Friday, June 20, 2003

Back to school
Michael writes in to school me on the international baccalaureate, which I was too lazy to look into yesterday:
While I quite agree with you that measuring the quality of a school solely by the number of advanced placement/IB tests it gives is absurd, My son (who is too smart for his own damn good) received a quality education in high school in the IB program - (far better than I received in the 60's and early 70's in Livermore, CA - back when that town had the highest number of PHD's per capita of any town in the US, and California schools were actually worth a damn). As a brand new high-school graduate, he has been exposed to concepts, ideas, and culture that I ended up gaining through self-education in my 20's and 30's.

One of the specific classes taught in the program is one called 'Theory of Knowledge.' It examines epistemology, the examination of how we can know what we claim to know. In an American educational system that seems to all too often focus on creating fact filled fools who can't think themselves out of a paper box, my son actually learned a lot about how to think, not just how to regurgitate facts.

It does sound like a good program, if somewhat vague. My point was not about how good it was, but how relevant to a national public school ranking -- it still seems more arbitrary to me than AP tests. I wonder how admissions offices deal with the IB.

Michael has touched a bit of an epistemological nerve with me. In my (very brief) experience teaching college students, I noticed a profound inability to regurgitate. Intelligence, in terms of the ability to think critically, varied but was generally impressive. But it was largely wasted: minds adrift on a sea of ignorance. Critical thinking isn't worth much if you have nothing to think about.

Of course, smart and ignorant is a lot better than dumb and ignorant. And recent events suggest a certain, uh, epistemological nonchalance on the part of the American people. It just doesn't seem to me that they're particularly fact-filled.


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