The Other I

March 8, 2017

Escaping the revolving prison door

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,Teaching — theotheri @ 3:19 pm

I have just read a review, Scholars Behind Bars, in the current New York Review of Books .  It is mainly about a program set up by Bard College 18 years ago  which provides a college education to inmates in several high-security penitentiaries in New York.

I remember my time on the faculty at Bard as among the best years of my life.  I had no idea, though, that President Leon Botstein had applied the principles that guided the college during my years there to prisons.  The statistics suggest that the value of this program are almost unbelievable.

Apparently, the enthusiasm of the inmates to earn admittance to the program is very great.  They will not be accepted until they pass a written test and oral interview demonstrating that they have the reading and writing skills they need.  Unlike some colleges, the program does not provide remedial courses for freshmen.  The perspective applicants have to do that for themselves.   It’s a rigorous program, and not for softies.

Nor does the enthusiasm diminish once students are taking courses.  They ask for feedback on essays they have written that may not even have been for a class assignment.  The discussions both with faculty and other students show that students are reading books beyond those assigned for a course, and may simply be in order to follow-up on philosophical questions they find intriguing.  Like “how do we know what is or isn’t fair?”   They are not put off by controversy or disagreement or even insults.

Most astonishing for me is the recidivism rate of graduates from Bard’s program compared to the average number of released prisoners who re-offend.  Nationally, the re-offend rate is 50%.  It is 2% for graduates from the Bard program.  It’s also notable that almost all of the Bard students have been convicted of violence crimes.  Many very serious violent crimes.  Not dealing dope or other so-called victimless crimes.  That’s why they are in a high-security prison.  Yet on their release, most of these students go into teaching, social work, youth work, counselling – the kind of jobs where quite possibly they uniquely may be most effective.

This doesn’t happen to me very often, but as I read the review I was flooded with a feeling of recognition and sheer gratitude that the kind of education I had known characterized Bard was still going on in the most surprising places. I wish I weren’t too old to join the faculty there.


May 29, 2015

Right answers aren’t as smart as I thought

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 1:41 pm

Success in educational exams is based almost exclusively on giving the right answers.  The ten-year-old who says the answer to 2+2 is “5” or that “surprise” is spelled “serprize” or that Columbus landed in the new world “in  1940” almost certainly needs additional tutoring rather than a promotion.

But I wish I were in the classroom again.  Because we educators rarely appreciate the value of intelligent questions.  And yet, the more we know about any subject, the more penetrating and numerous our questions become.  I would love to construct a test in which I asked students to pose as many questions as they could about a specific subject.  My guess is that one would be able to evaluate who knew as much by the questions alone as one could by the answers.

For instance, suppose one is asked to pose questions about quantum mechanics.  How do questions like:  Is it about machines?  Isn’t it part of  Einstein’s theory of relativity?  Is it a theory about space travel? compare with questions like: In what way is the Standard Theory related to Quantum Mechanics?  Why did Einstein reject the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?  How does the Higgs Boson explain mass?

Or in relation to cooking, a field with which many of us may be more familiar, how do questions like:  Why is this pastry so tough?  How long does it take to cook dried kidney beans?  How do you cook a fish?  compare with What other ingredients besides eggs can be used as thickeners?  Are there other ingredients besides yeast one can use to make bread rise?  Why will some meats become tough if they are over-cooked, while others are tough if they are under-cooked?

I’ve learned not to trust either myself or other people in areas where they have more answers than questions.  That includes everything from religion, philosophy, physics, math, computers, and psychology to sewing, cleaning, building construction, finances, and lawn-mowing.

You have to know what you’re talking about to ask really intelligent questions.

But now I have to go out and mow the lawn.

Whether I know what I’m doing or not.


January 18, 2014

What do you think about your mother?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,The English — theotheri @ 4:53 pm

Shortly after leaving the convent and before I met my husband, someone gave me a piece of advice that still looks brilliant to me.  “If you want to know whether your perspective husband will see you as an equal, don’t look to his father;  find out what he thinks about his mother.”

It worked for me.  My husband’s mother wanted to be a teacher, but she had to leave school at the age of twelve to support her family.  Nonetheless, Peter thought she was extremely intelligent, with equal amounts of determination and energy.  When I met her I agreed.  At the time, I was wondering whether I was wasting my life as an educator.  She never expressed regret about the opportunities life had not offered her.  But just knowing her  convinced me that giving an education to a young person is one of the most wonderful gifts we can bestow.

I was reminded of that advice recently.  I am now in my 70’s and sometimes subject to the kind of prejudice against the elderly that unfortunately I see quite often here in Britain.  It may be compounded for women compared to men,  and in addition I rarely tell people that I have a Ph.D.  So if young people, particularly young men seriously listen to what I have to say, I notice.

I have a new dentist who I bet has a mother whom he respects.  He’s young, and on my first visit told me that I hadn’t just lost the filling on the tooth I was concerned about, but needed a root canal.  So I grilled him.  I told him I’d already had one root canal done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and that I did not approach another procedure with automatic trust.  I asked him about his background and experience, and he was completely unthreatened.  I couldn’t look up his record the way I could in the U.S., but I decided that someone who was able to answer my questions without being aggressive or defensive felt confident in his abilities.  So I decided to stay with him.  Yesterday he put the crown on the finished job.  It looks and feels terrific.

I didn’t think that I had the right to ask him what he thinks about his mother.  But I bet he has a high opinion of her.  Or if not his mother, a grandmother, aunt, older sister, or teacher.

I’d love to know.

November 28, 2013

Way more than my share

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

Thanksgiving is the only holiday in the year that I celebrate without any qualifications.  What else can I possibly say but Thank You for so much that has been given to me in abundance?

This year I’ve been thinking particularly about how much my students gave to me during my university teaching years.

They were, first of all, challenging.

I’m sure they had little idea how much reading I did to address the questions they were asking.  And how exhilarating I found it.

I also often tried to put them in contact with their own gifts, talents and abilities that many of them did not realize they had.  And once in a while one of them would come back and tell me I’d changed their lives.  Or that I was the best teacher they’d ever had.  Or some other act of appreciation that was way beyond what I deserved.

So getting up at 6:30 am to review my lecture material, or reading hundreds of student papers to give them detailed feedback, was repaid a thousand times over.

I will admit that I always seemed to appreciate the joys of teaching more during the summer break than during the bleak cold winter.

But seriously, being a university professor ranks as one of the greatest joys of my life.

And I don’t think I have ever so much as said a single thank you to those students who gave me so much.  I suspect it’s a little too late now.  But I do know on this Thanksgiving that I have been given far more than I ever earned.

Thank you.



February 27, 2013

A better teacher than a mother

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 9:21 pm

Until I left for the convent at the age of 18, I was a sort of surrogate mother of at least half of my eight younger brothers and sisters.  As a result, I thought for years that I had all the qualifications and experience needed to be a superb mother.

As I have developed something of an enthusiasm for gardening this last year, I have treated my fledgling vegetables and fruit in much the same way as I treated my younger brothers and sisters.  And I’m not so sure I would have been such a good mother, after all.

The unrecognized child-rearing philosophy of my youth probably was a result of my own “I can do it myself” psychology that I remember even as a two-year-old insisting that I could button my own clothes even if the first attempt was a bit out of sync.  So I assumed that what children wanted was to be taught how to do something, and then get on with it themselves.  I wasn’t much for hugs or nurturing.

To my astonishment, I’ve just realized that I’ve been treating the vegetables in the garden the same way.  “There,” I said to each sprouting seed, “I’ve planted you in fertile, well-watered earth.  You can grow now.”  So I was a little late in recognizing that the collard and cauliflower needed a little help in fighting off the white fly and slugs.  And it didn’t occur to me to actually read a gardening book to see when or how to harvest kale or purple-sprouting broccoli.  I assumed I would be able to tell when they were ready, and how to pick them.

But a good vegetable crop needs a little more fussing over.

Just as some children do.
I’m glad, though, that  carrots and swiss chard have been my instructors – even if it is a little late.

And next year I plan to be a more maternal gardener.

Or maybe I should just write a book telling somebody else how to do it?  I bet I’d be good at that.  And I could just buy my vegetables from the farm market.


October 8, 2012

Dogs can teach you to read

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

I read a wonderful report yesterday about a classroom in Devon where dogs are teaching children to read.

Well, not exactly what that usually means, but it’s real.

Dogs are social animals.  They like people.  One might often say they even love people.  They are terribly good listeners, they don’t laugh if you make a mistake or stutter, they can express interest, and seem to have an exhaustible amount of patience.  I’ve known for a long time that dogs are good for sick people, and are sometimes brought into rest homes and even hospitals.  They are often a window of communication for autistic children, and elderly people who have dogs live on average longer than people who don’t.

But it never occurred to me that they might be brilliant in the classroom.  I was so intrigued by the idea after reading the article that I googled “Dogs in the classroom,” and was amazed and delighted to discover that they are being brought into classrooms around the world. Children who read to a dog in a classroom are more likely to take a book with them to read when they go home.

But dogs in the classroom do more than that.  They reach children about responsibility, sympathy, and caring.  They help reduce classroom truancy and often make students less aggressive.

Here are a couple of reports on line that I particularly enjoyed.  Google has a much longer list for anyone looking for “Dogs in the Classroom.”    Reading with a Fluffy Friend,  Tails from the White House Lawn, A Research Report,  Unconventional Teaching,  and

September 23, 2012

The cage called the normal curve

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

 In the last couple of weeks, test results determining the future for thousands of students have been announced here in Britain.  The scores have caused an unusual amount of disappointment and anger because the cut-off point for getting into university or various apprenticeships was raised without being announced beforehand.

Fundamentally the problem is one with which I was greatly concerned during my professional years.  The task is to develop assessments that will direct students into those careers and jobs where they are most suited.  Sounds a lot easier than it is.  Because the risk is either to miss identifying the most gifted, or to demotivate as many as half the students as ” below average,” and not worth much.  One mother in Scotland expressed the preference of many – don’t fail our students;  we know what the grades mean.

The problem, though, is that we really don’t.  Universities and employers alike are saying that scores are too inflated and it is often impossible to identify those who are the most appropriate for the positions available.

The difficulty  begins with the assumption of the normal curve.  Psychologists have been constructing intelligence and aptitude tests for more than a century based on the assumption that 65% of the population have IQ’s which are average – that is between 85 and 115.  But only one person in 50 has an IQ over 135, and one in half a million has an IQ of over 200.  These are gifted people, and society needs them.  We all need them and benefit from their being able to develop and use their gifts.  But if tests do no more than label students in terms of their placed on this normal curve, one-half of our population is below average.

Sending a message to half the young people in our schools that they are below average — with all the implications for self-worth and value — is unbelievably cruel, destructive, and a terrible loss to us all.

So educators have swung between over-emphasizing either the critical importance of finding the most gifted students, or of developing the skills of all the students, sometimes in practice as identifying everyone as “above average.”  This is, in fairness, oversimplifying the attempted solutions, but it does broadly illustrate the challenge.

Part of the solution, I think, is to recognize that intelligence and talent is not nearly as uni-dimensional as traditional tests have assumed.  There are psychologists who have developed concepts of intelligence and aptitude that are  multi-dimensional, which cover a much broader assessment of abilities that traditional tests.

Instead of putting so much emphasis on the normal curve, tests which aim to identify the strongest abilities of each student could emphasize the greatest potential in everyone.  I can’t see any reason why we can’t emphasize what is best in each individual without putting so much emphasis on where each one fits in a great monolithic hierarchy on the one hand, or pretending that all skills are equally difficult.  We all know that they are not.  That does not mean that each person is not important or does not have a contribution to make.

Again, I appreciate that this is easier said than done.  But it’s an alternative to dealing with grade inflation by failing more students on the one hand, or lowering standards so that nobody is unduly challenged or ever faces the possibility of failing on the other.

PS:  I know I’ve made this sound simple.  And I’ve grappled with it for too long not to appreciate that it is not simple.  It’s a narrow path and falling on either side destroys too much potential of future generations.

February 24, 2011

Getting it wrong might be right

Filed under: Teaching,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 5:02 pm

I have a brother.  Actually, I have five brothers but anyone who knows my family will know immediately which brother I am describing.

I think almost until the day Dad died, Tom was at war with him.  Even as a child, he was objecting, disagreeing.  If I was the over-socialized good daughter, he was my dark side.  Despite absolute parental prohibitions, he hitch-hiked rides from the age of six, learned swear words I didn’t understand, and probably made up sins out of sheer spite when we were taken to church to confess our sins each Saturday.

He’s in his seventies with a grown family of his own now.  Nonetheless it took him a long time to let go of his anger.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s justified or not, he told me the other day.  It destroys you either way.

He also told me a wonderful story.  He is tutoring one day a week at a local school where the kids mostly have pretty rough lives.  Their fathers are often in prison, their role models often do not suggest to them possibilities that go beyond a successful criminal career.  They are angry, they are aggressive, they are physical.  And my brother understands them.

Last Tuesday a young boy – I will call him Joe – with whom he has been working on learning long division came into the room sullen and uncooperative.  “I can’t do these f’…g things,” he said.  

So Tom started to show him how.  The thing is that there is a new method for doing long division that is different from the one we were taught more than half a century ago.  And Tom did it wrong.

“Oh, here, this is how you do it,” said Joe.  And showed him what he was supposed to do.

I understood where he was coming from, Tom told me.  Tom’s not getting it right meant Joe wasn’t going to be criticized and humiliated by some superior adult.  Tom may have proceeded to exaggerate his confusion just a little, but Joe kept working with him.

When he got to the bottom of the page, he looked in triumphant defiance at Tom and said “See, I told you I could do it.”

August 5, 2010

One of my treasures

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

When I left teaching for the last time, one of my students gave me a poster:

A teacher affects eternity:

he can never tell where his influence stops

It still hangs on my study wall.

January 12, 2010

Professional tirade

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 2:47 pm

Despite the snow and problems with getting there, students are sitting major exams this week in England.  I know that exams have some considerable advantages, and in some situations may be essential in picking out students who need help, or those who would benefit from being fast tracked, or who should be encouraged toward a particular kind of career path.

But just as in the world’s credit markets and banking system, numbers can also be lethal.  By cloaking everything in a blanket of numbers and sophisticated graphs and equations, it is too often possible to miss the obvious.

That’s bad enough when it comes to our banking system.  But our youth are an even greater and far more precious resource.

SATs and IQ tests by their very nature define fully one half of our young people as “below average.”  What is the conceivable benefit of taking one out of every two young people and tell them that, more or less, they should aim low, that whatever contribution they have to make to society will be below par?

A Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, has argued for years that IQ is not the two-dimensional artifact most current tests make of it.  According to Gardner, there are at least eight independent kinds of intelligence.  Besides the standard verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, Gardner includes inter- and intra-personal, kinesthetic, musical and visual-spatial intelligences, and even considers the possibility of spiritual, existential and moral intelligences.

This changes the approach to testing and the feedback tests can give us quite radically.

Instead of asking “How smart am I?”  this approach asks “How am I smart?”

Instead of asking “Can I make a contribution in my life that matters?”, one asks instead “What contribution(s) do I have the greatest talent to make?”

Okay, that’s my mini-lecture.  I shall try not to trip as I step down from my bandstand.

November 22, 2009

Testing results

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 5:00 pm

In one of those tests they give to prepare children for real life, a seven-year old was asked where the constitution was signed.

“At the bottom,” he said.

It is not recorded whether it was considered a right answer.

I’d give him credit myself.

September 1, 2009

In praise of teaching

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 1:53 pm

I’ve just read Robert Peston’s blog post for August 29th arguing for the critical role of journalists in providing information to the general public which enables them to take informed control of their own lives in a democratic society.

I’ve long held journalists who work with diligence, intelligence, and integrity in high regard.  Much higher than polls suggest they are held by the public in general.  Because in a world like ours where individuals have such a plethora of choices all our lives, information is critical to our individuality and growth.  Information gives us the freedom to choose.

But we also need to know how to evaluate the huge swathes of information available to us in this digital world.  We need to know how to think for ourselves, to evaluate different opinions and to choose among them.  It is not just when we go to the polls to cast a vote for our elected representatives.  It’s in choices about what we eat, what work we choose, our ethical and religious values, how we invest our money, who our friends are, even what clothes we wear.

And that is why I think that teaching is one of the noblest and most valuable of all professions.  Not the kind who teach right answers.  Because once one has acquired the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, almost every additional “right answer” is a matter of debate.

The teachers who are truly great teachers are those who teach us not what to think but how to think.  Who teach students to evaluate competing theories of the universe, the pros and cons among the political alternatives,  the strengths and weaknesses of opposing theories of economics or psychology or philosophy.

Teachers aren’t paid a lot relative to doctors or bank managers or television personalities.

But imagine the darkness of the world without them.

July 15, 2008

Accidentally unmovable

Filed under: Political thoughts,Teaching — theotheri @ 7:02 pm

The first class I taught at Bard College was in the spring semester as a part time adjunct.  I already held a university position, but Bard is an exceptional college and I didn’t really appreciate as a newcomer how it worked.  I didn’t even appreciate that I didn’t appreciate how it worked.

The course I was teaching was an introductory psychology course open to anybody who wanted to take it.  Students didn’t know anything about me, nor I about them, and it attracted a mixed group taking the course for various reasons, not all of which were necessarily related to a driving academic interest.  I taught the course which met twice a week.  The assignments were not particularly difficult, but I did expect them to be completed.

One of the students taking the course was Charlene.  I didn’t know it then, but she was a senior and due to graduate at the end of the semester.  She needed three credits, and decided that my course looked interesting without being too demanding.  Unfortunately, when the end of the term came and I handed in the final grades, Charlene had not completed the required assignments, and I gave her an incomplete. 

Within minutes after the grades were posted, my phone rang.  Charlene was in a panic and a rage.  I must change her grade to a pass.  Her family were arriving from North Carolina, and all her friends were coming to celebrate and she couldn’t participate in the graduation ceremony if she didn’t have the credits from my course.  I said I would call the registrar, which I did.  To my amazement, the registrar did not agree with me that the grade should be changed.  I ended up in the surprising position of arguing for Charlene.  Eventually, we agreed that if she got the required assignment to me by 10 am Wednesday morning, I would change the grade.

The assignment arrived Wednesday at 4 pm.  and the registrar advised me not to change the grade.   I was surprised, but followed his advice and Charlene officially graduated at the end of the summer.

I never became fully convinced that the punishment for the missing assignment actually fit the crime.  It seemed way out of proportion to me.  I even wonder why her adviser didn’t intervene on her behalf.  Advisers get to know students very well at Bard, and someone would have worked closely with her.  If she had been my advisee, I would have tried to help her.  Why didn’t they?

I’ve worried about it for more than thirty-five years.  It is only as I am writing this that it occurs to me that Charlene may have had a reputation for trying to get through without working.  Perhaps her failing to get her assignment finished for my course was the last straw, and faculty were willing to let this draconian sword drop.

I can only speculate.  I did discover that I had inadvertently developed a reputation as a racist bitch among some of the Black students.  They reasoned that Charlene was Black and that was why I blocked her graduation.  I can see why they thought I’d been unreasonable.  It was during the years of civil rights marches and midnight murders, when outright racism was rampant.  It wasn’t even politically incorrect.

The question now, as we move toward the U.S. presidential election in November, is just how much prejudice still runs undercover on American streets.  This is not to suggest that everyone voting for McCain is doing so out of racism.  But it obviously could be a factor in the way the vote goes.

July 13, 2008

Students who made a difference

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 9:22 pm

As most parents learn, possibly within days after the arrival of the new family member, parenting isn’t a theory out of a how-to manual one applies as a child goes through neatly-defined stages.  Parenting is a dialogue, only half of which is carried out by parents.  The other half is directed by the parented part of the bargain.  To make matters more complicated, strategies that work with one child don’t necessarily work with another, strategies that work at one age don’t work six months later, and some strategies that sound perfectly reasonable never work at all.  In the process of growing up, parents grow up and change as much as the children.

Teaching is the same.  At least it was for me.  It might have looked as if I were in charge in the classroom, that I made the rules, passed out the assignments, gave the lectures, determined the grades.  But in truth there was always a dialogue, students asking, pushing, objecting, wanting more.   Students who made a difference in my life weren’t always the brightest, the hardest working, or most apparently appreciative.  They were often troubled, demanding, confused, and struggling with events that have little to do with their course work.  Sex and drugs and drink and families and relationships and abortion and depression and anorexia and money and life decisions were apt to take up as much time and effort as study.  And were far less subject to logical analysis.

I have already described Carol (post 11/17/07) and the major influence she had on my examination of the research claiming to prove that Black people have lower IQ’s than Whites.  I am convinced, not on moral or philosophical or religious grounds, but on scientific grounds that this conclusion is unfounded, and after years of reading and lecturing, I would argue my corner with any expert in the world.  Carol couldn’t explain what was wrong with the research, but what she did do, without ever knowing it, was to get me to look at the issues involved.  I lectured on the subject for the rest of my university career.

The same semester I met Carol, I met Charlene.  Like Carol, she too was Black, and I kept her from graduating on time with the rest of her class.  That was thirty years ago, and I still worry about how it happened.  But her story is for another post.

July 10, 2008

Teachers who make a difference

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

The space shuttle Challenger blew up in less than two minutes after it was launched with a young woman, the first member of A Teacher in Space project on board.  That was more than twenty years ago, but I remember Dan Rather opening the evening news on CBS that night with the words “We’ve all had a teacher who in some way changed our lives.”

Yes, I thought then, many of us have.  We each remember them, often for all our lives, with a special gratitude that probably rarely gets expressed.  I was a faculty member then and at the end of every term, our students routinely filled out student evaluation forms indicating what they thought of the professor who taught each course they had just completed.  I  began to wonder if the teachers that the students had just rated at the end of a term as being outstanding were those they would remember years later.  So I set up interviews with several hundred adults who were at least 30 years old, asking each to describe a teacher who they felt had been a major influence in their lives. 

It was one of the most interesting pieces of research I have ever done, and I have regretted for years that I left the academic world in the United States before getting it published.  Because I felt those teachers, and thousands of other unsung heroes needed to know they made a difference that sometimes changed their students’ lives forever.

Even as I sit here now, I think:  couldn’t I do that research again, interview other people, and publish it. 

Don’t, as Dan Rather said, almost all of us remember a teacher who, for better or worse, in some way changed our lives?

January 19, 2008

Dumbest idea of the year award

Filed under: Teaching — theotheri @ 1:47 pm

I have just read that some academics want students banned from using Google and Wikipedia to help them in their course work because they make plagiarism too easy and are “recycling shallow ideas and unreliable information,”

Apart from the fact that a ban on students’  using the internet would be about as easy to enforce as a ban on the ocean tide, I think it must qualify as one of the dumbest ideas of the year.  We don’t ban books because they are easy to read or contain erroneous information or shallow ideas – whatever a shallow idea may be.

If teachers can’t make error, plagiarism and illogical thought – whatever their source – an opportunity for learning, my suspicion is that they may not know how to teach. 

November 17, 2007

Carol’s unknowing knowing

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Teaching — theotheri @ 5:43 pm

I was having lunch with a friend yesterday, a good woman who does a lot to try to make the lives of those around her better.  We were talking, as we do, about the problems of the world, and she said she’d heard a talk by someone saying that Africans will never be able to live up to the standard we have because they are genetically less intelligent than we are.

I swallowed hard. 

When I was a young professor just starting out in my university career, I was assigned as the dissertation adviser to a young student completing her senior thesis.  She was Black and her name was Carol, and she wanted to write a thesis proving that the research supporting the argument that Blacks were less intelligent than Whites was wrong.  I was too inexperienced then to know that this subject is far too complex for even a highly gifted and motivated student to tackle in a single senior thesis.  Instead of suggesting that she tackle a small part of the question, I let her go ahead.

She wrote a poor thesis that, at best, deserved a C, but her board talked her into taking a pass/fail option and we gave her a pass.  What I remember most about her defense was that, in the teeth of research results she could not explain, she simply sat there and said they were wrong.  Why, we asked.  “Because they are,” she said;  “I know they’re wrong.”  Well, that’s not an approach that leads to a successful academic argument. 

And yet, I thought Carol was right.  History is filled with arrogant conclusions about European superiority.   We’ve declared ourselves superior to the immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, to the Japanese after World War II, to the Aborigines in Australia, to the Indians in Central and South America, or the inhabitants of India and China.  We even argue that Homo sapiens was smarter than Neanderthal man.

Carol couldn’t prove her view, she couldn’t even argue it persuasively.  But I had a Ph.D., I was trained in research, and I was an academic, and I spent the next ten years immersing myself in the IQ controversy, studying the research and arguments and teaching courses on the subject.  I am convinced that the research does not support the conclusion that Blacks or Africans are genetically less intelligent than Whites.  James Watson, the scientist who unravelled the DNA spiral, recently said he thinks they are.  I think he is too rigid to look at the data objectively.  The evidence just isn’t there.

I know one of my few gifts is that I can often explain extremely complex issues in a way that makes them understandable to many people who otherwise find them baffling.  And I’ve wondered, sometimes, if even now, I should not write about this controversy. 

But most of all I think about Carol who never had the slightest inkling how much her stubborn insistence influenced the direction of my professional thinking.  I still think, Carol, that you were right.

June 11, 2007

To give is easier than to receive

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:30 pm

One of my students from twenty-five years ago has just sent me an email because she’d discovered the website about my latest book.  She said finding it reminded her that I was one of the teachers who changed her life.  I had no idea, but I do remember calling her into my office one day to make sure she knew that her gifts were above average and that she should have the courage to use them.  She’s an international journalist now.

Of course, it’s a seriously rewarding to hear so many years later that those hours of lecturing are still resonating in some small way.  But even before then, for most of my life I have been the one who took responsibility, made the decisions, had the authority.  As the oldest sister with eight younger brothers and sisters, I grew up, by sheer weight of experience if nothing more, always knowing more than they did, and being in charge came naturally.

It is only very recently that I have come to let go enough to actually enjoy letting other people know more, give more, be more confidant than I am, to let them give me something I can’t return in equal measure.   As a child I was taught that it was better to give than to receive.  At the time I thought of this as proof of my virtue, but the truth is that I was always more comfortable giving.  It made me feel in contol, I think, possibly even superior.  It’s taken me many more years to receive without going into paroxysms to equalize things again, with the intention, no doubt, of returning myself to a superior position.

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