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Monday, March 12, 2012

Education: Promoting Diversity of Thought by Eliminating It...

When I was high school in the early 1970's I was extensively involved in sports - swimming to be specific.  During the summer months I participated for a number of years in a program run by the University of Wisconsin designed to provide opportunity for younger athletes to train and sometimes compete at a world class level.

During this time I met a lot of peers from around the state and many other people from around the world.

What was interesting is how different we all were - both in terms of athletics as well as what we had been taught in school.

From the training perspective many people I knew came from schools with extensive swimming programs often specializing in specific types events at the state level.  From a personal perspective what was so interesting was how different our school environments were: public schools, private schools, religious schools.  As well as specialization in athletics there was also specialization in academics at various levels.

Swim meets were often all-weekend events so it was pretty typical to have many hours to spend with your friends.  We did a lot of things together, talk, play cards, hung out, often meeting their parents and families.

On thing I discovered is that even as 14 and 15 year old's there was a lot of diverse opinion about things in the world.

Which was why I was so troubled to read this particular WSJ article: "School Standards Weigh Into Climate Change."


During my time in eighth grade the first "Earth Day" occurred.  We had a gung-ho pro environment science teacher named Mrs. Eberhardt who was really into it: True or False - Putting bricks into your toilet tank will significantly reduce your consumption of water.  ("False - the key was "significant" - while it saved water it did not save much.)

In the spring of 1970 we were charged with "cleaning up" the school property - collecting rubbish to burn, that sort of thing as part of Earth Day..  Burning trash was okay because, at that time, we were all going to die in an "overpopulation disaster" of some sort and CO2 was not considered a pollutant.  On the contrary - it was considered a "natural" waste product.

We also spent a lot of time in class talking about the environment, drugs, all sorts of things.

Not the sort of thing done at other schools I came to learn.  Each friend I had from other parts of the state had a different background - a different perspective - a different way of looking at things...

But today, instead of having a diverse set of perspectives from those graduating from high school, we as a society have a uniform perspective, i.e., everyone has be told to think the same way.

One of the things that diversity does allows people to have different perspectives when attacking a problem.

In the early 1990's I was gripped with the thought that I should spend time at the local high school tutoring kids in the computer classes.

The first thing I learned was that how a problem was "solved" was dictated by the curriculum and not by ingenuity of the students.

How odd, I thought, what would these students do in the real world?  I was employed to find solutions to problems - there was no "book" to consult on how to do it.

If presented with a problem and the only approach in this high school class was basically to ask for guidance from someone in authority - you would not be of much use in the real world if that's what you learned. 

I asked the instructor why this was so...

He told me that this was the same course taught in college and that he had no say over the details, i.e., it had to be done this way.  Otherwise it wouldn't be an "AP" class and the students wouldn't get credit for it.

I thought back to my first experiences in college computer classes in the 1970's.  Here's problem you can barely understand - solve it by tomorrow morning - show you work - the more creative and correct you are the better.  Many times the books contained "advanced" problems that were the basis for active research in the field.

There were not answers for those - let alone right or wrong ones with a prescribed solution.

What a disheartening experience my tutoring efforts were.  Why bother to take the class at all if you can only solve the problem in a particular way.

From my perspective today what's happening is obvious: all the independent though is being taken out of our educational system.

In the name of "standards" of course - after all we can't have Mrs. Eberhardt playing "God Damn the Pusher" in eighth grade science class as means to introduce the problems drugs present to society.  Nor can we have her class burning up all the refuse from around the school property lest it destroy the planet in the name of saving it.

But what does this leave our children?

A legacy of the "egg carton" model.  All the children today are like eggs - if you have bumps or sharp corners that don't let you fit into the carton they are simply "cut off."  If you have interests outside of what's being taught we'll change "dumb down" the content so you only get what we tell you to get.

You only solve the problem the "proper" way.

Little wonder we, as a society, are falling so far behind other countries in math and science.

While Mrs. Eberhardt's approach was novel at the time and I am sure pushed the limits I did not see it as inappropriate.  Drugs killed people we knew or knew of.  Guys in the neighborhood graduated from high school (a mere four years away) and went to Vietnam.  All she was really doing is motivating to think for ourselves...

But today I believe that what I see inside corporations reflects too many years of "standards."

For one thing no one likes to go "outside the lines" for any reason.  Its scary.  Few remember, I suppose, the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes..."

Everyone seems to huddle together in fear of making decisions - I suppose because they are all so used to the egg carton - no one want's to be seen as different.

The saddest irony of all here, is of course, that much of what's been done has been done in the name of diversity - removal of diversity from society for the purpose of promoting diversity.

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