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Chronological Archive • November 24, 2002 - November 30, 2002
November 30, 2002
Degrees: a barrier to advancement?

A few years ago I speculated how long it would be until a university degree was a positive handicap when it came to getting a job. It would seem reading this letter from a solicitor in the Telegraph that that day is upon us. The key line is this:

Lack of practical experience means that many graduates would have done better to have left academic life earlier and attained the background which would make them a more attractive prospect to an employer with vacancies (and thereby future opportunities) to fill. The apparent self-esteem and expectations of some candidates render them unemployable.
It was only a matter of time.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 03:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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November 29, 2002
Learning to be Japanese (it's very hard)

Patrick Crozier has just finished giving a talk about Japan, based on his recent visit there, and out of the conversation afterwards emerged a point about Japanese society that will seem very obvious to all those who have been aware of it for many years, but which only got to me tonight, for the first time.

The Japanese alphabet is diabolically complicated. In fact, if I heard an exchange between Patrick and David Carr correctly, there are three Japanese alphabets, for three different purposes which I didn't quite catch. And each alphabet contains characters beyond numbering. Something like eight thousand.

The upshot of which is that it takes about two decades of unremitting toil to become, in a basic sense, Japanese. What our cleverer or luckier or smarter pupils have done by the age of about nine, takes them twice as long and more. You think it's hard for Westerners to "penetrate" Japanese society? Well yes, it is. But so too, and for the same sort of reasons, is it hard for the Japanese themselves to get to the centre of it.

Suddenly the "conformity" and "collectivism" and "authoritarianism" of Japan makes more sense. Becoming Japanese is, in a basic sense, climbing an endless ladder of cultural complexity. Becoming British or French or Spanish or American, by comparison, is about as hard as passing your driving test. And once you're in, you're in, and everyone's equal.

I'm sure the internet is pulsating with places where all this is much more thoroughly gone into. But I only really got this notion tonight, and I have no links to offer whatsoever, except to Patrick's own Transport Blog, where, if you dig in the archives you'll find pictures of Japanese trains, and such like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Literacy
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November 28, 2002
Schools versus learning

Joanne Jacobs says she's not sure about it, but reckons it's "worth a read". I'm sure Joanne won't be amazed to learn that I think that this Colby Cosh piece is a lot better than that. Sample quote:

See, this is the comical thing: tutors, as opposed to teachers, are doing more and more of the heavy lifting of a failing educational system. We've got these Kumon outfits, these Sylvan Learning Centres and the like, that are teaching math and reading to whole generations of children who are apparently coming out of public schools with no clue how to multiply five and seven. I notice, too, an increasingly lucrative trade in private tutoring for high-school students. I went to high school in the late '80s, and no one I knew was seeing a tutor or was employed as one. By 1995 I had friends who were basically earning a living on these kids. It's just standard now, it seems, for parents to send their kids to high school during the day and then pay someone to actually teach them, on the side.

What are "Sylvan Learning Centres" like? Anyone?

Cosh's further thoughts yesterday will to many be even more interesting, being his personal impressions of one home-schooled kid that ring very true to me, and confirm my impressions of such children whom I've met.

David Deutsch, pursuing his vision of what education should be in his logical, Oxfordish way, brings us to a similar conclusion:

So if we pursue the vision in a logical way, we come to the conclusion that the existing institution that comes closest to a non-coercive school is the entire town (or city, or society, or internet) that the children have access to, including their homes, and their friends' homes, and excluding only the existing schools.

This was the piece recommended by lars in his comment on this.

If I know Deutsch (which I only do from a few of his writings and by hearsay from various TCS people), he would forbid tutors that children themselves did not freely consent to. "Earning a living on these kids" wouldn't sound good to him.

Me, I'm just passing on what I read and like, even if a lot of it contradicts amongst itself quite a lot. When I try to teach these are the kind of prejudices I bring to it, if I can. If I ever have children, ditto.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 PM
Category: Home education
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November 27, 2002
Crown Princes facing reality

This guy has been making just a tad too many waves, and has therefore (and this is pure guesswork on my part) gone anonymous. Allen Reece's T(each) F(or) A(merica) bosses said that a daily blog with his daily complaints about his workplace, superiors, etc, was out of order and could he please cut it out. Fair enough.

US readers of this, and for that matter British readers, may be interested to know that the TFA idea is now being applied to Britain, specifically in London.

Last week I spoke at a meeting organised by the London School of Economics Hayek Society, on the subject of philanthropy, charity, "helping", etc., and it turned out that the meeting had been sponsored by something called TeachFirst. One of the other speakers was Jo Owen, who runs (helps run?) Teach First, and mentioned it a bit in his talk.

The idea, for those coming to all this new (as I was), is that hotshot, high-flying, alpha-male crown-prince management consultancy types fresh out of their hotshot universities take a couple of years out from telling their elders and betters how to run their businesses, and instead make themselves useful by doing a tour of duty in one of London's more dramatic secondary schools.

That "TFA" - the stuff that Allen Reece is doing - is the original US version of all this was a penny that only dropped later.

What I like is that here is an example of "helping" that actually might be helpful, at both ends of the deal. Corporate Crown Princes are notoriously more clever than they are wise in the ways of the real world, and two years in one of the more grotesque of our capital city's schools is ideal for giving them a crash course in reality. The British economy's Crown Princes used to earn their spurs running provincial factories or godforsaken storage depots. "Give it a go. We're probably going to shut it soon anyway. See what you can make of it." (And see what it makes of you, mate!) Trouble is, hotshot management consultancies don't now have such enterprises of their own for their promising young men to play with. So now they are having to borrow them.

Meanwhile the schools are crying out for alpha-males to teach their rowdy young bloods to learn, not just science and history and geography, but basic civility and good manners. Civilisation you might say. Nice but overwhelmed women, and non-alpha males in corduroy jackets with arm patches, don't do it. They need Men men, and they are definitely desperate enough to take the Men being offered by this scheme, young and green though they may be. The slightly bigger wages needed for these guys are pin-money for the sponsors, but a godsend for the schools not to have to worry about finding.

Nice. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this scheme.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:10 PM
Category: BloggingThe reality of teaching
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More about Kumon

I mentioned my brief involvement as a Kumon helper, in this post last week. Anyone wanting an outsider's view of the Kumon maths system that doesn't take too long to read, and which emphasises both its methods and effectiveness, and the wider implications of that achievement for education as a whole, may find this helpful. It's part of the Adam Smith Institute "Around the World in 80 Ideas" project, which looks very good, both literally in the sense of looking good on the computer screen and (it seems to me) being well organised and easy and intuitive to use, and in the sense of covering a wide variety of subjects briefly and interestingly.

Sample paragraph:

Kumon's individualist approach overcomes the problems of the collectivist grade system. It allows pupils to move at their own speed: slower pupils are able to move at a pace which does not intimidate and discourage them, and faster pupils are able to move at a pace which does not frustrate and bore them. The method thus allows people to acquire a skill to the maximum level, which their own abilities allow, which will be of enormous utility for the rest of their lives.

Oh, I didn't spot this until now, but I get a mention! Much more important fact: Kumon are now getting seriously stuck in to the teaching of basic literacy. This is a more complex task than maths, but they believe that the same basic methodology applies. I wouldn't dare to differ.

Yet more evidence of the continuing importance, global influence and general vitality of Japan and its culture. There's more to that place than electronic toys.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:07 PM
Category: Free market reformsMaths
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Japan doing well Germany doing badly

Independent.co.uk has a story about a Unicef report on educational achievement or lack of it around the world. The report is full of the usual disturbing statistics, calculated to get the self-flagellating going and the public money flowing, just about everywhere. Lots of British children are bad at arithmetic. Britain is a haven of educational inequality, where quality of parent determines quality of education more than elsewhere, which confirms for me that British parents lead the world in cleaning up the educational mess caused by teachers, provided they know how. The Anglosphere in general is bad at literacy. (See my Libertarian Alliance Educational Notes No. 33 for a discussion of why that is.) So far so unsurprising.

For me, this paragraph contained the big surprise:

The survey showed South Korea and Japan at the top of almost every table. Germany, extolled until recently as one of the best examples of an efficient education system, came only 19th and had almost twice the British rate of failure in key academic skills.

Germany in educational trouble? That's a new one, to me anyway. Is that just all those East Germans polluting the successes of West Germans? If so, Unicef should have said, and I don't think it can be that.

Germany and Japan are often twinned for analytical purposes. Both started WW2 on the offensive. Both had the militarism smashed out of them, and achieved economic miracles during the peace that followed. Both societies have authoritarian family systems, and both love education. And now they are both said by many to be having similar problems.

But it isn't so. There's a fascinating article in Prospect (November 2002 - "Japan's Fake Funk" by Eamonn Fingleton), which says that Japan is doing fine thank you. This piece had me strongly persuaded, and I hope to have more to say about it over on Samizdata, Real Soon Now.

The truth is that Germany and Japan are now diverging. Japan is no more being laid low by its financial problems than the USA was crushed into insignificance by the Wall Street Crash and the depression that followed that disastrous episode. And Germany and Japan are now diverging educationally as well as economically, which suggest further economic divergence between them in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: History
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November 26, 2002
Bush knowledge versus Gore knowledge

Joanne Jacobs links to one of those reports that says that Americans are, in her phrase, "Global Morons".

- Thirty-four percent of the young Americans knew that the island used on last season's "Survivor'' show was located in the South Pacific, but only 30 percent could locate the state of New Jersey on a map. The "Survivor'' show's location was the Marquesas Islands in the eastern South Pacific.

- When asked to find 10 specific states on a map of the United States, only California and Texas could be located by a large majority of those surveyed. Both states were correctly located by 89 percent of the participants. Only 51 percent could find New York, the nation's third most populous state.

- On a world map, Americans could find on average only seven of 16 countries in the quiz. Only 89 percent of the Americans surveyed could find their own country on the map.

- In the world map test, Swedes could find an average of 13 of the 16 countries. Germans and Italians were next, with an average of 12 each.

- Only 71 percent of the surveyed Americans could locate on the map the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest body of water. Worldwide, three in 10 of those surveyed could not correctly locate the Pacific Ocean.

- Although 81 percent of the surveyed Americans knew that the Middle East is the Earth's largest oil exporter, only 24 percent could find Saudi Arabia on the map.

But now hang on. Is this not exactly the kind of ignorance that successive Republican Presidents are constantly criticised for? (I'm thinking especially of Reagan and Bush Jnr.) And do not the exact kind of people who are now complaining about how, e.g., geography teaching in the USA has gone down the public toilet, to the point where X percent of Americans don't know where the Pacific Ocean is, then defend their Republican Presidents by pointing out that there's more to knowing your way around in the world than knowing where things are on maps? Are they not right? I think they are. I think that President Bush is at least as savvy in the ways of the world as any Euro-statesman just now.

And that US Army. It usually seems to arrive in the right places, when it matters.

Europeans have long complained about how "ignorant" the inhabitants of the USA are, ignorant that is to say, of such facts as the location of the Pacific Ocean, and indeed they are. But which countries have done better in recent decades, the European ones, or the USA? The top scoring countries in this international survey of geographical knowledge or lack of it were, see above: Sweden, Germany and Italy. Oh, I'm impressed. They've all been doing far better than the USA, haven't they?

If Bush Jnr. and Al Gore had had a geography test face-off during their fiercely close election battle, it's my clear understanding that Gore would have won, just as it's my clear understanding that a Gore post 9/11 foreign policy would probably have been a disaster, with President Gore knowing beforehand exactly where all the countries were on the map that he would never have learned how to handle properly.

Or is Bush really hyper-educated, and just pretending to be ignorant in order to suck up to all those genuinely ignorant Americans out there? I believe there was once a sketch on one of those Friday Night or Saturday Night or whenever Live comedy shows, in which a publicly bumbling aw-shucks President Reagan was shown in private as sporting a machine-gun ultra-high-IQ intellect with which he subjected even his most famously clever assistants to relentless private humiliations, but which was immediately switched off again as soon as he emerged back into the public arena.

I'm not saying that I'm in favour of ignorance, exactly. I'm just saying that, as Americans often say, book learnin' ain't ev'r'thin'.

You probably think I'm saying this just to be arkward. Well, yes, pretty much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 PM
Category: Politics
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Learning and foolishness

In the first sentence of this, I originally spelt "Straits Times" as "Straights Times", a blunder that was just waiting to happen. Rightly or wrongly, I corrected my original posting, in response to a comment (containing the inevitable joke) from John Ray, and added this as comment number two:

Thanks John. It's beginning to dawn on me that when you run an "education" blog, mistakes like that count twice.

I've taken the liberty of correcting the posting, which said "Straights", until now.

That's one of the downsides of comments. Had John's comment merely been an email, I could have corrected the mistake with minimum visibility.

I was always one of those "could do better if he tried harder" pupils. It's not that I can't spell; merely that, sometimes, I don't.

Maybe, as some bloggers do, I should leave up all errors however big or small. Once you correct "obvious" mistakes, who knows what other retrospective airbrushings you may later decide are excusable? Is this a slippery slope I've just stepped onto? Have I entered the realm of education blog cheating?

Comments anyone?

In general, I am finding the handling of comments tricky. Where, now, does anyone put a comment on the above? As a comment on this, or under where my reply-comment quoted above was first put? What if there are now further comments in both places?

Learning is often hard to distinguish from making a fool of oneself, and then making a further fool of oneself in response to the original foolishness when it is pointed out. Sympathetic teachers are those who have recent experience of themselves doing some learning, that is to say, foolishness. Some teachers should be sympathetic/foolish teachers, but not all.

I started this blogging business because I felt that I wasn't learning enough from the other things I was doing, and it's working. Thanks to blogging, Brian's education is in rapid motion again, whereas before blogging it was nearly immobile. Blogging has placed me back in the zone of moderate discomfort, where we all belong for as long as we are alive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:23 AM
Category: Brian's education
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Ethnic mathematics?

Last Wednesday Giants & Dwarfs, who describe themselves as "A Blog on Academia and "Culture" (thanks for the email introducing yourselves gentlemen), had this tantalising report, tantalising because the link embedded in it went to something entirely different:

THE NEXT STEP into madness. The University of Hawaii at Hilo has been awarded a $2.5 million grant by the National Science Foundation, which will be used in part to teach "ethnomathematics" (everyone knows 1+1 doesn't equal 2 if you're of Hawaiian-American extraction).

Anyone know anything about this? It may not be as mad as G&D make it sound, but it does indeed sound decidedly unmathematical. I have never forgotten being told by the Professor of Maths at Essex University several decades ago that mathematics is the study of what everyone is compelled to agree about, regardless of race, colour or creed. And it's surely true that maths is that, even if that definition might be said to include some other things besides. Maths is a huge and expanding clutch of statements of the form "if this is true and this is true then it must follow that this also is true". If you're a Martian, never mind a Hawaiian, you may not get this or that bit of maths, but if the mathematicians have done their stuff right, you can't deny it. It says something very revealing about maths that when humans are trying to strike up relationships with aliens, by including messages in those rockets they fire off into the wild black yonder, they always include mathematical messages.

If all that "ethnomathematics" says is that the language in which the universally true statements of mathematics are expressed may be somewhat culture bound, then fine. But I suspect it of saying something more, something untrue. Comments are always welcome (and thanks very much for all the comments on postings here so far) but on this matter especially so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:53 AM
Category: Maths
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November 25, 2002
Singapore planning

So once again I type "Education" into google, and hit number one is this, from the Straits Times:

Education for education's sake best for S'pore

I REFER to the letter, 'Education system has evolved with nation's needs' (ST, Nov 22), by Ministry of Education director of planning Tang Tuck Weng.

He said that what The Straits Times has called 'Singapore's famously rigid education system' is seen differently by objective external observers. He then quoted a statistical ranking, that placed Singapore in fourth place in its ability to meet the needs of a competitive economy, and said that far from being rigid, our education system has responded to changes in the needs of the nation and the economy.

What's good or bad about Singapore's education system?

But objective observers are less likely to spot the less-obvious faults of the system than someone like me who has gone through the system and moved on to study in America.

Mr Tang's answer demonstrates the key problem with the education system in Singapore.

The rigidity of the education system stems from the fact that it is focused not on educating people, but on meeting the needs of the economy.

His use of the statistic simply substantiates my belief that the Education Ministry sees its main role as a producer of manpower for Singapore's economy.

It is still based on the old-style idea of centralised planning, with a ministry taking in all data and making a decision as to what sort of education is necessary for our children, with the belief that this will fit into the kind of economy we have in mind.

This is fine if the Education Ministry and the Government make no mistakes.


Teh Peijing then goes on to describe a recent Singapore government imposed disaster concerning the manufacture of Singaporean engineers:

I remember that not too long ago the Government was rather vocal in encouraging people to become engineers.

Which turned a lot of his friends into unemployed engineers. Now, says he, he notes a similar obsession with bio-engineering.

He votes instead for what he calls "all-round education":

I believe that the Ministry of Education should focus on educating Singaporeans, for the sake of educating Singaporeans.

I believe that an education system focused entirely on giving Singaporeans the best all-round education, without considering the short-term needs of the economy, might be better for Singapore in the long run.

What we need is not a workforce that is deemed necessary by economic planners, but a workforce that is creative, dynamic, independent, rounded, passionate and entrepreneurial. I think such a workforce has a higher chance of survival in an increasingly fluid global economic situation.

Which sounds okay, but what exactly does it mean? What if the result is a plague of American-educated humanities academics who could no more turn out "entrepreneurial" Singaporeans than they could train bio-engineers?

For it is at this point that Mr Teh (I'm hoping that this is the correct way to address the gentleman) reveals that he too believes in the power of government to prophecy the future:

All in all, while the ministry has done an admirable job so far, we ought not to be complacent. Would it not be better to have an education system that pre-empts, rather than evolves in response to, changes?

To me, actually, it sounds worse. "Pre-empts" changes?

What I think we have here is an argument between one semi-deluded, my guess-is-better-than-yours centralist and another. Although Mr Teh talks much sense when he criticises his rival, I wonder which is actually better for Singapore, unemployed bio-engineers or unemployed "all-round education" persons?

Could it be that what Mr Teh really wants is a generation of ("passionate") political trouble-makers? Because that's what he would probably get. It might be no bad thing.

"Might" being the important word there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: Politics
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