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Chronological Archive • November 17, 2002 - November 23, 2002
November 23, 2002
Children - who is ultimately responsible?

If you are a specialist blogger, you rely heavily on the other specialist bloggers doing your specialism, until such time as you get the hang of it, and I find myself relying on Daryl Cobranchi, a lot. Yesterday, for example, Daryl linked to a column at SchoolReformers.com which is well worth a look.

Who owns children? The government or their parents? I know I know, the children own the children. But until such time as the children can look after themselves, who is ultimately responsible for looking after them in the meantime? Who makes the final decisions? Parents or government? Here are David W. Kirkpatrick's first two paragraphs:

If you ask parents to whom their children belong, or who should be responsible for them, once they get over the shock of such a question most would point to themselves. They might find it hard to believe that anyone would maintain the contrary.

But a contrary view has a long history, going back to ancient Sparta. In that Greek city-state, when boys became seven years old they were taken from their families, placed in state-run boarding schools and trained to meet the needs of this military society. That would be extreme today but the essential belief that the young belong to the state has never died.

The history lesson that follows is an American history lesson, but America is an interesting place. Yesterday, someone, somewhere in the blogosphere, or maybe somewhere in among all those pre-blogosphere emails I still get, was asking about the whole idea of the "nationalisation of children". This would be a good place to look further.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
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November 22, 2002
See you on Monday sooner maybe

Just to remind you all as you pour through in your millions, the daily drip of postings may be interrupted over the weekend, by the fact that it's the weekend. As stated earlier in the week, I'm now committing myself only to putting up stuff Monday to Friday. What I'll do at the weekend is anyone's guess, and I personally have no idea how I'll feel. So see you definitely on Monday. Maybe sooner. But maybe not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:39 PM
Category: This Blog
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Primitive educational robots

There was a TV advert this evening for "educational toys" made by something called VTech. They have a website, inevitably. Lars, you want evidence of how lame computers for kids are? Look no further. I'm sure you'll be deeply unimpressed.

This adventure-based learning system can be extended with the range of Plug n Play Cartridges which can be purchased separately to adapt the Voyager Adventure System to a variety of skill levels as the child develops. Journey through interactive Boggle Chase, Photo Adventure (included), Alphaberts Time Travel Adventure, Ocean Adventure and Mystery Mansion Adventure, each guiding children aged 4-5 and 6-7 through a variety of educational activities for age appropriate learning.

The Voyager Adventure System is available Summer 2002 priced around £49.99 with additional cartridges retailing separately for around £19.99 each.

I included that last paragraph because what hit me was the amount of money that parents are willing to spend on this kind of stuff. I'm not a parent of any sort, and so comments from parents who have actually purchased this stuff would be especially welcome, pro or anti. Personally, just looking at it all, and thinking of all the bedrooms and playrooms of friends and relatives I've seen full of this kind of stuff just piled up in cupboards or lying around on the floor, I'm not a believer. But if parents will keep a business like this in business, think how much more they would be willing to part with if these kind of toys actually did seduce their kids into being cleverer. (If these did, we would surely have heard.) £54.99, £24.99, £49.99, "additional cartridges" for £19.99. If this is what parents will pay for what are, frankly, little more than educational lottery tickets, Although, as I say, expert knowledge of these gizmos from parents who have watched them in action (or inaction) would obviously be very helpful.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
Category: Technology
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The un-mis-informing of Ali

I promised the other day that by way of a change I would soon be mentioning (and I promised it rather sooner than now apologies) some actual teaching that I'd done. Well, the most recent teaching I did was when I was helping my friend Mariana run something called a Kumon Centre, which is a franchised after-school maths club, managed locally but in accordance with a centrally imposed set of guidelines first developed and still presided over in Japan. I wrote a piece for the Libertarian Alliance about this experience, but the events I am about to write about happened after that piece had been published.

Regular school maths usually seems to involve the children working through only a few rather hard problems. Kumon makes them do many more much easier ones. Instead of hoping that they get, say, about half to two thirds of their stuff right, Kumon says they must get nearly everything right. At the heart of the Kumon method is the difference between a child painfully working out that seven plus six equals, er, thirteen? (anxious glance at face of teacher), and knowing with real certainty that seven plus six equals thirteen, with no doubts or hesitations. The usual educational emphasis is on "understanding". The Kumon literature talks of "mastery".

Each child does a clutch of sums selected for him or her personally (there is no everyone-in-the-class-does-the-same-stuff rule) each day, which are supposed to take about twenty minutes to complete. In schools, teachers do the teaching. With Kumon, the system does the teaching. All we did was mark the work the children had done, and then Mariana would follow the rules of the system to set them their next lot of sums.

It worked. Almost all children made steady progress, and in some cases - and in more than just maths by the way progress was truly astonishing. Kumon sometimes seemed to administer nothing less than a psychological transformation.

But there was one boy for whom Kumon did not seem to be working its magic. Ali was the boy's name, and he seemed to be in such serious trouble that Kumon seemed beside the point. When he did sums they were all over the place. Answers were totally wrong, and figures written the wrong way round. He could hold a pencil and write, but what he wrote was crazy. We seriously doubted if there was anything we could do, and we were ready to give up right there. He would make repeated mistakes, both of calculation and in the way he wrote numbers, and we even started to believe that he might be "dyslexic", or even brain damaged. Also, Ali seemed to be an extremely arrogant little boy. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and raising his head that made him look as if he thought the world to be populated entirely by fools.

At which point I got very, very lucky. I said, let me have a try with him. I decided to do some teaching.

As I say, with Kumon, you're not supposed to teach. You simply shove the stuff in front of them and they do it with the minimum of guidance, and at the end you tell them how they've done, and they learn. The system teaches them, not us. But that wasn't going to work with Ali.

I sat Ali down in front of a clutch of Kumon sums and sat myself down right next to him. I got him to do each one exactly right, telling him exactly what to do and getting him to correct all errors immediately, as soon as he made them, and telling him exactly what to do whenever he didn't know.

I separated the task he faced into a succession of tiny steps and got him to do each step right before proceeding to the next. You start by writing your name there. No, there. What's your name? Ali. Good. Can you spell that? Good. Please write Ali there. Good. Now: what does this say? I point at a two. Two. Good. And what does that say? I point at a one. One. Good. What about that? I point at the plus in between the two and the one. No? That says plus. That means you are adding two to one. What does this say? Don't know? That says equals. That means what does two and one come to. What's it the same as? What is two plus one, two and one, two added to one? So. What's two and one? Don't know? It's three. Do you know how to write three? You do. Good. Please write three there, which is where the answer is supposed to go. Excellent.

And so on. I never made him guess more than once, and I was unfailingly polite. I always said please before asking him to do anything, and I never raised my voice. I never, that is to say, confused Ali being ignorant with Ali being stupid. I did nothing that would be unfamiliar to an averagely capable aerobics instructor working with a arthritic old-age pensioner, but for some reason this sort of thing, when needed by a child, is not always supplied, even in something as widely known as simple arithmetic.

Aside from not knowing the answers, Ali's biggest problem was writing the numbers the correct way around. He would routinely write mirror reflections of them instead. Not all the time, just rather a lot. (This was what had prompted the dyslexia diagnosis.)

When Ali did this - getting, say, the answer right but writing it mirrored - I would say well done, you got the answer right. The answer is five, and that's what you wrote. Well done. However, you wrote the five the wrong way round. Please rub out the five you did, and rewrite it the correct way round. Good.

As I say, you aren't supposed to do this in Kumon. If all the children were to get twenty minutes of solid attention, the way I was attending to Ali, the place would have stopped being the learning factory for everyboy and everygirl that it's supposed to be and would have reverted to being a few tutors helping a few rich kids. But I didn't care.

And the reason that I didn't care was that it worked. After about three sessions along these lines, Ali reached his personal plateau of arithmetical excellence (a few sums wrong but almost all of them right), just like any other Kumon kid.

There was nothing wrong with Ali's brain. Nothing whatsoever. He wasn't stupid, far from it. He had merely been misinformed.

Nor, in my opinion and in my brief experience, and despite my initial prejudice along exactly such lines, was he arrogant. My guess was there was something a bit wrong with his eyesight, and he did the lowered eyelids and raised head thing to correct it.

I don't know for sure how or why Ali had been misinformed and anyway, the cause of the problem wasn't important; what mattered was that the problem was being dealt with. My guess is that (a) his mother may not have been that sure about doing or writing out arithmetic and had consequently not been helping him with it, the way most mothers help most kids with easy sums. Confusions created at school were not cleared up at home. (The more I contemplate state education, the more important remedial home teaching seems to me to be.)

So how had Ali's school created these confusions? I surmise that at his school Ali had not had all his errors corrected, only some of them. Maybe, what with all the other kids to be worrying about, they just couldn't or didn't bother to find the time.

Maybe Ali's teachers had become gripped by the fallacy that ignorance is stupidity and that therefore to correct someone's mistakes - all of someone's mistakes, all of someone's numerous mistakes - is to launch an all-engulfing personal attack on them. (Better to boost the little kiddy's confidence and self-esteem by telling him he's doing better than he is.)

Maybe, what with Ali looking down his nose at everybody, they judged him to be difficult, and feared that if they told him the full story of how badly he was doing he'd make a scene. (That Ali and his family were Muslims might also have made them fear some kind of cross-cultural battle.)

Whatever the exact reasons, Ali had been getting wrong information. Here, two plus one was three, but here, where he'd put two plus one was two, no-one had objected. So presumably that was correct also. Numbers written both the right way round and the wrong way round were left unmolested, so presumably both answers were okay. Except that sometimes the wrong answers weren't okay.

Actually, I believe that Ali was very intelligent, and that had he been less intelligent he would have been less confused. He was getting a mass of bad information and, poor fellow, he was taking it all in, the way a less clever boy might not have.

As I say, Ali wasn't arrogant at all, but if he had thought arithmetic too silly and arbitrary and irrational to be worthy of his sustained attention, who could have blamed him?

I believe I did Ali some big favours, and in a very short time. With luck I convinced him that arithmetic could, if explained properly, make perfect sense and that he could make perfect sense of it. I told his parents that there was nothing nothing whatsoever - wrong with his brain, only the information that had previously been fed into it, and with any luck they believed me. If Ali's learning environment later reverted to confusion then presumably Ali went back to being confused, but with more luck, both Ali and his parents will then blame society rather than Ali, and seek out non-confusion.

I could go on at even greater length, and in an earlier draft containing this (for another Libertarian Alliance Educational Note) I did. There are plenty of "lessons" here, I think. But this is blogging, and I'll leave this story to speak for itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:51 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerMaths
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November 21, 2002
Old Education versus the New Media

This from John Ray:

I did a post on October 24th in which I noted the great rise in average IQ that has happened in the last 100 years. I attributed it in part to the greater stimulation young brains now receive from modern entertainment media -- television and computer games in particular. Both have of course long been treated as evils by many of our professionally wise people -- who would keep kids away from both if they could.

I am pleased to see therefore that a new research report has just come out confirming what I said. Far from holding kids back, TV and computer games greatly improve their intelligence. The killjoys still mutter and grumble of course but I am happy to say that my very bright and creative son was always allowed to play as many computer games as he liked.

I've been putting somewhat schizophrenic-seeming stuff here about how children should (a) not be coerced into attending school by governments, or for that matter by their parents, but (b) not be watching TV all the time, on account it stunts their education.

Allow me to (thesise antithesise) synthesise. I do think that TV, and now computers, have seriously deranged "education", if by education you mean the old command-and-control Prussian system. TV does this to the old system of education precisely because it supplies an alternative and in many ways better certainly more amusing and less boring education. (Lars, commenting on this, took me to task for not getting this, but I do, I do.)

The long term answer is: freedom for children, just as the long term answer has already been freedom for non-aristocrats, freedom for non-whites, freedom for non-men. Like Lars says, children should be allowed to pursue their own interests, and that way they'll contrive a first-rate education for themselves, integrating the old technology with the new.

My problem is this. If the only choice facing a child is (a) a well-administered "Prussian" education, kind but firm, which provides a not-too-bad education, or (b) a deranged and chaotic and/or hysterically fascist version of the same, then (a) sounds better to me than (b). And for most children now, those are the choices. Freedom for children, for most children, given the parents they now have, is not a plausible next step; it's parallel universe stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:06 AM
Category: Technology
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November 20, 2002
Another good home-schooling blog

I mentioned the acronym HSLDA in my recent home-schooling posting on Samizdata. This stands for Home School Legal Defense Association, and this looks like a good blog to learn more about what it does, and about home-schooling generally.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Internet could be the difference between home-schooling becoming an ever bigger and more significant movement, and being wiped out by its implacable state-education-equals-education enemies.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:25 AM
Category: Home education
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BEdBlog is good for Samizdata

Just to say, I've recently done a couple of education-related postings for Samizdata, about private education in Saudi Arabia, and about a home-schooling ruckus in Illinois, the latter story having stirred up a few comments, all of them supportive of the home-schoolers.

Partly, I thought that these were good wider-interest stories that Samizdata readers would appreciate. And partly, I wanted to demonstrate to the world in general, and to Samizdata's Perry de Havilland in particular, that BEdBlog isn't going to hurt my capacity to go on contributing usefully to Samizdata.

If anything, I believe that the reverse will be the case. Neither of the above two stories would have got to me if I hadn't been roaming around looking for stuff for BEdBlog. And I also believe that some stories will be "researched" by me here, as it were, with several BEdBlog postings resulting from my efforts to keep me interested, and then when I have the story clearly in focus, I can sum it all up on Samizdata, linking back to here of course. That, for example, is what may well happen with this "No Child Left Behind" stuff that I've already written about a couple of times (here and here), and maybe also the UNESCO stuff (ditto and ditto).

It's like the relationship between the specialist press and the big national daily newspapers, in the dead-tree media. I want to contribute to Samizdata, and help it to get ever better and ever more widely read. I do not want to abuse and maybe even damage that amazing Samizdata hit rate (now running at around 1,500 per day) by posting an excess (for Samizdata) of thinking aloud - or just more specialised - education stuff, such as you BEdBlog readers are going to have to self-select to like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:49 AM
Category: This Blog
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November 19, 2002
The British educational Raj

Quoting yourself is about as crass and uncool as it is possible to get when blogging, but I can't put my point now better than I put it yesterday morning:

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters.

Yes, that is what matters, to me anyway, and it explains something that has been puzzling me.

Whenever, during the last few days, I needed (like a school teacher bluffing together tomorrow morning's lesson late the night before) to say something in a hurry about "education", I would trawl through google and through a few of the other edu-blogs, and above all through the regular electronic news services, looking for current "education stories". And up would come university funding rows, and national bullying guidelines, and national teachers' prizes, and national this and national that, and I would struggle to stay interested.

The UNESCO stuff gets my active attention, because if that gets going it will make the education of humans on this planet an order of magnitude worse (certainly a hell of a lot more expensive) even than it is already. But the national stuff, or at any rate the British national stuff? I mostly can't make myself care about it.

I think I now know why. Like the British national public sector in general, the British educational national public sector has had the stuffing knocked out of it over the years. It has lost its Will to Power. It is merely going through the motions, not because it believes in going through those motions, merely because it can't think what else to do. The British public sector has entered its decadent phase, the redoubling-your-efforts-when-you've-forgotten-your-aim phase.

Accordingly, if faced with a fierce conviction that there is a far different and far better way to do things educational, the British national public sector will retreat in confusion.

At present there exists no national counter-conviction of this sort. The general public of Britain are just as much a part of this decadent phase as any politician or education bureaucrat. The public also can mostly only think of "them" spending more money and enacting yet more rules and regulations and installing yet more committees and safeguards and guidelines and statutory obligations. And, it claps when prizes are awarded to any teacher seems to have retained the ability and willingness to keep on navigating through this ever-accumulating mess and is managing still to get some real teaching done.

The situation reminds me of a remark attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, or at any rate said by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the movie of that name, to the effect that it is "simply impossible for millions of Indians to be ruled a few thousand Englishmen unless the millions of Indians allow themselves" so to be ruled. Something like that.

That's how I feel about education. Some power structures are strong, viciously imposed, sure of themselves, and those ones have to be clandestinely criticised, and in due course attacked by force of arms and meanwhile resisted by force of arms, if they are ever to be destroyed. Gandhian pacifism doesn't work against a regime which, unlike the British Raj, shoots demonstrators dead, in whatever numbers the demonstrators choose to present themselves.

But the British education monster is not now like that. British education is not Nazi Germany, however much its libertarian critics are sometimes tempted by its routine horrors to shout out that it is. If you are, say, a fourteen year old English boy, and you have a clear idea of what next you want to do with your life, then the changes are that you can now do it. Civil disobedience - in the form of the refusal to do what they (which may even include your own parents) want, and the determination to do what you want is really quite likely to work, provided you give serious thought to the tactics you are using, targetting your nastiness with care and also using lots of politeness and incidental concessions on issues that don't matter to you, in short provided that your disobedience really is civil.

Stubborn parents, full to the brim with Will to Power, would, I admit, be a serious problem. But most parents, in Britain now, aren't like that either. They too will defer to a strongly held, rationally argued plan.

All of which means that the state of mind of the victims is what matters. The latest bumblings of the compulsory-by-default system just don't matter nearly so much.

Expect more on this.

My next posting will be a down-to-earth piece about some actual teaching that I have actually done. Promise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
Category: Politics
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November 18, 2002
The Glory of Modern Education

Frederick Crews, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley: "The essays that the graduating BAs would submit with their applications were often brilliant. After five or six years of Ph.D. work, the same people would write incomprehensible crap. Where did they learn it? They learned it from us."

Link via Newmark's Door

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 08:49 PM
Category: Higher education
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Good prison versus bad liberation?

As a would-be radical child liberationist, postings like this one by Joanne Jacobs pull me apart like chewing gum being stretched out by a chewing gum chewer. Am I appalled at what my friend Alice would denounce as the "manipulation" of it all, or am I impressed at the sheer drive and efficiency of the stuff that Joanne is holding up for our admiration? (It's the usual stuff. High expectations. High academic standards. Frequent tests. Usually inept minorities making rapid progress. The kids also being "stretched".)

Both, in truth. I think that the arguments for freedom for adults do apply to children, even though children are indeed different. (Adults are also different, etc. etc.) But although I wouldn't want to be one of these efficient prison officer educators myself, I am impressed at how the best of these people go about their business. If you are going to be sent to prison for the crime of being young, it's probably better to be imprisoned in world that prepares you somewhat for life after your stretch inside than to be imprisoned in a place that prepares you to do nothing except whine and complain that you aren't being looked after and entertained properly by the big bad mysterious world that your plasticene games and dance and drama classes and yoof culture rebellions have so completely not prepared you for. I guess to the hardcore child liberationists, I must sound like a "progressive" Southern plantation owner, agonising about whether the slaves can handle freedom.

And here's another concession to the lock-em-up and smarten-em-up school of schoolers. Chucking the kids out into the streets as the streets now are wouldn't be ideal either, now would it? As so often, getting from here to there means choosing your next few steps with care.

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters. Expect a lot more from me about this last bit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 AM
Category: Compulsion
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The coming age of the nice teacher robots

Over at the blog that got me started, Samizdata, there's a short posting (with a picture) by Perry de Havilland, about a high tech robot dragon, which performs "security" services. One of the commenters asked if this scary beast would eat her AIBO puppy.

I mention the AIBO because, unlike the scary dragon, the AIBO is designed to make friends with its human owners, and especially with children.

Ever since I first heard about the AIBO I was convinced that I was witnessing history fluttering its wings, and in particular the history of education.

I have a prejudice, which researching education issues for this blog is so far only confirming, that computers are changing education not by "changing education" but by changing just about everything in the world except education.

Children are allowed to muck about with computers in their class-rooms, but little now seems to be taught that couldn't have been taught, and probably better, with old-fashioned chalk-and-talk methods, such as they still use in high-powered university departments to explain the complexities of such things as nuclear physics. When children get home, they play games on computers. Lucky children, especially home-schooled children, often get to surf the Internet, and as that gets cheaper, many more will surely do this. But "education" in the sense of the stuff now done by and in schools - shows little sign of being replaced by computers of anything resembling the sort we are now familiar with.

But I think that when historical hindsight eventually gets applied to now, historians may decide that the moment when these robots showed up i.e. now - was the moment when all that started to change.

Children love these robots. Okay, not the dragon, but definitely the AIBO dog. And something you love is something you just might be willing to learn from. I can imagine a robot teaching a foreign language to a kid in a way that no current computer could begin to do, simply because the kid likes it, and trusts it, and wants to talk with it, and might be willing to experiment with other languages just for the fun of it. And rich parents will see that this kind of thing works, and will pay the bills for it. Soon, super-professor robots will be available for fifty quid at Dixons.

I know what a lot of people will say once this prospect becomes plainly visible. Spooky! Dangerous! Maybe even: pass some laws against these beasts now!!

Personally I find this prospect extraordinarily interesting, and not at all unapealing. Scary, yes, because there'll surely be big mistakes and misjudgements. But imagine if this kind of thing could be got approximately right. I believe that it will happen. For remember, however difficult it may be for the technies to devise such things, it only needs one bunch of them to crack it for the thing to happen. (Think of all the other "impossible" things that computers have done, and can now do for petty cash.)

The implications for human history are beyond calculation. One obvious one is that for the first time in many generations, we can anticipate, sooner or later, a world in which children will be unambiguously cleverer and better educated than their parents, so palpably that everyone - the children, the parents, everyone - will know it.

TV, when it first hit, created the first dumbed-down generation. All right, not dumbed down, exactly. This generation was how can I put it politely? differently knowledgeable. The baby boomers are the people I'm talking about, and they (we) know rock and roll, but not the Roman Empire. And the children of the baby boomers have became even more, er, differently knowledgeable. But the technological successors of the same TVs that taught us to forget about our education will, when the super-intelligent robot teacher pets finally arrive, create a similar cultural discontinuity, but in something resembling the opposite direction.

Blah blah blah. If this was an "essay", I'd waffle on for five more pages. Thank heavens for blogs. All hail the shortened attention span. I don't see that changing back again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
November 17, 2002
From now on BEdBlog may not show up at the weekend

You've spotted the pattern by now. Something (anything - even something as feeble as this) every day. But I've decided to relax on that rule, and make BEdBlog activity definite only on a Monday-to-Friday basis. I may post things at the weekend, but I may not. But I will stick to the every-week-day-in-the-week-rule, even if it involves something desperate like paying Patrick to put some stuff here (while I'm off in Bali taking advantage of the cheap hotels over there just now).

So, maybe next weekend, my uninterrupted posting record is going to snap. Just thought I'd let you know, so that, if nothing materialises next Saturday, say, you don't jump to the conclusion that BEdBlog is a busted flush (whatever that is but it sounds very bad to me). I will remind you all again about this rule next Friday.

Class dismissed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:02 PM
Category: This Blog
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