Archive for August, 2003

Standardized testing and learning

August 27, 2003

A middle school teacher in Nebraska, on mandatory standardized testing:

Politicians (and business people/capitalists) are competitive. They have a challenge, they try harder, and succeed. They see this as the solution to education: raise the bar, tougher standards, more competition. They don’t see the reality, that not everyone is as competitive as they are.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, but what about those who aren’t tough?

Students are the ones in charge of their education. They decide if they will learn or not. If they see or predict or experience failure, they don’t try.

The last decade or so of assessments have seen slight increases in achievement, but increased dropout rates and lower graduation rates.

Assessment needs to be a tool to help students succeed, not a means to compare schools/districts/states and punish those which do not measure up.


Students and their families are the ones who are/should be accountable for their education, not schools, districts, states.

“Public education system” is a misnomer: Public schools can provide only an opportunity to learn, not a guarantee to educate. If students won’t (or can’t) do, then teachers can’t teach.

To hold schools accountable for what is almost completely beyond their control will not increase learning. As we have seen in Houston, it will instead increase lying.


The power of history

August 26, 2003

“The choice of Athens as capital [of newly independent Greece], a town dominated by the imposing ruins of the Parthenon and with its associations with the glories of the Periclean age but in the early 1830s little more than a dusty village, symbolised the cultural orientation of the new state towards the classical past.”

— Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, pg. 49

In 1834, Athens and Sparta were roughly the same size. Today, Athens is the center of a metropolis of three million people, while Sparta is a provincial town of 16,000.

Athens should be a larger and more important city today than Sparta: It is more centrally located, and is connected to an excellent port.

But Athens is a metropolis not because of its location or its port, but because a group of 19th-century Greeks and Western Philhellenes believed passionately that the Athenians of 2300 years before had been right, and the Spartans wrong.

The power of history.

Telling the truth

August 18, 2003

“People have got into their heads the extraordinary idea that English public schoolboys and English youth generally are taught to tell the truth. They are taught absolutely nothing of the kind. At no English public school is it even suggested, except by accident, that it is a man’s duty to tell the truth. What is suggested is something entirely different: that it is a man’s duty not to tell lies. […] [T]he thing we never teach at all is the general duty of telling the truth, of giving a complete and fair picture of anything we are talking about, of not misrepresenting, not evading, not suppressing, not using plausible arguments that we know to be unfair, not selecting unscrupulously to prove an ex parte case, […] not pretending to be disinterested when you are really angry, not pretending to be angry when you are really only avaricious. The one thing that is never taught by any chance in the atmosphere of public schools is exactly that—that there is a whole truth of things, and that in knowing it and speaking it we are happy.”

— G. K. Chesterton, 1906

“Constructing” a society

August 17, 2003

A book review in the New Statesman pinpoints two valid parts of Michel Foucault’s work:

“[…] [I]t is easy to forget that Foucault’s influence stems from a simple but penetrating insight, developed early in his career: that the history of western civilisation is also the history of what that civilisation despises and excludes. Foucault was far from being the first historian to realise this, or to construct a version of the past upon it. But he was a leading figure in the generation that, in the wake of the convulsions of May 1968, sought to change contemporary society by interrogating it as ‘a construction’.”

Society is a construction, but a society, like a building, can be built so improperly that it collapses upon itself. You cannot construct it in any way you please; and an ugly building can stand for centuries, while a beautiful and theoretically correct building can crumble in months.

“[I]n the wake of the convulsions of May 1968”, many people started communes. They discovered that constructing even the simplest society was harder than it looked.

[Link courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.]

Samuel Beckett summarizes?

August 14, 2003

I presume that Samuel Beckett did not intend to write an 18-word secularized summary of the Book of Ecclesiastes, but:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

A fair and balanced e-mail

August 13, 2003

An e-mail to Fox News:

Date: Tue, 12 Aug 2003 22:46:31 -0500 (CDT)
From: Steve Casburn
Subject: Al Franken lawsuit

Dear Sirs,

I had not planned to buy Al Franken’s upcoming book,
but the lawsuit that
Fox News has filed against its release
amused me so much that I now intend
to buy the book on the day it hits the stores.

I’m amazed that a news network seems so unaware of the concept of “free


/s/ Steve Casburn

Classical prose

August 12, 2003

“[I]n prose the economical is the classical.”

— Clive James, praising Mark Twain’s “homespun demotic” style

Time and change

August 3, 2003

“The only reliable lesson the past teaches us is how locked we are in the present. People ask, Where are the great Hollywood movies, the great pop songs, the great television newsmen, the great Democratic presidents, the great public intellectuals, the Great Books?, as though these were all eternally available types. They are not. […]

“[…] The world just rolls over, without anyone noticing exactly when, and a new set of circumstances is put in place. But the impulse to hold on to the past is very strong, and it is often hard to understand why things that worked once can’t continue to work. […]

“[…] We look backward for clues because, the future being the other side of a closed door, we have no place else to look. […] We want to play with yesterday’s cards, but yesterday has already unraveled past reconstructing. Today is the only day we have.”

— Louis Menand, from the Preface to American Studies