My Own Dream

Here in the States, today is Martin Luther King Jr Day, a “bank holiday” honoring the civil rights leader. This means that as a school employee, I get the day off, which in turn means that I have the opportunity to not only contemplate civil rights, but also run errands to places I can’t go because my work hours are the same as their business hours. The exceptions of course are my bank where I need to visit my safe box, and a couple of colleges where I need to visit with people about getting teaching certification. Holy conundrums, Batman!

Anyway, reading through the news brought several things to my attention, and helped clarify some of my own dream for humanity, especially with regards to both diversity in academia and the rest of the work world, the academic responsibility for preparing our students, and the social and political valuation of real science.

Firstly there is the need for an under-recognised diversity. In my future Bathtub Reading list will be a book by Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. The University of Michigan professor examines how diversity improves the problem-solving abilities of various organisations, with evidence as supported by both case studies and mathematical modeling. Most people think of “diversity” as encompassing the usual identity groups of race, ethnic origin, sex, gender and so on. Page is not referring to these minorities, though. In an interview in a recent edition of the New York Times article by Claudia Dreifus, “In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity”, Page was quoted,

I mean differences in how people think. Two people can look quite different and think similarly. Having said that, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.

Page says that organisations need this kind of cognitive diversity because it helps them solve problems and be more productive.

Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.

People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.

The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.

But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.

Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.

He also points out that merely getting a good score on the Graduate Record Exam doesn’t describe a person’s ability to do original or creative thinking.

These are very important points, and graduate schools and businesses need to remember them when looking for future student and faculty members and employees. In my own Dream, I would have the following as recommendations for diversity:

Being “compatible” does not mean “thinks just like the rest of us”. Being a “team player” does not mean “won’t rock the boat”. Being “competent” does not mean “will be able to do things the same way the rest of us do them”.

If you really want diversity the way you say you do in your Mission Statements, then you must be willing to not only accept but welcome people who have different opinions, different skill sets and yes, different needs. Do not mistake “tolerance” for acceptance, or mistake “acceptance” for welcoming.

(I’ve discussed the Trouble With Tolerance before, and also the general lack of diversity in university faculty.)

Secondly, there are reminders of how the educational systems are inadequately designed. A recent editorial in the Kansas City Star, “High school students need help meeting colleges’ expectations”:

Federal statistics show that as many as four in 10 college freshmen require at least one remedial course. The rate is higher at community colleges. More than 80 percent of freshmen in the Metropolitan Community College system need catch-up courses.

High schools are preparing more young people to enroll in college. But many students are not being groomed to succeed in higher education.

The cost of that failure is exorbitant. Young people pay college prices for remedial courses that don’t result in college credits. The odds of these students staying in school plummet.

Not only are students often ill-prepared for mathematics and communication courses, they are often way behind in the sciences. Even though the Pennsylvania and Kansas state school boards are (currently) back on track for teaching evolution as part of the K-12 science curriculum (howsoever small a part that actually is), both Texas and Florida are having their own upheavels with board members trying to push Intelligent Design into the curricula, as described by PZ Myers on his Pharyngula blog, such as the recent post, “What’s your school board like?”

There is a serious disconnect between what is getting taught in schools and what students need for college or for their post-secondary vocations. The Star editorial also noted,

In a recent national survey by the non-profit research and assessment firm that develops the ACT test, 65 percent of college faculty said their states’ standards prepared students poorly or very poorly for college-level work. But most high school teachers thought they were readying students for college by meeting state requirements.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, Bug Girl links to a Flicker photo stream by photographer/blogger Sweet Juniper, who did some urban exploration / infiltration around the abandoned Detroit Public Schoolbook Depository. The pictures of endless pallets of 1980’s era schoolbooks and teaching media that are slumped mouldering in original shrinkwrap, or burned, or rotting away with fungi and Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven) seedlings growing in them are just horrifying. Not only is the utter waste of materials inexcusable, but one also needs to realise just how impoverished the city and school district have been for decades, and how little in the way of quality education and social services has been given to the students and other residents. Looking at the photos is like viewing stills of some post-holocaust sci-fi flick, but with the chilling knowledge that this is all real!

None of these issues are going to be resolved by the No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to “improve” education by relying on all students achieving the states’ various standardised test scores to evaluate district, teacher, and student performance. (Yes, each state sets its own standards.) As it stands now, the NCLB is totally unrealistic; the goal is that by 2014, 100% of students (even those in special education, immigrants, and disadvantaged students) will achieve the same high reading and math standards. Not only that, states are having to cut their own school funding budgets with disastrous consquences, and Bush’s 2008 budget will reduce the federal funds that supplements the states’ by over a billion dollars.

In my own Dream, I would also have the following as recommendations for education and science:

Set some national standards for K-12 subject content. “Local control” should be about enriching the curriculum to reflect the region’s natural and cultural histories, not about creating inconsistencies from state to state in what students are taught in the basic K-12 curriculum.

We want to know that our teachers are qualified, and that the schools have the resources they need, but “accountability” does not mean punishing districts, teachers and students for not being able to achieve unrealistic goals. Our real goals are for students to have the opportunity to learn the theoretical knowledge and practical skills they need to succeed in college work and in post-secondary employment. To do this we need better communication between state college regents boards, school districts, and professional organisations for various disciplines.

We cannot as a nation succeed in scientific and technical innovation when the standards for science education are in constant jeopardy, when funding for both general education and basic research is grossly inadequate, when the dissemination of research information is suppressed, and when pseudo-science, medical quackery and magical thinking are held up in both the media and in political realms as being equal to or greater than sound scientific knowledge and critical thinking.

And in summary, I would ask each of you,

What are your dreams?

You have to know what your dreams are in order to achieve them.

And most importantly,

What is the point of having dreams unless you are going to do something about them?


  1. qw88nb88 said,

    21 January 2008 at 22:35

    Ange, you may be interested in a couple of my previous posts, , “Overcoming Inertia and Moving Into Commitment” and “Coping With the Inertia of Task Paralysis”


  2. ange said,

    21 January 2008 at 21:34

    Thank you for the summary most of all. This is where I am stuck. Afraid to jump.

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