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Slow Response To Scott!

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Posted by Richard D. Stafford, Ph.D. on April 29, 2002 15:36:20 UTC

Hi Scott,

Sorry about the long delay in this response! I have been busy at other endeavors and I felt your note required a serious response. I put it up here because I too am tired of scrolling.

***** Scott:
The problem of course is not the educational system or the people involved, it is the individual that squanders their opportunities who is really to blame. We live in a society of where things are too readily available. We are not "put out" by anything anymore. People today, generally speaking, take their education for granted and it makes the jobs of educators very hard. Getting people to think requires an effort by both parties, no matter how engaging the teacher is. Sometimes getting people to remember something is a rewarding enough.

Here I tend to disagree with you. I am of the opinion that the problem lies directly with the educational "system". In general, bureaucratic organizations usually foul things up in a major way. Many years ago, when I complained that the educational system in the US was going to pot, my father told me that, as far as he was concerned, the US lost it when they closed down the old one room schoolhouse system. When the discussion was finished, I am afraid I had to agree with him.

His description of the functioning of the old system was that, when you started in the first grade, you sat in the front row and, as you passed to the higher grades, you moved back in the room. He said, "you graduated out the door". The way the teacher handled the class was that she taught the front row first (they were the youngest and needed attention). After she got them working on some assignment, she would move to the next row, working her way back through the classes (usually three or four times a day). At any time, anyone in the schoolhouse could ask a question, if they raised their hand and did not interrupt the teacher.

The whole thing had many positive influences. First, it enforced polite behavior because, because the system absolutely depended on self control (which, by the way, was thoroughly instilled by the time you got out of first grade: a quick smack with a ruler has a major effect). Second, you stayed with the same teacher for many years, often throughout your whole stay. This meant the teacher was completely familiar with the students, both their needs and their abilities. Third, every student got to hear the teacher explaining things to the advanced students so that, by the time you got there, you had heard it all already. You knew what was coming and got to think about it in advance. Back in those days, lots of people dropped out while they were still in grade school; but, back then, a fourth grader knew a lot more than a fourth grader knows today (just quoting my fathers position).

But, even more important, as I said in my post, "the educational system has no way of determining ones ability to think; however, they can check very easily what one has managed to remember". I did not say people can not judge others ability to think, I said no "system" can. When a teacher spends 8 years with a student, they certainly know which students can think for themselves!

Finally, we can get to the issue of discipline. Discipline was very much in the hands of the teacher who actually (because of the small numbers involved) was in much closer contact with the parents than today. Today, the whole thing is much too organized to give any real control to the teachers. The kids run the school.

But, even more important, there is a discipline problem in the United States which has been building for years both in the schools and in the society itself. I am of the opinion that it is a direct consequence of our legal "system" (it is possible to find individuals you can trust but bureaucracies can never be trusted).

It is a primary postulate of our legal system that no one should ever be punished for something others have been allowed to do without punishment. Now, on the face of it, that seems like the most reasonable position in the world! Who could ever be against that? I am against that for a very simple reason: the idea requires that one draw a line which exactly separates acceptable behavior from unacceptable behavior. Now there are two real facts, the consequences of which must be considered. First, an exact line cannot be drawn! And second, if you wait long enough, someone sometime will test that line. Anyone who has ever had children knows that children will continuously check the limits on their behavior.

Inevitably, one will run into the situation where exactly the same behavior (as best can be judged) was allowed already but is now in contention for punishment. When such an event occurs, our legal system allows but only one possibility, the line must be moved. It cannot be moved towards the harsher position thus it must allow the behavior. In the long haul, the only consequence is that anything must be allowed.

The only successful way to handle the situation is to create a no man's land between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. A broad area where punishment is statistically random. Sometimes you catch it barely over the line from "acceptable" and other times someone will get almost all the way to that "unacceptable" region before getting struck. Actually that is very close to a description of the boundary created by most parents when it comes to the behavior of their own children: whether or not punishment actually occurs (in that no man's land) is often nothing more than the current mood of the parent. The existence of the "no man's land" is unintentional but it exists none the less and is the source of decent behavior.

This is exactly the same phenomena the police take advantage of when they allow you to exceed the speed limit. So long as you do not know exactly how much they are going to allow, they have the ability to control speeding. Now, if someone were to actually get a hold of the speeds of the cars on the road and the list of people who got tickets, our legal system would destroy the police ability to enforce any speed limits at all.

When a broad area of possible bad consequences exists, intelligent people will avoid the area. And acceptance of such an area means there exists a range where inequitable punishment does not require the lines be moved. You can keep the lines vague! Which they must be anyway. (Just an old man's opinion!)

***** Scott:
I had to take trig and calculus in college and that is as far as I got (besides stats). Trust me, I did not do very well in my math classes. I have always been a much more verbal kind of guy than a math kind of guy. Your math would be out of my league. I can try if you want to make arrangements though.

I used to have htm copy of my book (originally written back in 82) posted on the web at a free site on (very poor service actually). That service went defunct about 4 months ago. Actually, they closed out all the old accounts and opened a new service; I never transferred my stuff to the new set up. At any rate, I have set up a new web page at:

Check it out if you wish. I will answer any questions you may have about it.

***** Scott:
You wrote -
" My position is only that the scientists have done a very poor job of laying out the foundations of their beliefs. "

Do you believe this of all the sciences or just astronomy and physics?

Now physics (and thus its foundations) seems to underlie all the sciences, so I guess I would have to say "all sciences". But more important than that, I think most highly educated people tend to think that their knowledge is based on a very solid foundation. How can they think otherwise? For most people, if they begin to question the authority of their teachers, they find acquiring the knowledge of the field almost impossible. I was very lucky in that I managed to get all the way to a Ph.D. in physics without ever actually taking their fundamental position serious. (I am actually a very strange person!)

Have fun -- Dick

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