Tag Archives: education

How to tell a genius from a nut.

In my time in college, as a student, grad student, and professor, I ran into quite a few geniuses and quite a few weirdos. Most of the geniuses were weird, but most of the weirdos were not geniuses. Many geniuses drank or smoked pot, most drunks and stoners were stupid, paranoids. My problem was finding a reasonably quick way to tell the geniuses from the nuts; tell Einsteins from I’m-stoned.kennedy thought

Only quick way I found is by their friends. If someone’s friends are dullards, chances are they are too. Related to this is humility. Most real geniuses have a body of humility that can extent to extreme self-doubt. They are aware of what they don’t know, and are generally used to skepticism and having to defend their ideas. A genius will do so enthusiastically, happy to have someone listen; a non genius will bristle at tough questions, responding by bluster, bragging, name dropping, and insult. A science genius will do math, and will show you interesting math stuff just for fun, a nut will not. Nuts will use big words will have few friends you’d want to hang with. A real genius uses simple words.

Another tell, those with real knowledge are knowledgeable on what others think (there’s actually a study on this). That is, they are able to speak in the mind-set of others, pointing out the logic of the other side, and practical differences where the other side would be right. There should be a clear reason to come on one side or the other, and not just a scream of frustration that you don’t agree. The ability to see the world through others’ eyes is not a proof they are right — some visionary geniuses have been boors, but it is a tell. Besides boors are no fun to be with; they are worth avoiding if possible.

education test treeAnd what of folks who are good to talk to; decent, loyal, humble, and fun, but turn out to be not-geniuses. I’d suggest looking a little closer. At the worst, these are good friends, boon companions, and decent citizens — far more enjoyable to deal with than the boors. But if you look closer, you may find a genius in a different area — a plumbing genius, or a police genius, or a short-order cook genius. One of my some-time employees is a bouncer-genius. He works as a bouncer and has the remarkable ability to quite people down, or throw them out, without causing a fight — it’s not an easy skill. In my political work trying to become drain commissioner, I ran into a sewage genius, perhaps two. These are hard-working people that I learn from.

People make the mistake of equating genius with academia, but that’s just a very narrow slice of genius. They then compound the mistake by looking at grades. It pays to look at results and to pay respects accordingly. To quote an old joke/ story: what do you call the fellow who graduated at the bottom of his medical school class? “Doctor” He or she is a doctor. And what do you call the fellow who graduated at the bottom of his law school class? “your honor.”

Robert Buxbaum, November 27, 2017.

Forced diversity of race is racist

Let me browse through some thoughts on efforts to address endemic racism. I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere, but you might as well enter the laboratory of my mind on the issue.

I’d like to begin with a line of the bible (why not?) “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lev. 19:15). This sounds good, but in college admissions, I’ve found we try to do better by showing  favoritism to the descendants of those who’ve been historically left-out. This was called affirmative action, it’s now called “diversity”.  

In 1981, when I began teaching chemical engineering at Michigan State University, our department had race-based quotas to allow easier admission to the descendants of historically-disadvantaged groups. All major universities did this at the time. The claim was that it would be temporary; it continues to this day. In our case, the target was to get 15% or so black, Hispanics and American Indians students (7 in a class of 50). We achieved this target by accepting such students with a 2.0 GPA, and not requiring a math or science background; Caucasians required 3.0 minimum, and we did require math or science. I’m not sure we helped the disadvantaged by this, either personally or professionally, but we made the administration happy. The kids seemed happy too, at least for a while. The ones we got were, by and large, bright. To make up for the lack of background we offered tutoring and adjusted grades. Some diversity students did well, others didn’t. Mostly they went into HR or management after graduation, places they could have gone without our efforts.

After some years, the Supreme court ended our quota based selection, saying it was, itself racist. They said we could still reverse-discriminate for “diversity,” though. That is, if the purpose wasn’t to address previous wrongs, but to improve the class. We changed our literature, but kept our selection methods and kept the same percentage targets as before.

This is a popular meme about racism. It makes sense to me.

This is a popular meme about racism.

The only way we monitored that we met the race-percent target was by a check-box on forms. Students reported race, and we collected this, but we didn’t check that black students look black or Hispanic students spoke Spanish. There was no check on student honesty. Anyone who checked the box got the benefits. This lack of check bread cheating at MSU and elsewhere. Senator Elizabeth Warren got easy entry into Harvard and Penn, in part by claiming to be an Indian on her forms. She has no evidence of Indian blood or culture Here’s Snopes. My sense is that our methods mostly help the crooked.

The main problem with is, I suspect, is the goal. We’ve decided to make every university department match the state’s racial breakdown. It’s a pretty goal, but it doesn’t seem like one that helps students or the state. Would it help the MSU hockey squad to force to team to racially match the state; would it help the volleyball team, or the football team?  So why assume it helps every academic department to make it’s racial makeup match the state’s. Why not let talented black students head to business or management departments before graduation. They might go further without our intervention.

This is not to say there are not racial inequalities, but I suspect that these diversity programs don’t help the students, and may actually hurt. They promote crookedness, and divert student attention from achieving excellence to maintaining victim status. Any group that isn’t loud enough in claiming victim status is robbed of the reverse-discrimination that they’ve been told they need. They’re told they can’t really compete, and many come to believe it. In several universities, we gone so far as to hire “bias referees” to protect minorities from having to defend their intellectual views in open discussion. The referee robs people of the need to think, and serves, I suspect, no one but a group of powerful politicians and administrators — people you are not supposed to criticize. On that topic, here is a video of Malcolm X talking about the danger of white liberals. Clearly he can hold his own in a debate without having a bias referee, and he makes some very good points about white liberals doing more harm than good.

Robert Buxbaum, November 5, 2017. In a related problem, black folks are arrested too often. I suggest rational drug laws. Some financial training could help too.

Black folks have no savings (poor whites too)

The wealth of the mean American household has dropped significantly since 2007, a result of the general de-industrialization of America. It’s not that America has gotten poorer, but in the last 8 years we’ve increased the economic divide, enriching the richest few percent while leaving behind the working and bourgeoise classes. We are beginning to come back, but a particularly nasty legacy remains, especially among black families. Some 47% of black families have no liquid savings  — a far greater fraction than in 2007. The lack of savings also appears in white families (19%), and Hispanics (41%), but it’s most desperate among blacks.

College graduation rates have increased among black students, and along with the increase there has been an increase in salaries, but savings have declined. As of 2015, 22.5% of black students and 15.5% of Hispanic students had completed four years of college. This compares to 36.2% of white students, an inequality, but not a horrible one. By 2013, the average salary of a black college grad was somewhat over $1000/week, somewhat less than the average for whites, but enviable compared to the world as whole. The problem is that black workers manage to save very little compared to other ethnic groups, and compared to previous savings rates as shown by the graphic below. By 2013, the net worth of the median black family (savings, plus paid-off part of home and car) was a mere $11,000 (Pew Research Data, below), down from $19,200 six years earlier, and much lower than the net worth of white families (also down since 2007). Liquid savings among blacks are much lower — near zero — and this is just the mean. Half of all black families are doing worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 - 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it's getting worse.

Net worth disparity 2007 – 2011. Black folks are doing poorly and it’s getting worse.

The combination of low savings and low net worth puts black folks at a distinct disadvantage to their condition six years earlier. Without savings, it is near-impossible to weather the loss of a job, or even to fix a car or pay a ticket, Surviving through a disease is basically a one-way ticket to the welfare office. Six years ago, when people saved more and prices were lower, problems like these were major annoyances. Now, a job loss or a major repair is a family disaster.

The growth of check-cashing services in black neighborhoods is a symptom, I suspect, of the lack of liquidity. A person without savings will not have a checking account. As such, he or she will not have a credit card or check cashing privileges.  The only way to cash a check will be via a for-fee service, and these tend to come at a steep cost (2-5%). People with savings accounts can cash checks essentially for free, and can usually borrow money by way of a credit card. People without savings can’t get approved. Black people and poor whites tend to use debit cards instead. They look and work like credit cards, but they incur fees upon use, and do not provide instant loans. When black folks and poor whites need quick cash, their options are the loan-shark or the pawn shop: high-cost options that take a giant toll on the family.

As mentioned above, black individuals and families have lower incomes than whites at all education levels. While racism, no-doubt plays a role, as best I can tell, the largest single cause seems to be family stability. Employed, college-educated blacks earn, on average, 95% as much as employed, college-educated whites — not great, but not bad. The real problem with black income is that black unemployment rates are higher, black education rates are lower, and single-parent families are significantly more common among blacks than among whites and Orientals. Roughly 40% of black families are single-mother, or mother+grandparent households compared to “only” 26% in the population generally. In both populations, the number of single parent households have increased dramatically in the last few years, a result I suspect of the government’s desire to help. The government gives more aid to a split-up couple than to one that stays together, but the aid brings with it long-term damage to net worth. A family with one parent will naturally have a lower-income and savings rate than a family with two. The lack of stability and savings that comes from having a single parent family, I suspect, has contributed to crime, births out-of-wedlock, and the tendency of blacks to drop out of college.

Black families don't benefit as much from college --in part a result of the choice of courses.

Black families don’t benefit much from college –in part a result of course choices, in part the result of borrowing. (Forbes, 2015).

One finds that do-gooders in the white communities want to eliminate check cashing businesses and pawn shops in a misguided desire to help the low-income neighborhoods, but the success of these companies tell me that they are needed. Though check services and pawn brokers take a nasty bite, urban life would be much worse without them, I suspect.

Another so-called solution of the do-gooders, is to tax savings and transfer the wealth to the poor. This form of wealth redistribution has been a cornerstone of the Democratic party for the last century. The idea of the tax is that it will transfer “idle wealth” from rich savers to poor folks who will spend it immediately. The problem is that great swathes of the nation don’t save at all currently; net worth is down all across the US — among white and black families both. Taxing savings will almost-certainly reduce the savings rate even further. Besides, savings are the stuff of self-determination and dreams — far more than spending, it is savings that allows a person to start a new business. One does not provide for the dreams of one group by taking them from another — particularly another group chosen to be immediate spenders. That is a route to community disaster, is seen by looking at Detroit.

As it is, many poor, inner city children do not see a path out via education. Detroit school attendance hovers around 50%, and business startups are lacking. As best inner city people can tell, the only ways out are sports, music, prostitution, crime, and the church. With higher savings rates and higher family stability, folks could start businesses, and/or take advantage of job opportunities that come along. People seem to think that wealth redistribution should help, but it just seems to reduce savings and family stability. Every effort to increase wealth redistribution only seems to make things worse in Detroit.  It sometimes seems that the only businesses in Detroit are check cashing, pawn brokers, churches, hair-salons, fast food, and medical marijuana — businesses that require little investment, but provide little community return too. Detroit has lost its manufacturing center, and now has more medical marijuana providers than groceries — a sad state of affairs.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

The Check cashing services of south-eastern MI are concentrated in poor black and white neighborhoods.

In 2016, both presidential candidates touted major infrastructure projects, highways and the like, to help the inner city poor. In principle this can help, but I have my doubts. One basis of doubt: inner city youth do not have the training to build roads and bridges — they have barely the training to work at McDonald’s. For another thing, if the project itself isn’t needed, it becomes another form of income redistribution. There tends to be a lack of pride in doing it well, and the benefits are basically nothing. A major war could provide jobs, of course, but most sane people prefer peace. Trump has made the case for tariffs (closing off free trade) as a way to rebuild the industrial center of cities like Detroit. It’s an approach that I think has merit. He’s also suggested closing the border to low-wage, Mexican workers, and recently signed a bill that raised the minimum wage for foreign workers. This is expected to raise the price of California lettuce and NY hotel stays, but is likely to increase employment among low-skill Americans — blacks and poor whites. Small steps, I think, to solving a serious national problem.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 21, 2017. I ran for water commissioner 2016 (Republican). I lost. I also have some infrastructure suggestions, including daylighting some rivers and adding weirs to improve water quality and stop flooding. If you like my ideas (or don’t) please provide comments.

An approach to teaching statistics to 8th graders

There are two main obstacles students have to overcome to learn statistics: one mathematical one philosophical. The math is difficult, and will be new to a high schooler, and (philosophically) it is rarely obvious what is the true, underlying cause and what is the random accident behind the statistical variation. This philosophical confusion (cause and effect, essence and accident) is a background confusion in the work of even in the greatest minds. Accepting and dealing with it is the root of the best research, separating it from blind formula-following, but it confuses the young who try to understand the subject, The young student (especially the best ones) will worry about these issues, compounding the difficulty posed by the math. Thus, I’ll try to teach statistics with a problem or two where the distinction between essential cause and random variation is uncommonly clear.

A good case to get around the philosophical issue is gambling with crooked dice. I show the class a pair of normal-looking dice and a caliper and demonstrate that the dice are not square; virtually every store-bought die is uneven, so finding an uneven one is not a problem. After checking my caliper, students will readily accept that after enough tests some throws will show up more often than others, and will also accept that there is a degree of randomness in the throw, so that any few throws will look pretty fair. I then justify the need for statistics as an attempt to figure out if the dice are loaded in a case where you don’t have a caliper, or are otherwise prevented from checking the dice. The evenness of the dice is the underlying truth, the random part is in the throw, and you want to grasp them both.

To simplify the problem, mathematically, I suggest we just consider a crooked coin throw with only two outcomes, heads and tails, not that I have a crooked coin; you’re to try to figure out if the coin is crooked, and if so how crooked. A similar problem appears with political polling: trying to figure out who will win an election between two people (Mr Head, and Ms Tail) from a sampling of only a few voters. For an honest coin or an even election, on each throw, there is a 50-50 chance of throwing a head, or finding a supporter of Mr Head. If you do it twice, there is a 25% chance of two heads, a 25% chance of throwing two tails and a 50% chance of one of each. That’s because there are four possibilities and two ways of getting a Head and a Tail.

pascal's triangle

Pascal’s triangle

After we discuss the process for a while, and I become convinced they have the basics down, I show the students a Pascal’s triangle. Pascal’s triangle shows the various outcomes and shows the ways they can be arrived at. Thus, for example, we see that, by the time you’ve thrown the dice 6 times, or called 6 people, you’re introduced 64 distinct outcomes, of which 20 (about 1/3) are the expected, even result: 3 heads and 3 tails. There is also only 1 way to get all heads and one way to get all tails. Thus, it is more likely than not that an honest coin will not come up even after 6 (or more) throws, and a poll in an even election will not likely come up even after 6 (or more) calls. Thus, the lack of an even result is hardly convincing that the die is crooked, or the election has a clear winner. On the other hand there is only a 1/32 chance of getting all heads or all tails (2/64). If you call 6 people, and all claim to be for Mr Head, it is likely that Mr Head is the favorite. Similarly, in a sport where one side wins 6 out of 6 times, there is a good possibility that there is a real underlying cause: a crooked coin, or one team is really better than the other.

And now we get to how significant is significant. If you threw 4 heads and 2 tails out of 6 throws we can accept that this is not significant because there are 15 ways to get this outcome (or 30 if you also include 2 heads and 4 tail) and only 20 to get the even outcome of 3-3. But what about if you threw 5 heads and one tail? In that case the ratio is 6/20 and the odds of this being significant is better, similarly, if you called potential voters and found 5 Head supporters and 1 for Tail. What do you do? I would like to suggest you take the ratio as 12/20 — the ratio of both ways to get to this outcome to that of the greatest probability. Since 12/20 = 60%, you could say there is a 60% chance that this result is random, and a 40% chance of significance. What statisticians call this is “suggestive” at slightly over 1 standard deviation. A standard deviation, also known as σ (sigma) is a minimal standard of significance, it’s if the one tailed value is 1/2 of the most likely value. In this case, where 6 tosses come in as 5 and 1, we find the ratio to be 6/20. Since 6/20 is less than 1/2, we meet this, very minimal standard for “suggestive.” A more normative standard is when the value is 5%. Clearly 6/20 does not meet that standard, but 1/20 does; for you to conclude that the dice is likely fixed after only 6 throws, all 6 have to come up heads or tails.

From skdz. It's typical in science to say that <5% chances, p <.050 are significant. If things don't quite come out that way, you redo.

From xkcd. It’s typical in science to say that <5% chances, p< .05. If things don’t quite come out that way, you redo.

If you graph the possibilities from a large Poisson Triangle they will resemble a bell curve; in many real cases (not all) your experiential data variation will also resemble this bell curve. From a larger Poisson’s triange, or a large bell curve, you  will find that the 5% value occurs at about σ =2, that is at about twice the distance from the average as to where σ  = 1. Generally speaking, the number of observations you need is proportional to the square of the difference you are looking for. Thus, if you think there is a one-headed coin in use, it will only take 6 or seven observations; if you think the die is loaded by 10% it will take some 600 throws of that side to show it.

In many (most) experiments, you can not easily use the poisson triangle to get sigma, σ. Thus, for example, if you want to see if 8th graders are taller than 7th graders, you might measure the height of people in both classes and take an average of all the heights  but you might wonder what sigma is so you can tell if the difference is significant, or just random variation. The classic mathematical approach is to calculate sigma as the square root of the average of the square of the difference of the data from the average. Thus if the average is <h> = ∑h/N where h is the height of a student and N is the number of students, we can say that σ = √ (∑ (<h> – h)2/N). This formula is found in most books. Significance is either specified as 2 sigma, or some close variation. As convenient as this is, my preference is for this graphical version. It also show if the data is normal — an important consideration.

If you find the data is not normal, you may decide to break the data into sub-groups. E.g. if you look at heights of 7th and 8th graders and you find a lack of normal distribution, you may find you’re better off looking at the heights of the girls and boys separately. You can then compare those two subgroups to see if, perhaps, only the boys are still growing, or only the girls. One should not pick a hypothesis and then test it but collect the data first and let the data determine the analysis. This was the method of Sherlock Homes — a very worthwhile read.

Another good trick for statistics is to use a linear regression, If you are trying to show that music helps to improve concentration, try to see if more music improves it more, You want to find a linear relationship, or at lest a plausible curve relationship. Generally there is a relationship if (y – <y>)/(x-<x>) is 0.9 or so. A discredited study where the author did not use regressions, but should have, and did not report sub-groups, but should have, involved cancer and genetically modified foods. The author found cancer increased with one sub-group, and publicized that finding, but didn’t mention that cancer didn’t increase in nearby sub-groups of different doses, and decreased in a nearby sub-group. By not including the subgroups, and not doing a regression, the author mislead people for 2 years– perhaps out of a misguided attempt to help. Don’t do that.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 5-7, 2015. Lack of trust in statistics, or of understanding of statistical formulas should not be taken as a sign of stupidity, or a symptom of ADHD. A fine book on the misuse of statistics and its pitfalls is called “How to Lie with Statistics.” Most of the examples come from advertising.

From Princeton: dare to be dumb.

Let’s say you have a good education and a good idea you want to present to equally educated colleagues. You might think to use your finest language skills: your big words, your long sentences, and your dialectically organized, long paragraphs. A recent, Princeton University study suggests this is a route to disaster with the educated, and even more so with the un-educated. In both groups, big words don’t convince, and don’t even impress, like small words do.

Most people won't care what you know unless they know that you care.

Like this fellow, most folks aren’t impressed by fancy speeches. (cartoon by Gahan Wilson)


People, even educated ones, want ideas presented in simple words and simple sentences. They trust such statements, and respect those who speak this way more than those who shoot high, and sometimes over their heads. Even educated people find long words and sentences confusing, and off-putting. To them, as to the less-educated, it sounds like you’re using your fancy english as a cover for lies and ignorance, while trying to claim superiority. Who knew that George W. was so smart (Al Gore?). Here’s George W. at the SMU graduation yesterday (May 18). He does well, I’d say, with mostly one-syllable words.

This is the sort of advertising that people notice -- and trust.

Lower yourself to be one of the crowd, but don’t go so far that you’re the butt of jokes.

Reading this study, I’ve come to ask why fancy language skills is so important for getting into  college, and why it adds points when writing a college paper. Asked another way, why are professors pleased by something that’s off-putting to everyone else. One thought: this is a club initiation — a jargon to show you belong to the club, or want to. Alternately, perhaps professors have gotten so used to this that it’s become their natural language. Whatever the reason, when outside of university, keep it simple (and) stupid.

Some specifics: at job interviews, claim you want to work at their company doing a job in your field. Only when dealing with professors can you claim your goal is capitalizing on your intellectual synergies, and phrase that means the same thing. Don’t say, you’ll do anything, and remember it’s OK to ask for training; poor education doesn’t hold-back American productivity.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 19, 2015. Here are some further thoughts on education, and some pictures of my dorm and the grad college at Princeton back in the day.

Is college worth no cost?

While a college degree gives most graduates a salary benefit over high school graduates, a study by the Bureau of Labor statistics indicates that the benefits disappear if you graduate in the bottom 25% of your class. Worse yet, if you don’t graduate at all you can end up losing salary money, especially if you go into low-paying fields like child development or physical sciences.

Salary benefits of a college degree are largely absent if you graduate in the bottom 25% of your class.

The average college graduate earns significantly more than a high school grad, but not if you attend a pricy school, or graduate in the bottom 1/4 of your class, or have the wrong major.

Most people realize there is a great earnings difference depending on your field of study with graduates in engineering and medicine doing fairly well financially and even top graduates in child development or athletic sciences barely able to justify the college and opportunity costs (worse if they go to an expensive college), but what isn’t always realized is that not all those who enter these fields graduate. For them there is a steep loss when the four (or more) years of lost income are considered.

risk premium in wages

If you don’t graduate or get only an AA or 2 year degree the increase in wages is minimal, and you lose time working and whatever your costs of education. The loss is particularly high if you study social science fields at an expensive college, and don’t graduate, or if you graduate in the bottom of your class.

A report from the New York Federal Reserve finds that the highest pay major is petroleum engineering, mid-career salary $176,300/yr, and the bottom is child development, mid-career salary $36,400/yr (click to check on your major). I’m not sure most students or advisors are aware of the steep salary difference, or that college can have a salary down-side if one picks the wrong major, or does not complete the degree. In terms of earnings, you might be better off avoiding even a free college degree in these areas unless you’re fairly sure you’ll complete the degree, or you really want to work in these fields.

Top earning majors Fed Reserve and Majors that pay you back.

Top earning majors: Majors that pay.

Of course college can provide more than money: knowledge, for instance, and learning: the ability to reason better. But these benefits are likely lost if you don’t work at it, or don’t go in a field you love. They can also come to those who study hard in self-taught reading. In either case, it is the work habits that will make you grow as a person, and leave you more employable. Tough colleges add a lot by exposure to new people and new ways of thinking about great books, and by forced experience in writing essays — but these benefits too are work-dependent and college dependent. If you work hard understanding a great book it will show. If you didn’t work at it, or only exposed yourself to easier fare, that too will show.

As students don’t like criticism, and as good criticism is hard to give — and harder to give well, many less-demanding colleges ,give little or no critical feedback, especially for disadvantaged students. This disadvantages them even more as criticism is an important part of learning. If all you get is a positive experience, a nice campus, and a dramatic graduation, this is not learning. Nor is it necessarily worth 4-5 years of your life.

As a comic take on the high time-cost of a liberal arts education, “Father” Guido Sarduchi, of Saturday Night LIve, describes his “5 minute college experience.” To a surprising extent, it provides everything you’ll remember of 4 year college experience in 5 minutes, including math, history, political science, and language (Spanish).For those who are not sure they will complete a liberal arts education, Father Sarduchi’s 5 minutes may be a better investment than a free 4 years in community college.

Robert. E. Buxbaum. January 21-22, 2015. My sense is that the better part of education is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

What is learning?

It is common to spend the most of one’s youth in school — presumably learning something. The financial cost for primary education is a few hundred thousand dollars, borne by the state, plus 13 years or so of the student’s life. College learning costs another $50,000 to $200,000, borne by the student, plus another 4-6 years of life. The indication that you’ve learned something appears, in many majors by the ability to get a job that pays more than the school financial cost. But there is also a sense that you’ve learned something, and this is perhaps the only reward for students of film, religion, or archeology. My question is based mostly on this part: what is this learning. Is it the same as knowledge, a set of facts, or satisfaction — perhaps you could be as satisfied by ignorance or drugs. How do you evaluate the spiritual payback from 4-6 years of college? I don’t have all the answers, but ask to exercise my ignorance.

It would seem to me that an important standard of learning is that it should develop the mind and not corrupt it. But how do you recognize the difference? it seems to me one should leave with a set of mental skills should be new to you, recognizable to a normal outsider, and somewhat useful, as in the poem “Botany” even if you don’t use it. I’m not sure if the skills have to be true, by the way, or how useful they have to be. Perhaps developing a new confusion is better than having false notions — knowing that you doubt something.

sometimes education is the removal of false notions.

Sometimes learning can be the development of doubt.

If you’ve been educated in music, it seems to me you should be able to make sounds that appear pleasant to a normal listener; if you’ve been educated in mechanics, you should be able to make machines that work, and if you’ve been educated to think… perhaps then you should be able to walk into a discussion about something you once thought was true, and show that it is really false to an extent that others would accept it (and act upon it?). That is, my suspicion is that learning should involve an identifiable change –not only internal satisfaction, and I also suspect learning the new must involve unlearning the old.

Liberal Education may not be useful, or elevating

Education that isn’t useful isn’t particularly elevating

And that leads us to facts and methods: knowledge. Facts are good, they are the fuel and  substance of learning. Without facts there is nothing for the learning to attach to. But facts are often wrong — the ignorance of others, and even when right, they can be  deceptive. If you’ve learned the moon is made of rock, or out of green cheese, it’s pretty much the same unless there is a reason to think the fact you’ve learned is true, and unless you’ve a good understanding of what the fact ‘means.’ I can imagine a rock that is organic (a gall stone) and less solid than some (old) green cheese. The word rock or cheese must mean something to you to be a fact. Similarly in all subjects; if you learn that Shakespeare is a better writer than Poe, you should have a reason to believe it, and a clear understanding of the word ‘better’ in this context.

Turning to the knowledge of methods. It seems to me that learning a new method of thought, action, or argument is a necessary component of learning– one might even call it virtue, but this too seems to have limitations if it is not directed to use. A person is half-educated if he leaves school knowing how to do geometric proofs, but never doing any, or knowing how to run a great business, but never running one. A science graduate should at least be able to use the techniques learned to demonstrate that the world is made of atoms, and that the sun does not circle the earth and perhaps more. An argument can be made for traditional education areas of logic, rhetoric, mathematics, and dialectic. But these seem useless unless they are applied to a worthy end. One should do more with the new methods than to win drawing-room arguments.

There should be some satisfaction to accomplishments, but I'm not sure how it's learned.

Learning should provide satisfaction –in particular religious learning — but it’s nicer if it goes with doing good for someone (not only the poor) and the ability to earn an honest income. 

There should be a moral component of learning too, but here I feel less certain in describing it, or describing how it should be taught. Theodore Roosevelt said that “An uneducated man can steal from a rail car, “but an educated one can steal the whole railroad.” but perhaps stealing the railroad isn’t such a bad thing if it’s done legally. And as I don’t quite know when the honest stock deal is moral, I’m even more in the dark as to how to teach one to recognize the moral from the immoral in these situations. Two thoughts here: a student deserves some satisfaction from his or her learning and (from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) to be moral, the student has to earn an honest income. One who can not earn a living is bound to steal from someone sooner or later.

A final sign of learning, and perhaps it’s crown, is creativity, the ability to come to new understandings and develop new things. To do this productively requires some knowledge of the past plus an indescribable view of the future. A spark? A divine madness? Schools do not seem to be able to teach that, but it can help or hinder by either encouraging it, or beating it down. If you did not possess this ability when you entered school, you are unlikely to leave with it, even if you just did drugs, but school can teach one to direct the spark productively.

I’ve noticed that our high schools focus little on the above areas, perhaps because they are hard to test. Rather classes aim to the exams, and the exams test (as best I can tell), memorization, aptitude, and exposure. A surprisingly large fraction of our students leave diagnosed as ADHD. Still, strangely, our graduates do better than the Europeans.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, December 29, 2014 (I taught in college). Here’s some advice I wrote for my 16 year old daughter in high school.

Einstein failed high-school math –not.

I don’t know quite why people persist in claiming that Einstein failed high school math. Perhaps it’s to put down teachers –who clearly can’t teach or recognize genius — or perhaps to stake a claim to a higher understanding that’s masked by ADHD — a disease Einstein is supposed to have had. But, sorry to say, it ain’t true. Here’s Einstein’s diploma, 1896. His math and physics scores are perfect. Only his English seems to have been lacking. He would have been 17 at the time.

Einstein's high school diploma

Albert Einstein’s high school diploma, 1896.

Robert Buxbaum, December 16, 2014. Here’s Einstein relaxing in Princeton. Here’s something on black holes, and on High School calculus for non-continuous functions.

My solution to the world’s problems: better people

Most of the problems of the world are caused by people. Look at war, it’s caused by people; look at pollution, people; look at overeating, or welfare, or gun violence. You name it, the problem is people. My simple solution, then: better people. Immigration is a simple solution for a county that can do it selectively (take in the best, leave the rest); it’s worked for the US and it doesn’t have to beggar the third world. Education is another way to help, but we’re not quite sure what sort of education makes people better. “An uneducated man may steel from a boxcar, an educated one may steal the whole railroad.” Theodore Roosevelt is supposed to have quipped.

Those who claim they are uncommonly moral and good at teaching it have barely any proof that they are. American schools produce financially successful people, but not particularly moral ones; Europe’s approach is different, but there’s no indication they’ve done better at moral education. We look to the 18th century, or the Greeks, but they were no more moral than us, as best I can tell. The Taliban, the communists, or similar fundamentalists claim moral superiority over the west, but from my perspective, they look even worse. 

I notice that people learn morality from one another — that is each person acts like his neighbor. I also note that people tend to act better when they are involved, and feel part of whatever country, city or group they are in. Targeted immigration might bring in better people–honest, hard working, non-violent — and these people might help improve and motivate the locals. And even if we don’t improve by interaction, perhaps lazy Americans will ride on the backs of the hard-working immigrants. But it strikes me that the disconnect between world problems of high unemployment, world hunger, and lots of open, US jobs is a moral problem that could be solved by targeted love. Allowing some increased mobility from country to country and job to job (plus better preaching?). If you can move you are more-likely to find a job or place where you feel fulfilled, and you are likely to do better and more there. Even the countries and jobs that are left might benefit by being rid of their malcontents. And we don’t have to take everyone.

From "Hispanic-hope."

From “Hispanic-hope.”, an interesting combination of Bible-study and immigration morality.

Living in America is desirable for most people from most countries. Far more people want to live here than we can accept. As a result, we are in a position to target the bright, honest, hard-working Peoples from virtually any country. These folks are helpful to industry and to the US tax base as these immigrants tend to work out — or get deported. In the short-term they might displace Americans or depress salaries, but even that is not certain. There is no fixed slate of US jobs nor a fixed amount of work need. Yesterday’s job taker is tomorrow’s job creator. Our country is built on immigrants, and has not suffered from it. We should not take those who hate the US, or those who hate freedom, or have no skills, criminals and the sick. Nor should we give citizenship immediately. But that still leaves plenty who we’d want, and who want to be here. Th. Roosevelt said, “you can not take in too many of the right people, and even one of the wrong type is too many.” I suspect this is true.

I suspect we’d have 90+% odds picking good people from a crowd. The Immigration system does a good job now, and the great colleges have done better for years. The past is usually a great indicator. If someone is well, and has worked for years, or has been here in school; if they’ve managed to stay productive and out of trouble, he/she is a good candidate. A first step would be a work permit, and in a few years they can apply for permanent residence or citizenship. Many of the most successful people in America are either immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The founders of Google and Facebook; the builders and the shakers. These people have the ‘get-up and go.’ You can tell because they’ve gotten up and gone.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, June 16, 2014. I’m a child of an immigrant, went to public school, got a PhD at Princeton, have built my own company, and have (so far) avoided arrest, imprisonment or serious scandal. With the help of my Canadian-immigrant wife, I’ve produced three Buxbaum clones, my biggest contribution to improving the US and the world.

American education how do we succeed?

As the product of a top American college, Princeton University, I see that my education lacks in languages and history compared to Europeans. I can claim to know a little Latin and a little Greek, like they do, but I’m referring to Manuel Ramos and Stanos Platsis.

Americans hate math.

Americans hate math.

It was recently reported that one fourth of college-educated Americans did not know that the earth spun on an axis, a degree of science ignorance that would be inconceivable in any other country. Strange to say, despite these lacks, the US does quite well commercially, militarily, and scientifically. US productivity is the world’s highest. Our GNP and GNP per capita too is higher than virtually any other country (we got the grossest national product). How do we do it with so little education?

One part of US success is clearly imported talent, Immigration. We import Nobel chemists, Russian dancers, and German rocket scientists but we don’t import that many. They help our per-capita GNP, but the majority of our immigrants are more in the wretched refuse category. Even these appear to do better here than the colleagues they left behind. Otto von Bismark once joked that, “God protects children, drunks, and the United States of America.” But I’d like to suggest that our success is based on advantages our outlook our education provides for our more creative citizens.

Most of our successful businesses are not started by the A students, but by the C student who is able to use the little he (or she) knows. Consider the simple question of whether the earth goes round the sun. It’s an important fact, but only relevant if you can use it, as Sherlock Holmes points out. I suspect that few Europeans could use the knowledge that the earth spins (try to think of some applications; at the end of this essay I’ll provide some).

Benjamin Jowett. His students included the heads of 6 colleges and the head of Eaton

Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

A classic poem about European education describes Benjamin Jowett, shown at right. It goes: “The first come I, my name is Jowett. There is no knowledge, but that I know it. I am master of this college. What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.” Benjamin Jowett was Master of Balliol College, Oxford. By the time he died in 1893, his ex-student pallbearers included the heads of 6 colleges, and the head of Eaton. Most English heads of state and industry were his students directly or second-hand. All learned a passing knowledge of Greek, Latin, Plato, law, science, theology, classics, math, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. Only people so educated were deemed suited to run banks or manage backward nations like India or Rhodesia. It worked for a while but showed its limitations, e.g. in the Boer Wars.

In France and continental Europe the education system is similar to England’s under Jowett. There is a fixed set of knowledge and a fixed rate to learn it. Government and industry jobs go largely to those who’ve demonstrated their ability to give the fixed, correct answers to tests on this knowledge. In schools across France, the same page is turned virtually simultaneously in the every school– no student is left behind, but none jump ahead either. As new knowledge is integrated, the approved text books are updated and the correct answers are adjusted. Until then, the answers in the book are God’s truth, and those who master it can comfort themselves to have mastered the truth. The only people hurt are the very few dummies who see a new truth a year before the test acknowledges it. “College is a place where pebbles are polished but diamonds are dimmed.” The European system appears to benefit the many, providing useful skills (and useless tidbits) but it is oppressive to many others with forward-thinking, imaginative minds. The system appears to work best in areas that barely change year-to-year like French grammar, geometry, law, and the map of Europe. It does not work so well in music, computers, or the art of war. For these students, schooling is “another brick in the wall. For these students, the schools should teach more of how to get along without a teacher.

The American approach to education leans towards independence of thought, for good or bad. American graduates can live without the teacher, but leave school knowing no language but English, hardly and maths or science, hardly any grammar, and we can hardly find another country on a map. Teachers will take incorrect answers as correct as a way to build self-esteem, so students leave with the view that there is no such thing as truth. This model works well in music, engineering, and science where change is fast, creativity is king, and nature itself is a teacher. American graduate-schools are preeminent in these areas. In reading, history and math our graduates might well be described as galumphing ignorants.

Every now and again the US tries to correct this, by the way, and join the rest of the world. The “no child left behind” movement was a Republican-led effort to teach reading and math on the French model. It never caught on. Drugs are another approach to making American students less obstreperous, but they too work only temporarily. Despite these best efforts, American graduates leave school ignorant, but not stupid; respectful of those who can do things, and suspicious of those with lengthy degrees. We survive as managers of the most complex operations with our bumptious optimism and distain for hierarchy. As viewed from abroad, our method is to greet colleagues in a loud, cheerful voice, appoint a subordinate to “get things done,” and then get in the way until lunchtime.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next bet thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. An American attitude that sometimes blows up, but works surprisingly well at times.

Often the inability to act is worse than acting wrong.

The American-educated boss will do some damage by his ignorance but it is no more than  comes from group-think: non-truths passed as truths. America stopped burning witches far sooner than Europe, and never burned Jews. America dropped nobles quicker, and transitioned to electric lights and motor cars quicker, perhaps because we put less weight on what nobles and universities did.

European scholars accepted that nobility gave one a better handle on leadership, and this held them back. Since religion was part of education, they accepted that state should have an established religion: Anglican, in England, Catholicism in France; scientific atheism now. They learned and accepted that divorce was unnecessary and that homosexuality should be punished by prison or worse. As late as the early 60s, Turing, the brilliant mathematician and computer scientist, was chemically castrated as a way to cure his homosexuality. In America our “Yankee ingenuity,” as we call it, had a tendency to blow up, too (prohibition, McCarthyism, and disco), but the problems resolved relatively soon. “Ready, fire, aim” is a European description of the American method. It’s not great, but works after a fashion.

The best option, I think, is to work together with those from “across the pond.” It worked well for us in WWI, WWII, and the American Revolution, where we benefitted from the training of Baron Von Steuben, for example. Heading into the world cup of football (fifa soccer) this week, we’re expected to lose badly due to our lack of stars, and general inability to pass, dribble, or strategize. Still, we’ve got enthusiasm, and we’ve got a German coach. The world’s bookies give us 0.05% odds, but our chances are 10 times that, I’d say: 5%. God protects our galumphing side of corn-fed ignorants when, as in the Revolution, it’s attached to German coaching.

Some practical aspects of the earth spinning: geosynchronous satellites (they only work because the earth spins), weather prediction (the spin of hurricanes is because the earth spins), cyclone lifting. It amazes me that people ever thought everything went around the earth, by the way; Mercury and Venus never appear overhead. If authorities could have been so wrong about this for so long, what might they be wrong about today?

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, June 10, 2014 I’ve also written about ADHD on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, on Theodore Roosevelt, and how he survived a gun shot.