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Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player

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Cal Newport writes in his blog:

I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.

This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.

Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.

“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.

I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.

As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.

Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.” . . .

Continue reading.

Newport notes later:

This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts: . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

21 June 2019 at 8:06 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Music

California report card

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Kevin Drum has an interesting post on how California measures up these days, and it’s worth looking at if that sort of thing interests you. (I am reminded of a friend whose recommendations often ran, “It’s the sort of thing you’d like if you like that sort of thing.) But since California does represent a certain cross-section of America, and since I lived there for more than 30 years, it seems of interest to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2019 at 12:25 pm

Why Jessica Biel Is Wrong about Science and Vaccines

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James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic:

One morning in 1934, panicked passengers jumped from the deck of the SS Morro Castle as it sank just off the coast of New Jersey. The ocean liner had caught fire, and the passengers had rushed to grab personal flotation devices. But some improperly wrapped the life preservers around their necks. As they fell and hit the water, the torque snapped their spines.

Personal flotation devices save exponentially more lives than they cost. Of the catastrophic boating accidents that occur daily, 84 percent of people who drown were not wearing one. But etch the details of this horrific wreck sceneinto one’s mind, and a person might become a life-preserver skeptic. Our basic tendency toward short-term thinking means we judge risk based on whatever is in front of us. We draw anxiety disproportionately from wherever we happen to be focusing our attention.

The same psychology applies throughout public health. At the moment, much attention in the U.S. is being paid to vaccines—rather than the diseases they prevent. This week, the actor Jessica Biel drew fiery eyes for lobbyinglegislators in California to kill a bill that would standardize the process of exempting children from required vaccinations. Biel, perhaps best known for her leading role in 2006’s The Illusionist, expressed concern for the well-being of a friend’s child. She has responded to accusations of being “anti-vax” by contending in an Instagram post that she “believes in vaccinations,” but wants to protect personal freedom: “I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients.”

Like life preservers and everything else, vaccines do come with some fleeting risk of unintended adverse outcomes: mostly rashes or fevers, and in extremely rare cases, seizures. But these risks pale in comparison with those of the diseases vaccines prevent. Before the advent of vaccination, measles alone killed some 6,000 children in the United States every year.

This year has already seen more measles cases than any other since the disease was declared eliminated two decades ago. The trend stems from low rates of vaccination, which are making exemptions from vaccine requirements a flash point. California has triggered a reckoning with why exemptions exist at all—and why belief came to factor so heavily into a question of science. When is a health issue a matter of belief, and when is it simply wrong? When is it so wrong that it’s neglect?

No federal law requires vaccination. But every state mandates that in order to send a child to public school—to have that child sit in close quarters with other children all day, every day—parents must take preventive measures to ensure the child does not carry certain dangerous infections. Requirements are implicit in the legal precedent that withholding vaccination constitutes “medical neglect” of a child. Legally, for example, it’s considered neglect to let a cut on a child’s arm get infected and then refuse antibiotics. If that infection had been airborne, as with measles, declining treatment as a child gasps for air would also be textbook neglect. It has been deemed neglect in cases where infectious diseases could have been easily prevented, but weren’t.

Researchers at Ohio State recently reviewed cases across the country from 1905 to 2016 and found that a majority of the time, refusing vaccination was found to be neglect. There was a curious caveat, though. In states with “religious exemptions,” parents did not have to follow public-health mandates to vaccinate their children against measles and other diseases if the parents cited “genuine and sincere religious beliefs.” The Ohio State researchers found that in these states, vaccine refusal did not constitute neglect—or it was considered neglect only if someone’s belief was deemed insufficiently “sincere.”

Religious exemptions have slowly expanded in the United States, to the point that now, in almost every state, parents can opt out of school requirements—and leave a child open to catching and spreading lethal diseases to other children—if doing so is guided by what the state considers a sincere belief. In such cases, the same behavior is not neglect.

Exemptions have expanded to include “personal or philosophical belief” exemptions as well, which are currently offered in 17 states. When the standard is sincerity of belief, the thinking goes, it shouldn’t have to be drawn from a major religion (or even a minor one).

Accordingly, the number of people taking up belief-based exemptions has been steadily increasing, and rates of vaccination declining. The constitutionality of vaccine requirements is well established, and courts have found states are not obligated to grant religious exemptions. Nevertheless, the overall effect of such respect for the concept of personal belief has been that, gradually, vaccine requirements have become requirements in name only.

The return of measles, though, is forcing a breaking point. In 2015, a measles outbreak was traced back to a single child at Disneyland. California health officials saw that the outbreak happened not simply because of one unvaccinated child, but because only 90 percent of kindergartners in the state were fully immunized. To establish herd immunity for measles, a community needs 94 percent of people on board. . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including the rise of rogue doctors who sell immunization exemptions.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2019 at 1:40 pm

Better Schools Won’t Fix America

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A forceful and cogent article in the Atlantic by Nick Hanauer:

Long ago, i was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

Whenever i talk with my wealthy friends about the dangers of rising economic inequality, those who don’t stare down at their shoes invariably push back with something about the woeful state of our public schools. This belief is so entrenched among the philanthropic elite that of America’s 50 largest family foundations—a clique that manages $144 billion in tax-exempt charitable assets—40 declare education as a key issue. Only one mentions anything about the plight of working people, economic inequality, or wages. And because the richest Americans are so politically powerful, the consequences of their beliefs go far beyond philanthropy.

A major theme in the educationist narrative involves the “skills gap”—the notion that decades of wage stagnation are largely a consequence of workers not having the education and skills to fill new high-wage jobs. If we improve our public schools, the thinking goes, and we increase the percentage of students attaining higher levels of education, particularly in the STEM subjectsscience, technology, engineering, and math—the skills gap will shrink, wages will rise, and income inequality will fall.

The real story is more complicated, and more troubling. Yes, there is a mismatch between the skills of the present and the jobs of the future. In a fast-changing, technologically advanced economy, how could there not be? But this mismatch doesn’t begin to explain the widening inequality of the past 40 years.

In 1970, when the golden age of the American middle class was nearing its peak and inequality was at its nadir, only about half of Americans ages 25 and older had a high-school degree or the equivalent. Today, 90 percent do. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans attaining a college degree has more than tripled since 1970. But while the American people have never been more highly educated, only the wealthiest have seen large gains in real wages. From 1979 to 2017, as the average real annual wages of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 156 percent (and the top .01 percent’s wages rose by a stunning 343 percent), the purchasing power of the average American’s paycheck did not increase.

Some educationists might argue that the recent gains in educational attainment simply haven’t been enough to keep up with the changing economy—but here, yet again, the truth appears more complicated. While 34 percent of Americans ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26 percent of jobs currently require one. The job categories that are growing fastest, moreover, don’t generally require a college diploma, let alone a STEM degree. According to federal estimates, four of the five occupational categories projected to add the most jobs to the economy over the next five years are among the lowest-paying jobs: “food preparation and serving” ($19,130 in average annual earnings), “personal care and service” ($21,260), “sales and related” ($25,360), and “health-care support” ($26,440). And while the number of jobs that require a postsecondary education is expected to increase slightly faster than the number that don’t, the latter group is expected to dominate the job market for decades to come. In October 2018 there were 1 million more job openings than job seekers in the U.S. Even if all of these unfilled jobs were in STEM professions at the top of the pay scale, they would be little help to most of the 141 million American workers in the bottom nine income deciles.

It’s worth noting that workers with a college degree enjoy a significant wage premium over those without. (Among people over age 25, those with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $53,882 in 2017, compared with $32,320 for those with only a high-school education.) But even with that advantage, adjusted for inflation, average hourly wages for recent college graduates have barely budged since 2000, while the bottom 60 percent of college graduates earn less than that group did in 2000. A college diploma is no longer a guaranteed passport into the middle class.

Meanwhile, nearly all the benefits of economic growth have been captured by large corporations and their shareholders. After-tax corporate profits have doubled from about 5 percent of GDP in 1970 to about 10 percent, even as wages as a share of GDP have fallen by roughly 8 percent. And the wealthiest 1 percent’s share of pre-tax income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1973 to 21 percent today. Taken together, these two trends amount to a shift of more than $2 trillion a year from the middle class to corporations and the super-rich.

The state of the labor market provides further evidence that low-wage workers’ declining fortunes aren’t explained by supply and demand. With the unemployment rate near a 50-year floor, low-wage industries such as accommodations, food service, and retail are struggling to cope with a shortage of job applicants—leading The Wall Street Journal to lament that “low-skilled jobs are becoming increasingly difficult for employers to fill.” If wages were actually set the way our Econ 101 textbooks suggested, workers would be profiting from this dynamic. Yet outside the cities and states that have recently imposed a substantially higher local minimum wage, low-wage workers have seen their real incomes barely budge.

All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US is broken, and powerful people are determined to keep it from being fixed. Mitch McConnell won’t even allow the US to take steps to protect the next election from Russian interference. And he is getting away with it.

Later in the article:

. . . However justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.

The scientific literature on this subject is robust, and the consensus overwhelming. The lower your parents’ income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period. But instead of focusing on ways to increase household income, educationists in both political parties talk about extending ladders of opportunity to poor children, most recently in the form of charter schools. For many children, though—especially those raised in the racially segregated poverty endemic to much of the United States—the opportunity to attend a good public school isn’t nearly enough to overcome the effects of limited family income.

As Lawrence Mishel, an economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, notes, poverty creates obstacles that would trip up even the most naturally gifted student. He points to the plight of “children who frequently change schools due to poor housing; have little help with homework; have few role models of success; have more exposure to lead and asbestos; have untreated vision, ear, dental, or other health problems; … and live in a chaotic and frequently unsafe environment.”

Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.

If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.

Today, after wealthy elites gobble up our outsize share of national income, the median American family is left with $76,000 a year. Had hourly compensation grown with productivity since 1973—as it did over the preceding quarter century, according to the Economic Policy Institute—that family would now be earning more than $105,000 a year. Just imagine, education reforms aside, how much larger and stronger and better educated our middle class would be if the median American family enjoyed a $29,000-a-year raise. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

10 June 2019 at 8:15 pm

Measles for the 1%

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Lisa Miller has an interesting if somewhat depressing article in The Cut:

On an unseasonably chilly morning in May, three dozen or so plaintiff-parents, most of them from the Green Meadow Waldorf School, showed up at the Rockland County Courthouse, looking, in their draped layers and comfortable shoes, like any PTA from Park Slope or Berkeley. They were virtually vibrating with expectation and stress. For four long months, on behalf of their kids, they had been on the phone, sending off bullet-point emails, arranging meetings, coordinating calendars, and taking time off work, in an endless battle that had so far cost them hours of lost income and created child-care hassles — and made them into national pariahs besides. Today’s proceedings, they hoped, would result in a decision that might enable them to move on with their lives.

When legal arguments began, small smiles appeared on the parents’ faces. The opposition’s lawyer came off as clumsy, like an oversize actor fumbling his lines. Their lawyer, on the other hand, exuded a smooth confidence bordering on arrogance, an attitude that seemed to swell as he approached the lectern. Michael Sussman, 65 years old and educated at Harvard Law, is the most prominent civil-rights crusader in the Hudson Valley, having made his mark at 30, while working for the NAACP, when he helped to desegregate the Yonkers public schools. Now Sussman, who happened to have sent his own seven children and stepchildren to Waldorf schools, was defending his clients against the intrusion of local politicians into their personal decisions and private lives.

As he stood before the judge, Sussman’s voice rose in a slow crescendo. Recent actions by Rockland County against his clients were “infuriating,” he said; they pandered to biased constituencies and were rooted in “fundamental hysteria.” And then he roared. “Executive authority has its limits!” The parents were as still as forest animals, riveted. Their lawyer was articulating what they fervently believed: that even amid the biggest outbreak of measles in the United States since 1994 — with 200 cases in Rockland County, their own backyard — it was their right as citizens not to vaccinate their kids. This conviction had become for them a matter of conscience and principle. Most had kept their kids out of school for almost half the year rather than take them to the pediatrician for a shot.

If you live among or near certain quarters of the progressive left, among the art and fashion and tech elites who shop at farmers’ markets and worry about toxins in the air and water and believe that hiring a doula may gentle today’s medical-industrial approach to giving birth, then you have probably heard of Waldorf schools. Perhaps you have friends whose children go to one, or perhaps you’ve yearned for such a community for your own, knowing that Waldorf signals a countercultural wholesomeness, a respite from the onslaught of modern forces you’re pretty sure aren’t good for kids: the wide-open access to violence, snark, and pornography available with every Wi-Fi connection; the birthday-party goody bags stuffed with plastic crap; the stress and anxiety you see on very young children already worried about how they’ll do on the test. If you are the kind of person who sees self-interested, app-driven American capitalism as a threat to the preciousness of childhood and to a durable, intimate family life, then you are, at least conceptually, in Waldorf’s prospective audience. Waldorf parents, many of whom are themselves deluged by busyness and stress, agree that they will expose their children to no technology — none, including television, movies, and recorded music, even on long car rides — until middle school. The parents who work at Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard and send their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Menlo Park, California, endorse these limits with psychic relief — they know too well what their kids need protection from.

Waldorf pioneered this off-piste approach to raising kids, but it does not have a monopoly on the many ways liberal parents try to circumvent the institutionalized options that dominate the public-school system: “free” schools; home-school collectives; schools boasting “child-centered learning”; mountain, backcountry, or farming schools. There are about 300 Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired institutions in the U.S. (and more than 3,000 worldwide). Each offers an arts-based curriculum in which children are encouraged to play outdoors, use their imaginations, and think for themselves. In Waldorf schools, children become proficient at knitting and sewing, gardening and painting. Waldorf kids know how to juggle at young ages and to bind books by hand as teenagers. No one wastes a precious minute prepping for or taking a standardized test, because everyone on a Waldorf campus agrees that children are far more than brains to be filled, unreflectively, with meaningless facts and that real learning happens when the body — and the soul — are engaged as well.

Overwhelmingly white, affluent, and well educated, Waldorf parents identify as cultural creatives and nonconformists. Satisfied families describe their Waldorf kids as puppyish, freewheeling Pippi Longstocking types who grow up into intellectually curious, competent, self-confident people who thrive, as Sussman boasts his own children have done, at Wesleyan and Swarthmore and Oxford, working as videographers, nature illustrators, and the builders of nonprofits. Eric Utne, founder of The Utne Reader, that alternative digest for the left, sent his four sons to Waldorf schools; when he stopped running his magazine in 2000, he became a Waldorf teacher himself. Utne loves Waldorf for its “unhurried” approach to childhood. The schools represent the progressive counterargument to the vaunted “early reading” programs of public schools, which start drilling kids on vowel sounds in pre-K. According to Waldorf’s pedagogy, kids don’t read until they’re 7 or 8 years old, and because they’re not forced or rushed into it, they embrace literature with natural interest and hunger, Utne told me. He has seen third-graders devouring Plato and the fantasy series Dune.

Across the country, in every state, great numbers of these specially nurtured children remain unvaccinated. Apart from certain religious or ethnic groups particular to certain geographic regions — pockets of the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn and Rockland, say, or pockets of the survivalist right — Waldorf kids have some of the lowest vaccination rates in America. In California, Waldorf schools, along with home schools, have some of the lowest vaccination rates — many as low as 20 or 30 percent, and some as low as 7 percent. The Brooklyn Waldorf school has the ninth-lowest vaccination rate in Kings County, and in Manhattan, the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf school is No. 7. At the start of the school year in 2018, Green Meadow had the third-lowest vaccination rate in Rockland County after two yeshivas in Monsey. “All the Waldorf schools are horrible,” says Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “There are several in Texas I would not consider safe for children.”

All states require kids to prove they’ve received a full schedule of vaccinations before they enter school. But a large majority of them, 47, also offer exemptions to parents who say their religious or spiritual beliefs prohibit vaccination, granting them a kind of “conscientious objector” status. And 16 states offer a broader “philosophical” exemption to those who wish to refuse vaccines on secular but moral grounds. Objectors have typically been members of very conservative or fringe sects who believe, for example, in the healing power of prayer or, as in the case of Christian Science, the ability of the mind to resist disease. The Amish have often opposed vaccination, and certain Muslim groups, especially those originating in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but also the Nation of Islam, have regarded vaccination as a malevolent government conspiracy. Segments of the Dutch Reformed Church see vaccines as impeding a person’s divine destiny.

In recent years, the number of parents seeking religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions has grown, and it is increasing little by little every year. Jews, including ultra-Orthodox groups, have traditionally accepted vaccination, but as this year’s outbreak in and around New York City shows, that is changing. Fears of vaccines causing autism persist, but that is only one thread of the story. A second thread, Hotez believes, is predatory peddlers of disinformation targeting especially vulnerable communities in order to market alternative therapies. But the phenomenon is much more expansive than even that. In the 2017–18 school year, 7,044 kindergartners in Texas had nonmedical exemptions. There were 3,344 in Washington State; 3,427 in Oregon; 4,753 in Michigan; and approximately 2,000 each in New Jersey and New York. But the number of unvaccinated children in the U.S., though small, has risen significantly in the past year. According to the CDC, the percentage of unvaccinated children increased from 0.8 percent in 2016 to 1.1 percent in 2017. These three tiny decimal points represent a huge increase to about 63,555 unvaccinated kids a year. And vaccination refusal is a contagion, like the measles. People who don’t vaccinate their children tend to live among people who also don’t vaccinate their children.

How and when did liberal parents travel so far from Dr. Spock? The measles vaccine was approved in 1963, six years before Americans landed on the Moon, at a moment when technological progress was a joyride Americans took en masse. But in one generation, the kids of those Spock-raised kids have seemingly lost faith in progress and in the wisdom of the conventional wisdom, regarding every figure along that formerly congenial hierarchy — the scientists, the pharmaceutical companies, the government approvers, the politicians, even the wise and gentle pediatricians — as an object of suspicion and a plausible agent of the systemic harm that is being done, unconscionably, to kids. And in place of faith in experts, they have developed an alternative parenting culture built on anxiety about all the ills that might befall children (sickness, damage, death) and a sense that they, and only they, know how to protect the specialness, and purity, of their kids. To preserve that sanctity, parents have to begin to regard the material world — everything from movies to memes to vaccines — as contaminating. In some circles, at least, liberal American parents have evolved from emulating the Jetsons to emulating the Amish in one generation, always with the insistence that they’re doing it for the kids.

n almost every Waldorf kindergarten, the walls are pink. Not just a flat hardware-store pink but a dappled, translucent, rosy pink. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian intellectual who started the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1919, called the method of application Lasur, German for “glaze.” According to Steiner’s color theory (derived from Goethe, whom he admired), kindergarten walls ought to be comforting but not confining, so a child can feel that the boundary between indoors and outdoors is in some sense permeable. The décor in a Waldorf kindergarten is prescribed as well. It looks domestic but intentional, like Little House on the Prairie went to Stockholm on vacation. There are usually curtains, also pink or red, and a table where items from the natural world are displayed: a vase of flowers, a handful of seashells, leaves, rocks. There may be a kitchen. Housework — including sweeping, gardening, baking, and darning — is a regular part of every day.

Every toy in a Waldorf kindergarten is constructed from natural materials. The tea set, including the cups and saucers, is carved of wood, and the stuffed kitties are knitted wool. Waldorf cloth dolls, famously, wear no facial expression, so children can feel free to impose their own ideas of mood and character on their make-believe games instead of receiving cues from a mass manufacturer. A Waldorf kindergarten is also stocked with ordinary objects — blocks, scarves, bits of yarn — that children can use to build their imaginary worlds. “Anything can be anything” is what Waldorf teachers say.

“My son can knit, he can sew, he can light fires, he can forage,” says Susanne Madden, a small-business owner with a first-grader at Green Meadow. “If the zombie apocalypse were tomorrow, he will be fine, but the kid next door, who’s on his iPad all the time, he won’t. My child is not in the grind, he has no anxiety, he’s not being dragged from place to place. He’ll happily play with two sticks, two stones, and a hedge.”

Madden picked up a pamphlet advertising Green Meadow at a farmers’ market. She went to school in Ireland, and her husband is Irish, and when their child was born, they realized they wanted something more nurturing than a conventional public school. They visited Green Meadow and felt right at home. Although Waldorf schools have tried to adapt to the modern world, they retain an antiquated, mystical, European feel: With its low buildings and wooden bridges set in a grassy dell, Green Meadow looks as if its architects had been hobbits. In the early grades, kids are taught fables, myths, and fairy tales — often from the Brothers Grimm and other children’s stories popular in Steiner’s day — which they are expected to memorize. As soon as they are able, they copy the stories they’ve memorized into blank books in their best cursive writing, eventually using fountain pens, and illustrate them, so by the end of the year each child has made what amounts to an illuminated manuscript. Math is taught through games with little faceless gnome toys — like Smurfs or trolls, if they were made by hand and sold at craft fairs. Every Waldorf child learns to play a special wooden recorder, called a pentatonic flute, and, even in high school, to dance, in broad, careful motions, sometimes waving silk scarves or toy swords, according to a choreography Steiner invented called “eurythmy.” Each fall, most Waldorf communities gather to celebrate Michaelmas with a pageant that enacts the story of St. George slaying the dragon. In Waldorf performances, he merely “tames” it.

Steiner developed his belief system (which Waldorf people call “a spiritual philosophy”), known as “anthroposophy,” after having personal experiences in which he spoke with the dead and had visions in which he saw the plans of the gods. Although Waldorf schools say they’re secular and no teacher ever explicitly instructs children in the tenets of Steiner’s philosophy, this system does form the basis of Waldorf education, as the schools acknowledge: According to an FAQ on the website of the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, “Waldorf education … has its foundations in anthroposophy.”

Of course, very few Green Meadow parents officially identify as anthroposophists. Indeed, most admit, laughing, that they can’t even pronounce the word, and while some dabble in the study groups offered by expert faculty after school, more of them say they’ve attempted to read Steiner and found him incomprehensible. But through osmosis or proximity almost all have come into contact with anthroposophy’s core belief, which they regard with varying degrees of skepticism: Reincarnation and karma are real, and each child is born to particular parents to fulfill a particular destiny.

When Steiner started his Waldorf school, vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough were less than a decade away, and the mystic — watching scientific progress and the rise of industrial-era materialism with a wary eye — warned that vaccination could impede proper spiritual development and “make people lose any urge for a spiritual life.” Without the right interventions, Steiner thought, a person receiving a vaccine could sustain damage that would carry into a subsequent life.

The job of the teacher, then, is a sacred one: to guide children through the stages of childhood with wisdom and gentleness so that each child may attain the freedom, competence, and curiosity to fulfill his or her destiny. Steiner followers say children younger than 7 especially need a low-stress environment, marked by gentle, comforting domestic routines, because they are still partially connected to the spirit world. At age 7 (after they lose, in Waldorf parlance, their “milk teeth”), children come “awake,” which is why the third-grade classrooms are painted orange-yellow and why it’s the right time to teach the kids to read. Fourteen to 21 is a time of  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

1 June 2019 at 9:57 am

The Liberal Sciences and the Lost Arts of Learning

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Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of St. John’s College (Annapolis MD) and a decade later served as director of admissions at that campus for three years. The initial freshman assignment described in the article, drawing a dogwood tree, is since my time, but I think it’s ingenious. The essay notes:

The other question on the lips of students engaged in tree drawing, a not unreasonable one, is “Why are we doing this?” In what possible way would drawing a tree relate to the study of great books?

As an alumnus and one-time teacher, I can say with some certainty that a student who asks such a question will be requested to give an answer, and other students encouraged to join in the discussion. It would be interesting to see what the students come up with.

Brent Orrell writes in Law & Liberty:

When freshmen arrive at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, one of their first assignments is to draw a picture of the dogwood tree that stands near the center of campus. With no training, preparation, even or much in the way of explanation, the students are told to study the tree closely and to render some aspect of it with paper and pencil.

Students say this drawing assignment is surprisingly challenging. Bearing the normal worries of a college freshman, to which are added the prospect of four years of intensive “great books” study covering the canon of Western thought from Aristotle to Einstein, they are directed to observe a tree. The sheer open-endedness of the assignment catches new students flat-footed. Anxious to impress, they are flooded with performance-related fears (“How will I know if I’ve done it right?”), the product of 12 years of graded assignments, tests, and an adolescence spent climbing the greasy pole of secondary school stardom. For St. John’s to work, performative habits, many years in the making, must be undone. Observing the tree and attempting to draw what one sees is the first, halting step in that process.

A Culture of Observation

The other question on the lips of students engaged in tree drawing, a not unreasonable one, is “Why are we doing this?” In what possible way would drawing a tree relate to the study of great books? The St. John’s College seal (above) offers the beginning of an answer to that question. The motto reads, “I make free adults from children by books and a balance.” Those words and symbols are worth pondering. The balance symbolizes the enterprise of modern science which so dominates our intellectual, economic, and social lives that we barely notice it. For most Westerners, there is only one pathway to “real” knowledge and it is embodied in the scientific method. Under the weight of empiricism, other forms of knowledge crumble into opinion. The balance embodies the post-Cartesian counting and measuring that is the means by which we have converted the rest of nature into an instrument of human well-being. The books that surround the balance are the great works of pre-Cartesian learning that propose a different approach to knowledge, scientific and otherwise, based on Aristotelian observation. The question the observational approach poses is not “What can I do with this?” but “What kind of thing is this, and what is it in itself?”

In mid-March, I had the opportunity to spend two days on the St. John’s campus attending science labs and mathematics tutorials to get a better understanding of how the New Program (the name given to St. John’s great books program in the mid-1930s) seeks to achieve integration of the observational and instrumental approaches to the science. The labs and tutorials bear a strong resemblance to the seminars that make up the rest of the St. John’s program. As with the seminars that deal with seminal works of philosophy, history, and literature, the mathematics and science classes are founded on the reading of original texts. Math courses focus on the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Nichomachus, and Leibniz in which students “re-prove” the original proofs of geometry and calculus. Science labs rely on papers written by scientists who first made or articulated key discoveries in physics, chemistry, genetics, and other fields of investigation using the modern scientific method. Frequently, these readings are accompanied by experiments that seek to replicate the results detailed in the papers.

For labs, students assemble in a laboratory room around a square table accommodating 20 to 25 students. The sessions are led by a tutor and the emphasis is on a non-hierarchical instruction and learning. The use of the title of “tutor” de-emphasizes the role of the instructor who is understood to be simply the most advanced student in the room. While almost all tutors have Ph.D.’s, none are addressed as “professor” and their academic training may or may not be in field covered by the lab. (All St. John’s tutors eventually teach every aspect of the program creating a broad, democratized base of knowledge within the faculty.)

The expectation for all classes is that students will have read the text for the class session but tutors do not have a formal lesson plan or learning objective. Typically, a tutor will raise a question for consideration but most of the conversation occurs between the students rather than between the students and the tutor. This points to an important aspect of St. John’s pedagogy: we learn not just by listening but by speaking because it is through spoken articulation that students are forced to assemble disparate thoughts into coherent statement and to have their beliefs and conclusions tested and amended by others in real time. All relevant questions are deemed valid but all assertions and interpretations must be backed by evidence and argument.

Consistent with an observational approach, questions rather than answers form the basis of St. John’s pedagogy generally, including science instruction. One St. John’s graduate described to me how the school approached that staple of biology instruction, frog dissection. In a normal science class, students are prepped to look for certain things (“Find the heart; find the spinal cord; find the lungs”). St. John’s inverts this approach and asks students, “What do you want to know about the frog?” The formulation of the questions precedes the first incision because the incision disrupts the subject. Looking for one thing may obscure other things. The most important issue the student confronts is deciding what is important to know rather than getting answers to instrumental questions of how a particular organ or system works.

A complementary aspect of the St. John’s pedagogy is its emphasis on civil exchange. In the context of higher ed systems that are riven by intersectional conflict, the St. John’s approach is remarkable. Pano Kanelos, the president of the Annapolis campus (St. John’s is collectively made up of two campuses, the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico), noted that while other colleges and universities across the country had experienced a variety of disruptions, protests, and “silencing” of controversial voices, the spirit of open inquiry and civility at St. John has had the effect of channeling those social currents into constructive dialogue. But the Socratic system at St. John’s goes much deeper than just amelioration of strong and strongly held differences between students. The underlying purpose is to develop habits of “good disagreement”: reasoned exchange in which both parties’ primary value is the pursuit of truth rather than intellectual or political victory.

Inside the classroom, tutors and students adopt a formal style, addressing one another as “Mister” or “Ms.”. This is not an affectation but critical to de-personalizing disagreement. Another place you can see this relational strategy is the floor of the U.S. Senate where the rules require members who are often at daggers drawn to address one another through the Senate president and in the third person: “my friend” (often he or she isn’t) or “my esteemed colleague” (often used to veil feelings of contempt). These rhetorical gambits help redirect passions away from the person and toward the subject at hand. In the broader American culture of anger and confrontation these social lubricants are dismissed as hypocrisy. In reality, it is a form of civility that puts guardrails around conflict and helps hold democratic systems together.

Entering the Time-Warp

A St. John’s laboratory session is something of a time-warp. Nominal time proceeds at its usual pace, but class time slows and intensifies. In the sessions I attended, the tutor provided a very brief introduction to the topic and then asked a question directed to an aspect of the paper under discussion. What ensues is what I call, “the Johnnie pause.” Silence in the classroom can be disconcerting, and St. John’s tutors are experts in allowing silence to do its work. It is possible to interpret the pause, as I initially did, as a lack of readiness or a failure to have “done the reading.” In reality, what the pause usually represents is concentrated thought, an effort to come to grips with the concept at hand and the tutor’s question. After a minute or two, a student hazards sharing a thought or question for further deliberation. This thread is picked up by another student to be affirmed, elaborated upon, or challenged. Gradually, the conversations develop momentum with the tutors intervening only if the discussion drifts too far into error or from the subject at hand. Depending on the class, this type of engagement goes on for two hours or more.

As the conversation of the physical phenomenon under discussion grows more complex, language is revealed to be inadequate to the task of describing abstract thought. At this point, students resort to drawing on the chalkboard to more clearly demonstrate their questions and hypotheses and the process of emendation continues in pictures. What this reveals is that scientific investigation is primarily a matter of imagination since the realities being investigated are frequently invisible and incompletely understood. Physical phenomena are described through analogy. During a discussion of complexities of electromagnetic lines of force, a student resorted to saying, “It’s like magic”, which has an unsatisfying feel but reflects the sense of wonder and discovery that drives the scientific process.

In the St. John’s pedagogy, scientific knowledge is not grasped but approached gradually from a distance and with the understanding that the observer will never quite arrive. In one lab, I saw students wrestle with the question of whether light is a wave or a particle with the class coming reluctantly to the same conclusion as Louis de Broglie, whose 1929 Nobel Prize-winning paper on the topic was the day’s reading: we don’t know for certain and probably can’t.

There is a tension in that statement. We crave certainty, and in the provisional nature of truth one detects the risk of relativism: there is no truth. Yet the thrust of the St. John’s program is that final knowledge, while it is held to exist and must be pursued, cannot be possessed. The more we move toward the possessive understanding of knowledge, the more mystery is discarded and knowledge takes on the instrumental character of post-Cartesian thought. In his 2010 Dean’s Statement, St. John’s tutor and former dean, Michael Dink, wrote about the school’s approach to the relationship between science and the humanities. He said . . .

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I was the admissions director who admitted Michael Dink, who was an impressive student.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2019 at 6:02 pm

Posted in Education

Why do the wealthy want their children to study the liberal arts?

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Full disclosure: My undergraduate studies were intensely liberal arts (the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD) and a decade after I was graduated, I was director of admissions for three years (so I can describe the program and its goals to a fare thee well).

Valerie Strauss writes (and quotes) in the Washington Post:

A new analysis by two economists takes issue with those who argue that liberal arts education is not worth the investment.

Catharine B. Hill and Elizabeth Davidson, of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, looked at how much graduates with a liberal arts education can earn. They found that while liberal arts majors may not earn as much engineers, they do well, showing that critics are incorrect about the worth of the degree.

That brings us to the post below, written by Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, who asks and answers the following question: If a liberal arts education isn’t worth the money, as critics contend, why do the United States’ wealthy families want their children to get one?

He is co-author, with Anne-Marie Womack, of the third edition of “Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric,” forthcoming from Routledge. He is also the author of “Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric,” “The Unique Creation of Albert Camus,” and the editor of “American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives.”

Donald Lazere writes:

The recent scandal over wealthy parents bribing their children’s way into Ivy League-level universities intensifies a long-standing anomaly: The curriculum at the United States’ most selective and expensive private undergraduate colleges has always centrally been the liberal arts, yet little public attention has been paid to what in that curriculum has made it so desirable by the children of the wealthy or those aspiring to wealth.

Those who ridicule the liberal arts love to focus on bizarrely titled or narrowly specialized college courses in literary or philosophical study, or doctrinaire-sounding subjects in identity politics.

The accuracy of such accounts is often disputable, but to whatever extent they may be accurate, I agree that such courses often abandon the most important mission of liberal education, which is to embody what sociologist Alvin Gouldner termed a “culture of critical discourse” that is the common language of bachelor of arts students, faculty, and graduates, whatever their class, ethnic, or gender identities may be.

What constitutes that culture? One root of it was in the philosophy of Socrates, who, as recounted in Plato’s “The Apology,” urged his students to question both established authority and their own beliefs, to “know thyself,” because “the unexamined life is not worth living.” One of many contemporary reaffirmations of Socratic questioning is philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s book “Not for Profit: Why Society Needs the Humanities”:

If a nation wants to promote . . . democracy dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to each and every person, what abilities will it need to produce in its citizens? At least the following seem crucial: The ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate, deferring to neither tradition nor authority.

Such formulations might seem sensible enough, yet they lead into vexing dilemmas.

First, why do they tend to emanate from “elite” colleges such as the University of Chicago or Ivy League schools, where Nussbaum has taught. And why do we presume that they have value for the elite of students there, but not for students in every college in the country, as well as in every K-12 school?

In fact, such a policy was advocated in 2010 (though still not widely implemented) by the much-maligned Common Core State Standards Initiative commissioned by the National Governors Association, advocating nationwide instruction in K-12 “to demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”

Perhaps the wisest view on these issues ever articulated in the United States was that of Thomas Jefferson in an 1813 letter to John Adams titled “The Natural Aristocrat,” in which Jefferson described a model he had devised (but that, alas, was never implemented nationally) for making free, quality education through the university level accessible to all social classes, “at the public expense” — i.e., tax-funded.

“Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”

Moreover, this model of universal access to education would have “raised the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government, and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to elect the veritable aristoi [or ‘meritocracy’], for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists [those born to wealth and power].”

As for the content of this education, Jefferson included in a letter advising his nephew Peter Carr on his studies: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there is one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

So it becomes clear that much of what conservatives revile as “liberal bias” or “moral relativism” in today’s education is precisely the tradition of skeptical, or critical, discourse from Plato to Jefferson and other American founders in the 18th Century Age of Reason. Both educated liberals and conservatives should cherish the liberal arts-educated “cultural elite” as our society’s Socratic gadfly — but with entry to it extended to those of “worth and genius … from every condition of life.”

The knottiest paradox of the identification of liberal education with the rich might be that many “classic” writings in the liberal arts curriculum, especially in the humanities, have virulently condemned wealth and the wealthy, as Socrates did in teaching his students in Athens to embrace a life of poverty in quest of wisdom and virtue — a doctrine so subversive that it led to his arrest and execution.

Socrates foreshadowed the New Testament, whose dominant theme is again condemnation of wealth — though centuries of propagandists for the wealthy have rationalized that the Gospel does not say it is all that hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Among the subsequent classics written by the much-reviled dead white males taught in “Western Civilization” courses — whatever their justly criticized gender and racial biases and inconsistencies were — the vast majority fiercely opposed wealth and the wealthy, especially following the rise of industrial capitalism, with its “dark satanic mills” (William Blake).

In mid-19th century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” sounded like his European contemporary Karl Marx: “Young men of the fairest promise … are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust—some of them suicides.”

Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau (like Emerson, a Harvard graduate) concurred in his essay “Life Without Principle:” “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward.” And, “There is nothing, not even crime, that is more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

Mark Twain, who coined the term “the Gilded Age” in the late 19th Century, wrote then,

It was impossible to save the great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. . . The government was irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers on; the suffrage was become a mere machine, which they used as they chose. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket.

What, then, can we make of the anomaly that the elite liberals arts education so coveted today by the rich or those seeking to get rich consists largely of diatribes against the rich?

Possible answers are deeply tangled up in the history of education, such as the concept of a “gentleman’s education” for those so secure in their social rank and beyond needing to work for a living that they can disinterestedly consider and write criticisms of their own class — in some cases, going so far as to act against it politically, in the mode of Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Another, more cynical theory is that, despite all the desperate effort expended on being admitted to, and graduating from, liberal arts colleges, maybe the actual subject matter and academic rigor of a liberal arts curriculum are basically a facade for the primary worth of an Ivy-level diploma, which is the social contacts made while attaining it and the prestige associated with it, like a designer label or secret handshake.

Then there are the stereotypical rich students, often legacy admissions, who seek only the “Gentleman’s C,” putting in minimal academic work while mainly partying and networking socially.

Even so, it remains a mystery why four or more years of rigorous immersion in “the culture of critical discourse” remains the price of the ticket to the financial and social elite.

Years ago I taught a GE&B-required introduction to literature course at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, in the midst of prosperous farm country. One student, whose family owned a large ranch, kept ragging me: Why should he have to waste time on general education instead of taking just Ag Management courses?

I tried repeatedly, and I hope cordially, to review justifications for liberal education and to explain why it is favored by society’s movers and shakers, including Jefferson’s notion of moral responsibility and Nussbaum’s “ability to think well about political issues affecting the nation, to examine, reflect, argue, and debate.”

After one of my efforts, he burst out, “Are you telling us that we should study this stuff just so we can talk about it on the golf course?” Maybe he had a point — though I can’t envision a discussion of Socrates or Thoreau at any country club I know of.

Other possible explanations or resolutions for these paradoxes are too complex even to speculate about here. Suffice it to say that we will have far from the most desirable system for education that enables students to become active critics of the politico-economic status quo, so long as access to it is limited to students who are, or are likely to become, the prime beneficiaries of it.

More pertinent to the practical consequences of these paradoxes is this: It is a national disgrace today that instead of making liberal education in K-12 and college more accessible to those from “every condition of life,” access is being fatally curtailed through legislative budget cuts, skyrocketing tuition and student loan debt, and political anti-intellectualism.

Little defense of liberal education for an enlightened citizenry has been heard from any prominent political leader — even Democrats such as Barack Obama, whose education, two books written before his presidency and speeches were more steeped in liberal arts than any president in memory, but who as president caved in to lobbies for STEM education and school privatizers.

I see several sources for the national abandonment of liberal education. First, many conservatives, especially among orthodox religious believers and those who have not attended college, resist any notion of education “deferring to neither tradition nor authority” — the traditional authority of the family, church and nationalism.

Second, the large lobby for privatization of K-12 and for increasing corporate control over higher education seeks both to turn education into a profit-making enterprise and to replace liberal-leaning teachers and students with corporate-compliant ones. The ferocious tax-cutting and privatizing lobbyist Grover Norquist has admitted that his political goal is to “crush the structures of the left” in education and other public employment.

Moreover, among the wealthy who have gained the upper hand in virtually every branch and level of American society and government, many are quite aware of the value of liberal education, so want to restrict it to their children precisely, in Jefferson’s terms, to prevent the less privileged classes from “defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”

The pretexts of these conservative forces for heartless budget cuts in public education are budgetary austerity (not a problem when it comes to military spending,astronomical personal fortunes, corporate profits, and campaign contributions) or the need to stamp out political correctness in liberal teachers and students. These conservatives would throw out the precious baby of universal liberal education with the bathwater of perceived liberal bias.

Finally, it is not just liberal education for anyone except the rich that is endangered. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 May 2019 at 11:16 am

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