Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The 'Duh Test

by Madeleine Kando

The older I get the more I am confronted with the problem of finding enough time to read, listen to and watch the enormous amount of information we are all confronted with over our media tools: t.v., radio, papers and the internet. There is nothing wrong with information per se, but when there is too much of it, it tends to become toxic. I mean too much information is like too much rain: some of it is good for plants, too much of it will drown them and make them rot.In other words, we are suffering from information overload. One sure sign of information overload is one’s inability to produce the appropriate emotional response to information. Here is an example: I am driving my car, listening to NPR. The newscaster informs me that serial killer X has just eaten the cut up remains of his latest victim. Without interruption, the same voice continues to inform me that we might expect some rain within the next 24 hours. I don’t bat an eye. Just waiting for the next bit of news. THAT is a true indication of ‘information overload’. I am suffering from the toxic fumes of too much information.

So I thought it might be useful to devise a test. This test will help us, poor saps, who are subject to this endless torrent of information, to protect us, like an umbrella if you will.

Here is an example of the test, which I have named the ‘duh test’.Information:‘SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH’.

Answer this information with the test: ‘well … duh!’If the information does not pass the test, scrap that information.

Don’t you find yourself often listening or watching programs that pretty much state the obvious? Even certain books that are on the best-seller’s list would not pass my ‘duh test’. Although I admit, if a book is well-written the writing itself makes up for the content. One such book is ‘In Defense of Food’ by Michael Pollan. Yes, the content of the book does not pass the test. I have known since I was 10 years old that vegetables are good for you. That lucky charms are bad for you. But it helps to have someone who writes so well reiterate my belief for me. So, in this case the ‘duh test’ is an affirmation. Meaning: ‘see, I was right all along’.

I highly recomment this test to you. It will save numerous hours of staring at the boob tube or ruining your eyes in front of your computer. Every time you read or watch something, say that mantra: ‘well.. duh’. The time saved by applying this simple test could be applied to going for a walk with your dog, planting your garden or wondering what you will make for dinner.
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

About European versus American education

By Madeleine Kando and Tom Kando

The other day a Dutch friend asked me what 'M.Ed.' stands for, because I sent a letter to IFAW about mother's book and I signed it with Madeleine Kando, M.Ed. So this is what I wrote back:

There are three levels of higher education in the US:
(1): BA and BS (Bachelor of Arts or Science).
(2): MA, MS and MEd (Master of Arts or Science or Education) and
(3): Ph.D. and Ed.D. (Doctor of Philosophy or Education).

A bit like in the old days in Holland, when you had a Kandidaats, a Doctoraal, etc. Typically, it takes 4 years to achieve the first of these levels - the BA - so if you graduate from High School at eighteen, as most kids do, you can expect to get a BA or a BS at 22, if you apply yourself and daddy pays all your bills.

"College" basically refers to this four-year education, and it is also called "undergraduate" education. In America, therefore, the Baccalaureate refers to this four-year degree which you receive four years beyond high school , whereas the European Baccalaureat (le "bachot" in France, for example), refers to your High School degree, at eighteen. To make things even more complicated, the word "University" in the US can include a 4-year college but more properly refers to institutions that offer the more advanced degrees of MA and Ph.D.

As to me, I have the second level, the MA or M.Ed. Tom has a Ph.D. I could teach at a college but I couldn't teach upper division courses because I don't have a Ph.D. I could assist Tom but I could not teach his classes (for one thing - I know nothing of sociology). He would be permitted to teach all MY classes (although he wouldn't do a very good job because he doesn't know anything about Education).

In the US, you have to have at least a B.A. to make an adequate living. That is, you must have completed a four-year college education. This is not because you learn important job skills in college, but because there has long been an "educational inflation" whereby everyone, including employers, feels that people without college degrees are bad people. So almost everyone wants to go to college, even people who have no business doing so.

Currently American High Schools generally prepare you for College. You may opt to go to a Technical High School instead which precludes any chance of continuing in academics and prepares you for a 'vocation'. But in general the education children receive between the ages of 12 and 18 is less specialized. Children are not 'tracked' in high school as they are in Holland. Even at the College level, even though a student has to have a 'major' and a 'minor' subject, they are not required to make a career choice until much later in their development.

Because of this 'generalized' approach to education it is fair to say that European High Schools teach their students more in-depth. All comparative international statistics show this. Certainly when we went to High School in the Netherlands over 40 years ago, the education we received was far more rigorous and demanding than an American High School education. Because of the 'tracking' system in Holland, Tom for example who was tracked in the highest level (Gymnasium), had to learn six languages! This would be unimaginable in America.

Also, America has not had "eind examens," those phenomenally stressful and elaborate one-week long comprehensive exams at the end of your final year in high school. Every European country has them. And if you fail them, you repeat your senior year.

So historically, you could say that an 18-year old Dutch student who is in the highest academic-preparatory track in High School is almost as advanced as a student who receives a B.A. at 22.

But this has to be qualified: First of all, I just said "almost." In fact, an American College graduate is better educated than a European High School graduate. So I would split the difference. Secondly, I've heard that European education has deteriorated. There is no way that European High School kids today get the same quality education as what you and I received at a Gymnasium or at a HBS in the fifties. Thirdly, America is now introducing comprehensive final exams ("eind examens") in its High Schools. Finally, the proportion of Americans who go on beyond High School (to College), is still higher than the number of Europeans who go on to University. So the qualitative differences between European and American education are vanishing.

Traditionally, there has been another interesting difference between Europe and America:In the US, when kids graduate from high school and leave home to go to college, they live on a 'campus', which is basically an expensive nursery for teenagers, where they sleep, eat, party and drink booze, and if they don't have too much of a hangover, go to classes. I am exaggerating of course. Some schools are extremely rigorous and competitive, like the Ivy League schools (Harvard, Radcliffe, MIT etc). But one of the reasons that higher education is becoming unaffordable in this country is because of this structure of trying to keep children in a protective cocoon while they are still 'maturing'.

So for millions of upper-middle class kids, it's almost like the US has given their children much more time to mature than in Europe. I sometimes wonder how the US became economically so successful, with such a wasteful and indulgent system of education.

Well, perhaps there are countervailing tendencies: It's true that European students who go on to higher education after high school are not held by the hand, as they are in the US. I remember all too well how confusing things were in Amsterdam, in that regard. You were totally on your own there, at the University - sink or swim.

BUT: How did most University students behave, if I remember correctly? Well, they spent most of their days sipping coffee or beer at Reynders and or the Ouwe Herberg; lighting joints of cannabis, partying every night of the week.

European youngsters may "mature" a little bit faster, but their work ethic is weak. This, in turn, is because there is much less pressure on them to hurry up and to get a job, because (1) they are less ambitious (call it materialistic) and (2) the government is more generous, so being a little bit poor is not a problem.

Finally: Here is how I would grade the educational systems on both sides of the Atlantic:

(1) Secondary Education (= High School): Europe still better than America, although declining advantage.

(2) Four-year BA (= College): About the same. There is enormous variation here. Some private 4-year liberal arts colleges (E.g. Dartmouth, Bennington, Wellesley, etc) are outstanding. Other ones, (E.g. some impoverished 4-year State colleges) are crummy.

(3) Advanced Higher Education (= Universities): America still has the best Universities in the world, both public and private. UC Berkeley is repeatedly voted to be the best public University in the world (most Nobel Prizes, most advanced research, etc.) and Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, etc, are all superior to all other universities in the world.

But again, it's all a matter of money. Like everything else in the universe, education is stratified. The privileged receive the best education in the world, and the rest of us go to schools and work in environments where many students (and some of the teachers) can't spell their own names.

Its' all about $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.
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