Thinking About Education Reform

While reading a deeply interesting post on education reform, I came across this video, which was the third or fourth link to it I had seen in a day:

A lot of things really stand out in the video for me.

First, the video makes the point that humanities and liberal arts classes really are good — when well-taught — at getting students to develop the sorts of skills like critical thinking, autonomous and creative problem-solving, and written communications which are truly important in most professional environments I come across (and which are sadly lacking in so many fields of life).

But for some reason, a having degree in Neoclassical French Literature seems like it would be a death knell for a resume intended to land a non-academic job. It blows right by this point, as if it were obvious that were you to hire that French Literature major, you’d be happy with him but society is somehow prejudiced against the arts and humanities. The video blows right by why that prejudice might exist.

My suggestion to answer that unanswered question is the old Vietnamese proverb: a fish rots from the head down. While in theory, the intensive study of Neoclassical French Literature could teach critical thinking, develop good writing abilities, and inspire autonomous and creative problem solving, in practice it does not do these things, because French Literature, like a lot of humanities classes, are taught by teaching assistants and/or professors who themselves lack critical thinking, problem solving, and written communications skills themselves. There is a perception that to succeed in a liberal arts program, a student need only parrot back the professor’s own opinion to her, can use academic gobbledegook and fuzzy reasoning in the place of rigorously-examined language and logical skills, and has been the beneficiary of grade inflation to the point that any quantifiable academic evaluation of the student’s performance is meaningless.

In other words, the assumption out there in the marketplace is that humanities professors are useless, otherwise-unemployable twits who do nothing but smoke a lot of weed and train otherwise-intelligent young people in how to also become useless, unemployable, weed-smoking twits.

The reality may well be different, but that’s the perception. But is the perception really that far off the mark? Less so than most professional academics would be comfortable admitting, I’ll wager, at least in a forum where they could be identified by their colleagues. Teaching critical thinking is hard, in part because it requires at minimum that one think critically oneself. Teaching good writing skills is difficult, in part because it requires having good writing skills oneself and in part because it is time-consuming and not focused on the substantive subject professors believe they have been hired to teach.

Second, the video makes a clever pun concerning the arts and the use of pharmaceutical aids to combat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Experiencing the arts is a consuming, focused, mentally stimulating task — one that is aesthetic. By contrast, the use of drugs to control ADHD is an anesthetic technique, one which deadens a person’s susceptibility to stimulation, which diminishes one’s ability to feel and respond to the outside world. That’s a nice pun.

And the third issue is the point made about ADHD diagnoses being regionally clustered. I couldn’t believe this was true when I fist saw it. It didn’t take much time to track down where that graphic element of the video came from. Using this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a map can be created which demonstrates that as a general trend, the further to the U.S. southeast one gets the more likely an elementary or high school student is to be diagnosed with ADHD. That map was originally drafted by an artist at the Associated Press and it looks like the picture to the right.

A closer look at the map and the underlying numbers, however, shows that there is some lying with statistics going on here. You’ll notice that the difference in color between the various states is dramatic — it’s easy to see a difference between Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, for instance.  But compare lowest-tier Illinois with highest-tier Kentucky, right next door.  Illinois has a diagnosis rate of 7% or lower.  Kentucky has a diagnosis rate of more than 10%.  That’s potentially a difference of as little as 3.1%.  But by picking the gradations between tiers the way it did, the AP turns the raw CDC data into a dramatic geographic trend; you might ask after looking at the chart, “Is there something bad in the water of the Southern states?” No, there isn’t. The color choices and tier gradation choices only gives that impression.

The CDC data points to about half of the ADHD-diagnosed kids overall being treated with drugs like Ritalin. The few kids on Ritalin I’ve seen in my limited experience at high schools over the past couple of years bear a passing resemblance to zombies from the movies — they are quiet and sit still, which surely makes a teacher’s job easier, but they are also not particularly mentally engaged with much of anything. It’s hard to imagine that their grades have gone up because of the drug; what may be happening is that the kid’s disciplinary problems go away but his mental baseline is lowered in the process.

For that reason alone, my remarks here should not be understood as a dismissal of the claim that ADHD is over-diagnosed and that making a practice of treating teenagers with powerful psycho-pharmaceuticals is a particularly good idea. I like that the author of the video, among other people, are raising this flag because it seems to me that another way to diagnose ADHD is to call it “adolescence.” Teenagers don’t sit still, they never have. Teenagers don’t pay attention to their teachers, they never have. This is nothing new, and it’s something that can be addressed in quite a lot of different non-pharmacological ways.

But I’m not convinced at all that there is a dramatic regional difference between the states in diagnosing this condition. While over-diagnosis and mistreatment of ADHD strikes me as something likely to be a real problem within primary and secondary education, this data, at least, does not support that conclusion.

Fourth, the author makes the point that a lot of learning occurs in groups rather than in book study, homework, testing, or individualized instruction. This may be true, but my experiences with both online and live teaching in format which required me to have students work in groups for the purpose of working in groups can only be described as uniform failures. “Learning Groups” are very useful and educational for demonstrating the economic concept known as the “free rider problem,” but not much else. What I observed happening in damn near every “Learning Group” I ever monitored was one student doing all of the work and the rest doing damn near nothing, with the result that they all got the same grade. This is unfair, and just as important, it results in only the one student actually learning anything while the rest of the students just coast. So consciously setting up team learning exercises is probably a bad way to go, but perhaps there are ways to integrate group learning activities that are less ham-handed and are not readily susceptible to free riders.

Industrial-style standardization probably is a bad way to go. But the video goes too far in suggesting that standardized testing is counter-productive. There has to be some sort of way to quantify and evaluate student progress and thus teacher performance. Perhaps the current regime is not doing a good job of that, but at the same time a standardized test does measure something.

But perhaps the biggest ideas that I felt good about after seeing the video was the possibility that the humanities could be rescued from their current status as a backwater area for ambitious graduates seeking employment if critical thinking and written language skills can be re-injected into humanities curricula. This will require that instructors acquire and demonstrate those skills themselves, and it also requires that they give less-than-stellar grades for students who demonstrate less-than-stellar performance in those areas regardless of the students’ mastery of the substantive subject matter of the class.

This means that there must be sufficient time for an instructor to convey and evaluate those things in meaningful ways, which takes away from time that could otherwise be spent on teaching multiple classes, and it takes away time that could otherwise be spent on research and academic writing. This implicates the publish-or-perish impulse that drives faculty incentives at a lot of academic institutions, too.

The video was deeply flawed. But it nevertheless raises a lot of issues, a great many things to consider about one’s own education and the way other people will be educated in the future. It inspires real thought. In that respect alone, it is a worthwhile use of the ten minutes it asks of you.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Brilliantly said. Thinking my thoughts before I got to them!One point that you make that bears emphasizing is that you have to be able to fail people that aren't "getting it". This is hard to do because right and wrong can be ambiguous and faked logic and deduced logic is not always easy to tell apart. You need a sort of defend-your-thesis round or something.This is particularly important because I believe that one of the reasons for the perception of the humanities is that it's for people who think math is too hard. And so you run into a situation where it's garbage-in, garbage-out. In some ways you have to make the humanities even harder.

  2. I think you are overly harsh on the instructors here. I don't think the problem with them is generally stupidity.I wrote a post about the problem with teaching the humanities (ok, maybe 3-4 years ago). It's much easier for me as an instructor to justify to students why their calculation was wrong than why their essay was wrong. And that incentivizes professors to just let things slide. It's one reason I try to test objective content more than subjective kinds even when the subjective stuff is more important.The humanities aren't supposed to teach writing skills. It should enhance them, but humanities professors shouldn't be expected to teach students about subject-verb agreement. Yet, high schools turn out kids with these problems with reckless abandon. (Frankly, I think the SAT could add a grammar section.)

  3. The video is naturally lacking in meaningful solutions and yes, obviously there are always going to be standards of achievement, etc. But I think the overall critique of our system stands up pretty well nonetheless. Very good post.

  4. As a teacher I find the video interesting and compelling, sometimes in conflict with my views of my profession and sometimes in agreement. But what it does it get to the heart of our general societal "scatter brained" expectations of teaching. Everyone is very happy to tell us what we shoud be creating as teachers, and far too many are comfortable making demands as to what those productions should look like, but then they lament what we have to do meet those goals. There is no clear concensus on the point of "an education".Is it to create an electorate capable of making informed votes? If so we need far more civics and law. Is it to create a workforce ready for industry? If so we need far less emphasis on 100% college attendance and far more apprenticeship and internship programs. Is it about forcing all students to "experience the basics"? If so, then we have the challenge of getting every kid to complete Algebra 2, read Chauncer, memorize the key battles of the Civil war etc etc.I'll go out on a limb say that I agree that somtimes ADHD is over-medicated. However the view from the trenches is not a pretty one given the objectives we've been assigned. And more and more the officers are ordering us into no man's land without so much as a compas as to tell us which way to charge.

Comments are closed.