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Category archive: USA

Sunday July 13 2008

Boston scientists reckon they know a bit more about autism:

Researchers from Boston have discovered six new genes implicated in autism. The genes normally make new brain connections needed for learning, but their absence or silence apparently places them among many mutations that lead to the devastating disorder, which is marked by trouble with communication and social interaction.


“People think of genetic diseases as immutable and untreatable,” Walsh said in an interview. “Studies like ours and others give more hope we might not need to replace genes one by one, but find other ways of activating the genes that might be silent.”

Later in the report comes this rather chilling sentence.

The researchers studied large Middle Eastern families in which cousins had married and the incidence of autism was high.

That’s not an experiment anybody would be able to contrive otherwise.  It’s good to know that cousin-marrying can sometimes be helpful.

Friday July 11 2008

Online education is on the up, because of the price of gas:

“All across the country, community colleges and universities are getting requests for online programs specifically with students mentioning the price of gas,” says Ray Schroeder, director of the office of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “I just filled up the tank of my little Hyundai, and it was $50 for the first time ever—I think it really is affecting people.”

Some experts say that the rising interest in online programs could lead more colleges to expand their offerings, or experiment with “blended” courses that mix in-person and online meetings.

Via Greg Mankiw.

Thursday July 10 2008

Again very little to say today, so try something else that is packed with stuff.  A few days ago I got an email flagging up 100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of, which says pretty much what it says on the tin, but sadly, in American rather than in English.

I also got an email recently urging me to get interested in this.  Here is a testimonial about it:

“Je vous envoie ce mail du Canada. Je suis arrivé il y a 3 jours dans la famille d’Andrew, mon corres. Ils sont tous trop sympas! Demain on va aux chutes du Niagara. Waou!”

Sounds good.

Monday July 07 2008

I have paid no attention to High School Musical, until now, when I realised that it would be worth linking to from here:

It’s the age of the audience you notice first, quickly followed by the punishing volume of noise the little blighters generate.

Disney’s High School Musical, first a low-budget TV movie and now a stage-show phenomenon, is a wholesome romantic comedy that tells the story of two teenagers in love in Albuquerque.

A British touring production has been doing boffo business around the regions since it opened in January, while this sister production has just opened in London for the summer holidays.

I was expecting an audience mostly of girls aged between ten and 14, and there were plenty of those around, but there were also hundreds of far younger children, from the age of four and up, many of them boys.

The only difference is that the chaps don’t tend to get dolled up in bright red cheerleaders’ costumes and wave pom-poms about like the girls.

“He loves it, he knows all the words of every song,” observed one doting mother of her tiny-tot son, and indeed he did: he happily belted his way through every number.

This venerable venue cannot have been the scene of so much audience-generated racket since the Beatles played here in the early Sixties.

I wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about proving such a proposition, but I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary enthusiasm for show-biz that seems to be sweeping the nation, but which I mean an apparent enthusiasm to be a celebrity-stroke-performer rather than just watch what celebrity-stroke-performers do their various things while getting on with real life, is somehow related to the shift away from such things as maths and science and engineering.  What will all these would-be performers end up doing?  They can’t all become performers.  Can they?

The thing is, shifts in popular culture often signal changes in the world which the more educated and official cultural commentators are unaware of, or prefer not to notice or think about.

One thought occurs to me, which is that show-biz is how the adults of the near future will keep children amused and out of mischief.  So maybe lots of these performers will become teachers, or child-minders.


One of the key figures in High School Musical seems to be the lady teacher, Ms. Darbus, who presides over everything, played in the London stage production by Leticia Dean (above), who used to be in Eastenders.  This is no out-of-touch old biddy.  This is someone you’d be glad to be.

And this, I think, is all part of the same story.

Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.

The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.

The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers’ party in Canvey Island, Essex.

Good luck turning those girls into engineers.

Thursday June 26 2008

Here’s an interesting twist on a familiar argument.  This is Terence Kealey writing in yesterday’s Telegraph:

The degree system in British universities is “rotten”, with grades based on “arbitrary and unreliable” measures, says Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the government-sponsored body responsible for maintaining university standards. Not since Gerald Ratner announced that his products were “crap” has a chief executive made such a suicidal remark. In this case it is not true.

Williams’s major complaint is that whereas, 10 years ago, only 45 per cent of students got firsts or upper seconds, now some 60 per cent do. This, he says, reflects grade inflation.

So far so predictable.  Grade inflation.  But of course.

But here comes the surprise:

Actually, because our admissions procedures tend to work well (i.e., we tend to admit only students with appropriate A-levels) 100 per cent of students should be getting firsts or upper seconds. The only students to get lower seconds and thirds should be those who succumb to laziness, drunkenness and the other ills that student flesh is heir to. Since no one reviewing our universities can doubt that the students are more serious than ever, no one need be surprised that their degrees are getting better.

Because the league tables reward universities for awarding firsts and upper seconds, there is, admittedly, pressure to inflate the top grades, but my experience of the examination system in Britain is that underhand practices are uncommon. I hate to sound like a minister or Dr Pangloss, but students are getting better grades because they are working harder. We should be pleased.

So what does Kealey think Williams is up to?  Here’s his answer:

Williams is being political.  The QAA is power-hungry and resents the autonomy our universities have retained in this target-driven world.  He wants more bureaucracy and he wants his QAA to supply it.

The QAA is already too intrusive.  The best universities are in America, yet American higher education bureaucracy is trivial.  There are no external examiners at American universities, for example, and the US equivalents of the QAA are pussy cats – which is why American unversities flourish.

The QAA and other bureaucracies damage higher education because universities flourish only by self-regulation.  Universities do best when they are independent, because scholars are innately self-critical, so only when external agencies displace self-criticism with arbitrary ticks in boxes do standards slip.

It’s the QAA, not our degree classification, that is arbitrary and unreliable.

So there.

Wednesday June 25 2008

More on the computers-educational-or-mind-destroyers-or-what? front.  Linked to at Samizdata by Adriana, this:

Social networks like Facebook and MySpace have reputations as time-sucking procrastination tools, but a new study from the University of Minnesota says au contraire.

Social networks build beneficial technological, creative, and communication skills, the study says, leading the researchers to actually describe social networks with the adjective “educational.” Who knew?

“What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today,” Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher from the school’s College of Education and Human Development, said in a release Friday.

Data from the study came from teenagers ages 16 to 18 in about a dozen urban high schools in the Midwest.

“Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout,” Greenhow continued. “They’re also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology.”

Yes.  The main thing you learn from using computers is how to use computers, and that’s got to be worth learning.

The debate continues.

Saturday June 07 2008



In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. People who are raising, or have recently raised, or have even been around children a fair amount in recent years will, I think, immediately sense what I have in mind. Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.


Well, in the words of Vladimir Illych Lenin, who had no children, what is to be done? Not very much, I suspect. When such seismic shifts in the culture as that represented by the rise of Kindergarchy take hold, there isn’t much anyone can do but wait for things to work themselves out. My own hope is that the absurdity of current arrangements will in time be felt, and people will gradually realize the foolishness of continuing to lavish so much painstaking attention on their children. When that time comes, children will be allowed to relax, no longer under threat of suffocation by love from their parents, and grow up more on their own. Only then will parents once again be able to live their own lives, free to concentrate on their work, life’s adult pleasures, and those responsibilities that fall well outside the prison of the permanent kindergarten they have themselves erected and have been forced to live in as hostages.


Sunday May 18 2008

David Friedman, while writing about egalitarianism, includes a reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he grew up:

In interactions with my father when I was growing up it was always clear that what mattered was who was right, who had the better argument, not who was older - status was simply irrelevant. Many years later I was shocked to hear an intelligent elderly man tell a child not to contradict his elders. From the point of view I had grown up in, the statement was not merely wrong, it was close to obscene.

I recall my own father, who was a lawyer, telling me about a case which he was adjudicating, where he found the expert evidence of a junior doctor more persuasive than that of a more senior doctor.  The senior doctor was outraged, because as far as he was concerned he was the senior doctor and he outranked the junior doctor, and he was therefore right!  My father tried to explain, but there was no meeting of minds.

David Friedman remembers how argument trumps status
Megan McArdle on the menace of imposed scaling
“If you exclude the car mechanics and repairmen …”
Charles Murray on educational romanticism
Jason Heath on being a musical guide
P. J. O’Rourke on the sociology of an aircraft carrier
How important is good spelling?
Laureen on how the digital natives learn
Their funeral?
Varsity science ed with a difference
USA education blog favorites
New York schools play cricket
Steven Malanga on whole-language versus phonics
Professor Thomas does not tolerate texting
11 Year-Old Takes Over as School’s Network Admin
Greg Mankiw on how to choose between Harvard and MIT
Teach better or die!
University of Phoenix pays for engadget
What should classical music schools do to prepare students for the contemporary world?
Sugar pushers
Robert Cringely on letting technology into the schools
Ed Smith on the tragedy and triumph of Billy Beane
I am having what the Americans call a learning experience
Internet Command Central
Picking on bad teachers
Against fragrant education
Threat to many home-schooling families in California
The name for the job
Even higher education
The girl who was in The Wonder Years is now a math wizz
Can you raise a kid to be a future millionaire?
More about bias in US universities
Why the bias to the left in academia?
Ugly universities
What to do about the supply of and demand for hot college classes
Obama says education should be good shock
Home-schooling at Samizdata
The Brazen Careerist on how to get a job you’re not qualified for
The dangerousness of Sesame Street
Why Jacob Grier is not a lawyer
Pinchas Zukerman - long distance violin teacher
Bad education?
Charles F. Kettering on education and inventiveness
Leonard Bernstein - “television’s star teacher”
Free physics
Two American Carnivals
Choices and consequences
Eee PCs in the classroom