What Would Socrates Say?

National Museum

Student, via Wikipedia

I have attended many classes in my seven decades of life, twelve years of primary school, four of college and the equivalent of two for post-graduate.  Maybe that is enough to have an opinion about the notion that education is something that can be defined well enough to measure and price like a commodity.  To me, that is the concept behind No Child Left Behind, and is also behind a current wave of change pushing for standardization of curricula.

I was alerted to the latest developments about this by a post from Jennifer Lockett.  She pointed to a link with an excellent article on the subject, one which I also provide here.   (Please be persistent if you get a popup email – the article is worth the effort.  To get rid of it I sent a no comment message and then refreshed the page.)

Author Joel Westheimer says,

Picture the history teacher who draws heavily on his own experience and interests to make history come alive for his students. Maybe you know him. Students, parents, and colleagues admire him for including in a 20th-century American history course a unit on the role of protest music in the political upheavals of the 1960s. Imagine another teacher whose students study changing immigration policies in urban centers. She uses original documents as fodder for debate. Imagine a math teacher who uses three classes between her units on abstract and linear algebra to have students investigate the biographies of famous mathematicians, or another math teacher who leads students in a critical exploration into the origins of algebraic thinking.

Thus, Westheimer begins to set out the case for allowing teachers the flexibility to have creativity in the educational process.  He makes the valid point that different teachers teach differently, based on their own talents, knowledge and personalities.  To me that is an obvious fact, but it runs counter to the notion that education is something that must be measured and controlled.  He observes, correctly, that to interfere with a teacher’s freedom to explore is to  violate one of the oldest tenets of knowledge, the Socratic Method.

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

Socrates, via Wikipedia

But anyone who reads the press about public education knows that efforts to control it have been a failure so far.  I have posted on this subject myself and called for “standards”.  Given the context of Westheimer’s pleas for academic intellectual freedom to teach, I would like to clarify what I mean by standards; it is simply that schools should define their curricula in terms of how courses of study should encompass not only areas of specialization but how they also fill the need for making a well-rounded individual who will be a good citizen.

Standards should not, however, mean fulfillment of some rote definition of the bounds of knowledge in any particular subject.  I submit that the AAAS definition of a liberal (not in the political sense) education is pertinent:

Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than defer to authority.

Note that the above definition speaks to the result and not the method.  This is key, because there is no one path to that result, there are many, and to try to manufacture such a single path is to defeat the purpose, in my opinion.  That, it seems to me, is what has led to the deplorable condition of the public educational system today.

It is the nature of bureaucracies to want to control, but some things are not amenable to control and I submit that education is one of them.  So how should the success or failure of education be measured?  I suggest that it be done by the success of the product, through academic competition during school, and by public reputation and the success of graduates after the fact.  Let the teachers teach and let the chips fall where they may.  Let the strong teachers survive and the weak find another profession.  It works in business; and in evolution, for that matter.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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26 Responses to What Would Socrates Say?

  1. Jennifer Lockett says:

    Thank you for reposting this article. I thought that it was one of the most poignant pieces on the modern changes of education as well as highlighting specific, modern problems that have evolved as the unintentional side-effects of problems like ‘no child left behind.’

    I think that there is an inherent flaw in viewing education on the same model/methodology as a business in that it it is *not* a business, it does not have the same end goals (creating a profit) and does not have the same freedoms/exercises (i.e. denying access to children whose performance is sub-par or who would otherwise be deemed ‘insufficient’). This is especially an issue in public education.

    The reality is that students in more affluent areas perform consistently better on tests than students from poor/inner city regions. Even when you move the inner-city kids (i.e. busing, vouchers, and charter schools), these achievement levels remains consistent.

    I work in the independent school arena – for a number of reasons. Largely, it is that I can work at a school whose philosophy I agree with and with and with students whose achievement level is already established. At my school, all students had to apply to attend (it is a secular, academic institution), nearly all students are upper-middle class (or entirely upper class), no students qualify for the federal free lunch program, all of my students have at least one stable parent at home, there is a 100% college acceptance/attendance rate, the student/teacher ratio is 14:1 (my largest class was 25), and we have relatively minor issues with discipline (by that I mean that students do not stab one another, attack their teachers, or have criminal records). My students are excellent writers, score above the 80 percentile on standardized tests (SATs and ACTs, we do not take state tests) and on average graduate with 4 AP credits. Does this inherently make me a better teacher than say (giving the worst example of public education) a teacher in Detroit, whose classroom cap is 60 (meaning they can have 70 or more students in a room), 80% of students qualify for free lunch, nearly 90% of children live in a single parent household, over 50% have at least one parent incarcerated, the drop out rate is nearly 1/3, and standardized test scores are abysmal? Oh, and the teachers in these conditions have to pay on average $1,500/year to keep up their credentials and make some of the lowest salaries in the nation (often below $30,000 a year with limited benefits and no pensions).

    There is also the well-researched data that demonstrates that students who do not read at grade level by grade 6 will almost never catch up and those not up to grade level on math by grade 8 are 75% more likely to drop out of school. If you inherent a classroom of children at 10th grade who read at the 4th grade level and have remedial math skills, the ‘damage’ has generally already been done and the chances of them catching up are almost nil – the reasons for this are multifold (our ability to learn certain skills as we age become harder due to the nature of brain development – not that it’s impossible, just that it’s significantly harder). I’m ready to admit that my success as a teacher are largely based on the successes of my predecessors.

    Also, I don’t know that education through competition is always the answer – yes, for some fields it is and it should be (I want the person operating on me that did phenomenally in medical school). However, not all people thrive in a competitive environment and weeding out children, limiting their access to education is not necessarily the answer. Many children learn differently and have various strengths. The only universals are that all people learn better with more focused attention (a student in a class of 10 will thrive, a student in a class of 60 will dive) – again, I’m talking about children here (college education is a whole different beast).

    I still believe that if we want better teachers in public education, we need to be more competitive in recruiting them. When people take up placards that say “Teachers are glorified babysitters!” it insults the profession, belittles what teachers do, and removes any prestige or respect for the profession. When we cut pay for teachers (my state approved a 10-12% pay cut for teachers this year and unannounced, unpaid furloughs for teachers in the coming school year), increase their work-load (raising the number of children in their rooms and adding duties that were previous given to college counselors and secretarial staff), charge them exorbitant costs to ‘qualify’ for the profession ($24k in debt for a B.A., $5-7K for credentialing, 6 month unpaid student teaching full-time, and $1,500-2,000 credential training yearly), cut their benefits and pensions, and give them unreasonable expectations that we demand they meet, then not only will we not retain those who are skilled in the profession, but we will not attract the best of the best to teach (currently, the average education focused college students are in the lowest 30% of the class). When you look at countries with successful education programs (I’ll be using Sweden here), teachers are paid better, are well respected in the culture for their profession, work in classrooms with a cap of 20 students, and have teacher support in every classroom (meaning a teacher student ratio of 10:1). They also, as a government, pay less per student on education than we do. In return, when you look at the calibre of teacher – they are in the top 80% of their university class, nearly 100% have advanced degrees, and have an incredibly high retention rate (in the U.S., we have a 50% turn-over of teachers within 3 years of entering the profession).

    Sorry, I know that this is a bit meander-y. I have a long wait for my flight and this is a topic in which I have a lot invested and about which I feel most passionate. Current trends are unsuccessful and it seems like we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces. I don’t think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ answer, but cutting funding, mistreating teachers, and short-changing children will only exacerbate the problem.


    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      Dang it, I wish I could edit my comments – just caught a ridiculous number of typos. That’s what I get for typing on an iPad on very little sleep! Let’s just blame it on the auto-correct!


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Jennifer provided here many facts about just how difficult the education problem is in the poorer districts. It’s a depressing picture. She also makes a crucial point that I omitted in my post, i.e, good teaching can not overcome a severe deficit of early-year basics in a classroom setting. I don’t know the answer to getting out of the downward spiral that results from that, but it seems that it should somehow involve shunting those deficit students into trade schools and the like while we try to bootstrap a new generation. It would be messy for sure, and politically contentious.

      America appears destined to be a nation haves and have-nots for education as well as income. Maybe we always have been.


    • hlgaskins says:

      Great blog Jim.

      Jennifer both you and Jim have it right on mark

      Your typos are forgiven considering the length of your well stated post pieced together on an iPad while on the run. I could reiterate what you’ve already stated but it would be at best redundant. Your observations about the failure of “no child left behind,” overcrowded classrooms, inequality, and under paid over-stressed teachers in underfunded schools paints a dismal picture of how our children are being failed. We’ve gone from teaching kids how to learn to recall facts in order to pass benchmark tests that determine school funding. Educating our kids to the highest standards possible should be our primary goal, but it has become instead just another entitlement program plunked on the table of federal and state budget cutting. Keeping making your point even on the run and don’t let typos slow you down because they never seem to slow Anson down.:>)


  2. sandiemorgan says:

    Jiim: I think you have hit on one of the major problems in education. Education administrators tend to think that there is a formula that leads to good teaching, one formula, only one formula, and that it is the function of the administration to mandate this formula to faculty and their duty to follow it, strictly, undeviatingly. To the contrary, as you point out so well in your article, there are many formulas for good teaching, any one of which may be successful, depending on the skill of the teacher.

    I remember a student evaluation form, one of about a dozen and a half that my students were subjected to over the years that expressed the administrative ideal. The evaluation was the SIR, Student Instructional Report, produced by Princeton University’s ETS, Educational Testing Service. One of the questions that students were asked to respond to read as follows: “The instructor follows his/her syllabus (a) always (b) usually (c) sometimes (d) seldom (e) never.” The author of this question clearly equates following a syllabus with good teaching. No where is the student allowed to respond, “No, fortunately,” or “Yes, dammit”. Every good teacher knows that he or she should abandon the syllabus anytime it is necessary, for example, to answer a student’s question, or to lead the class in a direction in the subject area indicated by the interest expressed by students. Rigid adherence to a formula can be achieved by a recording, like listening to a recorded lecture.

    I can’t remember how many of my advisees complained about a lesson they were taught by the Education Department under which they were studying to obtain their Teaching Certificate. They were taught that the lecture is the least effective method of teaching; of course, they were presented with this vital information in a lecture.

    Every good teacher learns early that teaching is a continuing process of trial and error, and the errors are as important as the successes, for they tell us what works and doesn’t work. You have hit the nail on the head.
    Henry Morgan


  3. ansonburlingame says:

    to all,

    Of course the subject of education has long been my biggest passion in my public writing. Great blog and comments thereto to continue that discussion in my view and I add yet again my thoughts, hopefully to continue the disucssion and not just “turn people off”.

    Jennifer hit the nail on the head in both private and public education in terms of when a child becomes “lost” or so far behind they will never catch up. Somewhere in late elementary or early middle school seems to be that point if kids are not at or very close to “grade level”.

    Let me address just that point for now and stay out of the pay issue or the way we “treat teachers” etc. I would say, parentheitcally that I was personally called a “baby killer” when I wore my uniform in public during the late 60s and early 70s but I continued to practice my chosen profession. I also note that I never kiled anyone, much less any babies, in the entire time spent in that profession. Hopefully, but debatedly, I saved a few lives thru deterrence of both the nuclear and non-nuclear sort.

    The only reason that kids go upward in grade level but do not achieve grade level performance is that someone promoted them to a higher grade level instead of holding them back until they achieved the required “standards” of knowledge and hopefully maturity as reflected in their behavior as well.

    Now how do we know that for a fact. We know it because along the way most kids are tested to see what they know and how they act. But when test results, given only by a good teacher in a single classroom show lack of knowledge or immature (or hoodlum-like) behavior, what do “we” do? We promote them anyway.

    THAT is not a money problem. It is a system that fails to set and force the achievment of high standards in terms of both knowledge or behavior, in my view. Of course many times the question is asked “what to do with or about the failing students?” Different discussion in my view. First we must identify the “failures” of which we really have millions of students today it seems. In most classes that I have observed in High School I would estimate those earlier “failures” at 50% or higher, at least.

    Now I could care less how a teacher teaches. But I care a lot about the knowledge and behavior of the students that are promoted to the next grade, starting in kindegarten or first grade at least. And moaning about the socio-economic background of the “failure” misses the point. Some kids, regardless of their background are “failures” in school and we must find a way to fix that problem.

    Ignoring a “failure”, defined as not achieving grade level performance each and every year, is a disservice to both the kids promoted and to society in general. And for darn sure redefining grade level performance DOWN to ensure more promoitions is just wrong, dead wrong. Look at what it takes to be productive in society, make a contribution to society which should be the goal of any school at any level. Those requirements or “standards” have gone UP, way up just because society has changed in terms of technology, social conditions, etc. Society has moved onward and upward but our graduates are moving downward in terms of knowledge and behavior. Any argument on that simple observation?

    If that is not a long term program for utter failure, I don’t know what it is and it MUST change. Our graduates MUST be smarter and better behaved that we were, way back when, not worse than we were or even the same, to be a “success”. Just look what it takes to be an engineer today as opposed to Jim’s and my technical education of 50 years ago. HUGE difference, in my view simply in what a graduate must “know and be able to do” today to be a good engineer.

    Simply stated, kids do not KNOW ENOUGH nor ACT RIGHT, by and large as they need to know and act to meet the demands of modern society. THAT is a failure in education. Yes parenting, socio-economic conditions, etc contribute to that failure as well. But I suggest we first figure out what must change in education alone to beging to remedy what I see as a HUGE problem that is only getting worse.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @ Anson,

      As you will know, I too have often urged that “grade creep” be completely reversed and that students be failed for cause. But, you don’t address what to do with the failures. if we agree with Jennifer, and it seems we both do, then there is no hope for turning those students into college material. My only suggestion is vocational technology along with some good-citizen courses, such as family finances and shopping 101. (Probably have to come up with a better name though.)

      But I must comment on your statement, when you said,

      Look at what it takes to be productive in society, make a contribution to society which should be the goal of any school at any level. Those requirements or “standards” have gone UP, way up just because society has changed in terms of technology, social conditions, etc. Society has moved onward and upward but our graduates are moving downward in terms of knowledge and behavior. Any argument on that simple observation?

      Yes, I think I do have an argument with that. In some ways, I suggest, today’s young workers have it easier, in many ways, than we did at the same age. The very technology you mention has enabled productivity. It is not that people are working harder, or even longer. It is the evolution of technology.

      When I retired from the Navy it was 1981 and I went to work as a staff engineer in a new aerospace battery department. We needed to set up production so that numerous subassemblies would come together “just in time”. To do that I accessed scheduling software, a new concept for my company. I had to access an old IBM card-punch machine to run the thing. The slightest input error caused significant delays because work was backed up for the machine and, when it came my time, the program took almost a working day to run. Nowadays an ordinary PC has probably a thousand times the computing power of that old clunker. I am glad to say that I was instrumental in introducing PC’s into my department. And thanks to the evolution of other technology, electric motors, manufacturing equipment and all manner of other machines have gained reliability and precision. Technology has always been built on past progress. Even Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

      And then, I offer this thought, with a question. We know that the very few brilliant and most-gifted often leverage progress for the many. How few are they, those such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and more-modern wonder-kinds, and to what extent do they leverage the rest? This kind of leveraging of the many by the few was foreseen even by Aldous Huxley almost 80 years ago.

      Thanks for your comments on education, Anson. I know it comes from experience.



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  5. ansonburlingame says:


    I don’t relate the below to argue but to indicate a source of disagreement with your belieft that technology, specifically computers, have made it “easier” to thrive in today’s world.

    In the early 60s while I was in college, my hometown (small town in Central KY) went from “operators” (number please) to rotary dial telephones. My mother was unable to conform to that system for the remainder of her life (she died in 1969.) Instead of 3 digit local numbers she had to remember 7 digits. And she no longer had a “person” to talk to when she needed help with the phone. And she was not a “stupid” or dumb woman.

    Last weekend I went out to purchase a pizza for dinner at a nearby provider. The young woman was unable to use the touch screen to take my order without extraordinary frustration. She “got it wrong” two different times. All I wanted was a deep dish, large pizza, half sausage and half veggies. She was unable to process that order correctly, again on two different occassions, the second being when the pizza “came out of the oven” with thin crust and pepperoni.

    She blamed the “new system”.

    Now go to almost any medical office in Joplin and watch the “staff” deal with administrative matters. By and large a terrible situation. I have seen it many times as a patient and have observed my step son’s frustration with trying to hire and keep a competent staff as a doctor. His wife essentially has to “keep the books” or total chaos would prevail. I know other doctors that have the same problems with staff.

    Now who are those “kids” today that provide terrible customer service seen in many places, or cannot do simple tasks using simple tools? They in my view are part of those 50% or more that I have seen in high school classrooms or the “over 50% that are not proficient” in state mandated testing programs, etc. The work ethic, social behavior, etc. that I used to routinely observe in public classrooms by a large protion of most classes are simply not acceptable for modern society. Yet we “pass” those kids on to higher grades and many of them graduate, at least from high school without any concept of what it takes to be a “success” in today’s society.

    And yet we, at least conservatives, wonder why we have a “needy” society demanding ever more from government. Well we have been “building” that society over the last few decades with our terrible system of public education, in my view.

    Long, long ago in a land far away, I had 52 kids in my high school graduating class. At least 75% of them were “poor”. BUT they were held to the same standards of academic achievment and behavior to which I was held. And almost everyone one of them became a “success” in their lives. No they did not make a lot of money, but they had good jobs, owned a small farm and worked it to success, had families (one wife only), and lived a good life in central Kentucky. And I don’t know a single one of them that became “welfare moms”, dregs on society, etc.

    They were better than that despite the socio-economic background from which they came. My guess is that at least 90% of those “kids” of long ago have become a success story in life. Care to hazard a guess as to how many that graduate from JHS might be termed “successes” 40 years from now?


    PS: And of course I have yet to say in this string of comments about “what to do with the “failures”. Whole different and long discussion. But whatever I come up with won’t be “easy” for darn sure or politically correct as well by modern education standards.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      We have both posted at length on the topic of education and I believe we are generally in agreement. American public education has, with the occasional exception, failed. We also agree that the basics of the three R’s be emphasized, especially in the early years. I even agree and second that calculators should be banned in early math classes. But I disagree that technology is to blame for the problem. The products of this age of technology are, I submit, enormously powerful tools that leverage productivity. The spread sheet alone has enabled tremendous gains in efficiency, accuracy and process accountability. Computers and calculators have made engineering much faster and more error-free. (Man, I would have had at least 1.0 higher grade in skinny classes if I had a calculator rather than a slide rule. I had a USMC instructor for Skinny – no extra credit for work shown from that guy!)

      Nor do I think today’s young people are dumber than before, as in your pizza girl example, and I assume you don’t think that either. They weren’t taught right in the early years. In that sense you could blame the calculators, but I disagree. We need calculators and computers, but just because they exist doesn’t mean elementary students have to use them.

      I do think young people today have shorter attention spans. Part of that has to be the availability of electronic devices and partly because of the meme for parental pampering. That, I would say, is culture-driven and is a part of the American Dream meme that thrived in post-WW II prosperity. I always said our society went to hell in a hand basket in the 1960’s, and in a culture sense I think it did. Freedom became another word for not doing homework and not minding parents. I think tough times (the Great Depression and WW II) generated self-discipline. That evaporated in the relatively prosperous times since, and was accelerated by television, that vast landscape that sucked up attention spans and free time with no effort whatsoever required from the viewer

      In any case, technology isn’t going anywhere but up. It’s here to stay. What we need to do in my opinion is to fix the broken early years of the education system. “Now class, there will be no calculators (or cell phones) permitted in this course. Leave them at home.” How’s that for a start? Then, for act II, how about some College Bowl competition in math and history, within and between classes, no electronic crutches allowed? (I refer to the old TV program. I believe Allan Ludden hosted it. Panels of bright young people competed with one another.)



  6. ansonburlingame says:


    I do not think that you and I are in any fundamental disagreement over both the state of K12 public education or what is really needed to fix it. Equally for sure neither of us have a “politically correct” perception of how to fix the problem.

    I just posted a comment to the out of town commenter on this blog, Mr. Murphy I assume. You might want to check it out. It is MY simple statement of what the goal of K12 public education should be. Many will probably disagree or immediately jump to “OK, but HOW will you achieve such a goal”.

    Just like I am trying to achieve a form of consensus on the “problem” with out economy without immediately jumping to solutions. If we cannot define the problem accurately, we will NEVER achieve a consesus in solutions.



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  8. Tincup says:

    One could say…it all begins with how well we educate our young for they are our future…unfortunately…education is bound to what those in power have defined as our visions…education serves those visions…I would like to create the scenario where we free one generation from those visions…provide them with the best teachers and environment…and observe what comes about. The Socratic Dialogue method would be very useful in deciding how eduction for this group should look and also useful…perhaps…to equip these children early on…the sooner the better


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Sorry, TC, but I can’t detect any “vision” at all in America’s public school system, except of corse for isolated instances inspired by individual hard-working teachers, and that is all too rare. Our system is failing to even provide the basics of reading, writing, math and history, much less than having some wrong vision. If students lack basic skills, all hope of vision is lost.


  9. hlgaskins says:

    “One could say…it all begins with how well we educate our young for they are our future…unfortunately…education is bound to what those in power have defined as our visions…education serves those visions.”

    Training a new servile-class generation is hardly a vision but some would have us believe it, and many of us do.

    “I would like to create the scenario where we free one generation from those visions…provide them with the best teachers and environment…and observe what comes about.”

    If you’re referring to a Liberal (no reference to politics Anson) education then I agree. A true liberal education doesn’t educate our children to fill future job vacancies, it guides them in the science of thought itself, it teaches choice. Creativity directed to a predetermined purpose for profit alone, isn’t very creative. True creativity can’t be taught, only nurtured.


    • Tincup says:

      Indeed that is what I am referring to…a Liberal education that may even extend until one is 30 years old…everything is backwards right now. In fact, isn’t in the interest of the high powers to keep the populace at bay…to keep them trained for what is but don’t equip them with critical thinking…in fact…isn’t a zombie like culture ideal for those at the top? Of course you need to have a few that can think critically and intelligently (probably the children of those on top or high middle) so as to perpetuate the rewards of the status quo.


  10. Tincup says:

    I don’t disagree…there are soooo many other issues that result in what you just described…for example…The morphed American Dream…forces both parents to work…over-population…hard to provide resources for so many people including the young (and poverty breeds even more poverty)…capitalism….to the few go the spoils….procrastination….problems unsolved passed on to the next generation…just a few issues expressed crudely….but the cycle continues and what we end up with is a watered down unelightened goaless populace that can’t barely obtain the basics without a mountain of debt.

    In an ideal world…children would be treated like seeds…first find the best possible spot on Earth to plant the seeds…then spend immense time preparing the land in which to plant these seeds…then ensure proper sunlight, temperature, water…when the seeds sprout…take care of them for they are the harvest…the sunlight and water should be the fuel that enables them to grow into a full blown bounty…Currently…we don’t do any of the above and once sprouted…there is no sunlight or water…as they approach early adulthood…they simply wilt…no harvest, no bounty…just wilting energy.


  11. ansonburlingame says:

    HLG and TC,

    I believe we are all in some fundamental agreement. Education should not be a “trade school”. Education is a process to teach people to THINK, and express their thoughts with clarity and honesty.

    Thinking as I understand the brain is a two part process, the logical (left brain) and the artistic or creative (right brain) mind. A good education will stimulate BOTH “modes” of thinking and expressing such thoughts.

    But I also believe education is a life long process begining at a very early age and continuing until one’s mind no longer “works”. A baby must be nutuired to start the education process. Later in middle and high schools discipline must be imposed to “regulate” how to follow a “logical” process to reach a conclusion. When we replace the “discipline of logic” developed in the mine of one child with a “machine” I feel like we do harm to the development of that child’s education. Get the logic down first then gve and older child a machine to speed the educational process.

    I was given a slide rule in college to achieve such speed in working equations. But a slide rule NEVER added or subtacted numbers; it only multiplied and divided them. And I KNEW the multiplication tables long before I ever picked up a slide rule. Now I see elementary kids using calculators.

    I could go on with views of a Liberal Arts (no politics) versus Technical Science education as well but the comment would be too long. My conclusion is BOTH are fine with me, one at a time in college. But if one “learns liberal views” in college (a BA) to be productive in today’s complex society some math and science along the way after college is needed as well. I receive a “hard” technical college education and 20 years later was subjected to a formal liberal education for a year.

    For those intervening 20 years most men for whom I worked could have cared less about my “politics”. I was only held to very high technical standards in my job. But my life did not end at age 43 and I learned a great deal from that point forward through both formal education and my own efforts. Education is a life long journey, which I am sure we all agree with based on our own experiences.



  12. hlgaskins says:


    “I could go on with views of a Liberal Arts (no politics) versus Technical Science education as well but the comment would be too long.”

    Literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, languages and science are all Liberal Arts degrees. My youngest son once asked me what he could do with a Liberals Arts education, and my answer was “anything you want to.” Many students will pursue liberals arts for 3 or more years before choosing a major, and many of them will change their majors more than once before graduating. Do a search for ‘Fluid vs Crystallized intelligence.”

    Most young people however will never seek a degree, choosing instead more “hands-on” careers which leads them to opt for more technical college educations and apprenticeships. The reality is that not every child is college bond, but all of them should be on college track until such a time that it becomes obvious to the child, parents, and educators to redirect them to more suitable careers.

    Perhaps one of the great shames of America is that college has become increasingly beyond the reach of many our gifted young, while less gifted children from wealthy families take it for granted. A number of those who’re are exceptionally gifted will of course succeed despite of their socioeconomic disadvantages, but far too many will become lost to us all. They’re more important to this country now than all the pointless wars fed by an out of control wealthy elite, and military complex. Educating them is the best possible use we can make of our military budget.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I agree with all of your comment, wise words indeed, but with only one nit to pick, and that is your last sentence. I doubt if you mean to convert all of our military budget to educational use just yet. Daffy Qadaffi is gone, but Iran, North Korea, and an unstable Middle East still remain. Then there’s China, stability OK for now, but my latest issue of Time Magazine just arrived and the cover story implies its economy just might blow up. My interpretation, if that happens: political instability and all bets are off, militarily. Whatever else we do, IMO, we must maintain a sensibly-strong military.


  13. ansonburlingame says:


    Adding another perspective to Jim’s last comment, the military budget contributes a great deal to the education of many Americans. Every graduate of West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy benefit from such. Every ROTC student in college benefits. Every enlisted man “signing up” for 2, 4 or 6 years receives very valuable training but also some education as well. Boot Camp alone is an educational process, the “school of hard knocks” if you will. Look also at the huge benefits from the GI Bill post WWII. That money was “military money” as well

    By far the most expensive “thing” in the military is the individual man or woman trained and educated within that institution and our country is better off for it in my view. Money well spent, again in my view.

    The tweed jacketed, pipe smoking academic in some Ivy covered building has his or her place in society for sure. But so do the young men and women that enter the military and come out of it older, wiser, far more mature and with a real understanding of hard work and sacrifice.

    I would also point out that despite my highly technical undergraduate education and work along very technical lines for 20 years, the Navy then sent me to a really great LIBERAL ARTS educational institution, the Naval War College. Please don’t laugh because of the title of that institution. I was exposed for a full year to many, many very liberal (meaning non-technical) ideas and philosophies during that wonderful year and soaked up every ounce I could absorb during that time. That along with night school at a liberal arts, catholic college, Salve Regina in Newport, RI, exposed me to many very challenging and different ideas, ideas that had nothing to do with shooting torpedoes but everything to do with deciding when torpedoes should be shot by someone. And yes, I studied the concept of a “Just War” espoused by the Catholic faith.



  14. hlgaskins says:

    “Adding another perspective to Jim’s last comment, the military budget contributes a great deal to the education of many Americans. Every graduate of West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy benefit from such.”

    As technology progresses the need for highly educated people sitting at computer consoles will become increasingly more important than tank driving, rifle wielding grunts, supported by daredevil jet pilots, launching from canon wielding floating airstrips. Modern military devices are increasingly rendering flesh and blood bullet catching soldiers obsolete. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a role for boots on the ground soldiers, but I suspect that it does mean we’ll need far fewer of them.

    There’s a reason why China is focused on math, science, and technology, it’s the future of everything including defense. In the meantime we force or young to become “indentured servants” to high-interest student loans, or forego education altogether. Many of those who’ve worked their way through the system are graduating with skills for jobs that have been shipped overseas. Remember Saddam Hussein had an estimated 500,000 soldiers, and look how quickly our technology routed them.

    I could be wrong but my sense of things to come for American is appearing increasingly dire. Our infrastructure is old and failing, high-tech college courses are disappearing through lack of interest, caused by outsourcing high-tech jobs. Many of our young people, who chose high-tech jobs, took student loans only to find that those careers no longer exist. So they camp out in parks to raise their voices in protest to those who refuse to hear them.

    The elections of 2012 shouldn’t be solely about national debt, because it won’t matter if the United States is rendered obsolete and irrelevant by 2020. We need to prepare ourselves to go one on one with the Chinese, technologically and economically, or step back into history.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I don’t think we are far apart on this at all, HL. IMO, everything you say is true, but the decline in manpower in favor of technology is already happening. The effectiveness of robots and remotely-operated technology like the Predator drones is on full display, including that used in the NATO support of the Libyan rebels. One U.S. soldier or sailor is much more effective now and the military now constitutes less than 1% of the population. The irony is what Anson talks about in terms of education – my own experience is the same as his in that regard. A few extra years of experience and maturity often does wonders for student motivation. If I knew how to do it I would advocate military training or, as an option, something like AmeriCorps, for every capable young person in the country and combine it with some basic education courses like consumerism, healthcare basics, and citizenship. I believe the Israeli’s do well with a similar concept.


  15. hlgaskins says:


    I don’t disagree with military training or military readiness training. Technology has always rendered some occupations obsolete, and always will, while at the same time creating new opportunities not previously realized. We adapt, as individuals, and as a nation, by providing educational niches for our young to fill. Our job as elders, is to insure that our young succeeds us long after our time has passed. We can’t achieve that by indenturing them to banks with high interest government guaranteed loans. If the government is guaranteeing those loans, then it should assume those loans sans middle players, and then collect interest with public service.


  16. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    We started this string talking about the value of a “higher education” with all of use agreeing to an extent at least that such was very important for the future of America. Then Jim and I both said that the military, while only 1% or our popultaion made important contributions to such “higher education”. And the military contribution in my view is NOT simply the “academic” portion of such education.

    Watch the wonderful HBO documentary “Band of Brothers”. Those men in E Company LEARNED much about life and the ones that survived went on to…….., at least very productive lives that I could tell. For about 20 years at sea on nuclear submarines I LEARNED what living in such a “band of brothers” really meant. And it was not trivial learning by any stretch of the imagination. Every man that ever served on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War learned or at least was exposed to such matters as well.

    Just imagine a “no load kid” disrupting a High School class today being exposed to such an “education” and how that “education” might improve his or her ability to be a far more productive citizen in our society.

    As for who should pay for such education, that to me is a whole different discussion so I will withhold comments in that regard for now.



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