Hope in academia? Too many kids in school? And much more!

Hope in academia?

Thanks again to Dennis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily for the link to Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads.

The author, named “agnostic”, did a text search on articles from the journals indexed at JSTOR (you have to be at a university to use it, or you can pay yourself). He searched for the number of times certain faddish words like Marxism, deconstruction, post colonialism, hegemony, and the like were used in academic prose. He found that they all peaked—some in the late 1990s, others in the early 2000s—and are on the decline.

There are a number of caveats to his analysis, which he acknowledges. The biggest is that the counts are normalized by the number of articles published nor the number of authors publishing. Plus, he didn’t check for the growth of any new fad words,

Still, it is hard not to be hopeful that some academics in the humanities are regaining their minds.

Too many kids in school?

I had never been to that blog before, so I was delighted to find a discussion of Charles Murray’s contention that there are too many kids going to college in the post College is Still the Best Payoff. The analysis presented by the blogger isn’t fully convincing and I don’t think he countered Murray’s suggestion that the best in trades earn more than the average or below average with college degrees.

Murray is well known for arguing that too many kids with “low IQs” are going to college when they should not.

On this topic was a link to the blog The Inductivist, by a gentleman who might also be a statistician. Look for the post from Wednesday, August 27, 2008, wherein he states

Every semester I get a stack of confidential letters describing all sorts of diagnosed learning disorders, along with requests to make accommodations for these students. They need extra time on exams, permission to record lectures, etc.

Educators seem to be more comfortable recognizing limits if they are understood as disorders. We are told that these students are not dumb; they are smart, but just face extra obstacles.

Maybe people don’t like “dumb” because it sounds like forever, and labeling it as a disability enhances our compassion for the person, and it gives hope that eventually we’ll discover a cure. The medicalization of IQ might be the only palatable way to confront the reality.

I left this comment:

I was a visiting professor at Central Michigan U last fall, teaching statistics courses.

I got one of these letters in each of three classes of about 30 students. My impression, after talking with colleagues, was that this was a usual number.

If these letters truly represent learning disabilities among introductory statistics students, then that is an enormous rate.

So what is more likely: (1) The rate of learning disabilities in colleges students really is about 1 in 30, or (2) Learning disabilities are being over diagnosed so that kids don’t drop out of school (and that school loses tuition dollars).

JH, what do you say?

Henry Ford Anniversary

Today was an important anniversary date for Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Strangely, they didn’t post any information about it on their site.

New Prime

Again from A&LD, a link to a story about the discovery of a new prime number. Edson Smith at UCLA lead a group to find a new Mersenne prime, which is a prime of the form 2P-1 where P itself is a prime. Smith’s new prime has P = 43,112,609, and the new prime itself has 13 million digits!

You have to be a real geek to get excited about news like this. But if you own at least one copy of The Book of Prime Number Records by Paulo Ribenboim, then today is a happy day.

Stuff Scientists Like

A new blog that is a take off on the popular Stuff White People Like. Not too many posts yet, and what’s there is telegraphic, but my favorite is At the Movies.

You know those scientific inaccuracies that the directors miss or ignore? Explosions in space and whatnot?

Well, scientists love to gripe about them. Loudly and repeatedly. Both while in the theater and thereafter.

Later they enjoy arguing about whether said inaccuracies fundamentally undermine the quality of the film. Eventually someone gets frustrated and storms off.

Anybody who has ever watched a movie/television with me will know just what he is talking about.

“Why can’t they just pay some guy like me fifty bucks to tell them that that’s impossible! Hell, there are hundreds of geeks out there that would edit scripts for free! This makes no sense! Let me tell you exactly why what there trying can’t be done…”


  1. My background is law – used to practice, now teach. I enjoyed Law & Order in the first few seasons, then during a courtroom scene, defense counsel starts asking a line of questions. The prosecutor says, “Objection!” and the judge responds, “Sustained.” I nearly spat out my drink.

    “Objection” means – “Excuse me, your Honor, I’d like to interrupt learned counsel and say something,” in response to which either the objecting attorney immediately states her issue or the judge says, “OK, what’s your objection?”

    Stating “objection” is just a courtroom manner of raising your hand.

    I cannot watch but a few courtroom scenes on TV or in movies with my mouth shut. I haven’t watched L&O since that scene.

  2. No kidding about the movie thing. About the only sci-fi series that I ever saw attempt some reality about space-based combat was Babylon 5. No swooping turns, just pivot on axis as needed. BSG isn’t horrible, but the “artificial gravity generator” for starships as well as the “FTL drive” are by now canon, and few people will lend an ear when you want to complain.

    I have a series of personal “Laws”, the one I see broken most often by nearly everyone but Jack Bauer is Duvall’s Law of Horror Movie Situations, which states: “Never leave an enemy alive behind you.” Seeing brain tends to reduce uncertainty in that regard. It may make the third and fourth acts a little more boring, but it will keep you alive.

    In my field, there is nothing more obnoxious than seeing a radiograph hung up backward or upside down, or seeing a clinician hold a single CT picture up to the overhead fluorescent lights and make a diagnosis. The rule in radiology is “one view is no view”, so I object on those grounds alone. For seven years, the logo of the TV series “Scrubs” has been overlaid on a backward chest film. Finally they had a character (a urologist) walk up and say, “That’s backward, that’s always bothered me” and flip it around.

    My mother spent several years as a guidance counsellor at a vocational-technical high school in Pennsylvania, and she agrees with Dr. Murray that the trades are getting short shrift. Everyone has to go to college is the assumption of our educational system, which is pretty much wrong. The Canadians seem to be doing pretty well with a self-selected two-tier high school system; however, it would be politically unsalable for that system to be applied in the US. She told me when a vo-tech program was proposed in Austin, TX back in the 1980s-1990s it was dismissively referred to by opponents as “a place to dump the minority students.” It’s a shame people feel that way, jobs like auto repair, plumbing and electrical workers are pretty much immune to outsourcing, and are generally in high demand. One of her graduates back in the early 1990s was a machinist, and that student walked into a $50,000 a year job back then.

    Which leads to my final comment, a favorite joke.

    A surgeon calls a plumber to fix an emergency in the middle of the night. The plumber says, “I’ll need $300 just to show up at this time of night, it’s $250 an hour plus parts, and it’s a minimum of two hours no matter how long it takes me to fix it.”

    The surgeon is irate and says, “That’s insane! I don’t make that much!”

    The plumber replies, “Yeah, I didn’t make that much when I was a surgeon, either.”

  3. Aviator

    Your frustration with movies is understandable – but you should see it from my perspective as a life-long flyer when the nonsense in aviation movies shows up! Why does the yoke (or control column) shake when an engine quits, for example? Why is there always someone to panic in a difficult situation? I can assure you all the trained aircrew I have flown with over 47 years retained a trained composure through the most trying of times (and that includes two ‘off airfield’ forced landings – once in the left seat and once in the right). On the education topic, when in Europe I received a copy of a U.S. embassy document outlining how Americans were better educated than Canadians since a greater percentage had degrees. But, with a Canadian high school diploma from many years before, I was helping an American with his third year college algebra. Just maybe there are different levels of schooling across state and provincial lines in both countries? I didn’t get a degree until I was in my 50s and a master’s degree six months after I retired, so I can honestly say that a college education didn’t help me! To quote one V.I. Lenin, “Experience is greater than theoretical knowledge”; nevertheless, I appreciate this learned blog and the level of academics achieved by our host. My knowledge of statistics was largely limited to “PK” (probability of kill) with weapons prior to the expansion of my mind here. Cheers!

  4. Joy

    I think someone had a birthday yesterday. If so, Happy belated Birthday.

  5. JH

    I enjoy reading all the comments on your blog.

    Joy, you’re smart!

    I watched a season of “24” on DVD, it is so nerveracking.

    The Inductivist is probably exaggerating… a stack of “one” or “twenty” out of how many students at what institution?

    I’ve never had more than two letters (out of 70 students) in a semester. At least half of them is legitimate. There might be more in remedial math classes in which more than 40% of the students fails at my institution. The math anxiety syndrome is real and debilitating.

    My observation is that the number of well-prepared students hasn’t gone down, there are just more (too many?) students going to college. However, overall, there is a downward trend in the level of motivation and good work ethic.

    Students in my native country have to take an entrance exam to be admitted into “college-prep” high schools at the end of 9th grade. Those who “fail” attend vocational high schools instead, but can also take the college entrance exam to attend college later. I can see why it wouldn’t politically usable here as Daren has pointed out.

    Hmm… how can we better prepared our students? MAYBE

    1) First, let’s abolish all high school homecoming events (please ignore this, I am just ranting about yesterday).

    2) All kindergarteners watch one-hour sci-fi shows (preferably Star Trek) everyday at school and discuss what scientific inaccuracies that’ve been missed or ignored (yeah, a crazy idea).

    3) Start learning about prime numbers in first grade, and make them all geeks (can never have too many geeks in this world).

    4) Buddha said that we need to recognize that life is suffering…. so let them suffer (not exactly true)

    5) Briggs for President… Briggs, you know that I love you (my revenge on you and hope you have a goosebump attack, but you are too smart to be a Republican president…I shall run as fast as I can here.


    Really, I can only help when they seek my help.

  6. Aviator,

    I was in the US school system until halfway through 9th grade, then finished in Canada due to the peripatetic nature of my father’s career. The US schools were good, the Canadian schools were in some respects much better.

    I managed to pack grade 13 into my last 3.5 years of schooling by taking a correspondance French course, and graduated with three Canadian high school diplomas simply because of a quirk of the system in 1986 — they had introduced the OSSD diploma, so I got that one plus an OSSHD for grade 12 and an OSSHGD for grade 13.

    The teaching I got in high school in Canada was first rate. I went to a private school in Texas for undergraduate, and was awarded 24 hours of credit for my grade 13 classes. To be honest, I should have gotten more, they only gave me one semester of credit for freshman science classes when I had in actuality covered the entire freshman year of chemistry, physics and biology.

    I tested out of 6 hours of English requirements with an essay, in part because you had to be able to write to get out of a Canadian High School with a diploma, and in part because whipping out Robertson Davies’ books as illustrations is a great way to impress US English professors, beyond whose experience Robertson Davies is sadly unknown.

    The folks I work with now in clerical and support positions often display a disturbing lack of spelling, penmanship, ability to write and communicate clearly, and ignorance of basic math. All are products of our high school system, and all would have been pushed to succeed or pushed to bail at grade 10. Stratifying the US secondary education system into those who wanted to be there past grade 10 and those who didn’t but received other training would probably work out very, very well.

  7. Joy

    I’m envious:
    Sometimes, concealing one’s disability can be an advantage.
    I had a flying lesson two years ago for a birthday present, if my sight were restored tomorrow the first thing I’d do would be to learn to fly in earnest.
    I didn’t tell the instructor because I knew if I did he’d start fussing and wouldn’t let me take the controls. I couldn’t see the altimeter or whatever the sprocket’s called so I could tell by the slope of my seat whether the nose was up or down and so on. He never noticed but I would have said if the subject had come up!
    Now, if I am to accept that I will never fly passengers across the Atlantic for a living, why cannot society adopt a more realistic attitude in the matter of disability.
    If students have ‘special needs’ it is my view that placing them in a conventional class is not helpful to the other students, the teacher or the individual with the disability. Call me old-fashioned. If there’s no non-disruptive way round a problem then that student should be treated separately. It’s kinder to everyone.

  8. Joy

    Geeks and insects think prime numbers are the way forward, but insects thought of it first:

    “…and we still don’t have any use for prime numbers in the physical world. However some say that some insects do. Some insects live in the ground for a number of years, and come out after 13 or 17 years. Both 13 and 17 are prime numbers, and by emerging at these times, it makes it harder for predators to adapt and kill the insects, and therefore more of them survive. One bug that does this is the cicada.”!

    What? So some people think that the insects are hiding in the ground for a special number of years as self defence! Not one year, or an easy to guess two, but a cunning thirteen! The others will never guess.

  9. Briggs


    So my guess of about 1 in 30 or so letters for college students requiring “special attention” is right?

    Then we have this story about Harvard (where they go, others are sure to follow).

    The Law school is instituting a new course marking system: (1) Honors, (2) Pass, (3) Pass-low, (4) Fail. The school said “The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live.”

    This new system will surely increase self-esteem (and egos) as now nearly everybody will pass with “Honors”.

    What a great system!

  10. Bernie

    In Law School, the grades should be Guilty, Not Guilty, Not Guilty by Mental Defect! I haven’t figured out yet which one should be the equivalent of Honors!!

  11. pETE

    The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had the H-P-L-F grading scale for graduate students since at least the late 1980s.

    Harvard must have hired someone away from UNC…

  12. MrCPhysics

    For anyone who is interested, and read teh “Death of Marxism, etc.” article that Matt linked to, here was my response:

    “I’m sure others have thought of this, but the “replacement” ideology in the humanities and social sciences is (or soon will be) almost certainly environmentalism or other forms of Earth-worship.

    Imagine analyzing Shakespeare from a sustainability perspective, or Wilde-as-environmentalist. Should be a treasure-trove of PhD theses in either of those. Printed in triplicate, on the dead bodies of the weeping trees.”

  13. JH


    I’ll let you decide yourself whether or not y o u a r e r i g h t.

    I just called the Disability Office. I was told that there were currently 425 students registered out of roughly 20,000. The ratio of learning disability to physical disability is 65:35. For the past four years, the number has been increasing, and the ratio stays about the same. The Office does not have any graduation statistics.

  14. Briggs


    Let’s say: not too wrong.

    But you are fantastic. Going out and getting the data is just the thing.

    Think me and you can find this over a longer period of time for more than one school? Many caveats to keep track of (school size, number of schools in region, etc. etc.). Be a good Master’s project.

  15. You think being a statistician or scientist at a sci-fi flick is difficult? Try being a retired cop at a true-crime drama. Makes you want to scream.

  16. James

    Concerning accuracy in Si-Fi movies, Stanley Kubrick let Arthur C. Clark advise him for the space shots in 2001 and it shows. The sound of heavy breathing in the silence of space makes for far greater suspense than the typical Star Wars shoot it up. Too bad more master directors didn’t try this. However, I still enjoy the camp humor of Starship Troopers, even if it was scientific nonsense. Both extremes have their place I guess depending on your mood.

  17. Clark

    I teach at a Big Ten University, and the number of “learning disabled” students has NOTHING to do with students being smart or dumb.

    Indeed, it is often the smartest students who figure out that if they can get these accommodations, they get special treatment on all of their exams.

    The criteria for someone getting learning disabled documentation is laughably loose.

    I had a very smart student who was carrying out research in my lab He had special LD accommodation because his dad wanted him to get A’s so the student could go to medical school. His dad simply arranged for his son to see the right “specialist”, and viola, he gets extra time on every exam.

  18. Alex

    Re fading academic fads: perhaps there are ways to get rid of them a lot quicker. Check out this article proposing prediction markets as a way to make humanities academics take more notice of the real world: http://hanson.gmu.edu/press/TCSDaily-3-1-06.htm.

  19. TCO

    1. Flip it around. What are some examples of well done realism in movies?

    2. I have found with a lot of things military, that it was a lot “like a movie” in terms of visuals.

  20. Bruce Foutch

    This may fit under this topic:

    “The low-hanging fruit, ie idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking,” he wrote. “These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government,” he said.


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