Education and a one hoss shay

View 825, Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war.

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983


I have it from a reliable source that the Russian Spetsnaz troops who took over the former Ukrainian bases in the Crimea were sadistically and needlessly rough on the Ukrainian Marines, bad enough to make grown men cry at the sight of their mistreatment.

This is enough of a blunder than I suspect it has infuriated Vladimir Putin. Ukrainians are not Russians – not quite – but they are about as close to being ethnic Russians as anyone can be, and Putin needs Russians. He won’t be able to find enough, so he will have to seduce other Slavs into becoming Russians – and Ukrainians are by far the best prospects. This is sufficiently obvious that Putin must know it, and we can assume he is intelligent enough to understand that needless violence against Ukrainian military people isn’t going to help his long range plans.


Soviet Education

Recently I tried discussing soviet education with another friend, and got nowhere. He says the focus is on providing everyone in the USA the same education.

Tests in the USSR were to find who would benefit from being sent to a better school. Leaving behind those who would be sent to fill the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in factories and farms.

Tests in the current USA are to find if students have learned what they are being taught.

Scott Rich

If we are interested in improving our schools so that our system of education is no longer indistinguishable from an act of war, the first thing to do is get rid of Federal Aid to Education. All of it. The problem is that with Federal money comes Federal control and the Federal Bureaucracy, and the Department of Education has proven over the years that it can do only harm, not good. The Constitution doesn’t give the Federal government power or control over education, nor does it give Washington funding power; and prior to Sputnik American education got along just fine without Federal Aid.

Sputnik scared some people and the social theorists who were certain they knew better than the loutish local school boards that had built the best public education system in the world used that fear to get the Federal camel’s nose into the tent. Full control followed, and the more money the Feds pumped into the schools, the worse they got. There also social theorists who thought the solution to the science and technology problem was to see that every American got a world class university prep education, and that became the goal. This was done just as another set of education theorists decided that since readers – people who read with ease and understanding and facility – do not pause and “sound out” words as they read, the whole notion of phonics was not only unnecessary, but in fact harmful. It only slowed pupils down. Since those who read well read by “whole words”, then the proper way to teach reading is to teach them to recognize and read whole words; you don’t need to tell them that letters have sounds, and syllables have sounds, and letters and syllables can be combined to teach you to say words. Just recognize the words as words and be done with it.

That, after all, is the way these professors of education read. It’s the way you and I read. Why should it not be the way that beginners read. And as the Department of Education was taking over the whole process of teaching, this was forced upon the schools, while Departments of Education in the various teacher’s colleges and universities no longer taught teachers how to teach phonics and phonetic reading. We entered the era of “See Spot run” said Dick. “Run Spot run,” said Jane. This required expensive new textbooks, a great windfall for publishers, with “controlled vocabulary” so that children would not be exposed to too many new words all at once – since they had no way whatever to read a word they had not been taught, even if it were a word they had been using all their lives.

And the Education Professors, bless them, neatly set back the art of reading several thousand years to before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, and turning English, a 90+% phonetic language, into an ideographic language. And they were proud of doing it.

The resulting disaster should be sufficient reason for never having a national education system again.

The local school boards with school supported by local school taxes built the American system of public education. There were abysmally bad school districts under that system, but the overall national result was the envy of the world. And the problem with “helping” the bad school districts was that with that “Help” came control. Up through World War II, the number of male conscripts who could not read was considerably lower than the illiteracy rate in today’s United States – and the number of conscripts who had been through fourth grade and could not read was very low. Essentially everyone who had made it through fourth grade could read well enough to pass the Army’s literacy tests and take the Armed Forces Qualification Test. (The famous old test in which a score of 120 or above qualified you to apply for Officer Candidate School. We don’t do that sort of thing any longer.)

When I was growing up, the University of Tennessee accepted all Tennessee residents who graduated from an Academic Preparation program in a four year high school. Tuition was low. Dropout rate from the academic prep program was relatively high, but not from high school itself – you simply took a different high school program not geared to college prep. Dropout rates from UT itself was fairly low. Other states had different programs. And somehow the United States went from having no military and few arsenals and munitions factories to become the Arsenal of Democracy, building the strongest army, the largest navy, and the largest fleets of aircraft ever seen. And all of this without any Federal Aid to education.

What a nation has done, a nation can aspire to.


This comment on Jim Bludso:


". . . back in the late 1800’s when poetry was more widely read (and better constructed) than it is now. . ."

Hear, hear!

If it has no meter or rhyme it isn’t real poetry in my book. It can be marvelously good prose, and good prose has more literary merit than doggerel, in any event. But if a "verse" can’t be distinguished in any meaningful sense from prose, then the word "poetry" has no useful meaning. You could take the preamble to the Constitution and arrange it as free verse, but that wouldn’t turn it into a poem.


Richard White

Austin, Texas

I confess that I tend to agree. I have admired some “free verse”, particularly some of the works of Sylvia Plath – I read just about everything she wrote when we decided to use her as a character in Escape From Hell, the sequel to Inferno, and if you haven’t read those you might think about getting them; they’re good reads.

But I remember in high school when I first encountered free verse I had a lot of trouble seeing the point. Shakespeare’s plays have a rhythm and meter that adds much to them, but they are prose, not poetry. I subscribe to Poetry magazine, but I confess that I read little of it. I prefer good old fashioned rhyme, rhythm, and meter. But it is seldom taught in schools now, and students are not exposed to epic poems and do not learn to enjoy them. I think the culture has lost something.

There’s a joy in reading poetry, but it does take some practice. Best to start with poems that are pure fun and have provided us with some language idioms. As for instance Oliver Wendell Holmes and the wonderful one horse shay.



The Future of Work; a short reply

Dear Dr. Pournelle;

It seems manners have not kept pace with our science: Attention has been drawn to the fact that I have less to offer a debate concerning the future than Messrs. Farmer, Kipling and Pohl. As admirers of these worthy gentlemen I can only agree. I am, I think, flattered the list is so short.

I would like to respond, however, as though the criticism was intended in the spirit of friendly debate. The observation regarding my entertainment value compared with the masters of prose just mentioned is surely an exercise in the obvious and will be disregarded as a side issue not worth pursuing.

This leaves the issue of originality. Here I think my detractor and I have an unintended accord; I said nothing new. I made a basic statement: The technology we are developing will make every old model of civilization and the activities of it’s members obsolete and it will do so in an astonishingly short span of years. I posed a basic question: How does the Human Race avoid being rendered likewise obsolete by it’s own creations? I have no answer for this. I could speculate, but if I try to follow the threads of each emerging technology and predict the manifold reactions and counter-reactions of our civilization as it’s know-how grows exponentially, I discover that my inadequacy is comical. Many minds might make a better effort.

Science fiction occasionally takes a stab at the future. The best of these stories are elegant, brilliant and as prediction…almost certainly wrong. Authors who pen their musings set far enough forward in time have a certain latitude, whereas futurists and prophets making near-term predictions are on dangerous ground indeed. Pity the poor doomsayer that has a short handful of days to guide the pocket books of the faithful, for soon he will either be right or he’ll be traveling light to South America and they are never right.

Ah, but I am rambling. To get back on topic I would like to point out that given the nature of the subject and the luminaries that have grappled with it in the past, I can hardly be held to task for not developing an entirely new conceptual framework for understanding the future and predicting it’s impact. The deeper down this rabbit hole I travel, the more I come to realize that much of what I understand…many of the intellectual tools I employ are rooted in old paradigms.

Of how much use are these tools in understanding the future? These ‘thought tools’ are cultural artifacts which comprise concepts common to all of us. They form the common core understanding of our civilization. But can I, or anyone, understand a future so potentially different from our present with the ‘understanding’ that forms the basis for our judgment and analysis? Without these artifacts of thought it would take us forever just to write a grocery list; we would have to redefine all of the terms and relationships. Absurd! We spent our formative and elastic years absorbing hundreds, no thousands of basic concepts. As we grew, these concepts also grew, layer by layer and spread their web of links from one to another in bewildering complexity. They are uniquely designed to help us function in our society, our civilization. We are all citizens of now. Change breaks links, forms new ones, creates new concepts. Change is destructive, sometimes violent. With sufficient time, people adapt. Civilization adapts; never proactively, always in response. Change that comes too fast overwhelms and destroys.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to predict the future. Perhaps that’s the wrong strategy. Maybe we need a new science; a Human science that defines our place now and later, regardless of the wonders we create. A science that creates change and time tolerant concepts for Human identity and purpose. This is not a new concept: Gordon Dickson’s Exotics in his Childe Cycle had something similar. Kenneth E. Boulding predicted the need for such. I’m musing now, but I suspect that a prerequisite for such a science would be a greater homogeneity for our species.

But enough. I have been indulged and I thank you. My consideration of this subject has mired. I freely admit it. I run into unsalable cliffs and trackless jungles. If someone out there has something to add, please do. I won’t even mind if you think I’m wrong. If you think I’m an idiot, please keep that to yourself, but all other comments are welcome.

With respect,

Eric Gilmer


Prairie Belle, faith and works


I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we Mormons have long been attacked by Protestants over the "faith vs.

works" thing that you mentioned regarding this poem. While mainstream Christians believe that a Mafia hit man is "saved" if he "comes to Christ" on his death bed, true Christian doctrine is that faith without works is dead.

Note that I did not say "death" — it simply is true that if you have the faith, you will do the works. You don’t do the works to GAIN salvation, you do them because doing them becomes part of your nature when you UNDERSTAND salvation. The Boy Scout doctrine of doing a good deed every day is not an obligation to help an old lady across the street, it’s an excuse for having done so if other boys jeer.

I am reminded of Heinlein’s address to the Annapolis graduates, printed in Analog about 40 years ago. He describes the true story from his childhood of a young woman whose foot gets caught in a railway track, and the struggles of her husband to free her. He is assisted by a hobo who happens along. All three are killed by a train, and eyewitnesses testified that neither man tried dodge. Heinlein said that it was the husband’s duty and privilege to give his life trying to save her (just as Bludso gave his life to save those for whom he was responsible), but the hobo had no such obligation. He gave of himself because it was the right thing to do.

As Heinlein observed: "This is how a man dies. This is how a MAN . .


I can’t think of any other way to put it.




Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

Sir Walter Scott



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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