In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With Jay

26 06 2011

A while ago, Jay Mathews was talking about eliminating basic classes, and having only honors and AP as the two levels. I was expecting to go off on another of my rants about how this is a terrible idea, not everyone is ready for higher level work, etcetera. But I thought about it, and I realized that I actually agree with Jay here, although I think we approach it from different directions. His view is basically that kids are smarter than our education system thinks. My view is that they aren’t as stupid as our education system thinks. The distinction is key, because he sees this as a matter of high standards, while I see it as a matter of mediocre standards: what is now our honors level, in general, should be our basic level.

The problem with the AP, honors, basic system is not fatal: it is entirely possible to separate the three in an appropriate manner, so that all 3 cater well to their group of students’ needs. Unfortunately, what actually happens is that all 3 are at least a level below where they should be. Regular classes are at a level that should be remedial at best. I dare any parents with children in high school right now to embarrass their kids by demanding to sit in on the regular math, English, and science classes at the very least. You will probably be shocked by just how bad these classes are. As for honors classes, you’ll be surprised as well. As rusty as you may be, in the majority you’ll be able to keep up no problem. This is less true in some areas and at some schools, of course (being at  a top high school, I had some good honors level math and science classes), but will generally hold true.

The real shock will come to parents who think their kids are getting a great education because of all of the AP classes they’re taking. Many of our AP classes are crap. Going to a top public high school as I did, I was lucky enough to have generally good AP classes, but even I had some that were just a joke. My AP English IV class was taught at a level that should be basic at best, and perhaps remedial. My AP French class actually decreased the quality of my French. I learned, quite literally, nothing in AP Government and Politics. This is at a top high school. At the average high school, most AP classes are worthless. And having taken college classes at a good university (not just a community college) last summer, I have a benchmark, and let me tell you, AP classes are not college level.

So yes, I agree with Jay, remove basic classes. They have fallen below the level they are supposed to serve, and those students are better served by honors classes now. AP classes can function quite well as the new honors level. And as for a true college level, I don’t know. It’s difficult to do in most high schools, I suspect. Perhaps the solution is to make it easier for students to enroll in classes at nearby universities. We obviously have it easy, because Princeton University is 10 minutes from my school and is willing to take students who have run out of classes. But in general, that opportunity isn’t there. Mostly all that is available is a community college class, and that is usually difficult to manage. I think that this should be a focus of high schools: cultivate relationships with nearby universities so that they will be willing to allow qualified high school students to take a class or two a year there for free or for a very reduced price. Get college level classes by taking college classes!

So yes, rare though it is, I agree with Jay. Basic level classes are almost universally crap, and beyond repair. Get rid of them, and get kids into classes worth their time.


Painted Nails and 5 Year Olds: the Sockpuppets Strike Back Again

16 04 2011

And now, thanks to bigotry so obscene and bizarre that I cannot adequately respond to it seriously, THE SOCKPUPPETS RETURN!

J. Crew: *puts five year old son of an executive playing with her and having his nails painted*


J. Crew: Uhm…

Christian Bigot #2: But but it’s [and this is a direct quote] “propaganda celebrating transgendered children”

Sane People Everywhere: Yeah, isn’t it awesome? Acceptance is great

Christian Bigot #2: NOO TRANSEXSUALZ R ICKY!

Islamic Bigot (we here at Humanity By Starlight take diversity very seriously, after all): STONE THEM TO DEATH!

Christian Bigot #1: EW A MUSLIM

Christian Bigot #2: GREAT IDEA *begins gathering stones*

J. Crew: Oh for fuck’s sake


No, this isn’t very mature or thoughtful criticism of any of the above jackasses. It is, however, the level of discourse they deserve. They have rejected all pretense of civil or intelligent or reasoned discussion, so I won’t waste my time using it on them.

The Harm Of English Class

28 03 2011

English classes are pretty uniformly awful. There are many reasons for this, and I think the consequences are severe.

First, the analysis is at a level that an intelligent 5th grader is capable of. Not in middle or early high school classes, either. I honestly believe that a well read 5th grader of reasonable intelligence could manage a B in most AP English classes, and probably a 5 on the APs. In too many classrooms, deep analysis taking into account cultural elements not explained by the teacher will get blank stares not just from your peers, but all too often your teacher as well. Even the Nordic mythos, something that every English speaker should know (after all, English was heavily influenced by the Nordic peoples, and the pre Christian myths of Britain were much the same as theirs), is a reach. Apache stories, or the Anansi tales, or a Hindu story will doom you, because it is all but assured that you will have lost your reader by that point. And it isn’t even the issue of breadth of analysis that most irks me, although it does. It is also the issue of depth. I often complain about overanalyzing minutia in a story, certainly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that there is incredible depth that may be analyzed. The problem is that, because most people have been taught to be lazy in their thinking, they will latch onto the first pattern they see and try to make something of it, and never put in the intellectual effort to peel back the layers and find the complexity therein waiting. Many stories have layer upon layer of symbol, but it has nothing to do with extra uses of the word “the.”


Second, I take enormous issue with the dissection of the tools of language. The best way to kill a love of language is to pick its workings apart in such a way that their beauty is lost. The things teachers spend such excruciating amounts of time on (imagery, emotive language, logos, pathos, ethos, and the like)  are elementary. By the time you reach high school, all of these should be second nature. They are the tools, not the substance. Just as you learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in elementary school so that you have the tools to begin the foundations of true mathematics by early middle school, you should have already lain these fundaments in elementary school. A child should have these tools of language at her disposal already. In high school, you should be discussing the ideas, the thoughts, the nuances. A carpenter does not need to stop and consider the use of a hammer. That high schoolers still must do the equivalent for their language reveals just how abysmal our language education is.


Third, the five paragraph essay.The five paragraph essay should be disposed of by 8th grade at the very latest. Just as a chef does not use brownie mix, no one attempting analysis of writing should be using such a restrictive and impoverished structure as the 5 paragraph essay. It should be viewed as a crutch, and something to be disposed with as soon as one has learned to write reasonably. It stunts thinking terribly. It is the rule of 3s laid completely bare, with no eloquence or elegance. 3s add power, but do not redeem writing so lacking that it cannot manage a fourth paragraph of analysis, or a 2 paragraph conclusion. And the idea of a single sentence that can adequately summarize the entire analysis of a literary work…


Fourth, the timed essay. The timed essay is one of the prime culprits in education’s encouragement of lazy and sloppy thinking. It is not a student’s fault if, when presented with a complex work to analyze in 45 minutes, she takes shortcuts in her thinking and her analysis is poor. Thoughtful analysis is not possible in such a short period of time. It takes reflection, thorough reading, and heavy revision to achieve that. Sadly, thanks to timed essays on tests and the lack of serious thought on the part of most teachers, we no longer have long, take home essays in large number. More intelligent analysis would improve writing on timed essays as well as on real essays, but in the race to teach the test, this is rarely considered.


The worst consequence of all, I think, is that English class turns students off of reading. I know that for me, English class has hurt my love of reading. It used to be that I read constantly. By 6th grade, I had read The Lord Of The Rings 6 times. I have read every Discworld book at least once, something like 15 of them twice, and a few as many as 5-10 times. I read the Aubrey-Maturin series in its entirety in Middle School. You get the idea. For the last two years of high school, I have averaged about one pleasure book every 4 months at best, and probably worse. I consume written material, yes (Cthulhu only knows how many words I read a day online), but reading a novel is different. It takes far more thought to read a well written novel than a well written blog post.

It is taken for granted that avid readers will usually peak in middle and early high school, but I think that that shows that there is something very wrong here. That is not as it should be. Reading should be lifelong. If it is dropping in high school, then there is a problem in high school. English classes are doing something terribly wrong if they are killing love of reading so very badly, and I truly think they are.


What to do about it? Well, I think that’s already been pretty well covered by what’s wrong. Start early. Expect thought from students. Challenge them. Teach them tools quickly, and then get on to the beauty of the written word, not the minute details of how it works that should already be second nature. And encourage everyone to be well read. It benefits us as a culture. People learn more, they think more, and they understand more. They are more creative when they read, because they are given more sources for inspiration. It seems that this demands a lot, but truly it does not. All of this is well within the average person’s capability. The question is not whether they can do it, but why the schools refuse to let them.


Arizona shooting

11 01 2011

The craven American right (hereafter “Democrats”) is once again applying it’s mouth to the genitals of the fanatic American right (hereafter “Republicans”) in the desperate hope that the Republicans will forgive them, this time for daring to be the object of an assassination attempt. We are being told not to politicize this incident, that this was the work of one lone madman.

Horse shit. If Sarah Palin had been the one shot, the witchhunt would have already begun. If the Democrats had placed gun sights (oh, pardon me, surveying sights) on Republicans, the outcry would have been deafening. Why? Because these things are never acceptable. I think that there are some on the right (not many, but some) who are truly evil. But I would never place cross hairs on them because it is wrong

But Palin, Angle and their ilk do not know this or, more terrifyingly, know and do not care. They are happy to incite violence without regard for the consequence and then wring their hands and cry like they are the victims. 6 people are dead, and more than a dozen others injured. Someone put a bullet through a congresswoman’s head. And all you can think to do is to blather about how liberals are being unfair to you?

Do you know what I have to say to that?


You and your bile may not be directly responsible for this assassination attempt, but placing gun sights on your political opponents is dangerous and irresponsible at any time. You and your calls for a “second amendment solution” are horrifying. Your “Armed and Dangerous” citizenry just attempted the murder of an elected representative of the people. And he heeded your words “don’t retreat, reload.” After he shot the congresswoman, he turned his gun on the crowd, killing a 9 year old girl, born on September 11th, 2001, that great national tragedy out of which you have made a whore for your own political gain.

Your “second amendment solution” rhetoric proves beyond any doubt that you do not love this country, or what it stands for. You wrap yourself in the flag and piss on the principles it should represent. You do not even understand what it truly means to love this nation. Loving this nation means loving the principles that America has tried to represent. It means being willing to die for the right of those you hate to say what they like, to be elected, and to pass laws that they believe will benefit this country. It means pushing forward for greater liberty, not just to own a gun, but to speak, to believe, to act, love, and marry as one desires. It means, in other words, battling against everything that people such as Palin and Angle believe in.

So yes, this is political regardless of the motives of the shooter. This is an issue of discourse vrs. violence. It is an issue of speech vrs. bullet. It is an issue, in other words, of democracy against mob rule. The Democrats are too spineless to make the point, but it is an undeniable fact: Republican leaders have begun inciting the mob. This is not an event in isolation, it is in a climate of violent rhetoric by a demagogic right wing in American politics, and that extremist right wing must be seen for what it is: an attack on the freedom of the people to say what they like and to elect who they like. If we are not to be a nation ruled at the end of the barrel of a gun, this must stop.


Separate but Equal

24 10 2010

It’s quite simple, really. If you support civil unions, you are a bigot. I don’t care what your excuse is, you are a bigot. Why? Well, do you think that segregated schools are fair or just? No? Then why do we even have to have this debate? Oh, right, because you’re a spineless, bigoted coward.


Separate is inherently unequal. That phrase is famous. But because this nation is composed mostly of bigots, very few people in the United States believe it. In evidence is the fact that of the “supporters” of gay rights, a horrifying number support a separate classification for same-sex couples. They will not grant gays and lesbians marriage because they do not believe them to be truly equal.

“But a civil union is equal,” the casual bigot might say. In that case, I suppose they must support segregated schools provided that the schools are truly equal? What? They would never dream of such a thing, because that’s racist? Well why is racism not ok, but anti-gay discrimination is? Why is separate but equal unjust to blacks, but just to gays?




If it’s just a word, then why is it so important that they not get it? Because words matter. Because no one who claims it’s “just a word” truly believes that. They are lying hypocrites, and they are far more damaging to gay rights than the religious right. There are really not that many fire and brimstone anti gays left, but there are countless “Separate, so long as it’s equal” casual bigots. These bigots dominate our politics, our debate, and our laws. These bigots fancy themselves progressive because they, in their condescending manner, are granting gays rights, as if rights were something one grants rather than something that one inherently has.

If you truly are progressive in your mindset, then end this pathetic concession to the dinosaur that is social conservatism. Fight for equality, not for some hollow facsimile thereof. If you have ever said the Pledge, then demand that it be held true: “with liberty and justice for all.” And if you are not so progressive, then stop comforting yourself with this lie. You are a bigot, not a progressive. You are opposed to equality for gays and lesbians, and therefor can never be liberal minded or progressive. Remove your taint from such words, so that they may truly have meaning again, and so that we may truly see who it is who will stand and fight for the rights of all.

Random Musings (‘n stuff)

22 08 2010

(*throws himself bodily from the nightmare that is college apps and summer homework and soccer tryouts and schedules and la;skdfas and escapes into the blog to ramble as is his wont when he’s stressed and/or bored and/or feeling contemplative*)

Disclaimer: what follows will probably be stream of consciousness and incoherent and generally exactly what you expect from a teenager writing as much for himself as anyone else.

So. Right. Post writing. I’ve had inordinate amounts of free time since I got back from Carnegie Mellon a few weeks ago (summer and all that), and I just got done reading Looking For Alaska (if you haven’t read it, go read it now. It’s quick, and it’s worth reading. Yes, it’s “Young Adult fiction.” No, I don’t care if you’re an adult. YA writing is sometimes worth reading for adults too, because you don’t know everything either 😉 ). And it’s put me in one of my weird rambly philosophical moods, thinking about, well, life, the universe, and everything.

Here be spoilers:

I’ve rambled and blathered about how a lot of giftedness is just being “more.” Well, that’s true. But so is being a teenager. Gifted teenagers are even worse about it (god have mercy on our parents and teachers and the people who for some inexplicable reason put up with us as friends), but all teenagers do it. Small things, for no reason discernible from outside of our own heads, provoke tremendous emotional responses. I don’t just mean the stupid high school drama crap (although that’s part of it). Some things carry a very disproportionate amount of power in my mind. I’ve constructed images of how things are, or could be, or should be, and when through some strange coincidence that image coincides particularly well with the real world, it can have a profound impact on me. And the same holds true for books. When things line up right in a book, it can have a tremendous impact on me, when even only very much cherrypicked details fit my life, it can hit hard. When things line up with my image of how things should be, same deal. I guess that’s part of why the book hit me hard.

Right. Rambling introduction that didn’t actually explain anything done. ONWARD!

So, Alaska hit home on several points. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” Alaska wonders if the labyrinth was life or death, and later decides that it was in fact neither, but was suffering. Before she dies/kills herself, she answers it “Straight and Fast.” Her answer was that you damn the labyrinth, damn the turns, damn the walls, you do what you want, and you don’t let suffering confine you. At first glance it seems to be just the “life fast, die young” mentality (supported by the fact that she drives “straight and fast” into a car, killing herself), but I think that Green (and Alaska) is too smart for that. I think it’s much more powerful. Like I said, it’s not “run headlong into the wall,” it’s “damn the wall, it can’t stop me, it can’t confine me, I will live free, unbent by suffering and pain.” It doesn’t mean that you ignore pain or pretend that it doesn’t exist, it means that you don’t let it control your life. You break free, straight and fast, you break fast by being truly alive.

It has an appeal, doesn’t it? And probably more than teenagers than to anyone else. Break free from your chains, break free from your restraints, and live as you wish you could. It fits with teenagers’ moreness. He even says it.

And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself–those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are.

That’s the essence of it. That’s how it feels. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true, it matters whether it is believed. That belief drives teenagers to do tremendously stupid things, but also to do tremendously wonderful things. Who feels more acutely the pain of loss? Who feels more acutely the joy of friendship? The volume’s turned up, the engine’s revved, the speedometer far over to the right, in our emotions and in our actions.

And really, is that so bad? Is life lived with the radio dial turned up such a bad thing? It isn’t live fast and die young, it’s live magnificent and die happy. Sure, feeling more means feeling pain worse, but isn’t all the joy in life more than enough to outweigh the pain?

*spins steeringwheel and flies off at a 90 degree angle to talk about something else*

Why is Alaska (the girl, not the book) so appealing? Why is she such a powerful character? By all means, she’s a flawed character. No one would mistake her for a role model. And yet she’s such an incredibly compelling character. The narrator puts it thus: “…I was a drizzle, and she was a hurricane.” She’s more. She’s alive, she’s driven (maybe in the wrong ways, but driven none the less), she’s passionate, and yes, she’s a little bit insane and not always in a good way, but that’s overlooked because on some level escaping straight and fast appeals to us. Her life’s volume, so to speak, goes to 11, and that’s something worth having.

People fear monotony. Why is passion valued so much more highly than contentment? Because contentment is the same all the time, it’s boring, it’s everyday. Joy and heartache and love and elation and fury and despair are sharp, they’re sudden, and each and everyone of them cuts deep. They’re exciting, they bring the world to life. Not always in a good way, mind you, but they do it. People treasure that sort of feeling, and Alaska has more of it. She sweeps the other characters up in it. She’s a cat 5 hurricane sending Pudge head over heels before he even knows what’s happened. Suddenly she’s the center of the world by sheer force of personality, and people are drawn to it.

She’s crazy, she’s unhealthy, she’s obviously unbearable sometimes, and yet people are drawn to her. People are drawn to that moreness, that aliveness, to the straight and fast. So the rest is ignored or dismissed of forgotten, and only that moreness is remembered. That moreness is what gets teenagers the ever so slightly condescending smiles and laughs, but it is something powerful enough that it appeals to everyone.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s as it should be. I’ve said it before, but it bears restating: is a powerful and true sentiment. Find your own meaning in life, and then GO LIVE IT. Find joy and happiness and pain and sadness, but don’t let the latter 2 rule your life. How can I ever get out of this labyrinth? Straight and fast, because I will not let it guide my path.

Music 6! :O

11 07 2010

Yep, this is (at least for now) back while I completely fail at any regular posting, and also while I’m sad and it’s 2 am and I can’t sleep and damn it I feel like posting one >_>

So, first! Under Pressure, which I don’t doubt you’ve heard before, but I love it. “This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.” <– That line makes me so sad, but it's so wonderful. I dunno. I like it 😛

Second, Hallelujah, which is just a generally amazing song. "Well I've seen your flag on the marble arch, and love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah"

Leaving on a Jet Plane is self evidently amazing, and self evidently really sad. It has kind of a special meaning for me, but I don't really feel like explaining right now. Maybe some other time.

And lastly, something both really depressing and maybe a bit uplifting, depending on how you think about it.