Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Don't Know What a Slide Ruler's For"

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Peter Wood makes the point that Bill Gates is bugging Congress for more H-1B visas because Americans have fallen behind in math and science.

This is something I've neglected harping on here due to my steadfast devotion to bitching about how most young people can't read, write, or think about history for extended periods of time: they also can't do basic math or understand how things work. Lucky for me that I don't teach in these areas, or I would have put a soldering iron through my temple by now.

I wouldn't say that I understand everything Greg is talking about in his papers; but, unlike many in the humanities, I have a working knowledge of a few sciences (geology and biology mostly, and basic phsyics) and can handle university level math without my head exploding. It's bizarre to me how many people I meet in History who can't even handle basic statistics and think their innumeracy is just a cute quirk. Not even.

Wood claims that the main problem is "self esteem education", and gets off this funny, bitchy line:
What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who "feel good" about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate
their meager attainments.
Wood also blames the "diversity agenda", which I think he is suggesting nullifies competition between students, and "sustainability", which... well, I don't really know what he's getting at there. He complains about Larry Summers getting fired and the push to get more girls screwing around with test tubes. And he complains about the, "the make-it-up-as-you-go-along insouciance that characterizes so many variants of postmodernism", with "postmodernism" here, yet again, being shorthand for "oh, you tell me what the hell I'm refering to".

I would guess that most people don't try very hard at math and science for the same reason they don't make much effort in the humanities- just because they don't feel they have to. Certainly overinflated self esteem would seem to play a part here, as would the increasing tendency to treat education as a pleasant buffet where the "consumer" only takes whatever strikes their fancy. And, of course, people who aren't trying really should be failing- grade inflation is way out of control in all levels of education.

Lastly, I know it flies in the face of that "diversity agenda", but you also notice a striking nationalism in many young people. I've met any number of Americans from university-age to a bit older than me who accept as axiomatic the idea that every other nation on earth is just a wee bit pathetic in comparison to the United States. Like overinflated "self esteem" this belief is not dependent on any particular criteria; it's just the facts. So, I'd not be surprised to find that many young people see the H-1B visa holders as coming to the US from the "third world" (and I'm amazed at just how many other countries people my age think of as belonging to the "third world", a term that makes no sense now that the "second world" no longer exists) to do our harder work for us. For nationalists, being an immigrant is never a source of pride in the same way as it is to be a native-born citizen. People from other countries need to make more of an effort. We just are. In other words, one of the benefits of being "on top" is that you can choose where and when you want to try.
But, hey, maybe they're just really lazy!


Holly said...

in no particular order...

I thought being an immigrant in America, and "making it"-- getting on top of language, owning a house, sending kids to college, used to be a source of pride? Now it seems like immigrants are supposed to be ashamed that their home country wasn't cutting it, and that they are leeching off the ever-supercilious Americans.

The American superiority complex is in some ways very like how the British come off... Oh, poor things, who weren't so lucky to be born British. It's not your fault, poor dears, but you could never have what we have. WE were born with it.

For probably a variety of reasons, we often encounter people here who are surprised to discover that we are Americans who have chosen to live here. Still not sure why that's baffling. Maybe because it's relatively rare? Or maybe because there's some perception that Americans with a choice would SURELY not choose to go somewhere else.

And yet, we're here for *exactly* the reasons that the US is having a brain drain and a need for incoming intellectual professional fresh meat.

Go figure.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I've met some arrogant Brits in my time too. On the other hand, they did have Shakespeare. Actually, I met a British girl working at the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris who was nearly insufferable.

I'm always shocked at how few of my students have been to Canada, since they live fifteen minutes from the border. But, again, when I ask, they tell me that Canada's a "third world country" so why would they want to go there?

What's more depressing though is meeting Americans my age who seem to think there's something nerdy or stupid about living in other countries. I've gotten that a few times too many as well.

Oh, and I do get the same thing in Canada- they ask why I'd want to live here.

Holly said...

I'm going to have to pretend that no one in fucking college is pathetic enough to refer to goddamn CANADA as a 3rd world country.

Can you just tell me you're yanking my chain? It'd make me feel better.

Rufus said...

Okay... I, uh, made that up. Definitely not something that happened with a class the last semester that I was TAing.

Holly said...

oh goddammit


Rufus said...

I love that there's a term for that. I'll have to start using it.