What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about the Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
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But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

 

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)

creation-web-version

  

A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )

Albert_Einstein_Head

No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

A Star(ter) Is Born: Making Your Own Sourdough Starter from Scratch

All you need for bread is flour and water and salt. You can do without the yeast by making your own sourdough starter. Here’s how:
Long before the ready availability of powdered yeast and baking powder and baking soda, cooks made sourdough starters to get a rise out of their bread (“You knead me, and I rise like bread,” writes Anne Sexton; oh yes, yes,yes!). You can purchase a sourdough starter online from King Arthur Flour. They also sell a perfect, beautiful ceramic crock for your starter to live in—well worth purchasing. However, if you are the adventurous sort (you know you are, don’t you?) you can make your own starter from scratch. Here’s how:
Ingredients for Starter
1 cup (8 z) whole wheat or rye flour (regular unbleached all-purpose flour will do in a pinch, but it may take an additional day or so to get your starter started)
Water, H20, the elixir of life
A big bag of all-purpose flour (King Arthur or Gold Medal)
Cheesecloth or jar lid with little holes poked into it
Ball jar
Rubber band
A week and a half of patience
Love
Other stuff to do while your starter starts—make a quilt, make beds, make wishes, make whoopie.
A Star(ter) Is Born
You can easily make a starter by combining flour and water and letting it pick up naturally occurring yeast from the air. Starters made in this way in different places will have slightly different flavors because of the slightly different varieties of yeast that live in the air in various places. But they are all good. Good yeast. Good boy.
Combine 1 cup of flour (see above) with ½ cup (4 oz) cool water in a sterilized (boil it in some hot water), nonreactive1-quart container such as a glass Ball jar. Stir to mix thoroughly. Cover the container with cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Let this mixture stand in a warm place (about 70F-75F or 21C-24C) for a day (24 hours). After a day, discard half the starter and add 1 cup (8 oz) of medium-gluten unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur or Gold Medal) and 1 cup (8 oz) lukewarm water. Mix again, cover with cheesecloth, and let set for 24 hours.
For the next few days, feed your starter twice daily. Each time, pour off all but about ½ cup (4 oz) of the starter, add ½ cup (4 oz) all-purpose flour and an equal amount of lukewarm water. Mix and let stand at room temperature for about 12 hours before repeating. This doesn’t have to be a rigid schedule, but do feed the starter a couple times a day. Keep doing this until your starter is quite bubbly and excitable like that friend of yours from middle school and has a tangy, acidic aroma (like your first lover?). This will take 5 to 7 days.
Once your starter is sufficiently lively (it will be filled with bubbles), you can then start keeping him or her in your fridge in a covered Ball jar or in one of those beautiful King Arthur sourdough crocks. From then on, once a week, every week, pour off half the starter and feed him or her a cup of all-purpose flour and a cup of lukewarm water. Let the starter rest for half an hour outside the fridge. Then return him or her to the fridge. Do this on a particular day so that it becomes a habit. Or put a reminder in your iPhone, or assign this responsibility to a significant other. I had a starter that was 150 years old and still going strong until I went away for a few weeks and my son forgot the starter and killed him. RIP!!!! Hrothgar the Starter, we barely knew ye!!!! By the way, yeast are party animals. They eat the starch in the flour like crazy and excrete alcohol. So, by the end of the week, you will have a little alcohol on top of your starter. You can just pour that off or stir it into the starter. Makes no difference. If you forget and are a day or two late, don’t fear. You will have more alcohol on top, and that alcohol may look blackish. Just pour it off and feed as always. However, in the unlikely event that your starter turns pink or orange, it has been attacked by mold. You have to throw it out and start again.
Your starter is a living thing and can last for HUNDREDS OF YEARS with proper feeding. Give him or her a name. I have two starters, Hermione (after the character in Women in Love, not Harry Potter) and Ethelred the Ready, just in case one goes the way of poor Hrothgar. I hope you will be able to pass your starter on to your great, great, great, great-granddaughters and grandsons.
Posted in Art, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trumpian Rhapsody, with Apologies to the Late, Great Freddie Mercury

Trumpian Rhapsody, with Apologies to the Late, Great Freddie Mercury
 
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in my web of lies,
There’s no escape from me.
 
Don’t open your eyes,
Don’t doubt my lies. Please see. . . .
Poor little rich boy, I’m just so needy.
Very dumb, very slow,
Little, next to nothing, know.
Everything I do blows. Nothing really matters
But me,
But me.
 
Mama, I dye my hair like yours.
And I comb it ‘cross my head,
Want approval though you’re dead.
Wanted you to say, “You’re the greatest, son,”
Though you are gone, that drives me to this day.
 
Mama, ooo, ooo, ooo, oo,
You and Daddy made me cry, so
I’m needy yesterday, today, tomorrow.
Carry on, carry on. Nothing really matters.
 
I figured that my time had come,
I had run through my last dime,
Thought I’d probably do some time.
Then Putin came, and rescued me,
Left that history all behind, and that’s the truth.
 
Mama, ooo ooo ooo, orange makeup shines.
Some people wish I’d never been born at all.
 
I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramucci, Scaramucci, will you do the Fandango?
I need enlightening.
I’m very, very frightening.
(Galileo) Galileo.
Oh who was Galileo?
I don’t know.
Trump is Magnifico!
 
Poor little rich boy. Everybody loves me.
Kids into cages. A misbegotten family
Demon seed I’ve spawned to carry on
My monstrosity.
 
Vlad has the pee tape. He will never let me go!
MyGodMammon! He will not let you go! (Let me go!)
MyGodMammon! Vlad don’t let that show! (Let me go!)
MyGodMammon! He will not let you go! (Let me go!)
Got you by the ___ oh!
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
 
Handler mia, handler mia (handler mia, let me go!)
Comrade Vlad has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me!
 
So I think I can screw the whole country and still be idolized.
Cause my Trumpeteers cannot tell the bitter truth from lies.
O-baby, blame it on Obama, baby.
Just gotta be
Reelected you see
This year.
 
(Ooooooh, oooh yeah, oooh yeah)
 
No one really matters.
Anyone can see.
No one really matters
No one really matters.
But me.

 

For more on the breathtakingly vile and clownish Jabba the Trump/IQ45 Maladministration, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

Posted in Humor, Trump (Don the Con), Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Moronavirus trumpinski orangii Press Briefing and Campaign Rally, Sunday, March 23, 2020

TRUMP (snorts some Adderall and steps to the podium): OK, I wanted to start by saying some people are blaming this thing on Asian Americans. Where would they get that idea? Terrible, just terrible, OK? Don’t do that. Good people, Asians. The Asians love me. They love Donald Trump. We’re going to get through this Chinavirus. We’ll get through this.

This is going to be bad. Really bad. People are going to die. Am I right? Terrible. All those people. That’s why we need to lift the restrictions immediately and go back to work like normal. Can’t let the cure be worse than the disease. We need the economy working. People going to eat in Trump restaurants. Going to Karaoke at Trump private clubs. Staying in Trump hotels. Playing at golf Trump courses. People call me, they say, when you going to open those up again? Everybody agrees. You got people can’t even make reservations. Can’t even go on safari now to kill the last remaining animal of some species. Disgraceful. That’s why–the doctors agree with me–we should open everything up again now. Because this thing is going to spread. Spread like crazy. We open up, it goes away? OK? Chinavirus. I’ll make a decision about this early this coming week, after my new Adderall comes in.

Doctors will agree with me. Because I’m smart. A genius, really. Somebody said the death rate. The death rate from this thing. Is like, what was that? Like point zero zero zero zero zero zero one percent. Right Dr. Birx?

DR. BIRX: Well, it was about 3 percent in China, but we really don’t know.

TRUMP: See? Like I said. Point zero zero zero zero zero zero one percent. Obama ever get numbers like that? So, we lift these restrictions and get back to work. Because that’s what Americans do. They like to work under unsafe conditions for very low pay. And maybe die. So some people can get richer. I know, I’m a construction guy. Chinavirus. This is going to be bad. That’s why I’m making a decision. A decision next week. Open back up. Pick up a Sharpie, draw a circle around the country on a map. No Chinavirus! Two, three days, it’s gone. Magic! It’s like magic, am I right? I know. You’ll thank me.

So, we’re working hard, right now on a package. A stimulus package. No one ever liked Obama’s package. I have the best package. Get the economy humming again. Quickly. Very quickly. Best economy ever. You won’t believe it how quick. Let me tell you the great things. We’re doing great things. The best things, OK?

Steve Munchkin gets 500 billion to give away. It’s like free money, right? To Trump businesses, to members of the great Mar-a-lago resort. You know, to all those who desperately need it. Would you like to say a few words about that, Steve?

STEVE MUNCHKIN (in Lederhosen):

I represent the Oligarch Guild,
The Oligarch Guild, the Oligarch Guild,
And in the name of the Oligarch Guild,
I wish to welcome you to Grifterland.
All citizens are marks in Grifterland.

TRUMP: And the airlines and the cruise industry. They need billions and billions too. And the banks. Other corporations. Because they are sitting on only about a trillion dollars offshore right now. Hard. It’s hit them hard. So we’re going to send checks. Twelve dollars to every poor, hardworking, white, Christian American so they can pay their rent and utilities and feed their children and maybe buy a new car and go on a trip to the Trump International Hotel and Golf Club in Ireland. Because that’s the kind of people we are. We put the American people first. America first, OK? Not like the Fake News Media and the Democrats. Lots of people are going to die. So, we need to open up immediately. Makes sense, right? I have a knack of this kind of thing. I really do. My uncle was like this super genius at MIT. Open back up. Have some Trump steaks. Play a little golf. Maybe go back to the hotel. And speaking of hotel rooms, everything’s going to be golden.

Posted in Humor, Trump (Don the Con) | 7 Comments

Combating Standardized Testing Derangement Syndrome (STDs)

The dirty secret of the standardized testing industry is the breathtakingly low quality of the tests themselves. I worked in the educational publishing industry at very high levels for more than twenty years. I have produced materials for all the major standardized test publishers, and I know from experience that quality control processes in that industry have dropped to such low levels that the tests, these days, are typically extraordinarily sloppy and neither reliable nor valid. They typically have not been subjected to anything like the standardization procedures used, in the past, with intelligence tests, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and so on. The mathematics tests are marginally better than are the tests in ELA, US History, and Science, but they are not great. The tests in English Language Arts are truly appalling. A few comments:

The new state and national standardized tests in ELA are invalid.

First, much of attainment in ELA consists of world knowledge–knowledge of what–the stuff of declarative memories of subject matter. What are fables and parables, how are they similar, and how do they differ? What are the similarities and differences between science fiction and fantasy? What are the parts of a metaphor? How does a metaphor work? What is metonymy? What are the parts of a metonymy? How does it differ from synecdoche? What is American Gothic? What are its standard motifs? How is it related to European Romanticism and Gothic literature? How does it differ? Who are its practitioners? Who were Henry David Thoreau and Mary Shelley and what major work did each write and why is that work significant? What is a couplet? terza rima? a sonnet? What is dactylic hexameter? What is deconstruction? What is reader response? the New Criticism? What does it mean to begin in medias res? What is a dialectical organizational scheme? a reductio ad absurdum? an archetype? a Bildungsroman? a correlative conjunction? a kenning? What’s the difference between Naturalism and Realism? Who the heck was Samuel Johnson, and why did he suggest kicking that rock? Why shouldn’t maidens go to Carterhaugh? And so on. The so-called “standards” being tested cover ALMOST NO declarative knowledge and so miss much of what constitutes attainment in this subject. Imagine a test of biology that left out almost all world knowledge and covered only biology “skills” like–I don’t know–slide-staining ability–and you’ll get what I mean here. This has been a MAJOR problem with all of these summative standardized tests in ELA since their inception. They don’t assess what students know. Instead, they test, supposedly, a lot of abstract “skills”–the stuff on the Gates/Coleman Common [sic] Core [sic] bullet list, but they don’t even do that.

Second, much of attainment in ELA involves mastery of procedural knowledge–knowledge of what to do. E.g.: How do you format a Works Cited page? How do you plan the plot of a standard short story? What step-by-step procedure could you follow to do that? How do you create melody in your speaking voice? How do you revise to create sentence variety or to emphasize a particular point? What specific procedures can you carry out to accomplish these things? But the authors of these “standards” didn’t think that concretely, in terms of particular procedural knowledge. Instead, in imitation of the lowest-common-denominator-group-think state “standards” that preceded theirs, they chose to deal in vague, poorly conceived abstractions. The “standards” being tested define skills so vaguely and so generally that they cannot, as written, be sufficiently operationalized, to be VALIDLY tested.  They literally CANNOT be, as in, this is an impossibility on the level of drawing a square circle. Given, for example, the extraordinarily wide variety of types of narratives (jokes, news stories, oral histories, tall tales, etc.) and the enormous number of skills that it requires to produce narratives of various kinds (writing believable dialogue, developing a conflict, characterization via action, characterization via foils, showing not telling, establishing a point of view, etc.), there can be no single prompt that tests for narrative writing ability IN GENERAL. But this is a broader problem. In general, the tests ask one or two multiple-choice questions per “standard.” But what one or two multiple-choice questions could you ask to find out if a student is able, IN GENERAL, to “make inferences from text” (the first of the many literature “standards” at each grade level in the Gates/Coleman bullet list)? Obviously, you can’t. There are three very different kinds of inference–induction, deduction, and abduction–and whole sciences devoted to problems in each, and texts vary so considerably, and types of inferences from texts do as well, that no such testing of GENERAL “inferring from texts” ability is even remotely possible. A moment’s clear, careful thought should make this OBVIOUS. So, the tests do not even validly test for what they purport to test for, and all this invalidity in testing for each “standard” doesn’t–cannot–add up to validity overall.

Third, nothing that students do on these exams even remotely resembles what real readers and writers do with real texts in the real world. Ipso facto, the tests cannot be valid tests of actual reading and writing. People read for one of two reasons—to find out what an author thinks about a subject or to have an interesting, engaging, vicarious experience. The tests, and the curricula based on them, don’t help students to do either. Imagine, for example, that you wish to respond to this post, but instead of agreeing or disagreeing with what I’ve said and explaining why, you are limited to explaining how my use of figurative language (the tests are a miasma) affected the tone and mood of my post. See what I mean? But that’s precisely the kind of thing that the writing prompts on the Common [sic] Core [sic] ELA tests do and the kind of thing that one finds, now, in ELA courseware. This whole testing enterprise has trivialized education in the English language arts and has replaced normal interaction with texts with such freakish, contorted, scholastic nonsense.

Fourth, a lot of attainment in ELA is not about explicit learning, at all, but, rather, about acquisition via automatic processes. So, for example, your knowledge (or lack thereof) of explicit models of the grammar of your native tongue has almost nothing to do with your internalized grammar of the language. But the ELA standardized tests and the “standards” on which they are based were conceived in blissful ignorance of this (and of much else that is now known about language acquisition).

Fifth, standard standardized test development procedures require that the testing instrument be validated. Such validation requires that the test maker show that results for the the test and for particular test items and test item types correlate strongly with other accepted measures of what is being tested. No such validation has been done for any of the new generation of state and national standardized ELA tests. None. And, given the vagueness of the “standards,” none could be. Where is the independent measure of proficiency on Common Core State Standard ELA.11-12.4b against which the items on the state and national measures have been validated? Answer: There is no such measure. None. So, the tests fail to meet a minimal standard for a high-stakes standardized assessment–that they have been independently validated.

The test formats are inappropriate.

The new state and national tests consist largely of objective-format items (multiple-choice and so-called evidence-based selected response items, or EBSR). On these tests, such item formats are pressed into a kind of service for which they are, generally, not appropriate. They are used to test what in EdSpeak is called “higher-order thinking.” The test questions therefore tend to be tricky and convoluted. The test makers, these days, all insist on all the multiple-choice distracters, or possible answers, being “plausible.” The student is to choose the “best” answer from among a list of plausible answers. Well, what does plausible mean? It means “reasonable.” In other words, on these tests, many reasonable answers are, BY DESIGN, wrong answers! So, the test questions end up being extraordinarily complex and confusing and tricky–impossible for kids to answer, because the “experts” who designed these tests didn’t understand the most basic stuff about creating assessments, for example, that objective question formats are generally not great for testing so-called “higher-order thinking” and are best reserved for testing straight recall. The use of these inappropriate formats, coupled with the sloppiness of the test-creation procedures, results in question after question where there is, arguably, no correct answer among the answer choices given or one or more choices that are arguably correct. Often, the question is written so badly that it is not, arguably, answerable given the actual question stem and text provided. I did an analysis of the sample released questions from a recent FSA ELA practice exam and demonstrated that such was the case for almost all the questions on the exam, so sloppily had it been prepared. But I can’t release that for fear of being sued by the scam artists who peddle these tests to people who aren’t even allowed to see them. Hey, I’ve got some great land in Flor-uh-duh. Take my word for it. Available cheap (but not available for inspection).

The tests are diagnostically and instructionally useless.

Many kinds of assessment—diagnostic assessment, formative assessment, performative assessment, some classroom summative assessment—have instructional value. They can be used to inform instruction and/or are themselves instructive. The results of the high-stakes standardized tests are not broken down in any way that is of diagnostic or instructional use. Teachers and students cannot even see the tests to find out what students got wrong on them and why. The results always come too late to be of any use, anyway. So the tests are of no diagnostic or instructional value. None. None whatsoever.

The tests have enormous opportunity costs.

I estimate that, nationwide, schools are now spending a third of the school year on state standardized tests. That time includes the actual time spent taking the tests, the time spent taking pretests and benchmark tests and other practice tests, the time spent doing test prep materials, the time spent doing exercises and activities in textbooks and online materials that have been modeled on the test questions in order to prepare kids to answer questions of those kinds, and the time spent on reporting, data analysis, data chats, proctoring, and other test housekeeping. That’s all lost instructional time.

The tests have enormous direct, incurred costs.

Typically, the US spends 1.7 billion per year under direct contracts for state standardized testing.  The PARCC contract by itself was worth over a billion dollars to Pear$on in the first three years, and you have to add the cost of SBAC and the other state tests to that. No one, to my knowledge, has accurately estimated the cost of the computer upgrades that were (and continue to be) necessary for online testing of every child, but those costs vastly exceed the amount spent on the tests themselves. Then add the costs of test prep materials and staff doing proctoring and data chats and so on. Then add the costs of new curricula that have been dumbed down to be test preppy. Billions and billions and billions. This is money that could be spent on stuff that matters—on making sure that poor kids have eye exams and warm clothes and food in their bellies, on making sure that libraries are open and that schools have nurses on duty to keep kids from dying. How many dead kids is all this testing worth, given that it is, again, invalid as assessment and of no diagnostic or instructional value?

The tests dramatically distort curricula and pedagogy.

The tests drive how and what people teach and much of what is created by curriculum developers. These distortions are grave. In U.S. curriculum development today, the tail is wagging the dog. To an enormous extent, we’ve basically replaced traditional English curricula with test prep. Where before, a student might open a literature textbook and study a coherent unit on The Elements of the Short Story or on The Transcendentalists, he or she now does random exercises, modeled on the standardized test questions, in which he or she “practices” random “skills” from the Gates/Coleman bullet list on random snippets of text. There’s enormous pressure on schools to do all test prep all the time because school and student and teacher and administrator evaluations depend upon the test results. Every courseware producer in the U.S. now begins every ELA or math project by making a spreadsheet with a list of the “standards” in the first column and the place where the “standard” will be “covered” in the other columns. And since the standards are a random list of vague skills, the courseware becomes random as well. The era of coherent, well-planned curricula is gone. I won’t go into detail about this, here, but this is an ENORMOUS problem. Many of the best courseware writers and editors I know have quit in disgust at this. The testing mania has brought about devolution and trivialization of our methods and materials.

The tests are abusive and demotivating.

Our prime directive as educators should be to nurture intrinsic motivation in order to create independent, life-long learners. The tests create climates of anxiety and fear. Both science and common sense teach that extrinsic punishment and reward systems like this testing system are highly DEMOTIVATING for cognitive tasks. See this:

https://search.yahoo.com/search?fr=mcafee&type=C111US662D20151202&p=daniel+pink+drive+rsa

The summative standardized testing system is a backward extrinsic punishment and reward approach to motivation. It reminds me of the line from the alphabet in the Puritan New England Primer, the first textbook published on these shores:

F
The idle Fool
Is whip’t in school

The tests have shown no positive results; they have not improved outcomes, and they have not reduced achievement gaps.

We have been doing this standards-and-standardized-testing stuff for more than two decades now. Richard Rothstein, the education statistician, has shown that turning our nation’s schools into test prep outfits has resulted in very minor increases in overall mathematics outcomes (increases of less than 2 percent on independent tests of mathematical ability) and NO IMPROVEMENT WHATSOEVER in ELA. Simply from the Hawthorne Effect, we should have seen some improvement. Rothstein also showed that even if you accept as valid the results from international comparative tests, if you correct for the socioeconomic level of the students taking those tests, US students are NOT behind those in other advanced, industrialized nations. So, the rationale for the testing madness was false from the start. The issue is not “failing schools” and “failing teachers” but POVERTY. We have a lot of poor kids in the US, and those kids take the tests in higher numbers than elsewhere. Arguably, all the testing we’ve been doing has actually decreased outcomes, which is consistent with what we know about the demotivational effects, for cognitive tasks, of extrinsic punishment and reward systems. Years ago, I watched a seagull repeatedly striking at his own reflection in a plate glass window, until I finally drove him away to keep him from killing himself. Whatever that seagull did, the one in the reflection kept coming back for more. It’s the height of stupidity to look at a clearly failed approach and to say, “Gee, we should do a lot more of that.” But that’s just what the Gates-funded disrupters of U.S. education–those paid cheerleaders for the Common [sic] Core [sic] and testing and depersonalized education software based on the Core [sic] and the tests are asking us to do. Enough.

In state after state in which the new generation of standardized tests has been been given, we have seen enormous failure rates. In the first year, fewer than half the students at New Trier, Adlai Steven, and Hinsdale Central–the best public schools in Illinois–passed the new PARCC math tests. In New York, in the first year of PARCC, 70% of the students failed the ELA exams and 69% the math exams. In New Jersey, 55% of students in 3-8 failed the new state reading test, and 56% the new math test. The year after, Florida delayed and delayed releasing the scores for its new ELA and math exams. Then they announced that they weren’t going to release only T-scores and percentiles but were still working on setting cut scores for proficiency. LOL. Criterion-based testing, as opposed to norm-referenced testing, is supposed to set absolute standards that students must meet in order to demonstrate proficiency. I suspect that what happened that year in Florida–the reason for the resounding silence from the state–is that the scores were so low that they couldn’t set cut scores at any reasonable level without having everyone fail.

Decades of mandated federal high-stakes testing hasn’t improved outcomes and hasn’t reduced achievement gaps. NAEP results improved a tiny, tiny bit in the first years of the testing because when you teach kids the formats of test questions, their scores will improve slightly. Then, after that, NAEP results went FLAT. No improvement, whatsoever, for a decade and a half. But the testing has had results: it has trivialized ELA curricula and pedagogy and wasted enormous resources that could have been used productively elsewhere.

The test makers are not held accountable.

All students taking these tests and all teachers administering them have to sign forms stating that they will not reveal anything about the test items, and the items are no longer released, later, for public scrutiny, and so there is no check whatsoever on the test makers. They can publish any sloppy crap with complete impunity. I would love to see the tests outlawed and a national truth and reconciliation effort put into place to hold the test makers accountable, financially, for the scam they have been perpetrating.

Anyone who supports or participates in this testing is committing child abuse. Have you proctored these tests and seen the kids squirming and crying and throwing up? Have you seen them FURIOUS afterward because of the trickiness of the tests? I have.

Standardized testing is a vampire. It sucks the lifeblood from our schools. Put a stake in it.

NB: I would love to be able to post, here, analyses of the sample release questions from ELA tests by the major companies, but I can’t because I would be sued. However, it’s easy enough to show that most of the questions are so badly written that AS WRITTEN, they don’t have a single correct answer, have more than one arguably correct answer, or are unanswerable.

It’s time to make the testing companies answerable for their rapacious duplicity and for stealing from any entire generation of kids the opportunity for humane education in the English language arts.

 

For more of my writing about Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

I’ve written a lot about Ed Reform over the years, and especially about its effects on U.S. pedagogy and curricula. If you don’t want to wade through all that, good places to start are here:

https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/stopping-by-school-on-a-disruptive-afternoon/

and here:

https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/the-coring-of-the-six-hundred-with-apologies-to-alfred-lord-tennyson/

and here:

https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/on-developing-curricula-in-the-age-of-the-thought-police/

and here:

https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/what-happens-when-amateurs-write-standards/

and here:

https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/on-the-pseudoscience-of-strategies-based-reading-comprehension-instruction-or-what-current-comprehension-instruction-has-in-common-with-astrology/

Posted in Ed Reform, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Moveable Feast


Art: Edited version of Turkey Vulture, Arizona 02.jpg, VJAnderson / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Posted in Art, Humor, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tracking the Progress of Moronavirus trumpinski

  • “We have it totally under control. . . . It’s going to be just fine.” –IQ45, Jan 22
  • “We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment–five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.” –IQ45, Jan 30
  • “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. . . . Stock market starting to look very good to me.” –IQ45, Feb 24
  • “We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are . . . getting better. They’re all getting better. . . . As far as what we’re doing with the new virus, I think that we’re doing a great job.” –IQ45, Feb 25
  • “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” –IQ45, Feb 26
  • “Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible.” –IQ45, Feb26
  • “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear.” –IQ45, Feb 28
  • “One of my people came up to me and said, ‘Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. . . .They tried anything. … And this is their new hoax.” –IQ45, Feb 28
  • ‘We had a great meeting today with a lot of the great companies, and they’re going to have vaccines, I think relatively soon.” –IQ45, March 2
  • “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.” –IQ45, March 6
  • “And I like this stuff. You know, my uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT I think for like a record number of years. He was a great super genius. Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand. Everyone of these doctors they say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have been that instead of running for President.” –IQ45, March 6
  • “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. . . . Nothing is shut down. Life and the economy go on.” –IQ45, March 9
  • “And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” –IQ45, March 10
  • “It’s going to go away. . . . The United States, because of what I did and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths at this point. . . . When you look at the kind of numbers that you’re seeing coming out of other countries, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it.” –IQ45, March 12
  • “Federal Government is working very well with the governors and state officials. Good things will happen!” –IQ45, March 17
  • “I’ve always known this is a real–this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic . . . always viewed it as very serious.” –Liar in Chief, March 17
  • “No, I’ve always viewed it as very serious. There was no difference yesterday from days before.” –Liar in Chief, March 17
  • “We’re going to be opening very soon. . . . We’re opening up this incredible country. . . . I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter. . . . churches full of people.” –Magical Fantasyland Barbie in Chief, March 24

    For more on the breathtakingly vile and clownish Jabba the Trump/IQ45 Maladministration, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

Posted in Humor, Trump (Don the Con) | 2 Comments

Trumpty Press Conference, May 2020

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

IQ45 (wearing flak jacket and camo MAGA hat): Is this mike on? OK. Some of my people—Stephen Miller, here, good man—wanted me to read a speech from the teleprompter. And I respect that. I respect that. But I don’t read, and that’s what politicians do. I know. I know. Believe me. They read their Fake News, make stuff up. Democrats. Can’t trust them. You know who you can trust? You do, don’t you? Donald Trump. Never told a lie. So no. No teleprompter. I’m just going to tell you what I think, OK? Always have. Always have.

You know, I heard–they told me–this message is going out to the biggest crowd for a political speech ever. Biggest crowd. Well, those left alive. Obama ever get a crowd like that? Biggest ever.

Fortunately, when this whole thing started, we got behind it early. Great team. The best. I stopped it completely when I ordered that cruise ship to stay away. Done. Finished. People said to me, “Thank you, Mr. President. Great job.” Maybe the best job of any president ever. Nothing like it. Winner.

But then Hunter Biden came back from Ukraine with this Corona Flu and it started all over again. What’r’ya gonna do? What’r’ya gonnna do? I know. These people are crazy. They’ll do anything. Anything.

But I knew. I knew early on—because I had this uncle at MIT—brilliant guy—genius—this was going to get bad. How bad? Bad I said. That’s why I sent checks out to everybody. Signed “Donald Trump.” Biggest checks ever. But the Democrats and the Fake News blocked me all the way. Disgraceful. They’re a disgrace.

What’s why, effective immediately, I’m declaring martial law. And heading up this effort, as our new Secretary of Defense, will be my daughter, Ivanka. Isn’t she just something? Come over here, Ivanka? I tell you what, if I wasn’t her father. . . . woah. You’re gonna do a great job Ivanka. Thank you.

And, of course, we don’t want people handling ballots or using touch screens. Especially all those fake voters coming in from Mexico. So that’s why we’re suspending the elections until 2028. Just as a safety precaution during this health crisis. Because the safety of the American people is my number one priority. We love America. And America? America loves Donald Trump.

Coronaflu, we got you!

And yes, the incidents with the attacks on Chinese Americans and Democrats were bad, and I’ve issued a very stern warning to Aryans for a Lifetime Presidency about that. Some of them good people. Good people on both sides. The last thing we want is panic. And don’t worry, Ivanka is making sure that there will be plenty of ammo.

But if you want to get out of the country for a while, we’ve got this great club in Ireland—Trump International Golf Links and Hotel. And Ivanka, Ivanka? They will be getting military escorts to the hotel, am I right?

IVANKA: Yes, Daddy.

IQ45: So there. Another problem solved. They tell me, I’ve got a knack for this kind of thing. They call me up and say, “You know, I never saw anybody just knows what the right thing to do is. We’ve got scientists don’t know that.” See what I mean?

God Bless you. And Make America Grate Again.

For more on the breathtakingly vile and clownish Jabba the Trump/IQ45 Maladministration, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

Posted in Humor, Trump (Don the Con) | 1 Comment