.

And what do we want then? We don’t want both parents to tell their children that they had a really bad experience with math and don’t remember anything, This is not likely to encourage the next generation to pursue the STEM subjects on which our future well-being as a society depends.

So, having cursed the darkness, let me try to light a candle. Our education system does a reasonable job at the primary school level. It’s not perfect, but we do a pretty good job of teaching the three Rs in a highly diverse society. We also do a great job of education at the level of college and graduate school; after all, students come from all over the world to study at our institutions of higher learning, and generally the chief reason our college students go elsewhere is to participate in an exchange program.

Where we truly shortchange students is at the secondary level, where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education – to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen.

My only expertise is in mathematics, but as I look at the California Framework for Mathematics, insofar as it deals with the high school level, I’m thinking – will anyone other than STEM students use algebra, geometry, or trigonometry in later life? Or even statistics? Probably not. It would be helpful if they understood how statistics functions and what it is used for, rather than knowing how to compute a standard deviation or a confidence interval – which they’ll almost certainly have forgotten within a year.

So here’s what I’d recommend – revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and concentrate on doing a solid job of giving them a full dose of that. After all, that’s what we do in college – except for the enjoyable part.

Stay tuned for Jim Stein’s next post on how to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a general background.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent book is L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.

Jonathan Zimmerman: How consensual is casual sex on campus?

zimmerman jacketIn a recent op ed in Washington Post on the question of consensual sex on college campuses, Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, writes, “… if we want to protect our students, not just their colleges, we will have to begin a deeper dialogue about the meaning of sex itself.” In an approach that departs from debates that have focused on what constitutes ‘legal’ sex, Zimmerman questions the ability of students to emotionally connect in such an intimate setting in extremely limited periods of time:

We might succeed in cajoling more students into some kind of verbal consent. But that’s a script, a bedroom contract between sexual vendors. Yes, it will make the whole transaction legal. But consensual? Really? If you met somebody an hour ago, how can you tell what they want? And since you know so little about them, aren’t you more likely to do something that they don’t want, no matter what kind of “consent” they have given?

According to Zimmerman, university online courses, workshops and informational resources about consensual sex on campus fail to emphasize the vital notions of emotional connection and communication. Due to this lack of communication, he suggests that although female students may verbally give consent, they are still pressured to do things they would normally avert.

Read Zimmerman’s full piece in the Washington Post here.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of Education and History at New York University. He has also authored Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American.

(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought, Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education

Welcome to Part 2 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again.

 


Fish Food for Thought

Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education


7.1 Why We Built the Ivory Tower

May 1, 2006

Fish on the difference between the academic and advocacy worlds.

In short, don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else’s. Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. (301)

7.4 Devoid of Content

May 31, 2005

Fish on teaching language structure, not content, in the classroom.

Students who take so-called courses in writing . . . are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn’t have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room. . . . They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works, they will be unable to either spot the formal breakdown of someone else’s language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own. (313)

7.6 Will the Humanities Save Us?

January 6, 2008

Fish on the purpose of humanities courses.

To the question, ‘Of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said . . . diminishes the object of its supposed praise.(323)

7.7 The Uses of the Humanities

January 13, 2008

Fish on why he teaches humanities subjects.

Why do I do it? . . . I don’t do it because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved. . . . [I]t is like solving a puzzle—but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. (324325)

7.10 Deep in the Heart of TexasThink Again jacket

June 21, 2010

Fish on recognizing a quality education.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers. . . . And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades. (340)

 

Ready for football? Remembering the first game between Princeton and Rutgers

It’s that time of year again! The air is saturated with the promise of cooler days ahead, the leaves are holding their breath, and school is nearly back in session. And that means one thing. Football season will soon be here. More specifically, college football. Princeton, as I’m sure you know, has quite the legacy in this area—dating back almost a century and a half.

To be precise, that legacy dates back all the way to November 6th, 1869: The day of the first official collegiate football game played between Rutgers and Princeton (then called The College of New Jersey).

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Back then, the game was really a hybrid combining elements of rugby and modern-day soccer. Each team consisted of 25 players struggling to kick the ball into the opposing team’s territory. Reportedly, a mere 100 spectators gathered to watch the game, many of them sitting on a wooden fence. The players took the field, removing their hats, coats and vests in preparation for play. Speaking of attire, some believe that the “Scarlet Knights” nickname for Rutgers came to be at this game. To differentiate themselves from Princeton, some players sported scarlet-colored scarves, worn as turbans. Thus, the Scarlet Knights were born. Alas, Rutgers defeated Princeton that day, 6-4. Six to four you ask? That’s right. Even the score-keeping method was different back then.

What a far cry from college athletics today, especially football. If you’ve ever been to a college football game (especially a Division 1 game), you know what I’m talking about. In 2011, many colleges including Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Texas, had over 100,000 fans in attendance at their games. Stadiums practically ooze their team’s colors and the roar of the crowd is deafening. Music pumps through unseen speakers and there are always a few dedicated fans that choose to doff their shirts in favor of painting their team’s colors and/or letters onto their bodies. Who's #1? The Science of Rating and Ranking

People take their college football very seriously these days. There are all different types of divisions, championships, and rankings that decide when and where they get to play. The ratings of the NCAA determine which schools get to play for all the marbles in postseason bowl games. Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer discuss these types of ranking systems in their book Who’s #1?
The Science of Rating and Ranking.

The major differences between college sports in the 19th century and college sports today are significant. College athletics have become an integral part of the community of higher education and of society as a whole.

Gaming the World But the nature of college sports today are troubling to some. On the one hand, college athletic programs serve to bring communities together and unite people who otherwise wouldn’t share any common ground.  In Gaming the World  Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann reflect on and explain how sports influence our daily lives and help to confirm a certain local, regional, and national identity. These programs also promote health and wellness at colleges nationwide, which benefits students.

But on the other hand, many colleges and universities, in their constant need to compete with other institutions, sometimes redirect funds and other resources toward football or basketball while the academic side of the institution is forced to manage without those funds.

In addition to the funding problem, there is also an “underperformance” problem. In Reclaiming the Game, William Bowen and Sarah Levin explore the academic experiences of college athletes and oReclaiming the Gamether students. In one of their studies they’ve found that recruited athletes at some schools are four times more likely to achieve admission than are other students (non-athletes) with similar academic qualifications. They also show that the typical recruit is more likely to end up in the bottom third of the college class than are other students and non-athletes.

It’s safe to say that the feverish fandom of college athletics can either boost or take away from the institution itself and the college experience. What’s your opinion on the matter?

Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer can Help EconomicsIf the impact of sports is a topic that interests you, and you’re intrigued by unusual applications, also check out Ignacio Palacios-Huerta’s Beautiful Game Theory. Palacios-Huerta uses soccer as a lens to study game theory and microeconomics, covering such topics as mixed strategies, discrimination, incentives, and human preferences. Palacios-Huerta makes the case that soccer provides “rich data sets and environments that shed light on universal economic principles in interesting and useful ways.”

PS: Not to worry, Princetonians – we didn’t make a habit of losing to our northern neighbor. On May 2nd, 1866, in the first intercollegiate athletic event in Rutgers history, the Rutgers baseball team lost to Princeton, 40-2. Quite the slaughter! And Rutgers may have ended up winning the first football game 6 to 4, but a week later Princeton won the next match at home, 8 to 0.

A rematch is also on the horizon! If you’ve done your math right (and I’m sure you have) the 150th anniversary of the historic football game takes place in 2019. There have been talks of a rematch for this upcoming anniversary. Read more here.

Image credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/11389

Too Hot to Handle? Jonathan Zimmerman Q&A on the problem with sex education

A product in part of the Progressive Era’s efforts to eradicate prostitution, sex education today is more likely to take its cues from the hazards of sexting. But while sex education has always been emotionally fraught, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, its opponents are not limited to the realm of evangelical ministers and Conservative pundits. What exactly is the world’s problem with sex education? Zimmerman has a terrific op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that globalization, contrary to popular belief, has limited rather than expanded such instruction. He was recently interviewed for a piece by Jessica Lahey on the Atlantic.com, and spoke to the History News Network as well.

This week, Zimmerman took the time to sit down with Princeton University Press to shed some light on the fascinating social history of sex education, as well as his personal motivations for writing the book:

Ontario Sex Education Protest 20150224externalimagek104541

 

Why did you write this book?

Jonathan Zimmerman (JZ): My mother spent her career in international family planning and sex education. So she imbued me with the standard liberal American view of the subject: the United States was “behind” other Western democracies, which provide much more extensive, honest, and effective sex education than we do. And that’s why their teen pregnancy and STD rates are so much lower, or so the story goes.

So was your Mom correct?

JZ: Not exactly. First of all, it turns out that the USA was the global pioneer of sex education rather than a laggard. Eventually, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands did develop more detailed sex education than the USA, especially on the subject of contraception. But sex education is limited in those countries by citizen and teacher resistance, just as it is here. And, more interestingly, it has a different set of goals.

How so?

JZ: In Scandinavia and Continental Europe, the stated goal of sex education is not to limit negative social consequences, but rather to help each individual determine and develop her or his own sexuality. I didn’t understand the difference until I found an exchange in the Swedish archives between an educator in Ireland (where sex education was much more like the American version) and the leader of the RFSU, Sweden’s national sex education organization. The Irish educator wanted to know how Swedish sex educators kept teen pregnancy and STD rates so low. The RFSU guy replies with a kind note that says he doesn’t know whether sex education actually influences those outcomes, because there are so many other factors that affect young people’s behavior. And then he says, that’s not the point anyway! It’s to help them lead healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.

So the Americans emphasize social consequences, and the Europeans emphasize individual rights? That sounds like a very different story than the trans-Atlantic comparative tale we usually tell, in which the Americans stress the rights of individuals and the Europeans attend to the common good.

JZ: Exactly!

And I don’t imagine you could get elected to an American school board if you were pushing for a sex-education curriculum aiming to assist each teenager in developing sexual identity and pleasure.

JZ: Probably not. But there’s plenty of resistance to that perspective in Europe now, too, especially among new immigrants Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have witnessed an enormous burst of immigration over the past two decades, mainly from Muslim and Hindu societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And many of these newcomers are angered and offended by a sex education stressing the “right” of each adolescent individual to engage in sex, which violates their communal or religious prescriptions on the subject. They also think that school-based sex education inhibits their own right to raise their children as they see fit.

What about their countries of origin, in the developing world? What does sex education look like there?

JZ: Until the 1980s, it barely existed. But the HIV/AIDS crisis changed all of that, especially in Africa. The question became not “Should we have sex education?” but “What kind of sex education should we have?” And in Africa and Asia, not surprisingly, it more closely resembled the abstinence-only or danger-centered approach that we see in many parts of the USA.

So would it be fair to say that an American-style sex education is more “culturally appropriate”—in many parts of the developing world—than, say, the Swedish version?

JZ: Yes, and that’s one of the central ironies of my book. Many people in the West who support so-called “comprehensive” sex education also fashion themselves “multiculturalists,” stressing the importance of diversity and the need for educators to respect it. It’s hard to square that perspective with a commitment to adolescent sexual rights, which are simply anathema in many cultures. I realized that, too, when I was in the archives in Sweden, and I came across a comment by a frustrated educator who had been trying—without a lot of success–to promote his approach in the so-called Third-World. As he acknowledged, many people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America did not share his premises on the value of the individual, at least not when it came to sex. “It is hard for people to be autonomous in cultures where autonomy seems to be of such little use,” he wrote.

What about conservatives? Wasn’t there also an irony in the way they invoked their “cultural” rights and prerogatives?

JZ: Definitely! In the USA and the UK, especially, white conservatives since the 1960s have often resisted “multiculturalism” as a divisive threat to the body politic. But on sex education, they invoked their own cultural and religious rights and—increasingly—they united with ethnic and religious minorities who shared their point of view. So in the UK, for example, you see white Tories joining hands with Muslim immigrant organizations against sex education.

And these conservatives make common cause across borders, right, as more and more people move across them?

JZ: Exactly. I think many people on the Left like to imagine that “globalization”—the rapid circulation of people and ideas around the world—as a force for liberal-ization. But in the story that I tell, globalization actually inhibits the spread of sex education by allowing critics to share ideas and strategies. Sex education has been a global movement, to be sure. But the same goes for its opposition.

In the USA and elsewhere, some conservatives have resisted or rejected scientific claims regarding evolution and climate change. Isn’t the opposition to sex education an example of similar behavior?

JZ: No. We simply don’t have the same kind of scientific knowledge or consensus about sex education as we do in the realms of evolution or climatology. And part of the reason is that there is so little sex education in the first place! It’s incredibly hard to show that something so brief and haphazard affects something as complicated as sexual behavior.

So maybe it’s really a story about what schools can do, and what they can’t?

JZ: I think so. The 20th century witnessed an enormous boom in formal schooling around the world, as well as new norms of sexual expression and behavior. Sex education brought these two trends together, but the marriage never really worked out. Kids get their messages and values about sex from other institutions, especially in the mass media. Schools just don’t factor into the equation very often, or very well.

Celebrate National Grammar Day with Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language

Grammar: It’s the difference between knowing your stuff and knowing you’re stuff. Some even say it saves lives (see below). If you haven’t noticed, today is National Grammar Day (March 4), so here at Princeton University Press we are celebrating good grammar, proper punctuation, and clear communication with Frank L. Cioffi’s anti-textbook handbook, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook.

Cioffi’s chatty and charming reference doesn’t just lay out the “rules,” but also makes a convincing case for why good grammar and usage matter. Cioffi argues that Standard Written English (also known as “formal English”) is vital for success in professions where exactness and clarity carry great importance, and he also proposes that correct English can foster a more honest, ethical, and functional culture of communication.

The book draws on some three hundred real-world sentences printed in eleven newspapers and six weekly magazines and published on a single, typical day (December 29, 2008). Cioffi emphasizes that English usage is continually evolving and he debunks some of the most popular grammar “rules.” Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? It is. Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. Is it “correct” to use split infinitives. Sure.

What do you think? Does “formal” English still matter in the post-Twitter world?

commas-save-lives

Check out the introduction and let us know.

We’ve also been tweeting out #NationalGrammarDay #protips from the book today.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Photo via Brett Jordan / Flickr

President Emeritus William G. Bowen To Speak At Princeton University

William BowenPresident Emeritus William G. Bowen will give a talk “Academia Online: Musings” at 8 p.m. Monday Oct. 14, in McCosh Hall, Room 50, as part of the Princeton University Public Lectures Series. Bowen’s most recent book, Higher Education in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2013), which examines two of the most visible and important trends in higher education today: exploding costs and the expansion of online learning, will be a topic of discussion. Bowen believes that technology has the potential to help rein in costs without negatively affecting student learning.


This event is free and open to the public. For more information, click here.