Monthly Archives: February 2014

Slate.com says American high schools are a disaster

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Photo of a storm-ravaged high school, with a repurposed, positive message around its sign © Kansas City District

Here’s Laurence Steinberg’s Slate article on high schools. And here’s my response:

The Slate article doesn’t have the comments feature enabled. And I think that serves as a perfect analogy. Now, I see the reasons they might have comments disabled: website policy, too difficult to moderate, you never know what kind of mindless comments you might get. And that’s just the price of having a widely-read online magazine.

So, consider the other side of the analogy: according to the article, American high schoolers are failing at achievement compared to global peers, such that, for them, “success in college” or even “success in post-graduation life” isn’t really “enabled” by the American school system (my words, not Steinberg’s). That’s just the price of having a widely-attended school system: you never know what kind of low-achieving attendees you might get. That doesn’t mean we should try to revolutionize the system, akin to seizing control and disabling or enabling certain features.

To Steinberg’s credit, the article is rife with external links showing numbers and statistics shaming American students with their own “failures” at school. But in the end, I view those statistics as just one big complaint that things need to change, without anything actionable and small-scale on how to change.

Furthermore, I don’t see American high schoolers’ positions as something we can change. Their lack of success reflects not necessarily a failing of some kind in our government or educational policy, but an American value. As Steinberg writes, American high schools are a place for socialization. We are a very socially-minded country, if not species (!), which is why so many American teenagers are concerned with succeeding in the social realm both in high school and outside. As Americans, we just don’t inherently value rules and tests the way high-achieving Asian societies do. And I don’t think that is something we need to change.

It’s our brazen social habits and desire to flout rules and structure that we become innovators and positive thinkers in America. It’s the nature of our society and our history. If we really want high schoolers to achieve higher, then we need to drastically reduce the student-to-teacher ratio and provide more personalized instruction based on students’ interests. This way, they won’t burn out from boredom and under-stimulation, as the Slate article suggests they do.

The problem is, schools can’t promise that low ratio. It’s not in the budget or in the provisions of government policy; it’s not even entirely guaranteed in all the promising charters signed by charter schools. Student-geared education needs to happen on the family level, where it is manageable and trustworthy. And — I bet you weren’t prepared for this addition to the fold — that’s why I think poor people (notice I’m not saying stupid people) need to stop having children, because the education of those children is highly likely to suffer.

A disclaimer: Anything I write here is a one-sided conversation until other people add their thoughts. I don’t presume to be the final word on anything here, and I welcome intelligent responses to these thoughts!


The Changing Nature of Our Communication

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In text messaging, it takes more exchanges than it does in-person to fully convey and grasp intended meaning.

I am not a fan of Facebook. Even stranger, I sometimes really dislike text messaging. The trouble is, our current society doesn’t accept unplanned phone calls. We have to ask permission via text message before calling someone, lest they be unprepared to speak to us! This is a change in telephone communication that, in my experience, is new to the past decade or so.

As any wannabe-expert would tell you, though, there is a huge limitation native to text-only communication. As much as we may hate them, acronyms like LOL and emoticons like 😛 have come into use for a very practical reason, though we don’t always see how practical they are. For instance, a Japanese friend recently asked me why an American acquaintance of hers hated “lol” so much. I explained that many of us, when we see acronyms and emoticons used too heavily, tend to assume the user of these expressions is simple-minded and unable to express themselves in words. But I am deciding to believe the opposite: such users are merely taking advantage of a practical tool that shows an approximation of their tone and facial expression, which are absolutely essential in building human relationships.

The reason I dislike text messaging in particular (Facebook is another story entirely) is because it is so limited, in terms of the number of allowed characters, that some people try to save characters efficiently by communicating only using words. This leaves no room for the practical tools of text-tone (acronyms) and text-facial-expression (emoticons). In this vein, a miscommunication once occurred with one of my friends, who is absolutely lovely in person, but who does not add social touches to her messages to indicate jokes and sarcasm. We are certainly friends, but I don’t know her well enough to read her mind when she texts me! So, when I once text-asked her if she wanted to come hang out with me and another friend, I also asked if she did or didn’t like him, because I didn’t want her to come to a hangout where she’d be uncomfortable. She replied, “Oh, that guy, I hate him!” No emoticons, no “jk,” no “haha.”

I was left in a state of uncertainty because her vocal cues and facial expressions were absent, and she didn’t clue me in by using the common text-symbols of those vocal cues or facial expressions. So, I had to make sure, saying, “uh oh lol, i can’t tell if you’re joking” And she replied, “hahaha yes.” I though, “Yes”? “Yes” what? More confusion — I had to ask very explicitly, Are you saying “yes, I hate him,” or “yes, I’m joking and I don’t hate him”? In the end, she didn’t hate him… phew!

This kind of communication breakdown has the dangerous potential to really damage our relationships. I think that the more resistant we are to recognizing communication tools, as silly as they may seem when they look like :), the more we are damaging our connections to each other as a species.

A simple way to get around this complicated issue is to spend more face time with people. Get to know them in real life if you have that option, so that your bond is strong enough to withstand the annoyances of modern communication imperfections! 😉 Globalization-created distance and modern relationships is a bit of a rebuttal to this idea, but that’s another story for another day!

And to my friend from the example text-breakdown: you are wonderful and I wouldn’t have you any other way!!! So glad we are above small misunderstandings like that.


Gala Darling’s Valentine’s Day Advice Video

I first found Gala Darling in around 2008, when I was a junior at NYU. I loved her sparkly attitude and style, and she had really resonant words about self-love and happiness that I needed to hear at that time in my life. She has a very attractive writing style, and in those days, she showed a vulnerable side that allowed the everyday person to connect to her.

Gala has really blown up in the past few years — she makes a very tidy living off her blog and her other projects, which range from a self-love e-newsletter to a global workshop about blogging for success. She caters to women of the upper-middle class who have an eye for design, optimism and pampering themselves.

I used to really like her messages, and I even purchased her Radical Self Love e-book, because it genuinely spoke to me. However, as I grow up and I realize there is more to life than rewarding yourself with beautiful lingerie, I seem to be falling out of Gala’s intended audience bracket. Maybe it comes from my  background living with very sustainability-minded, local-happy communities in the Bay Area, but I just don’t see the worth of the lifestyle Gala Darling advocates. Yes we need to find our happiness and follow our bliss, but as I travel the world and learn more about the injustices that lie below the surface of our ultraconsumerist society, I creep closer to believing that my bliss is about living on a small scale and nurturing a select few relationships, rather than buying in to the mass-marketed advice so rampant on the internet these days.

For instance, see the above video. In it, Gala Darling gives a very charismatic monologue to her vast numbers of followers, counseling them on how to get over the Valentine’s Day hype and just be happy. I can appreciate the sentiment, but here are a few reasons why I don’t like it, and why my dislike of it makes me quite sure I am simply not who she is talking to:

  • Her argument about being unattached on Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem cohesive, because of one major contradiction I caught. First, she says that we should be ok with being alone, that it’s an important skill we don’t practice in our hyper-connected world nowadays. But several minutes later, she gives the offhand advice for single people to go do something with their friends on Valentine’s Day, because “who wants to be alone on Valentine’s day?” I couldn’t tell if that question was sarcastic on her part or not.
  • She has a great opportunity to highlight the evils of mass media and consumerism, which are the entities that feed us the Valentine’s Day nonsense in the first place, but she very much glosses over that. In fact, she gives lots of materialistic or otherwise money-dependent advice for having a good time in lieu of buying in to the specific Valentine’s Day commercial scheme, without realizing that Valentine’s Day consumerism and everyday consumerism are all one and the same.
  • I think this lack of attention to the harm of hyped-up capitalism reflects her own very consumerist lifestyle: not only does she have lots of purchase power because of her success; but that power bleeds into her work, in the form of sponsored blog content. Today, she wrote a post about tattoo art that did absolutely nothing for me; it had nothing to say about self-love and was more a set of eye-candy photos than anything really substantial. I think Gala Darling is better than that.

Basically, I think she is selling out, and I no longer feel inspired to support her by buying her original content or products. (She has a jewelry line now, for goodness’ sake.) I want to continue following her, because I know she has that relatable side and good intentions behind all the bells and whistles; I just hope she goes back to a more grounded style, even if it means losing money by paring down her audience. Money-hungry people are ruining our society and government already; I don’t need to see someone I once respected as an equal human being do the same thing.


Animal Farm

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I never read this in high school; just as well because I hated history as taught in class. I’m a much better learner when I learn from history enthusiasts in my peer group! Luckily for me, many of my history buff friends are gifted at re-telling historical events in an exciting, accessible way for me. I learned some things from books and school, but I’ve learned the most by listening to my friends and paying attention to historical references in pop culture.

Animal Farm is fascinating to me now, and it makes me wonder about the future of the US which is so painfully divided ideologically right now. Could the Democrat/Republican standoff be a Napoleon and Snowball redux??

I’m only on page 40 so far, but already I have fashioned a history-through-literature course for myself out of reading Animal Farm. My interest in the animal allegory—and my confusion about it, since I didn’t remember the history very well—led me to the Animal Farm SparkNotes, which lays out the history and symbolism pretty clearly.

I don’t believe that we have to learn history from dull, dry textbook accounts. I think it would be a much more effective learning experience if we could learn history through the context of literature and popular culture, which tends to reflect (if not defame, misrepresent and ridicule) the truths of history.

A related link, because it is about hacking one’s education, which I feel I am doing now, as an adult with ever more to learn: a 13-year-old upper-middle class boy gives a TED talk about following his own interests in pursuit of a happier education and lifestyle. It’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’s truly feasible for the lower socioeconomic classes of students whose resources and support systems are highly unlikely to lend themselves to independent learning. That’s capitalism though, isn’t it? The poorer sector will always be at a disadvantage… needless to say, Animal Farm has also inspired me to learn a little more about Marxism.