Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Reacting to two statements about my university.



1.   Our recent brand audit showed that we see our university as creative, caring, and gritty.
2.   Our current mission statement is “our caring and creative community prepares students for careers in a rapidly changing world”.

I can think of individuals who are creative (e.g., Prof. Dave Merrill), caring (e.g., Prof. Barbara Lockee), or gritty (e.g., Prof. Glen Bull), but I cannot think of anyone who has all three of those characteristics. So, that led me to wonder about applying descriptors that normally apply to people to organizations or institutions. I know some organizations that are large and some that are small, some that are diverse and some that lack much diversity, some that are hierarchical and some that are relatively flat, and so on. I am also aware of organizational cultural descriptions, but those typically refer to how decisions are made and how people interact at different levels. So, I start out confused thinking about this.

Then I think about what we are preparing students for. We recently had an invited speaker in the Discovery Series who assumed that higher education was aimed at preparing students for jobs of the future, although he admitted to not knowing what those jobs would be. My own view of education is dramatically different. When I was accepted as a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Texas, the letter of acceptance contained an interesting statement – namely, do not expect to find a job in philosophy upon completing the program. I went anyway and was the only graduate in my class who did get a job in philosophy the year I graduated. But I did not go because I wanted a job. I went because I wanted to study philosophy. So, I am not convinced that the main purpose of higher education is to prepare people for jobs, known or unknown. I think it is up to students to decide why they are pursuing higher education. My offhand thought is that higher education in general helps a person to better understand the many complexities of our world. Understanding and appreciating those complexities can lead to personal fulfillment and an enriched adult life. Sometimes. Maybe. In some cases.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Remarks on Progress in Educational Technology


Remarks on Progress in Educational Technology

J. Michael Spector
Mike.Spector@unt.edu

Some years ago I published an essay entitled “How Far We Have Not Come’ (Spector, 2000). The general argument of that piece was that educational technologists have been promising much more than they have delivered for years. The temptation with each new generation of digital technology was that education could be radically improved and would thereby be transformed into something significantly different from and better than previous forms of education. What came to mind then was a line from the comedian, Shelly Berman, in response to the claim that flying was the safest way to travel; his response was this: “I’m not sure how much consideration has been given to walking.”
Now, almost 20 years after that simple-minded essay, I am thinking along similar lines. My basic question is this: What has been learned from educational research and learning theory in the last 100 years? Assuming that some things have been learned, which ones have been implemented on a significant scale for a sustained period of time, and what impact, if any, have they had? Perhaps I will be chastised as a modern day luddite for saying the following: It is not clear to me that educational technologies have improved learning and instruction on a large scale for any sustained period of time; the nearly constant emergence of new technologies have only created the new problem of learning to use them effectively, to borrow a line from Dijkstra’s The Humble Programmer (1972). What progress are we making in terms of using technology to improve learning and instruction? Is it a lot? A little? In isolated cases? At great cost? At a disadvantage to some? What do you think?
Here is what I think. In the preface to How We Think, Dewey (1910) wrote this:

 Our schools are troubled with a multiplication of studies, each in turn having its own multiplication of materials and principles. Our teachers find their tasks made heavier in that they have come to deal with pupils individually and not merely in mass. This book represents the conviction that the needed steadying and centralizing factor is found in adopting as the end of endeavor that attitude of mind, that habit of thought, which we call scientific. This scientific attitude of mind might, conceivably, be quite irrelevant to teaching children and youth. But this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind. (see http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37423/37423-h/37423-h.htm for the entire book).

Dewey argues that the origin of thinking is in one way or another uncertainty, confusion, perplexity or doubt. If one believes that thinking (in Dewey’s sense of reflecting, connecting facts, and seeking for an explanation) is inherently good, then one is led to the conclusion that uncertainty, confusion, perplexity and doubt are in general good or desirable as they lead to something that is good. This simple and somewhat compelling formulation was made public more than 100 years ago, yet Dewey’s powerful argument has had little impact on schooling in the USA or elsewhere although many educators hold Dewey in very high regard.

In a sense, thinking is a natural and ongoing human activity. As Wittgenstein (1922) remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “we picture facts to ourselves” (#2.1). We do this without effort and particularly when confronted with something novel or puzzling. These internal pictures are what Philip Johnson-Laird (1983) called mental models. Mental models are what comprises thinking and memory. Thinking can be trained to become more productive, more accurate and more insightful (Dewey, 1910). In principle the trainability of thinking seems to be a case now well established by cognitive scientists, learning psychologists and philosophers. Are educators systematically helping to train the thinking processes of students? In some cases, this surely happens. Does it happen regularly and with all students? Probably not. Are policy makers proposing and implementing policies to support the training of thinking processes? One might infer that this is the case when one examines the USA’s National Educational Technology Plan (see https://tech.ed.gov/netp/) or examines the 21st century skills (see, for example, http://www.nea.org/home/34888.htm). However, decreasing levels of funding for education and for education research, and the lack of significant improvement on the test scores of American students in comparison with those in other parts of the world, suggest that practice is neither informed by policy nor by research (see the Program for International Student Assessment at  http://www.oecd.org/pisa/; see also Our World of Data at https://ourworldindata.org/financing-education).

After multiple visits to this line of reasoning and the associated evidence, one might become disenchanted or discouraged, or even decide to pursue a career in real estate or gambling casinos.  However, as one of my sons is wont to say, “no worries.” There is still tomorrow. There is still another group of bright young minds eager to learn coming soon. How shall we go about training those bright young minds?

As Dewey (1910) argued, the emphasis should not be on what to think but how to think. The job of the teacher is to get students to think, and that means getting students to doubt, to be uncertain, to be perplexed or even to be confused. It is in such moments when learning (stable and persistent changes in what a person or group of people know and can do) can occur. The job of the teacher is to get students to have questions – to admit that they do not know or understand, to commit time and effort to gain better understanding, to consider alternative perspectives, and to reflect on their progress (Spector, 2018).
Going forward, the focus should be on learning rather than on technology. What educational technology researchers should be doing is not inventing clever ways to use a new technology or clever terms for things other scholars thought of decades earlier. We need to do what Robert Gagné (1985) argued was the task of educators and educational researchers – namely and simply, to help people learn.
Some years ago I wondered what funded educational research projects in the USA had survived the test of time and had developed a body of evidence of positive impact. I arrived at two examples that stood out from all others: Head Start (started in 1964 and still exists; see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs) and Sesame Street (started in 1969 and still exists; see https://www.sesamestreet.org/). I encourage readers to look at the empirical evidence showing the impact of those two examples. While there are many outstanding and innovative examples of technology applications in education (see Merrill, 2002, 2013), few have had such a large scale and sustained impact as those two examples.

Some have argued that the printing press transformed education as it brought learning texts and information to the masses. Some argue that the Internet and the many associated digital devices that make use of the Internet are transforming education just as the printing press did centuries ago. One can argue that the court is still out with regard to the Internet transformation of education; perhaps it is a split decision 5 to 4, as is becoming all too common in other contexts.

Regardless of which side one takes on the debate about the positive impact of educational technologies on learning and instruction, most will agree that we can do better. After all, that is our job as human beings – namely, to bring out the best in others by whatever means we can manage to do so, with new technology, with old technology, with a new pair of walking boots, or with a map of middle earth. We can do better as educators and educational technology researchers. We can forego the impulse to invent new words for old ideas. We can forego the impulse to use a technology just because it is new. We can forego the impulse to become advocates rather than evidence seekers. We can focus on helping students learn – all students … not just the gifted or those we like or who like us.

I just realized how preachy this essay has become. My apologies. If you managed to read this far, you might be inclined to agree with the reasoning and sentiment being expressed in this non-empirical short piece. In closing, I recall a remark made by one of my philosophy professors, Oets Kolk Bouswma,  in an unpublished journal entry: “I am a short thought thinker” (see Craft & Hustwit, 1984; see also the second order learning stories from 2002 at the Learning Development Institute’s website located at www.learndev.org). My advice to graduate students and potential authors has been to keep it short; keep it focused; and try to start doing something to help people learn. Be the voice that encourages, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away (my father’s advice to me many moons ago).

References
Craft, J. L., & Hustwit, R. E. (1984). Without proof or evidence. Essays of O, K.Bouwsma. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, MA: D. C. Heath & Co. Rerieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37423/37423-h/37423-h.htm
Dijkstra, E. W. (1972). The humble programmer. Communications of the ACM, 15, 859-866.
Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Johnson-Laird, P. (1983). Mental models: Toward a cognitive science of language,  inference and consciousness. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research & Development, 50(3), 43-59.
Merrill, M. D. (2013). First principles of instruction: Identifying and designing effective, efficient and engaging instruction. San Francisco: CA: Pfeiffer.
Spector, J. M. (2000, Fall). Trends and issues in educational technology: How far we have not come. Update Semiannual Bulletin 21(2). Syracuse, NY: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Technology.
\Spector, J. M. (2018, July). Thinking and learning in the Anthropocene: The new three Rs. Presented at the2018 International Big History Conference, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, 26-29 July 2019. Retrieved from http://www.learndev.org/dl/HLA-IBHA2018/Spector%2C%20J.%20M.%20(2018).%20Thinking%20and%20Learning%20in%20the%20Anthropocene.pdf
Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Treubner Co. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf






Monday, December 17, 2018

Remembering my sister

Peggy was always thinking about others and doing things for others. We are confident she would want us to be celebrating together and remembering her and each other. For Peggy, family always came first and she moved to LA to be close to her extended family ... the nine first cousins (on mother's side; Bobo, Priscilla, Danny, Dorothy, Mike, Peggy, Becky, Minnie, Cindy) grew very close over the years and spent summers and many holidays together ... of the nine first cousins, there are now only 5 left - Dorothy, Mike, Becky, Minnie, and Cindy. But there are now grandkids, nephews. nieces, many second and third and fourth  cousins, aunts, uncles, and many, many friends. Peggy leaves behind a little bit of her heart in all of us. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

For the People of Mississippi


Vote for values on Tuesday. What really matters to you? Is it the color of someone’s skin? The political affiliation of someone? Where someone lives? How someone worships? The words someone spins to get your vote?

What matters is who you are becoming. The kind of person you are becoming. The kind of person you want to become. The kind of person you want others to remember when you are gone.

Who are you and what matters most to you? Do your actions reflect your values? What values do you want to pass along to your children? Is the world you have known really a dangerous and nasty place? Or, have you witnessed many acts of kindness, understanding and tolerance that testify to the beauty of creation?

Have a listen:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQ0y-vO9QLE 

A Capitalist Manifesto


A Capitalist Manifesto

Those with money, buy things; those without money do not buy things. That is how a capitalist views the divide between haves and have-nots. Alternative views are possible. Those with money eat while those without money eat little. Those with money have medical care; those without get little medical care. Those with money get an education and jobs, while those without get little education and find minimal wage jobs and temporary employment.

But that is not the real story. It is not an arbitrary divide between haves and have-nots. The new capitalist manifesto is more nuanced. Those with money buy things. Those with lots of money buy expensive things. Those will little money buy essentials, while those without money buy nothing. The new capitalist manifesto is aimed at marketing. If you want to make big money, sell to those with lots of money and sell expensive things, such as expensive homes and cars, major real estate properties, and so on. Don’t try to sell to those with little or no money. The profit margins are not favorable. Buy low and sell high is being replaced by buy a lot and sell a lot higher to those who can afford to pay, regardless of where they live or where they are from.

T. S. Eliot had it right in “Chrouses From The Rock:”

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

My brother, Dr. Daniel Earl Spector, died a week ago. He understood those words of T. S. Eliot. Danny was a scholar. A staunch defender of members of the armed forces even though he was a principled pacifist, opposed to most wars. He was a Middle East scholar who befriended Muslims and wanted to see peace in the Middle East while preserving the right of Israel to be a homeland for Jews in a still-troubled world of intolerance. He was a Jew who told me before my Bar Mitzvah that people around the world still persecuted Jews, and I should be aware of prejudice that persisted long after Hitler, Goebbels, and Eichmann were long gone. 

As a teenager he participated in the bus boycotts after the famous Rosa Parks event. He supported the civil rights of everyone. He was guided by values rather than by profits or money. He was a career civil servant and historian for the US Department of the Army. He did not accept the capitalist manifesto – not the new one nor the old one. He believed everyone was entitled to an education and basic medical care. He valued and loved family and friends and they valued and loved him in return.

What we need is a new humanist manifesto rather than a new capitalist manifesto.

I think that Danny was like Lawrence Ferlinghetti who said in “I am Waiting” that he was

,,, waiting for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right.

Danny was such an Eagle who showed us how to straighten up and fly right.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018


Today is Thanksgiving, and I am home alone. I am thinking of my brother, Dr. Daniel Earl Spector, who passed away Friday night, less than a week ago. I was with my brother during his last days. The evening he died, his Rabbi, Lauren Cohen, came by the house for a visit and she and Danny’s wife, Esta, and I decided to say a kiddush with Danny. The Rabbi had selected several readings as well to read to him that evening, After saying the blessing over the wine, I managed to give my brother a small taste. He was semi-alert and most probably knew and understood what we were doing. A few hours later he was gone. His funeral was Tuesday.

What I have to say today, this Thanksgiving day, is thanks for my brother. What I learned during my visit these previous days was how much Danny affected so many people in so many different walks of life. He loved his wife, Esta, of more than 50 years. His son Warren, stayed close to home, especially after the tragic loss of Danny and Esta’s daughter, Susan, and their only grandchild, baby Connor, in a housefire some years ago. In spite of that tragic loss. Danny, Esta and Warren all managed to maintain a positive outlook on life and performed countless acts of kindness for others after that tragic loss.

Danny was a scholar – a historian. He worked as a historian for the US Army’s Chemical School for a number of years. He was a deeply religious Jew – deep in the sense of understanding the traditions of our father, Rabbi Joseph Spector, and the forefathers and many Talmudic scholars. He knew a great deal about Middle Eastern history and formed a close friendship with the Imam of the local Muslim community. I noticed a copy of the Koran and the Book of Mormon in his extensive library.

The Rabbi who had visited Danny his last night performed the ceremony at Temple Beth El in Anniston, Alabama, along with the Imam who made remarks about his close friendship with Danny as did a Christian Chaplin friend. Danny was revered by leaders of major religious groups. 

He was a talented gardener, an active member of the book club in Jacksonville, Alabama, a frequent contributor to the Anniston Star, a history teacher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Troy State University, a frequent invited speaker by many different groups, a scholar with expertise in many areas outside the Middle East (his PhD) and China (his Master’s degree), the civil war, and the history of war (with a record number of entries in the Sage Encyclopedia of War); even though he was a committed pacifist he maintained close friendships with many members of the Armed Forces and always held their service in high regard.

He maintained a personal library in his home with close to a thousand books. He loved animals. His many friends from so many different walks of life came by the house and came to the funeral in Anniston and the gravesite ceremony in Jacksonville. It was such a humbling experience to see how much he was loved and to be reminded how much he loved during his 75 short years.

I am so thankful for my brother.


Monday, August 13, 2018

Questions About Critical Thinking



What questions might one ask about critical thinking if one is about to embark on critical thinking research? Please add, subtract, divide or multiply and share your thoughts. Here are a few questions that came to me while I was sleeping:

1.     Is there a generally accepted definition of critical thinking?
a.     Does a definition differ depending on the discipline?
b.     For example, do psychologists, philosophers and educators have similar definitions of critical thinking?
2.     Is critical thinking one thing or a collection of things?
a.     If it is a collection of things, what are those things?
b.     What skills and abilities are associated with critical thinking?
3.     How have people measured critical thinking?
a.     Do the measures vary with subject area?
b.     With age?
4.     How is the phrase ‘critical thinker’ used?
a.     Does it indicate more than approval of a person’s ideas?
b.     Is being or becoming a critical thinker generally regarded as desirable?
5.     If one is regarded as a critical thinker in one domain, does that ability tend to transfer to another domain?
a.     Are some critical thinking skills domain neutral?
b.     If so, which ones?
6.     Can critical thinking be learned?
a.     Some argue that creativity cannot be learned although others argue that in some sense and to some degree everyone is creative.
b.     If critical thinking can be learned, how can it best be taught?
c.     Can critical thinking be learned in a single lesson or course?
7.     At what age can someone develop critical thinking skills?
a.     Is becoming a critical thinker a developmental process?
b.     When is an optimal time for that process to begin?
c.     How might the early stages of becoming a critical thinker be supported?
8.     The so-called 21st century skills are sometimes referred to as the 4 Cs: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. How are those four skill areas related?
a.     “Most people have the ability to communicate. Many people engage in collaborative endeavors from time to time. Some people manage to engage in critical thinking on occasion. A few people are regarded as creative.” Do those four claims sound reasonable?
b.     If one accepts the fundamental principle of a constructivist epistemology (i.e., people create internal representations to make sense of things they experience), then it follows that everyone is in some sense creative.
c.     Moreover, if one accepts the notion that people quite naturally engage in what Wittgenstein calls language games, then people not only create those internal representations, they communicate them to others. So communication, collaboration and creativity all seem to be abilities that each person have to some degree, and those abilities are a natural result of being a person living in a society. Does that line of thought make sense?
d.     On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein wanted language to be clear and lead to coherent and meaningful thought (e.g., “we picture farts to ourselves”); Plato had a similar notion (see The Cratylus).  Oets Kolk Bouwsma noted that language often leads one astray (i.e., sometimes we picture things that are not factual to ourselves). Bouwsma argued that philosophers were among those who seemed particularly prone to being misled by language. Perhaps the sphere of those easily misled might be widened to include politicians and the general public. The question here is simply this: Is being a critical thinker as natural as the abilities to communicate, collaborate or create? How challenging is it to become a critical thinker?
9.     I am aware of becoming more pedantic than critical in this note, so I end it with a final question: What questions do others have with regard to critical thinking?


Helping teachers design effective instruction



How to help teachers design effective instruction?

First, what counts as effective instruction? Instruction that more often than not helps students attain intended goals. So there should be both before and after measures pertaining to those goals if one intends to claim that instruction has been effective.

Second, there are general strategies that seem to work for many students at the lesson level. For example, there are Bob Gagné’s (1985) nine events of instruction:

1.     Gain and maintain attention
2.     Inform learners of goals and objectives
3.     Stimulate recall of prior learning
4.     Present the content
5.     Provide learning guidance and ongoing support
6.     Elicit performance and provide opportunities for practice
7.     Provide timely and informative feedback
8.     Assess performance along the way
9.     Enhance retention and transfer to other problems and situations

There are also Dave Merrill’s (2002; 2013) first principles of instruction:
  • Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.
  • Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is demonstrated to the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is applied by the learner.
  • Learning is promoted when new knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.
Merrill’s principles easily map onto Gagné’s events and might be stated in terms of telling, asking, showing and doing. Merrill argues that too little emphasis occurs on showing and doing in many cases, which amounts to under-emphasizing events 5 through 9.

Gagné also characterized instruction as having three main phases – a set-up phase (events 1-3), a primary presentation phase (event 4), and a resolution phase (events 5-9). All too often instructional designers focus on event 4 and conduct a breakdown of the content into discrete things to be learned. Gagné and Merrill (1990) collaborated on exactly one paper in which they argue that what people do is to engage in enterprises which involve many different kinds of things (e.g., concepts, principles, problems, objects, etc.) – that is to say that what needs to be learned is an enterprise (as in the effective application of knowledge to solve problems and perform tasks). Given that perspective, the set-up phase is important, especially with regard to motivation and establishing a meaningful context, and the resolution phase is especially important so as to ensure that what is learned can be effectively applied later.

Tools to help? The mind is an important tool – especially the learner’s mind. Activate a mind, help a mind visualize a problem, get the mind engaged, and good things are likely to happen. That is my simple-minded instructional design advice.

The teacher’s job is not to tell students what to think. The teacher’s job is to help students learn HOW to think. Getting students to have questions, to visualize problems, to devote time and energy to refine visualizations and find possible answers, to question assumptions, to consider alternatives, and to reflect on the process is the teacher’s job. Is it not?


Some remarks on cognitive load



Suppose you are planning a long hike and overnight stay, say to a destination that is about 15 kilometers away. A friend has advised you not to take more than you need in your backpack and to try to keep the weight under 20 kilograms, as that is probably a manageable load. You pack what you think you will need and weigh the backpack. This is tricky because your only scale is designed to weigh a person standing on it, but the backpack keeps falling off and resting partly on the floor. How will you weigh the backpack and determine if the load exceeds 20 kilograms? [This question is designed for any third graders who happen to be reading these notes.]

Okay, you determine that the load is just about 20 kilograms. Good packing, you tell yourself. You then lift the backpack and put it on your back. It feels quite heavy. You wonder if you can walk 15 kilometers carrying such a load. You tell yourself that your friend is younger and stronger than you – such a load may be manageable for her but not for you. Perhaps 10 kilos is a better target.

I started with this story about the load in a backpack to point out a few things about cognitive load. First, John Sweller is an outstanding scholar and has made many important contributions to educational psychology and instructional design, including his analysis of cognitive load in terms of intrinsic load (that which is inherent in a problem or situation), extraneous  load (that which may be eliminated from the problem or situation and can distract some learners), and germane load (that which is likely to help a learner focus and be successful in solving a problem or resolving a situation). At least that is my rough and ready interpretation of components of cognitive load theory.

Now, I want to compare cognitive load with the load of the backpack in the initial example. First, the backpack could be weighed so there was an independent and relatively non-subjective measure of the load. Are there independent and non-subjective measures of cognitive load? Could there be such measures? In any case, in spite of the actual weight of the backpack, the perceived weight or perceived load can vary. For my friend who is younger and physically fit, the perceived weight of 20 kilos is moderate and manageable. For me – an older person in not such good physical condition, the 20 kilo backpack seemed quite heavy and not manageable. Perceived load is not the same as actual load when it comes to backpacks.

Then, when I think about someone trying to solve a complex problem or resolve a challenging situation, the perceived load can also vary significantly. A highly experienced person in solving similar problems may find the problem easily manageable whereas someone with much less experience may fine the same problem quite challenging. Moreover, what might be distracting in terms of extraneous load for an inexperienced person may not be distracting for an experienced person. Likewise, what may be germane to successful problem solving for an experienced person may be too sketchy or too incomplete to help a much less experienced person. So, It seems that cognitive load and the constituent parts of cognitive load vary or can vary from one person to another; what matters is perceived cognitive load.

Given the usual way of eliciting perceived cognitive load on a likert scale, it seems useful to collect other indicators, such as the time a person spends on a particular task or which part of the task is the focus of attention or what kind of assistance a person seeks or the level or neuronal activity or a galvanic skin measure and so on. Having multiple measures that converge can help one develop confidence in a reported level of perceived cognitive load. Perhaps.

Then, because I am so prone to distraction, I wonder if there are non-cognitive indicators that might also be relevant to cognitive load such as moods, attitudes, and so on. Just as it is a person carrying the backpack that matters, it is a person trying to solve a problem or resolve a situation that matters – a person, not a disembodied mind. That reminds me … it is almost time for lunch. Taking a break …

Thursday, August 9, 2018

One Party Country

It seems to me that the USA has become the DSA - the Divided States of America. Worse still is that the movement is in the direction of a one party country, like those in China, Cuba, North Korea, Russia and elsewhere. That movement is not unique to the DSA as it seems to be happening in Turkey and other countries as well.

Indicators that are worrisome include attacks on the press, restricting access to information to the party in power or the person in power, denying facts well established by scientists (i.e., climate change) and other researchers and investigators, and using ad hominem arguments and tactics of distraction and denial to denigrate those who ask questions or who want clarification. 

Basic values are being lost. No more love thy neighbor as thyself but send your neighbor away without his or her children. No more bring me your tired and huddled masses but bring on the privileged few. No more a chicken in every pot but a can of chicken soup for all, before taxes of course. No more facts and logic ... just spin and vitriol. Whatever became of those 21st century skills that included critical thinking, collaboration and creativity? When did the age of reason disappear?

When Logic and Reason Fail

Thinking is not merely having thoughts. Thinking involves reasoning about those thoughts and adjusting them so that the thoughts are coherent and form a logical nexus. Thinking involves logic and reasoning.

There are some obvious limits to meaningful thought and meaningful statements and collections of statements. Logicians might say that the extreme boundaries of sense are formed by contradictions (statements that cannot ever be true, as in “I just ate the last cannibal”) and tautologies (statements that are always and can only be true, as in “Never before have things resembled the present as they do now”). The problem is that sometimes contradictions and tautologies arrive in disguise. For example, “there is a person on this planet who loves all and only those persons on this planet who do not love themselves.” Surely such a person exists! Surely not. Either that person loves him/herself or not, assuming one accepts the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM). I understand a new LEM is circulating around the capital of these divided states called the Law of the Exclusive Muddle (as in “there were some good people on both sides, including the ones carrying torches and wearing swastikas” and “I did not collude with the Russians during the election and even if I did it was not illegal”). Long live the new LEM.

I just learned that the new LEM is in competition with yet another one emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – namely, the Law of the Excluded Middleclass. The new tax laws will eventually put the middle class in the category of the forgotten class along with those already there. Long live the newer LEM.

Oh yes. Back to logic. It is so hard to concentrate these days. As I was saying, or tying to say, contradictions and tautologies often come in a disguised format, making them harder to identify. An example of a disguised tautology is this one: “We - the president’s legal team and the special prosecutor’s legal team - are in agreement about questions to be asked in an interview IF the special prosecutor’s legal team agrees with us”). This one is harder to identify as a tautology empty of meaningful content as it almost sounds reasonable. However, closer scrutiny reveals the following logic – we are in agreement if you agree with me … or, more blatantly, if you agree with me, then we agree .. as in, if we agree, then we agree. Language can provide meaning and build understanding but it can surely lead us astray.

Those without trained ears are easily led astray. To minimize attempts to lead us astray, we need to be teaching logic and reasoning to our children. When I read De-voh-reem (Deuteronomy) 6.7, I interpret “thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” to be about teaching inquiry and critical thinking and not just the love of G-d. I guess that reflects a personal bias, but it seems consistent with much of what follows in that 5th book and what I was taught by my father, an orthodox rabbi, about doing what is right and what is good.

Teach kids to think for themselves. What harm can come from that?