Tag Archives: United States

Book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

I’ve been saying this for years.
300 pages, ★★★

The book’s opening quote:

Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. Many students graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers… reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.

The book then demonstrates, somewhat repetitively (because each chapter was written by a different author) that students aren’t learning anything in university. They’re studying less than 40 years ago, putting less effort in, and preferentially choosing the easiest classes, but at the same time expecting much more: an amazing job, a salary high enough to repay their giant student loan, and lots of prestige to bask in after graduation. Invariably, they will get none of the above.

This book blames universities, not just students, for post-graduation disappointment and the looming student debt crisis that’s intertwined with it. According to this book, while universities are waxing lyrical about the “critical thinking skills” and “good writing skills” that are supposedly important to “success”, university courses do very little to train the critical thinking skills and writing skills of their students. Reading lists are short and optional (most students don’t read); writing assignments are few and not taken seriously (plagiarism largely goes unnoticed, and the plagiarising student receives a grade anyway); and students make very little progress in their three years of study (at a huge cost).

I saw a lot of these troubles while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Britain. Much of this is true there, too: students are lazy, spoiled and expect fantastic jobs despite being completely incompetent. Writing essays isn’t important and nobody notices plagiarism. (The list goes on…)

Two key findings stand out from this book:

(1) Education starts at home. Most of the variation in high-school test scores in the US can be explained by gender, race, education level of parents, number of parents in the household, and occupation of parents. Your parents are your biggest teachers.

(2) Test scores of people who drop out of high school, on average, improve at a faster rate post-dropout than the scores of students who go to college. This is shown in the graph on page 56. Amazing!

I didn’t learn anything new here, but I did feel comforted that I’ve been right all along. Some university students are lazy, spoiled and have an unjustified sense of aggrandisement. They expect too much after graduation and, especially in the current economic climate in the US and Europe, will ultimately be very disappointed.

I saw no evidence of any of these problems in Australia, though 🙂 ★★★

 

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Succinct, analytical, readable, perfect.
175 pages, ★★★★★

The original text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very dense, laced with nineteenth-century English and was a nuisance to read—especially the speech from Tom’s wife, Chloe. Here’s an excerpt of the original:

“An’ de Gineral, he knows what cookin’ is. Bery nice man, de Gineral! He comes of one of de bery fustest families in Old Virginny!”

While it’s intelligible, it’s tiring to read.

However, I learned much more from this book, called Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States. It uses the concise, logical English language that as a science student (and as a blogger), I’m much more used to. It not only tells you the story, the author’s background, her reasons for writing, and the book’s influence on the American public, but also includes discussions of the devastating slave trade, the ‘ownership’ of women and the extermination of native Americans that occurred in the same historical period. This book concludes with a chapter on Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s legacy. I learned much more from this book than from Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself.

Reading derivative works isn’t cheating at all. Nobody was expected to read the original text of On the Origin of Species while I was doing undergraduate science. We were, however, expected to know the gist of what it said by reading books that relate heavily to it (The Third Chimpanzee and Genome come to mind).

Instead of reading the dozens of classics on my reading list, I’m going to hunt for derivative works of all of them. I think I’ve finally found a way to make classic fiction both enjoyable and accessible at the same time… ★★★★★

Book: The Grapes of Wrath

I love Photoshop CS5! I used it to delete the background from this photograph. The new Content-Aware Fill function is, I quote, magic.

Five stars for description. Two stars for the story.
536 pages, ★★★

I’m new to fiction. As a habitual reader of non-fiction, I expect to learn from books. Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath alternates between extremely well-written descriptions of 1930s America (which satisfies my need to ‘learn’ while reading) and a slow story that really doesn’t grip me. I want the descriptions without the story.

Descriptions of the desolate environment (around page 100) and of mechanized farming (around page 300) were an unforgettable history lesson. I’ll remember this book because the 1930s America is describes resonates with late 1950s China, where farmers also endured natural disasters, excessive mechanization, unemployment and famine. Anecdotes in The Grapes of Wrath (such as not having enough money to buy bread) made me, for the first time, sympathetic of towards the United States of America. They’ve not always had it so easy.

Here’s some of my favorite description in The Grapes of Wrath:

Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They ice on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They couldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny–deport them.

And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer. And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country. And farms grew larger and the owners fewer.

And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes–stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.

And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. “These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift , to push, to pull, to pick, to cut p anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English German. One of our folk in the Revolution an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.

— Chapter 19, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I wanted to read a descriptive, historical account of 1930s America. The Grapes of Wrath certainly provided that, but I would have preferred if it were not interwoven with such a dull story. This book was too long. ★★★

Book: Class Warfare: Inside the fight to fix America’s schools

Class Warfare: several heroic Americans busted a trade union to make education better and cheaper for all.

Written from the front lines of politics, not from in front of a blackboard.
478 pages, ★★★ 

Reading this book feels like skimming the travel journal of a candidate on a presidential campaign. Class Warfare is dry, piecemeal, littered with bureaucratic bullshit and lacks clear direction. This is a book about politics, not about education. In total, students are granted less than one page of attention. Teaching techniques are mentioned even less often and can be condensed down to, “put your kids in a U-shape—bad ones go in the middle”.

This is a book about politics, not about education

This book was irrelevant for me. I expected to learn how to reform broken schools, how to train teachers, or at least how to teach a class. Instead, reading Class Warfare just tells us there are two problems with America’s education system: (1) incompetent teachers (some of them sleep during class); and (2) unions. Since the former are locked in overpaid employment by the latter, the unions can be blamed for America’s declining public schools (and basically everything else—this is clearly a Republican book). Busting those unions (and laying off incompetent teachers) is described repeatedly as the best remedy.

A few heroic characters join the fight against unions: Bill Gates, Jon Schnur, and Jessica Reid. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded school reform in New York, in which, the right to bypass unions was central to the program’s success. Bypassing the teachers’ union gave schools the right to pay less, fire people, reward good performance, and, most importantly, allowed education managers to do their jobs without fear of excessive, crippling derailment from co-ordinated (angry) teachers and parents. Teachers unions had schools in a straightjacket.

Yes, unions have been partly responsible for the decline of America’s public schools because they turned teaching from a respected (but low-paid) profession into a comfortable safety net for the otherwise unemployable (for every great teacher, there are several idiots who just get by on the same salary). But after reading this book, I still think that busting those unions is not the best way to reform public schools. Ideally, the unions could lead the reform. Unions could set up classes where “good” teachers teach “bad” teachers; or provide teacher training rather than saying “more money for teachers” repeatedly. Unions caused problems in America’s public schools, but, as groups of interested professionals, they also have the potential to fix them.

Anyone interested in political bickering should read this. Republicans, especially, will get a buzz from this book even if they don’t learn much from it. Democrats should read this as a fictional drama, which is at worst, just slightly offensive. The political divide gives Class Warfare very mixed reviews on Amazon.

What did I learn? I’m done with education, and I’m done with politics. And I’m extremely happy to be independent and self-employed in an industry with zero regulation. That’s all the relevant knowledge I need from this book. ★★★