The Visible World in Pictures

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The Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures) is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It was the first widely used children textbook with pictures, covering a broad range of topics ranging from simple physics to social studies. Its comprehensive material and unique combination of visual and lexical (written) education made it revolutionary for the time, quickly spreading across Europe and setting the standard for children’s textbooks for centuries.

Comenius was one of the the earliest champions of universal education, including for women and the poor. He promoted a dynamic approach to teaching that went beyond the common and dull emphasis on memorization. He is thus regarded as the father of modern education.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Rare Privilege of Education

Fewer than 7 percent of the world’s population (6.7 percent) has a college degree of any kind. (This is up from 5.9 percent about two decades ago.) An even smaller proportion of this population has earned a degree beyond a Bachelor’s, and an even tinier fraction of those people have attained a degree from a reputable or good quality institution.
 
As much as I obviously lament student debt, the financial inefficiency and inaccessibility of our education system, etc., I must acknowledge that I am still extremely privileged to be able to pursue a fulfilling career at a fairly prominent law school. I am fortunate to have been born in the right time and place where such opportunities are available; I am lucky to have enjoyed relatively good health, no major family tragedies, good parenting, and an overall stable socioeconomic environment that facilitated my educational attainment and development up to this point.
 
I must never forget how much good luck played a role in where I am today. It is a humbling and effective motivator for working hard and not squandering this rare opportunity, by global and historical standards. (And also a good cause of action to help more people get access to these opportunities..)

How Much Teachers Make And Work Around The World

On this National Teacher’s Appreciation DayThe Economist has put together a graph
showing the salaries and working hours of high school teachers among the 34 mostly developed OECD countries, and comparing this to each nation’s PISA rankings, which measures scholastic performance on math, science, and reading. The idea is to show what impact, if any, low pay and long working hours may have on teacher’s effectiveness. The results are as follows:

Teachers Continue reading

The Problem With Early School Days

The vast majority of public schools in the U.S. start earlier than 8:30 a.m. Like most American students, I took this as a given, albeit begrudgingly — we all struggled to get up and get focused for school, and it only got harder with each passing year. Naturally, many people chalk this up to the laziness and entitlement of adolescence. But mounting scientific research is finding that getting up really early, and being thrown into a cognitively-intensive bloc schedule, is bad for both the health and education of youth. Various leading public health authorities are urging an end to this practice. Continue reading

The Benefits Of Studying Abroad

Speaking from experience, studying abroad is not just an adventure, but a life-changing experience. During my six weeks in the Czech Republic (and, briefly, in neighboring Slovakia) during the summer of 2008, I not only learned about Czech culture, history, and politics in an academic setting, but absorbed firsthand the sights, sounds, lived experiences, and perspectives of a totally different society. It was the first time I ever truly immersed myself in another culture, and it gave me a deep appreciation of how a country’s unique historical development (especially relative to the U.S.) can impact its culture, society, politics, and national character.

More importantly, my study abroad also affirmed that “people are people everywhere” — that is to say, that distant foreigners are no different from us when it comes to their base needs, desires, fears, aspirations, and so on. The specifics will vary of course — the majority of Czechs, for example, are much more worried about Russian aggression than most Americans, by virtue of recent history — humanity and relatability remain.

I am thankfully not the only one to see the value in this experience. As argues in Foreign Affairs, the open-mindedness, empathy, and understanding inculcated in students studying abroad is not only valuable for its own sake, but in the aggregate and long term, can be indispensable to the prosperity of the U.S. Continue reading

What Students At Top U.S. Colleges Read

The Open Syllabus Project is recently launched database that has compiled more than a million course syllabi over the last fifteen years from colleges and universities across the English-speaking world (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K.). Among its findings regarding the top U.S. universities is the dominance of the works by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Aristotle in required reading lists.

As Quartz reports:

In the U.S., Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is the most taught work of fiction, with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” a close second. In history titles, George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi’s textbook, “America: A Narrative History”, is No. 1, with Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi”, a memoir about life as an African-American woman in Jim Crow America, at No. 2. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most taught in history, and is the top title in sociology.

The project admits that its dataset is still a work in progress, as there is a margin of error for unusual or misspelled readings; moreover, it can rely only on whatever is publicly accessible from college websites.

Still, it is pretty much the only source for what the future academic and political elites of the Anglophone world are reading. The Open Syllabus Project allows users to search by country, state/province, institution, and academic field to see what tops a given reading list. Here is the overall list among all the curricula across all five major English speaking countries. (Note that the heavy leaning towards the humanities reflects the fact the reading lists for such courses are larger than in the hard sciences.)

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Source: The Open Syllabus Project

Seems like this would make a great individual reading list all on its own! Granted, it would be nice to see more prominent non-Western works — there is a wealth of interesting perspectives, philosophies, and narratives worth exploring, especially for the ostensibly best and brightest of future generations.

To learn more, visit the project page here.

Let Children Be Children

[We] don’t have faith in young children. And we don’t really have faith in ourselves. And we’ve been programmed to believe that the more enrichments we can add on [the better].

I think boredom can be a friend to the imagination. Sometimes when kids appear to be bored, actually they haven’t had enough time to engage in something. We quickly whisk it away and move them along to the next thing. And that’s when you say, “How can I help the child to look at this in a new way? To try something new, to be patient.”

You’ve really kind of adultified childhood so kids really don’t have those long, uninterrupted stretches of time to engage in fantasy play. And because we’ve kind of despoiled the habitat of early childhood, a lot of times they don’t know what to do when given that time. So we kind of have to coach them.

I think there’s a little bit of a repair process that we need to engage in. Because if you’ve got a kid who’s used to going to a million lessons and only uses toys that have one way of using them and then, suddenly, you put them in a room with a bunch of boxes and blocks and say, “Have fun!”, the kid’s gonna say, “Are you kidding me? What?!”

— Erika Christakis, in an interview by NPR’s Corey Turner,
What Kids Need From Grown-Ups (But Aren’t Getting)”

Bring Philosophy Into Grade School

In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.

One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading

The Decline of Foreign Languages in the U.S.

With English serving as the dominant lingua franca for everything from commerce to academia, Americans, as the world’s largest native Anglophones, are generally far less inclined to learn foreign languages than their European and Asian counterparts.

Indeed, as The Atlantic recently reported, cutting back on foreign language courses is not only a long-running — and steadily increasing — trend among elementary and middle schools, but it was even touted as a viable solution for freeing up time for more important lessons. Continue reading

To Improve U.S. Education, Look at the States

In the 1932 U.S. Supreme Court case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Justice Luis Brandeis made the point that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. Thanks to the federal structure of the United States, all fifty subdivisions of the country have considerable leeway in how they manage all sorts of economic, political, and social policies and institutions (though the extent of this power is a matter of perennial debate and jurisprudence.)

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has validated this idea, arguing that the best way to improve America’s educational outcomes is to look not abroad, as is so often done, but within, at the many individual states, counties, and cities that have managed to attain high results.

It is a long read and dense read, I unfortunately have not the time to reproduce its most salient points with my commentary. Suffice it to say, it is well worth giving a look, especially as it raises many questions whether the international rankings that are relied upon by performers are truly as accurate, and thus informative, as many believe. Continue reading