John F. Kennedy's application materials to Harvard are available at the JFK Library website, and also here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/46922945/Jfk-Harvard-Application-Materials. You can look through them quickly, and they are interesting:
His grades are pretty bad.
His father wrote a letter to the admissions committee telling them that "Jack" had to take a year off after school (after attending Princeton for two months) to recover from "a blood condition." He went on to describe his character:
"Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested."
The application essay is insipid; its basic message is "I want to go to Harvard because Harvard is good." Here is the transcript of the essay:
“The reasons that I have for wanting to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better Liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction; and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.”
That is the whole essay.
Harvard made the right choice in admitting him, but he was obviously helped by his connections and the support he received. His father was a famous man, and was able to write directly to the admissions committee. His poor grades in high school were excused because of his poor health.
He would probably not have been admitted today. The rise of the importance of the SAT would have made his life difficult.
But what about all the people without those connections, and without that support? The SAT and other standardized tests have helped them. All the critics who hate the SAT should realize that the alternate is not a world in which everyone is considered "authentically" as a "whole person," but the world in which JFK grew up.
Which one is superior?
There has never been a clear definition of "genius."
In ancient Rome, a genius was a personal spirit, similar to a guardian angel. "Genie," in a bottle, has the same derivation. Families had similar guardian spirits, as did cities. After the Roman Republic fell, the idea changed.
The first Roman Emperor was given the honorific title "Augustus" as a recognition of his powerful guardian "genius." It became custom to drink to the "genio augusti" at every meal. The geniuses of other powerful leaders, such as military commanders, were similarly honored.
Nietzsche has a fantastic definition. He wrote, "Great men, like great epochs, are explosive material in whom tremendous energy has been accumulated; their prerequisite has always been, historically and physiologically, that a protracted assembling, accumulating, economizing and preserving has preceded them – that there has been no explosion for a long time." Nietzsche seems to be applying the process at arriving at an epiphany (insight, "aha!" or eureka moment) to historical change.
The definition today revolves around IQ. There are even attempts, however silly, to attribute certain IQs to leaders in the past; Julius Caesar apparently had an IQ in the 150s. Even a small dose of common sense reveals how stupid our fixation on IQ is: imagine measuring athletes' muscle fibers and awarding the one with the most fast-twitch muscle the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter dash.
David Hume wrote that the way that society treats geniuses is a mirror image of the way it treats the ignorant. Shouldn't we be more careful about whom we call a genius, and why?
William Baumol studied the labor market for the performing arts and made the observation that the productivity for many of them never increases. A Beethoven-playing orchestra, for example, uses the same number of people now as it did in the time of Beethoven, while other sectors of the economy show constant increases in productivity.
Wages tend to reflect productivity increases. But a conductor would obviously not be able to pay 1820's wages to his musicians. Musician's wages, in contrast to the productive sectors of the economy, are a reflection of the opportunity cost: the wages in the wider labor market. If the conductor did not raise his musicians' wages, the talent of the musicians would suffer and the music would suffer.
Over time, the cost of a ticket to an orchestra will rise compared to other, productive parts of the economy. (It is expensive to go to a Broadway play today, but it was mass entertainment in Shakespeare's time.)
Education (and health care) suffers from cost disease: a teacher handles about one hundred to one hundred fifty students. That number has not changed and probably will not change over time. Education will become relatively more costly, just like the theater. And teacher's wages must increase for the same reason that musician's wages must increase.
Many of the enthusiasts of education technology believe that it could solve Baumol's cost disease by enabling teachers to handle more students. (In other words, by requiring fewer teachers) While there has been plenty of technological breakthroughs over the past hundred years, teachers have maintained the same level of productivity.
Much of the new technology, as well as the focus on data, will have the unintended effect of exacerbating Baumol's cost disease: teachers will have to add technology and data manipulation to their required skills.
Are we prepared to pay them for it?
"If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." - G.K. Chesterton.
The New York Times has an article describing the disappointing results that massive open online courses have posted recently. Some selections from the article:
"Only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses."
"80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a degree," meaning that they were not reaching the disadvantaged audiences they claimed they hoped to reach.
"The online students last spring — including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse than those who took the classes on campus."
The article focused heavily on Sebastian Thrun, an artificial intelligence professor, founder of a MOOC (Udacity), and wearer of Google Glass, who retorted, “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation."
The problem, Sebastian, is that this is not the first try. People have been recording lectures since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. If technology could replace teachers, it would have already begun replacing teachers. If anything, the student/teacher ratio has gotten smaller over the past century.
Many of the MOOCs have provided "access" to mentors. This model has been a flop as well, as these mentors are merely cheerleaders. More skilled, more involved mentors (aka teachers) would certainly help, but would not be popular with venture capital, as the model would not be "scalable."
To that end, the successes the article cites are when the teachers and professors themselves use some of the MOOC videos to supplement their instruction.
The only technology that helps students has been technology that helps teachers: photocopy machines, for example, or free videos. Technologies that try to replace teachers are doomed to failure.
The article ends with this delusional quote:
“The next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”
Archimedes, the famous Greek scholar who lived in Syracuse, was frustrated by a problem the king had given him. The king suspected his goldsmith was cheating him; the king had given him gold to fashion a crown, and he thought the goldsmith was mixing in cheap metals. Archimedes knew that he had to measure the volume of the crown to solve this problem, but it was an irregular shape. He went to relax and take a bath and think.
When he sat down in his bathtub, he noticed that the water level rose. The volume of water displaced, which could easily be measured, was exactly equal to the volume of his irregularly shaped body.
“Eureka!” He shouted, hopping out of his bath and running through the streets of Syracuse jubilant and naked. We are all familiar with this feeling, and call it many different things: “moment of clarity,” “aha feeling,” “light bulb moment,” or “epiphany.”
Paul Lockhart, in his fantastic A Mathematician’s Lament, talks about how math is actually a creative, artistic discipline; mathematicians do math because it is a pleasure. But the way we teach math kills that pleasure for the vast majority of students. Most people who “love” math love that “aha!” they get when they solve a difficult problem.
This feeling goes way beyond math and science. People will remember forever the moments they make deep insights about themselves or about people in their lives. Most entrepreneurs can describe a moment of clarity when they conceived their business idea.
There is no general agreement among psychologists as to what is going on in the brain during these moments. There seems to be a common process: a person is frustrated by a problem, tries several different solutions and fails and then takes a break. Eventually, in an unpredictable way, he is hit with the answer.
Two aspects of this process are important to education: one, it is pleasurable. Finding problems pleasurable will encourage students to be independent. Two, students remember the insight far longer when they discover it themselves.
It is the unpredictability of the process that makes it difficult for the classroom. The attached lesson plan tries to cultivate the “eureka” feeling. Let me know how you like it.
"Five years down there at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."
- Admiral James Stockdale, 1965, while being shot down over Vietnam.
He would spend the next seven and a half years as the highest ranking American officer in a Vietnamese prison. He was tortured fifteen times; he spend four years in solitary confinement - two of those in leg irons.
Upon returning home, he had a successful career as a college president and a researcher with the Hoover Institute. He was Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate; his debate appearance, unpolished and honest, was mocked by the rapidly expanding American idiocracy.
Before the war, Stockdale had been floundering through a graduate program at Stanford University when he took up philosophy and loved it. Right after finishing a class, the professor handed him the Enchiridion, telling him that Fredrick the Great never went into battle without a copy on him. The Enchiridion is a short notebook of the most famous sayings of Epictetus, the famous Stoic philosopher and tutor to Emperor Nero.
He was attracted immediately to the philosophy. As Epictetus says, it was not about "revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom."
Epictetus advises, "Some things are in our control and others not," and to only focus on what was in your control: your thoughts and emotions. Stockdale found that focusing on controlling his emotions, even in the face of horrible torture, to be incredibly empowering. The main weapons of torture evoked fear and guilt; Stockdale talks about avoiding all types of guilt - even collective guilt. In Stockdale's words, "the thing that brings men down is not pain but shame."
"Remember, you are an actor in a drama," as Epictetus put it. You do not choose your part, but "how well to act it." Stockdale experienced how little control he had over his station in life. He went from commanding over a thousand men to being a prisoner, beaten and mocked, within minutes. But he was determined to act his part well.
His fellow American prisoners looked to him for guidance in prison, and he gave them courage. Often, the men under his command would mock their tormentors. One gave the name "Lieutenant Clark Kent" when asked to give the names of American soldiers who protested the war. The Vietnamese press published it and was the laughingstock of the world.
Many adults find Stoicism, especially Epictetus's take on Stoicism, to be "harsh." (They would do well to read Seneca) But kids find his teachings interesting, relevant, and empowering. Students - remarkable students - have found his teachings relevant and empowering for two thousand years. Why is Stoicism so obscure today?
It is International Stoicism Week. Many of the exercises in From Rebel to Ruler are inspired by Roman Stoicism; many people today are unfamiliar with this influential philosophical school. Here are a few frequently asked questions to clear things up:
Q: Doesn't "stoic" mean to hide your feelings?
A: No, that is the popularization of the word.
Q: Why should anyone care?
A: Almost every great leader and thinker of one of the greatest empires that ever existed (Rome) were schooled in, or in heavy contact with, this philosophy. In addition, many influential and remarkable people throughout the past 2000 years were fans of Stoicism. Many parts of George Washington's farewell address are extensive (unquoted) quotes from Epictetus.
Q: Ok, ok, what is it in a nutshell?
A: First, realize that Stoicism was education and education was Stoicism. There were other philosophical schools, like the Epicureans, but when the leadership classes went to school, they were learning Stoicism. Later, they would obtain a mentor and stay in contact with that mentor throughout their lives. Some of the most famous Stoic writings are the letters that Seneca sent to his protégé, Lucilius.
Q: Didn't the Roman Empire fall?
A: Yes. But the Pax Romana - Rome's golden age - had several emperors who were strong adherents of Stoicism. The diary of Marcus Aurelius, called the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, at the bitter end of this period, are some of the most famous Stoic writings.
Q: Is there a summary?
A: Different writers give it different flavors, but there are a few themes that recur. Stoics emphasize courage, friendship, and tranquility. In talking about the "brotherhood of man" they criticize slavery, which is thousands of years ahead of its time. They urge frequent self-reflection and encourage people to confront problems head on. They want students to divide the world into the things that they can control (not very much) and the things that they cannot control; no one should waste a second of worry on things they cannot control.
Q: What is a good place to start?
A: It depends on you. Three philosophers stand out, and they come from three very different perspectives. Epictetus was a slave who rose to become the tutor of Emperor Nero. Seneca was a businessman, playwright and tutored Caligula and Nero. Marcus Aurelius was emperor at the height of Rome's power, but was renowned for his kindness (absolute power did not corrupt).
Q: Is it appropriate for students?
A: Absolutely. It was designed for students, and many of the influential people who studied it in the past 2000 years studied it when they were students. It is also easy to read just a little bit or a lot, and involve a lot of "active literacies" - writing and public speaking. And its goals are very relevant to students today: leadership, friendship, and tranquility.
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.