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July 2006

If you or somebody you know wants an easy way to play .mp3 or .wma files through your car stereo, you might try this gadget. I bought one for my wife and it works well, although here in Raleigh, none of the radio station presets are completely free of interference. You can even--although I didn't try this--hook up an iPod directly to the gadget.

Technology is pretty amazing these days.

Friedman quote

NRO's readers recall a wonderful Milton Friedman remark about why intellectuals are important:

Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

(From Capitalism and Freedom.)

National Journal writer argues against two "orthodox" beliefs about education:

Summing up, the orthodoxy to emerge from all this is (a) better education is the answer to all our problems, and (b) improving education is extremely difficult to do (see how hard we tried?).

I think this is wrong on both counts. We do know how to improve education, and, politics aside, it is not even that difficult. That is the good news. Unfortunately, if we ever get around to it, we will find that most of the problems we were trying to solve will refuse to go away. Improving education is enormously desirable in itself. Especially at the bottom of the skills pyramid, it requires no ulterior justification. We should do it. But for society at large, it is not the panacea that so many people take it to be.

Interview with Nan Miller, MA in English from NC State(!), teacher of composition and literature for 18 years at Meredith College and for 8 years at NC State(!!), on what's terribly wrong with today's college instruction in writing. If you have the time, I recommend her paper. She uses examples from UNC-Chapel Hill and from NC State (!!!). An excerpt from the conclusion (p. 24):

If college administrators take a hard look at writing programs in their own institutions, they will find that the pedagogy du jour is fraught with contradictions. It puts walk-on instructors in charge of a pivotal course, then leaves them to stand on unfamiliar ground. It responds to a drop in correct usage among college freshmen by dropping grammar instruction from English 101. It responds to a growing sense of entitlement among college students by inflating grades and downgrading instructor authority. It operates in the midst of specialists in literature but thinks literature would "inhibit," "intimidate," or "silence" an ordinary freshman. And finally, it responds to insider criticism, whenever possible, by seceding from the English Department altogether and establishing its own little fiefdom. A college administrator, made aware of these contradictions, might conclude as SUNY professor Thomas Bertonneau concludes: "fostering literacy is not, in fact, the intention of the postmodern curriculum." [footnote omitted]

Tangentially, let me expound for a minute on a gripe I've had since high school about English courses (and based on what my parents and my children told me, the problem has persisted for at least three generations): unlike courses in almost any other subject, English courses seem to presume that every student will become a literature specialist. But, obviously, almost none will. This single mistake leads to four problems.

1. Instructors spend too much time discussing issues more appropriate for specialists such as symbolism, archetypes, and historical context. They should, instead, focus on the issue, "Why is this book/short story/essay good?" And they should also highlight "What can the student learn from this piece to improve his or her own writing?"

2. Too much time is spent on long novels. Assigning a few novels is fine. But if an important goal is to help student write better, short stories and essays can serve just as well. I got nothing out of the tedious Great Expectations; my parents complained, years later, about having to read Moby Dick; one of my daughters was frustrated by A Wizard of Earthsea.

3. Nothing should be read solely because of its importance in the development of literature or because the instructor was forced to read it. Joseph Andrews wasted my time; Beowulf wasted my parents'.

4. With an exception or two, students should only be asked to read works written in straightforward modern English. No dialect, no Olde English, little Faulkner. My high school English teacher delighted in having the class read aloud from The Canterbury Tales. To what end, I have no idea. (I'll except Shakespeare and maybe Tom Sawyer.)