Archive for the 'Education' Category

Block Heads

walterblockThe righteously irrepressible Walter Block has made it his mission to defend the undefendable, but there are limits. Chattel slavery, for example, will get no defense from Walter, and he recently explained why: The central problem with slavery is that you can’t walk away from it. If it were voluntary, it wouldn’t be so bad. In Walter’s words:

The slaves could not quit. They were forced to ‘associate’ with their masters when they would have vastly preferred not to do so. Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.

A group of Walter’s colleagues at Loyola university (who, for brevity, I will henceforth refer to as “the gang of angry yahoos”) appears to concur:

Traders in human flesh kidnapped men, women and children from the interior of the African continent and marched them in stocks to the coast. Snatched from their families, these individuals awaited an unknown but decidedly terrible future. Often for as long as three months enslaved people sailed west, shackled and mired in the feces, urine, blood and vomit of the other wretched souls on the boat….The violation of human dignity, the radical exploitation of people’s labor, the brutal violence that slaveholders utilized to maintain power, the disenfranchisement of American citizens, the destruction of familial bonds, the pervasive sexual assault and the systematic attempts to dehumanize an entire race all mark slavery as an intellectually, economically, politically and socially condemnable institution no matter how, where, or when it is practiced.

So everybody’s on the same side, here, right? Surely nobody believes the slaves were voluntarily snatched from their families, shackled and mired in waste, sexually assaulted and all the rest. All the bad stuff was involuntary and — this being the whole point — was possible only because it was involuntary. That’s a concept with broad applicability. One could, for example, say the same about Auschwitz. Nobody would have much minded the torture and the gas chambers if there had been an opt-out provision. And this is a useful observation, if one is attempting to argue that involuntary associations are the root of much evil.

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Get Educated!

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can take a six-week course in “Markets With Frictions” from the colorful and illustrious Professor Randall Wright of the University of Wisconsin — without ever leaving your living room. According to the course description:

The goal is to sharpen our economic reasoning, add a few twists that you are unlikely to have seen in other courses, and apply the methods to interesting phenomena. This should improve the way you think analytically about the economy, and help address interesting issues that come up in the real world.

Professor Wright estimates that you’ll need to devote four to six hours a week to the homework. At the end, you’ll earn a Certificate of Accomplishment.

This is a great opportunity, and the course starts today. Register here. Or first watch the preview:

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How Markets Work

A while back, I posted a link to the first of my four talks at the 2012 Cato University. Today, I’m posting the second talk, titled “How Markets Work”, with the others to appear eventually.

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Incidentally, I won’t be at the 2013 Cato U, but other stellar speakers will be. This really is an extraordinarily well run event, and I’ve met many fascinating people every time I’ve been there. It’s not too late to register!

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Sweet!


This blows me away:

Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

If I’d heard this from almost anyone else, I’d be instantly skeptical. But I heard it from Jim Heckman, who sets the standard for caution and reliability in social science. I highly recommend the whole interview; you can read it here.

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Alas, Poor Yoram

crazyskullThis just in: The study of physics makes people less compassionate. Data show that when cornered at a party by the inventor of a perpetual motion machine, physics majors are particularly unlikely to offer positive encouragement.

Also, the study of history leads to closed-mindedness. After taking an American history course, students become considerably less open to the idea that Millard Fillmore might have been Abraham Lincoln’s vice president.

Meanwhile, the study of chemistry makes people less ambitious. Chemistry students are particularly unwilling to invest in lead-to-gold conversion kits, even when they are conveniently offered over the Internet.

Geology students are just plain nasty. Among all majors, they are the least likely to participate in coordinated meditation exercises for the prevention of earthquakes — even when the organizers estimate that hundreds of thousands of lives might be at stake.

And economics majors are so greedy that they are particularly unlikely to donate to left-wing interest groups that seek to undermine capitalism.

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Meager Means and Noble Ends

impOn Monday we marked the hundredth birthday of the Nobel laureate and all-around intellectual curmudgeon George Stigler. I promised more Stigler quotes by the end of the week. Here, then, is Stigler on the consequences of competition in the market for higher education; the passage is from one of the two-dozen lively and provocative essays collected here. If he’d been born just a bit later, Stigler could have been a champion blogger.

For clarity: When Stigler refers to an academic “field”, he is referring to a sub-discipline. Economics is a discipline; industrial organization and public finance are fields. Physics is a discipline; particle physics and solid state physics are fields.

We cannot build universities that are uniformly excellent … I shall seek to establish this conclusion directly on the basis of two empirical propositions.

The first proposition is that there are at most fourteen really first-class men in any field, and more commonly there are about six. Where, you ask, did I get these numbers? I consider your question irrelevant, but I shall pause to notice the related question: Is the proposition true? And here I ask you to do your homework: gather with your colleagues and make up a numbered list of the twenty-five best men in one of your fields — and remember that these fields are specialized. Would your department be first-class if it began its staffing in each field with the twenty-fifth, or even the fifteenth, name? You have in fact done this work on appointment committees. I remember no cases of an embarrassment of riches, and I remember many where finding five names involved a shift to “promising young men”, not all of whom keep their promises. I leave it to the professors of moral philosophy and genetics to tell us whether the paucity of first-class men is a sort of scientific myopia, a love of invidious ranking, or a harsh outcome of imprudent marriages. But the proposition is true.

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The Harvard Classics

If you happen to be attending Harvard this semester, one of your course options is Greg Mankiw’s Freshman Seminar 43j, “The Economist’s View of the World”:

This seminar probes how economic thinkers from the right and left view human behavior and the proper role of government in society. Each week, seminar participants read and discuss a brief, nontechnical, policy-oriented book by a prominent economist. Regular writing assignments are also required. Students should have some background in economics, such as an AP economics course in high school or simultaneous enrollment in Social Analysis 10.

The ten books on tap for this semester are:

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How to Succeed in High School

High school valedictorian Erica Goldson explains the secret of her success:

I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.

This is from her valedictory address to her fellow graduates; you can read the entire speech on her blog.

What do you think?

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Making Math Palatable

My colleague Ralph Raimi is witty, acerbic and wise about many things, but particularly about mathematics education. A little time spent browsing around his web page will reap ample rewards in the form of both entertainment and edification. Today I’d like to share a little passage he sent me by email:

I have never tried to count the times I have read a newspaper article explaining that students are bored with math that has no visible practical application, and follows with an example of a teacher, or club, that rectifies the situation in some novel and engaging way.

In the present case a class has built a sculpture that resembles a graph of a modulated wave motion. Of all the practical, real-world
applications of mathematics! It is as practical as a snowman.

Why doesn’t anyone ask for real-world applications of table tennis? What a bore any game must be, that has no real-world application! Why do kids stand for it? Ping-pong again? Ugh.

But I can think of something: Let’s all make a model of a ping-pong ball in the school yard, seventy feet high, blocking all the entrances and thus preventing all us students from entering the (ugh) school. Then we can take our fishing poles and torn straw hats out from under our beds and, with the hats on our heads and fishing poles over our shoulders, all traipse together down the dusty road to Norman Rockwell’s house.

Toward a More Efficient Labor Market

In Chapter 9 of The Big Questions, I lamented the great duplication of time and effort that occurs each spring when the top academic departments are all evaluating the same handful of job candidates, and I wondered why departments don’t free ride by simply announcing “We’ll take anyone with an offer from (say) Stanford”.

An anonymous math department chairman reports on his own strategy for cutting down on the workload. He believes that one of the most important determinants of a successful career is luck. So each year, he randomly rejects half the applicants without even reading their folders. That way, he eliminates the unlucky ones.

Lockhart’s Lament

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory…Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music”. It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music…are considered very advanced topics and generally put off till college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language—to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key…One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this sort of nightmare.

So begins Paul Lockhart’s scathing critique of how mathematics is taught in this country, A Mathematician’s Lament. The book is an expansion of Lockhart’s essay of the same title. I encourage you to read the essay, buy the book, and share your thoughts in comments.

Cultivating Failure

Caitlin Flanagan is such a smashingly good writer that I normally devour anything she’s written. But when I saw her latest piece in the Atlantic—roughly 5000 words in opposition to public school gardens, where students learn horticulture instead of long division—it seemed well, too petty a subject for Flanagan’s vast talents—so I put it aside without reading it.

Today I read it. Wow, was I wrong. This is Caitlin Flanagan at her blistering best. I’ll offer you a few choice quotes, but my real recommendation is to leave now and go read the entire piece.

With the Edible Schoolyard..the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time…has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and the another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outercourse” and in another it’s abstinence-only education.

Does the immigrant farm worker dream that his child will learn to enjoy manual labor, or that his child will be freed from it?…If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: A way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.

Until our kids have a decent chance at mastering the essential skills and knowledge that they will need to graduate from high school, we should devote every resource and every moment of their academic day to helping them realize that life-changing goal. Otherwise we become complicit—through our best intentions—in an act of theft that will not only contribute to the creation of a permanent, undereducated underclass, but will rob that group of the very force necessary to change its state.

There’s much more where that came from. Why are you still here?

The Honors Class, Part II

Two weeks ago, I posted the first half of the honors exam that I administered last spring at Oberlin college. I am following up today with the second half. Once again, I’ve translated some of the questions from economese to English, but am fairly confident that nothing significant has been lost in the translation. This starts with Question 6:

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The Honors Class, Part I

Each year, the economics department at Oberlin College invites an outside examiner to determine who among its top graduating seniors should receive an honors degree. Last spring, I was that outside examiner. The seven candidates had several hours to complete a written exam (which I wrote), and then a few weeks later, I interviewed each of them face to face.

I thought my readers here might be interested in seeing the written exam. It’s by no means comprehensive; entire areas of economics are omitted. Instead, it’s supposed to test core material and ways of thinking that I believe should mostly be second nature to any top economics graduate.

Where necessary, I’ve translated some of these questions from the original economese to something approximating English. Occasionally, a little has been lost in the translation, but not, I think, too much.

There were ten questions on the exam. I’ll post five today and the remaining five next week.

Here, then, is Part I:

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The Economics of College Admissions

The final chapter of The Big Questions is called “What to Study”. This post is about where to study it.

Stanford professor Carolyn Hoxby reports that in the college admissions market, the big change over the past 40 years is students’ increased willingness to travel far from home—not surprising since the costs of long distance travel and communication have fallen dramatically over that time. The main effects are these:

  • The top colleges (meaning the top 10%) have gotten far more selective, because they’re now drawing from a far broader base of applicants.
  • Most other colleges (well over half) have gotten far less selective, because the pool of local applicants is shopping elsewhere.
  • This change in students’ willingness to travel provides a complete explanation for the increased selectivity of top colleges; in fact, without it, they’d have become slightly less selective.
  • As a result of these trends, the student bodies at the best colleges have gotten much stronger and the student bodies at the weaker colleges have gotten much weaker.
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