Monday, July 28, 2008

On Stupidity -

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, "On Stupidity," Thomas H. Benton cites several recent books arguing that American anti-intellectualism has reached its peak (August 1, 2008). Some of these books blame the Internet for producing students incapable of sustained concentration. Benton notes that a new book by Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008)) provides empirical support for what older professors have observed anecdotally: "Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and more money is spent on education."

As an English professor, Benton is obviously concerned about the current state of affairs. He notes several characteristics that he has observed among his own students:
  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.

  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.

  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)

  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.

  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).

  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.

  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.

  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.

  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

I have found these same characteristics among my own students, and I suspect most professors would tell you the same. As Benton duly notes, the top 6 bullet points can be addressed in the classroom, but the bottom 4 cannot be addressed without support from university administrators. Namely, he argues for "small classes, high standards, and full-time faculty members who are backed by the administration." Additionally, "we need to reverse the customer-service mentality that goes hand-in-hand with the transformation of most college teaching into a part-time, transient occupation and the absence of any reliable assessment of course outcomes besides student evaluations."

I wholeheartedly agree with Benton's diagnosis and prescription. I would add, however, that part of the behavior of administrators is conditioned by the expectations of state legislatures. Our legislators can make a significant contribution to the education of our future leaders by requiring high standards and sensible assessment tools, rather than the problematic student evaluations, from their state institutions of higher learning.

On Stupidity -

Monday, July 7, 2008

Faux Environmentalism, Part II

Thanks to everyone who contributed in the comment section on my previous post on Faux Environmentalism. I especially thank Fr. Peter Doodes, who suggested the following video. It essentially makes my same point, though in a more humorous way. Namely, much of what we do in the name of environmentalism actually does more harm to the environment than doing nothing. This is especially true when it comes to companies that try to sell us their "environmental" products, as if we can buy our way to a better planet.

If we really want more environmentally friendly products, we should think about the entire life cycle of the products. How much energy did it take to manufacture the parts, ship the parts, assemble the parts, and ship the product to its final destination. And then, when you are finished using the product, what happens to it. Can it be recycled or will it end up in a landfill?

Formula One designer Gordon Murray is on the right track. He has designed a "city car" that will use a minimal number parts, take up little space (3 can fit in a normal parking spot), gets 60 mpg, and most of the parts could be recycled after it no longer runs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

My VP Picks

For most Americans, experience does not seem to matter much when choosing our President. Governors with no Washington level experience have been popular choices. This describes four of our last five presidents. This time, both parties chose Senators, but neither has executive branch experience. I believe our presidents should have some combination of executive branch and federal level experience. It's too late to convince you, the voters, to apply this standard for the top of the ticket, but I can make some suggestions to our nominees for the VP slot. (I'm sure they read this blog, don't you?) So, Senator's Obama and McCain here are my suggestions for Vice President.

Suggestions for Barack Obama:
  1. Bill Richardson: US House Member, UN Ambassador, Secretary of Department of Energy, Governor of New Mexico
  2. Evan Bayh: Governor of Indiana, US Senator
  3. Ted Strickland: US House Member, Governor of Ohio
  4. Al Gore: US House Member, US Senator, Vice President

Suggestions for John McCain:
  1. Rob Portman: US House Member, US Trade Representative, OMB Director
  2. Tom Ridge: US House Member, Governor of Pennsylvania, Secretary of Department of Homeland Security
  3. Bobby Jindal: US House Member, Governor of Louisiana
  4. Mark Sanford: US House Member, Governor of South Carolina

Anyone you would add to the list?