Category Archives: Education

on ‘Lost’ as educator

There is a part of me that is half-ashamed in the pleasure I take in such shows as the TV series Lost.  It is of course gratifying to know that many people do.  More interesting is the discovery of what so many of these people are doing with the show.  Let me join them.

I will leave to a student the task of tracing the full extent of what people are actually doing with Lost.  Given its success, I am sure someone has started doing this.  So I will give this student one more issue to trace: Lost can also be explored as a site for education.  I build here on a journalistic piece written for the web site of Christianity Today.  I will do so to highlight the educational aspect of the show and how its fits with what I have been writing about in recent years (2008, 2009).

This piece (posted 5/18/2009) is written by Tyler Charles, a freelance writer.  He mentions some of what people are doing with Lost as they investigate the scientific, literary, philosophical and religious hints the show gives.  Charles lists the books and philosophers mentioned, the major philosophical issued revealed, as well as other matters.  He does not mention anyone exploring the political aspects of the show and yet, particularly in the first season, a major issue was the nature of leadership and the organization of government (“Who made you the leader, Jack?”, “A leader can’t lead until he knows where he is going.” – Episode 5).  Actually, this issue has been reopened with the (divine?) appointing of Locke as leader by “the island.”  I suspect some people are also exploring this since it can open conversations about the very grounding of democracy.

Charles reports that people are following these leads.  They seek to find out more about the physics of time travel and electromagnetism, or what might make John Locke or David Hume important enough persons to have characters named after them.  Of course, there is a wiki site where one can start exploring all this:

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière (who still does not have a character named after him on Lost…) brought out of obscurity a, until now, minor figure of the French Revolution, Joseph Jacotot.  Rancière recounts how Jacotot demonstrated, to his satisfaction at least, that any one, particularly someone who did NOT know the subject matter, could “teach” this matter.  Even more challenging he argued that all the material they needed was one book, Télémaque written by Fénelon.  It was not because the book was a source of universal wisdom but because, to say all this more carefully:

anyone (not quite a teacher) can produce a situation
…… where someone else (not quite a student) can learn
………. what this person must have the will to learn, and that,

given this will,

…… anything (and not necessarily Télémaque)

………. can start this person on the way to find out for herself what she wants to know.

This actually might be the basis for a Lost episode.  Unless it is the point of the whole show where everyone has to figure out, again, what to do next given what has happened to them in the past.

In that perspective, Lost (like probably Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) is becoming a Télémaque for a generation of people using it as a departure to teach themselves about physics, religion, human relationships, etc., not to mention of course many aspects of what used to be called “literary criticism,” and would now fall under the purview of “popular culture studies.”

The question, for a faculty at Teachers College, of Columbia University, is: when someone teaches herself anything, does she “learn” it?  Does one know something if no one has certified that she does?

on being educated about cancer, death rates, and their statistical interpretation

Last week, I completed the first draft of what is to be the postface of the third volume of the Perspectives on Comprehensive Education Series I am co-editing with Ed Gordon.  It includes a few lines about the responsibility for journalists to build on their educative role.  They educate, whether they are aware of it or not, simply by providing information about the world we all inhabit.  I use the word ‘educate’ rather than ‘teach’ to distinguish between activities where one can check what those who read (watch, or whatever) might learn, and activities where there is no way to check.  Journalists make something available that is much more than “information” or even “opinion.”  Journalists make us discover what we might not know, and they organize a curriculum, as well as a pedagogy.  How might we get them to take this activity even more seriously than some of them already may do?

There is much evidence that journalists know about their educative role.  One example is a sub-story that accompanied a New York Times story about the difficulty of curing cancer, “Advances Elusive in the Drive to Cure Cancer” (NYT, April 23, 2009).  The handle supposed to get our attention (I think) is the fact that modern medicine has been much more successful at dealing with heart disease than with cancer.  The basic “data” is a comparison of death rates and a spectacular table summarizing “Deaths from cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population [compared] to death rates from heart disease and stroke.”

What I found interesting was that the story was accompanied by a related story, “As Other Death Rates Fall, Cancer’s Scarcely Moves.”  This story was published as a box within the other story in the print version of the New York Times.  That story consisted of an explanation of what is meant by “death rate,” why the statistics are not “lying and hiding major advances,” why there might be “other explanations… for example … the competing cause-of-death hypothesis” and why there are no easy explanations.  This story is really not “news” but it is an essential educative expansion of the story by exploring the questions a reader might ask.  The story ends with links to related stories from the Times over the past few years that might be considered an expansion of the paper’s curriculum about cancer death rates.

Now, I do not know enough about the editing of newspapers to know how the basic story, and then the explanatory story, are scheduled or which story is to be expanded by an explanation.  It is not uncommon.  I would say I learned most of what I have gotten to know about “credit default swap” and other mysterious financial stuff from explanatory stories in the major media.

The interesting next question is how to encourage the media to expand this service.  In all sorts of ways, the development of the web has made it much easier for them to do this, as long as the stories remain available essentially for free.  One imagines, and this is a matter of both curriculum and pedagogy,  that they would link to some kind of “wiki.”  Given the doubts about wikis, the media and/or a university that might stand with it, one imagine a controlled wiki where information would be peer reviewed, then linking further to less controlled wikis, as well as an expanding web of links.  I am sure there are many other possibilities.

What I now want to find out easily is: how do statistics about death rates relate to statistics about causes of death?

an education into Ritalin for college success

I am an altogether avid reader of Discover, a magazine about “Science, Technology, and The Future.” I find something interesting in almost every issue. Sometimes it is a bit of new knowledge interesting for its own sake. Often it is because it provides a brief glimpse of the actual doing of science, and thus help think further about the anthropology of science, and also anthropology as a science. Quite regularly, in recent years, it gives me a sense of a journalistic discourse about matters at the edge of science and politics–particularly, on the one hand in the common articles about ecology, global warming, etc., and, on the other hand, on human evolution and sociobiology,

In the April 2009 issue I found in passing a little of Americana directly related to my arguments about the uncontrolled education of the officially ignorant. In an article on “Building a better brain” (the title is not ironic, and gives a sense of the editorial attitude towards the story) that discusses about the great things “mind-altering drugs” might do for humanity, they write:

In a study published last year in Pharmacotherapy, researchers at the University of Maryland found that of 1,208 college students, 18 percent took ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall even though the drugs had not been prescribed. You might think the college students were taking stimulants mostly to party, but that is not what the researchers found. The students were taking the stimulants mainly to help with studying. (Baker, 2009)

The story is written in the “brave new world” discourse of enhanced possibilities (“Think of millions of workers in India or China cognitively enhanced with neuropharmaceuticals. Will the United States be able to compete?”). The original study took the opposite tack. The paper ended with warnings to physicians and parents about “overuse and/or diversion of stimulant drug” (Arria, Caldeira, O’Grady, Johnson, & Wish, 2008, p. 266).

Neither wondered about is my perennial question (Varenne 2008, 2009): where do the students find out about these drugs? What sort of conversations do they have about them? To whom do they talk about it? That is, how do they educate themselves about these drugs? What is the place of the race for school of success in these discussions?

The last matter is particularly intriguing. For those who have done the work to inform themselves about off-label use of these drugs, how to take them, when, etc., including the possibility that it will improve their test scores, then the total event is another aspect of the battle of the mediocre middle-class against the probability that others are likely to do better on pure merit. As with steroids in sports, it is a matter of getting the edge. In other words, it is possible that taking these drugs is part of a larger conversation about succeeding in school that older adolescents and young adults must be having among themselves and with their parents (and about which we altogether have little detailed research).

Given this ongoing education about school success, then it is probable that the call from the authors of the article for “more parent education” that consists purely of listing the “risks” of taking these drugs is altogether pathetic. The risks of NOT taking them, for some students, may be higher, and they will not trust the People of the School, and all the less that they must also know that, for all intent and purposes, taking these drugs is cheating at School.