Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Scarecrows

One year and two weeks ago, I had an encounter with a trailer full of pumpkins. (Okay, that sounds deceptively interesting. The truth is that I was stuck driving behind a bunch of pumpkins). This inspired a blog post, in which I tried to suss out the reasons behind the seasonal popularity of the pumpkin. I came to the conclusion that the pumpkin's amenability to anthropomorphication is what gives it prominence every fall.

As I noted in the above post, there is little else in nature that can be made into a human head. Yet, I came to the realization today that the pumpkin is not the only traditional element of the fall harvest season that simulates human animation. For today, my small Wisconsin town proudly hosted its first "Scarecrow Fest." Just down the sidewalk from a "bouncy house," about a half dozen scarecrows rested on the steps of city hall. Upon seeing these entities, I had two thoughts. First, I remembered from my reading of The Golden Bough
that in centuries past, effigies were commonly used in harvest rituals.

My other thought was more personal, as I reflected on the loss of my own scarecrow. For a period of about ten years, wherever I drove, I had a permanent backseat passenger. I got so used to having a scarecrow in my backseat that I would have to be constantly reminded of how unusual it was. And after a couple of years (and the scarecrow always mute and undemanding during that time), he began to blend into the background to such a degree that I would constantly forget about his mere presence until someone else would see him for the first time.

Even then, though, the scarecrow was so far from my thoughts that I would often misunderstand questions about him. When someone once asked me about my "dummy," I had no idea what they were talking about. And when I was once pulled over at night for driving with one working headlight, I was originally befuddled by the officer's statement about my "interesting passenger," as he shone a light into my backseat.

Obviously, the scarecrow served no utilitarian purpose. When asked about my motivations for having a scarecrow in my backseat, I usually answered with something along the lines of "I couldn't really think of a reason not to have a scarecrow in my backseat." Alas, the scarecrow degenerated over the years, and when it came time for me to get a new car (or a new old car as the case may be), I realized he was too infirm to make the move. I considered making a new scarecrow, but given that my family will be expanding in a few months, it doesn't seem practical to award space in my vehicle to an inanimate object, even a humanoid one. But it was not without regret that I made this determination, and I do not rule out the possibility that one day I will once again have a riding partner made out of dead grass.

But the question that I contemplated after seeing effigies not unlike the one I used to have-- was it simply a personal eccentricity that drove me to possess a scarecrow, or was I tapping into a deeper cultural archetype? And to answer my question, I believe all one has to do is drive around and look at every other porch this time of year. If scarecrows could be produced and distributed as efficiently as pumpkins are, I think that we would see them everywhere, every fall.

And this makes me wonder if a "scarecrow farm" would be a viable commercial pursuit. I can just see it now--families wonder around and pick out their favorite scarecrow, or perhaps there can be a "build your own" option. Of course, it could be combined with the pumpkin farm/haunted house motif. And then after the season, local municipalities can arrange a "scarecrow pick-up," in the same vein as a Christmas tree pick-up. Unless, that is, people choose to keep their scarecrows year round as a traveling companion.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Confessions of a Dopamine Eater

One of the requirements of my job is to read, comment on, and grade essays written by college students. I really don't mind reading them, but commenting and especially grading is, for me, mentally taxing. And I usually start with a stack of around 80. I've found that I just can't sit and do one after another. I need some kind of short mental diversion after each one. Over the last few years, I've pursued various forms of distraction, but the one thing all of my strategies have in common is that they have originated with the computer. This year, I've found the perfect diversion. Upon the completion of each paper I grade, I reward myself with a game of computer solitaire, which usually takes between one and five minutes.

My computer is nice enough to keep track of my winning percentage, which is consistently around 10%. But I couldn't care less. In fact, often I find that winning games is tedious. The games take longer and there is no real pay-off when I win, no sense of elation. But come to think of it, I don't really like losing games either. So in effect, I am never happy with the result, but that doesn't stop me from excessive playing. In fact, I have noticed some bleed-over in this habit beyond the time I spend grading. I've started to slip in a few games before bed, or while killing time waiting for my wife to get ready to go somewhere.

When questioning my burgeoning habit, I thought back to a article I read over the summer (written by Emily Yoffee), and I have come to the realization that there is likely a biological explanation. The thesis of the article is that our brains are hard-wired to "seek." The chemical dopamine is released when we are stimulated, such as when we discover something new. Meanwhile, opioids are released when we experience pleasure. But apparently, these are not necessarily connected--and the kicker is that it is a lot easier for us to be stimulated than to find pleasure.

So what this means is that we are driven to do things that don't necessarily satisfy us. And the overall purpose of the above article is to note that we have (scarily) now created the technology to allow us to constantly stimulate ourselves, even as we gain no lasting pleasure. It started with the television remote control, but now we can also click from link to link, constantly refresh our facebook or twitter feeds, continuously check our cellphones for texts, and follow one google search with another and another. And of course this could also explain the popularity of video games. The not very flattering comparison is with lab rats who were taught how to give themselves electric shocks by pulling levers. The rats would proceed to shock themselves into unconsciousness. The stimulation was too much for them to resist, even as it pained them.

So I guess when I play solitaire I'm basically a rat in a cage, giving myself dopamine hits whenever I drag the eight of clubs over to the nine of hearts. (Boy, if I could only get dopamine hits from grading papers, I'd be set).

So what should be done with this information? Should I ween myself off of solitaire? Should we have a "national turn off the computer" week? It's probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle. But what we can do is seek to better educate ourselves and others about our real motivations, and we can become better about asking ourselves what benefit we derive from our recreational pursuits. If we intellectually know that our activities will leave us hollow in the end, perhaps we can resist the biological pull they exert over us. Now if you'll excuse me, my brain needs a rest. I think I'll go play a hand of solitaire.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

All-Time All the Time

"40-year-old Favre Leads Vikings to franchise's 400th Victory"

The above is a headline I noticed last week. Don't worry--this is not a blog post about Brett Favre. I was more intrigued by the other component of the headline.

It's not that I've never seen a sports headline reference a milestone number. You can be assured that anytime a baseball player hits a 400th career home run, the feat will be noted in the headlines. But I can't recall a time when I have ever seen attention paid to a franchise milestone, other than perhaps the occasional reference to the total number of championships won by the likes of the Packers, Yankees, Celtics, or Montreal Canadiens.

We always hear about how sports like football, baseball, and basketball are team games. And to be sure, in any given season the media probably gives more coverage to how teams are doing, rather than how individuals are performing. Yet cumulatively, there is more attention paid over the long term to individual accomplishments than team or franchise marks. Teams start over every year with a 0-0 record, but the statistics that players post follow them through their entire career. And if the players are good enough, they may be immortalized in a Hall of Fame. There is no such thing as a Hall of Fame for teams.

But of course this is not illogical. Players' careers are known to be finite. If there were a projected telos to the existence of sports leagues (as opposed to just each season), there would certainly be a lot more attention paid to the overall context of franchise accomplishments.

Yet even though we project the existence of our sports leagues into perpetuity, I can't help but wonder if the leagues (and their media partners) are missing out on a marketing opportunity. And I wonder if the fans of the leagues could derive even more enjoyment from the games if there was an extra dimension that gave them more context. Let's consider two ways that games are sold to consumers right now:

1) As part of a larger unfolding narrative. When two teams that are out of play-off contention meet late in a season, we are often told that the games are "meaningless," as opposed to the "meaningful" contests that involve one or more teams still alive for the post-season. This reminds me of the wonderful tagline that comic book writer Alan Moore once gave to a story in which Superman grew old and retired--"This is an imaginary story. But aren't they all?" Essentially all sporting events are meaningless, but we give them meaning by imagining that the context of the games dictates an importance

2) As a battle for supremecy--and not just to see who is the overall "king of the hill" (though this is of paramount importance). We split hairs in team rankings. College sports takes this to the extreme with the "Top 25" (what does it really mean to be the 12th ranked team as opposed to the 19th ranked team?). But even pro sports give divisional championships and then proceed to rank teams within each division. And of course rivalries are also sold to fans--the games between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears are supposed to be in some way "special." When Bears coach Lovie Smith was hired, he said that his number one priority was to beat the Green Bay Packers; he apparently thinks that to assert superiority over a team in geographical proximity is the most important element of his job description.

Keeping all of this in mind, I assert that more attention paid to overall franchise records and records in all-time head-to-head match-ups would add another element of interest to sports, and if nothing else, give fans and media something else to occupy themselves with.

For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks have an all-time franchise record of 970 wins and 974 losses. Their 2009 record was 70-92. By the time September rolled around this year, they were playing "meaningless" baseball games. But if more of an emphasis was placed on keeping an all-time winning percentage above .500, those September games would have been clutch. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins entered the season with a .578 all-time winning percentage, best in the league. But the Dallas Cowboys started the year at .577. This should be an epic storyline in the 2009 NFL season.

In this year's baseball play-offs, everyone who is without a team remaining in the final four should be rooting for the Angels. With only one all-time championship, they would prevent the other three teams from getting further ahead in the race to see who can secure the most titles (or the second most titles, if catching the Yankees seems futile).

And finally, team rivalries would take on even more drama if there was more attention paid to all-time win-loss record. Earlier today, the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes met in a football game for the 85th time. Previously, they had each won 41 games, with two ties. The opportunity to seize the all-time lead in the series could have been the main storyline... But on second thought, after considering the results of that game, maybe ignoring the past and having a fresh start every year isn't such a bad idea, after all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The New Quadrivium

Okay, as promised last week, here is a list of the real questions that curious people pose in order to understand the world, and the implications of those questions for a proposed educational curricula:

1) How does this work?

This question deals with the mechanical nuts and bolts of everything from the intricacies of the vast universe to one's own body to what is under the hood of an automobile. Of course, our existing science courses already strive to answer this question. It makes sense that there is such an emphasis placed on biology, physics, and chemistry. I would probably reach back a few centuries and restore astronomy to a place of equal prominence with the other sciences. And I would add an emphasis on technology, or applied science.

And controversially, I would de-emphasize mathematics, at least as its own core subject. To be sure, math and science are interrelated--and therefore it is in the science classes that I would place the study of mathematics. So it would not be a separate discipline, but a servant discipline. Obviously, this may require longer science classes, but that is okay, since we no longer have math classes. (And of course, in higher education, dedicated math classes would still be required for majors and professions that demand it).

2) Why do they think/do that?

We already have a branch of education explicitly called "social studies," though this designation has lost any real signification over the years. Let's restore this discipline to what it really can be--an exploration of how societies function (throughout history and in the present day). We could call the new discipline "Cultural Foundations." Crucial to this is an understanding of ideologies and worldviews. Everyone has a worldview, and ideologies are propagated in every product that a culture produces, but we don't have any formal mechanism to interrogate this. Literature, movies, music, advertisements, and artwork should be examined in classrooms everywhere in order to determine what comments are being made, what messages are being conveyed,and what assumptions are being implicitly passed on. And of course, to really understand all of this, people must first have a basic cultural literacy; they must be aware of the foundations of our communal experience. And finally, an attempt to just understand one's own culture is rather limited, so foreign language requirements would be folded into this course. But again, like in the case of mathematics, foreign language would become a servant discipline.

The hardest part about making this work in a public school (and perhaps the reason it hasn't been attempted below the level of higher education) is that when you start examining ideologies, it is very difficult not to come to favor some over others, and therefore teachers are in a position to move rather seamlessly from educating to indoctrinating. So in what might be the biggest obstacle to my proposal (which is saying something), we would need the cooperation of people across the ideological spectrum to collaborate on the standards for this curriculum.

3) Who should I listen to? And how can I get people to listen to me?

This is where we restore the prominence of rhetoric to education. In the Classical world, rhetoric was crucial to education, whereas today most people can't even give a good working definition of the word (and trust me, I know this from experience). Of course, we do incorporate tenets of the study of rhetoric into writing and speech classes, but we make these disciplines harder for students by not articulating the "big picture"--the idea that there are conscious decisions that we can make in order to better communicate with and persuade others. And naturally the flip side of this is that a focus on rhetoric would also empower students to be better consumers of arguments that others are making. Obviously then, the study of rhetoric also entails an emphasis on how to think critically (and how to think logically).

4) How can I best function in this world?

I am a firm believer in forcing students to inhabit the realm of the theoretical. On the other hand, I think that part of the task of our educational institutions is to prepare students to become functional citizens. That means making them literate in the types of skill sets that the world demands them to have. For example, there should be more of an effort to make students financially literate. I wonder if our economic crisis would have occurred if more people were educated about interest rates and the dangers of adjustable rate mortgages. I don't recall ever learning in school what a 401K is. I don't think students are being taught anything about how to select an insurance policy.

Computer literacy is at least addressed in our schools, but there is no reason that educational institutions shouldn't be taking a lead role in helping young people understand how they can use technology, including social networks, blogs, and new media to better themselves (and avoid harming themselves).

One of my favorite classes in school was phy. ed., but I think that rather than having kids divide into teams to play volleyball or pickle ball for 45 minutes a day, it would be more beneficial to combine health and phy. ed. into a general fitness class, where students learn how to take care of themselves. And it would be only logical to restore driver's education to schools as part of this new core subject area, which could be called "practicum."

So in summary, the new quadrivium would include science, cultural foundations, rhetoric, and practicum. And though it is probably too much to hope that this would come to pass in my lifetime, I maintain that such a course of studies is most in line with the epistemology that autodidacts are already pursuing.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

What Do We Want to Know?

In this, as in other editions of Modern English Readings, the editors have been guided in their selection by three aims...(3) An introduction to those problems which, today more than ever, if left unsolved or wrongly solved, mean individual misery and a world in utter chaos.

This is from the preface of a 1946 English literature anthology I found at a bargain sale. To paraphrase the above, the editors of the anthology are asserting that part of the reason they have chosen to include the works that they did is because they believe students reading them will become empowered to discern and then solve problems confronting humanity (and the just recently uncovered horrors of Nazi death camps and the emergence of potentially world-destroying technology would no doubt constitute some major problems).

This anthology is designed for the indispensable courses that introduce students to the unparalleled excellence and variety of English literature. Its criteria...(1) that the works selected make possible a study in the depth of the achievements by the major writers in prose and verse, in the context of the chief literary types and traditions of each age.

And this is from a 1993 literary anthology, one which I was required to purchase when I was a college undergraduate. My paraphrase: The authors picked out selections for this book based on what people have agreed are the most popular writers of various historical eras.

What is apparent in a comparison of these two anthologies is that there has been an ideological shift over the course of the 50 years between their publications. No longer is there a belief among academics that reading literature will necessarily benefit humankind. Yet despite the shift in ideological foundations, the practice of requiring literature courses, and indeed I'd venture to guess the pedagogical approach in those classes (particularly at the high school and college undergraduate levels) has probably not changed all that much.

Literature hasn't always enjoyed a privileged place in academia. In medieval times, universities and preparatory schools emphasized seven subjects, dividing them into the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). It makes sense that as we live in a different world than our medieval counterparts, our core curriculum is different. So why is it now that as priorities and ideologies continue to shift, our core courses stay the same? For generations now American educational institutions have emphasized the same basic four subject areas: science, mathematics, social studies, and English. Subjects such as art, music, physical education, and vocational type courses have come further down the hierarchy. And while there have been various movements in recent years to reform educational curricula in order to better feed the needs of a capitalistic economy, and others have sought to return to the Classical models, by and large the power of inertia keeps each successive generation of students studying the same things that their parents and grandparents studied.

But as the quotations above reveal, inertia's power is limited. While the facade may remain unchanged, there have been paradigmatic shifts in the last several decades. So what if instead of reforming our core curricula in anticipation of an always uncertain future or as an attempt to salvage an idealized version of the past, we simply aligned our educational emphasis with what we really want to learn right now? And I don't mean what we want our children to learn, but rather what we, as a collective civilization, would like to know.

Of course that raises the issue of precisely what we do want to know. I think there are four (or perhaps five) fundamental questions that curious people use to guide their own learning. Next week I will discuss these questions, and I will use them to devise what I think would be the best way to construct a core educational curriculum that most closely aligns to what we really (and already) want.