How ‘Friends’ led to the fall of civilization

Friends and its “tragic hero, Ross Geller,” triggered the downfall of Western Civilization, writes David Hopkins on Medium.

Ross Geller was a professor of paleontology on Friends.

Ross Geller was a nerdy paleontology professor on Friends.

“Ross was the intellectual and the romantic,” he writes. His so-called “friends” groaned with boredom whenever he talked “his interests, his studies, his ideas.” Eventually, Ross went crazy.

The show ended in 2004, the year that “reality television became a dominant force in pop culture,” writes Hopkins. Paris Hilton released an autobiography.  Joey Tribbiani, Friends‘ dimwit actor, got a spin-off TV show.

Hopkins was a teacher that year. As coach of the chess club, he saw his students picked on and bullied, he writes. “My students were smart, huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory.”

Astronaut Mark Watney was smart and studly in The Martian.

Martian astronaut Mark Watney was a smart, studly scientist.

I just saw The Martian on DVD. Matt Damon plays the hero astronaut, who uses his knowledge, strength and courage to survive. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he pledges.

The Martian glorifies a specifically male nerdery, one whose values sync up with those of traditional masculinity: physical endurance, survival in a hostile landscape, honor, adulation,” writes Katy Waldman in Slate. She complains because the brave and brainy female astronauts are also beautiful.

Is that so bad?

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

In defense of knowledge

The Knowledge Matters campaign is lobbying for schools to teach a broad curriculum including history, science, geography, art and music — especially to “those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”
You’d think there’d be no need to ask schools to teach knowledge,  but it’s being pushed aside by drill in reading skills and by the belief that kids don’t need to know anything because they can just look everything up.

“Fifty years of solid research demonstrates that broad knowledge is vital to language comprehension and deep knowledge is vital to critical analysis,” argues the Knowledge Matters campaign. “Through broad and deep knowledge, students become the informed, thoughtful citizens our nation—and world—needs.”

From information to knowledge to wisdom

Most Likely to Succeed, which celebrates San Diego’s High Tech High, argues for schools to focus on “the relational skills” needed in the workforce, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. That includes “being able to motivate, collaborate, persevere and navigate through a complex buffet of freelance gigs.”

But it means students will learn less about the world, he writes in Schools for Wisdom,

At High Tech High, one group “studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory,” Brooks writes.

Most Likely to Succeed doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence.

. . . teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The road to wisdom starts by learning facts, such as “what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era,” argues Brooks. Then students must learn to “link facts together in meaningful ways.”

At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.

At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate, to come up with new theses, challenge others’ theses and be challenged in turn.

Wisdom comes with experience, Brooks concludes. “The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.”

Why do students — and teachers — hate history?

Why Do Students Hate History? asks Grego Milo, a world history teacher in Ohio, in Ed Week.

The textbook covers 5,000 years — from the origins of civilization to the 21st century. He focuses on some time periods and goes lightly on others, but worries that students don’t care about DaVinci, the Roaring Twenties or Sun Tzu.

Students who dislike his class tell him it’s boring. “How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” they wonder. (I wonder if they’re fans of Don’t Stay in School.)

That’s a “good question,” writes Milo. Strengthening his students’ “thinking skills” is his top priority.

I want them to make reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event. I want them to understand a decision’s consequences, for the long term as well as the short.

Students can “practice decision-making skills with any subject,” so why chose “a boring one,” writes Milo.

He doesn’t like teaching history as a chronology of topics.

Why do my students have to learn about the fall of Rome or the East India Trading Co.? Maybe one of them would like to focus on elections in Burundi.

History “only becomes interesting when you know enough about it so that new information makes sense,” responds Pax Britannica in comments. “It is also impossible to make sense of the past if we study it out of sequence.”

Why do some history teachers hate history? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. She continues here and here.

The fall of the Roman empire or elections in Burundi?

Why teach about the Roman empire, if some students would prefer to study elections in Burundi?

Students have to learn some basic history before they can know what topics they might find interesting, she writes.

Chronology creates a story. What happened next? That’s inherently interesting, writes Beals. Chronology also makes things easier to remember and helps clarify an event’s causes and effects.

I’ve always loved history. But I didn’t love social studies. Our world history class consisted of hopping here and there around the globe with no sense of what might have led to what. There was no history.

Don’t Stay in School?

Don’t Stay in School,” which has “gone viral,” attacks schooling for teaching useless knowledge, such as the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives, rather than how to find a job, do taxes, manage finances, vote or understand one’s rights. The lyrics include my favorite science factoid: “Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.”

Here’s some parents’ reaction to the rap by musician/producer Dave Brown — with his reaction to the reaction.

The video misses the point, writes Michael T. Hamilton, a former English teacher and a homeschooling parent, on PJ Media. Reading Shakespeare and dissecting a frog doesn’t preclude learning real-world knowledge.

“Brown’s allegedly useless knowledge enabled him to create this viral video,” writes Hamilton.

. . . my wife has newly plastered our walls with Classical Conversations historical timeline cards, with which she is successfully teaching our 5-year-old “useless” facts about ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia, the creation of the alphabet, the Pax Romana, and the division of the Roman Empire.

. . . my son will know the laws, how to represent himself to job interviewers, and how to vote. But my son need not (and will not) learn these to the exclusion of Shakespeare, abstract math (which the ancients deemed one with philosophy–also useless in Brown’s book, I presume), or the frog thing.

Learning about history is a good basis for learning about human rights.

What does it mean to be an educated person? asks Marc Tucker. Few colleges and universities have “given serious thought” to the question and fashioned “a serious integrated, coherent curriculum in response to that analysis.”

Distribution requirements — a little of this and a little of that — don’t do the job.

U.S. students specialize earlier, instead of taking general education classes in high school and the first two years of college, he writes. “With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature.”

How videos build better readers

Games, videos and other digital media can improve children’s reading argues Tap, Click, Read, a new book by Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine. Their work is funded by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

“An alarming number of children in the United States never become good readers,” Guernsey tells NPR. More than two-thirds of fourth graders — 80 percent of children in low-income families — are not “proficient” readers.

Reading isn’t just about decoding skills, says Guernsey.  Children “need to be able to understand the words they read and have a base of knowledge (in art, science, social studies and beyond) to help them make inferences and connect the dots.”

Children can “build background knowledge at the tap of a screen,” says Levine. A child who’s reading about penguins in Antarctica, can watch a video to make sense of the words she’s decoding.

In Beyond “Turn It Off,” the American Academy of Pediatrics revises its advice to parents on media use.

Kids love knowing stuff

At Edward Brooke Charter schools in Massachusetts, knowledge is valued.

Kids love knowing facts, writes Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at The Education Trust. “It puts them on the same plane as adults when they can talk confidently about what they know — like the habitats of iguanas or the differences between igneous and sedimentary rock.”

Certainly facts in isolation can be boring, but when kids see how they’re connected and understand their import—they love knowing them.

Chenoweth visited Edward Brooke Charter School, a Massachusetts school that outperforms state averages, despite its nearly all-minority, mostly low-income students. For example, 91 percent of Brooke third-graders met or exceeded state English language arts standards in 2014, compared to 57 percent statewide, and 100 percent met or exceeded math standards, compared to 68 percent statewide.

She met with two third-graders, two fourth-graders and two fifth-graders.

A little chatterbox third-grader who had gone to a different school for kindergarten said, when I asked her to compare the two schools, “I never had the experience of learning in kindergarten.” The whole day, she said, had been devoted to blocks, play, and recess. When she arrived at Brooke, she said, she was startled by how much she was expected to learn.

Another third grader said he’d played most of the time at a previous school.

“Here at Brooke, we learn most of the time, and that’s how we get a vast knowledge,” said a fifth-grade girl.

Her classmate “added that he was learning about pi and he was able to help his seventh- and eighth-grade cousins who were in different schools with their math homework,” writes Chenoweth.

Both fifth-graders were quiet and dignified about their learning, but anyone could tell that they were proud that they knew stuff — stuff that helped them understand their world better and gave them the power that only knowledge confers.

I’m going to bet that those kids are going to be pretty amazing critical thinkers and problem solvers — not in spite of having had a rich, comprehensive curriculum that includes a lot of facts that help them gain a “vast knowledge”—but because of it.

Many educators believe that knowledge doesn’t matter, because kids can just look up whatever they need to know. Cognitive science doesn’t agree, writes Chenoweth, citing Dan Willingham’s How Knowledge Helps.

Why it helps to know things