Books: Surprised by Oxford

April 13, 2013

I came across Carolyn Weber’s blog when I was Googling “Maundy Thursday” and “liturgy.” I didn’t find any ideas for a Communion liturgy, but I found deeply thoughtful posts. I was so captivated by both the content and style of Carolyn’s writing that I promptly subscribed to her email newsletter.

I also read about her book Surprised by Oxford, and used our interlibrary loan program to request a copy. It came in right before I left on my business trip to Philadelphia, so I had wonderful reading material to occupy the hours I spent on the plane, in the airport, and evenings alone in my hotel room.

The book chronicles her year at Oxford University, a year of intellectual, personal, and spiritual growth. Carolyn is an excellent writer, and the book is fun to read simply to see the varied circumstances in which she finds herself, and how she deals with them. But the spiritual questions she grapples with make it far more than just good reading.

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Art to make you think

February 1, 2013

One thing I liked about getting a job at a college was the idea of working in an environment dedicated to learning. After a few months here, I have discovered that I don’t come into contact with students or faculty very much. We may pass in the corridor, but most of my time is spent in my office, interacting with the computer and with other members of the administrative staff.

I still like the idea that my work contributes, however indirectly, to the learning process. And I especially like it when I come in more direct contact with the learning process, even if it’s only hearing a music class as I walk by.

One thing I have mixed feelings about, however, is the artwork on the walls in various buildings. What is that picture supposed to mean, I ask myself as I walk by each day. (There are several of these, though I tend to notice the one closest to my office the most often.) I assume it is supposed to mean something. But there is no explanation provided.

Today I walked through the ArtSpace Gallery, and one display in particular caught my attention. It was an array of nine identical white boxes, each marked with a label that says “This brain meets the STANDARD.” I didn’t even realize until I returned and looked at all the works more closely that I had missed the main item in that particular work. But just the part I had seen was enough to get me thinking.

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Books: The Green Revolution

January 12, 2013

As our library didn’t have any of the next few books in Ralph McInerny’s series of Father Dowling mysteries, I decided to try reading one of his novels set at the University of Notre Dame. The Green Revolution sounded like it could be interesting, involving conflict over what role football should have in an institution of higher learning.

The very first chapter explores the depth of devotion Notre Dame students and alumni have for their school’s football program – something I can’t relate to at all, but I was interested in getting some insight into that mentality. After the first chapter, however, such devotion was simply taken for granted and used as background for the unfolding mystery.

A number of interesting characters are introduced, most of them members of the university faculty or administration. One reader review at says that McInerny “is at his best indulging in light, elbow-ribbing satire of Notre Dame’s eccentric faculty. He is in a unique position to do so, having taught at the university for over fifty years, and he even manages to slip in some pointed commentary about the school’s increasing secularization.”

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Writing as an essential academic skill

September 30, 2012

Someone on Facebook drew my attention to this article in the The Atlantic about a low-performing school that was turned around by a focus on analytic writing. That’s not an approach that educational reformers usually take, but I hope many schools learn from the example of New Dorp.

The article explains how, decades ago, educators adopted an approach to teaching writing that really didn’t teach them how to write. The idea was that if they were given interesting writing assignments, they would pick up the skills they needed. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work very well.

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IQ and the Flynn Effect

September 23, 2012

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve always enjoyed taking IQ tests. Earlier this year, salaried employees in the department where I worked had to take a series of tests that were supposed to measure one’s leadership potential. Some of them dealt with experience and ambition in relation to leadership, and one test measured abstract reasoning. We were told not to worry about this last test, that it was only one piece of the larger picture. But for me, that test was the best part of the whole process.

I’ve never wanted to get into management, so I have naturally not sought out the kind of experiences the other tests were asking about. What leadership positions I’ve been in have usually come sort of by default – because I was the only one willing to do it, or because I seemed the “obvious” choice (president of math league in high school because I got the highest scores, and Bible study leader at church because I am the pastor’s wife).

The kind of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition used in a certain kind of IQ test, however, is something I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. Partly I enjoy it because I know I do it well, but it’s also the kind of puzzle I enjoy solving. I think the test I took (a long time ago) that was supposed to measure aptitude for computer programming was of this nature. I not only did very well on it, but I enjoyed taking it so much that I figured I would enjoy computer programming also.

I always assumed, growing up, that such tests measured some actual trait labeled intelligence. That’s what the people who made and administered the tests thought, of course, and I suppose most other people did also, until psychologists began to recognize that intelligence was really made up of a number of broad abilities.

I remember learning about the idea of multiple intelligences, a number of years ago, when I was looking for resources for teaching Sunday School. On the one hand, it makes sense to recognize that different people learn best in different ways, which seem to be at least somewhat related to this idea of multiple intelligences. On the other hand, it seems to be stretching the word intelligence to the point that it doesn’t mean very much, to use it for abilities that do not deal with reasoning.

No doubt society has often inappropriately treated people with high abilities at abstract reasoning as superior to those with other kinds of abilities, and it is good to recognize the value of those other kinds of abilities. But it should be possible to correct that tendency without divorcing the word intelligence from its traditional meaning related to reasoning ability.

All that was somewhat in my mind as I started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. James Flynn discusses the fact that IQ scores have steadily risen over the decades, and asks Are We Really Getting Smarter? I had not realized that scores were, in fact, increasing, because the tests periodically are updated and re-standardized, so the scores appear to remain constant. Someone who scored well on a test today would have scored even better on one of the older tests. But someone who scored well several decades ago would not score nearly as well now.

Flynn was the one who initially drew attention to this trend, though it was the authors of The Bell Curve who coined the term Flynn Effect, in recognition of the work done by Flynn to document it. A number of different explanations have been offered, but Flynn’s own explanation, in the WSJ article, is that modern education has trained people do perform better at abstract reasoning activities.

If IQ tests really measured something innate, then people who lived a hundred years ago should have performed just as well. (Better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases have been offered as explanations for the increases, and they may account for part of it, but improvement in those areas does not seem to follow the same pattern of gradual, linear progression seen in IQ scores over several decades.) People in a less technological society did not have all the knowledge we do, but they should have had similar aptitude.

Language and cultural references are sometimes given as explanations for certain subgroups of society not performing as well, but the non-verbal problems that use only geometric shapes should eliminate that issue. Yet as Flynn points out, people who have not gone through modern education would have difficulty understanding what in the world such questions were about.

We are trained at such a young age to recognize abstract patterns, finding similarities in unrelated objects (similar shape or color, for instance), that it is hard (for me, anyway) to imagine lacking that kind of recognition. But it makes sense what Flynn says: if success in life is based on ability to hunt animals, or make furniture or clothing, the idea that the moon and a cantaloupe have something in common (because they are both round) may sound like nonsense.

Of course, in a technologically advanced society, abstract reasoning is an important ability in many jobs. But it’s good to be reminded that IQ is a useful measure only to the extent that what it measures is useful.

Back to school

September 13, 2012

I’ve always liked the beginning of fall and a new school year. Refreshingly cool weather, a fresh new start with new classes, new subjects, new things to learn, and new goals to reach for.

Except for an online course I took a few years ago, it’s been a long time since I went back to the school in the fall – except for the “back-to-school” nights at my sons’ schools, which have a whole different feel for a parent than a student. I’ve always found things to learn, but generally not in the intense fashion that I associate with going “back to school.”

I’m back on a college campus this fall, but not as a student. Last week I started a new job, on the staff of Black Hawk College. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be part of the learning environment, and I appreciate the community college’s commitment to making learning accessible to many people who for one reason or another face significant if not insurmountable barriers to becoming a student at a traditional four-year college.

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Innoculating against innumeracy

August 29, 2012

For years parents have been told how important it is to read to their young children. Today I read that it may be just as important to do household math with young children. An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that

Math skill at kindergarten entry is an even stronger predictor of later school achievement than reading skills or the ability to pay attention, according to a 2007 study in the journal Developmental Psychology.

My first thought was surprise. How could math be even more important than reading? My next thought was that now conscientious parents will feel pressured to improve their children’s math skills prior to age 5.

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