The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.
But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.
Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.
This is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.
The Waldorf method is nearly a century old, but its foothold here among the digerati puts into sharp relief an intensifying debate about the role of computers in education.
“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)
Three-quarters of the students here have parents with a strong high-tech connection. Mr. Eagle, like other parents, sees no contradiction. Technology, he says, has its time and place: “If I worked at Miramax and made good, artsy, rated R movies, I wouldn’t want my kids to see them until they were 17.”
While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.
On a recent Tuesday, Andie Eagle and her fifth-grade classmates refreshed their knitting skills, crisscrossing wooden needles around balls of yarn, making fabric swatches. It’s an activity the school says helps develop problem-solving, patterning, math skills and coordination. The long-term goal: make socks.
Down the hall, a teacher drilled third-graders on multiplication by asking them to pretend to turn their bodies into lightning bolts. She asked them a math problem — four times five — and, in unison, they shouted “20” and zapped their fingers at the number on the blackboard. A roomful of human calculators.
In second grade, students standing in a circle learned language skills by repeating verses after the teacher, while simultaneously playing catch with bean bags. It’s an exercise aimed at synchronizing body and brain. Here, as in other classes, the day can start with a recitation or verse about God that reflects a nondenominational emphasis on the divine.
Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.
“For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,” she said. “When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?”
Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains.
Is learning through cake fractions and knitting any better? The Waldorf advocates make it tough to compare, partly because as private schools they administer no standardized tests in elementary grades. And they would be the first to admit that their early-grade students may not score well on such tests because, they say, they don’t drill them on a standardized math and reading curriculum…
So cheap, there’s hope: Having lost a quarter of its population in a decade, America’s most blighted big city could be turning the corner
October 24, 2011
IT IS hardly news that the city of Detroit has been in long-term decline, a victim of everything from the problems of the “big three” carmakers to family breakdown, crime and middle-class flight, both black and white. But the scale of the recent collapse has caught even hardened Detroiters by surprise. When the results from the most recent decennial census appeared earlier this year, they showed that in the decade from 2000 to 2010 Detroit lost an astonishing 25% of its population, a demographic catastrophe (New Orleans apart) without parallel in the developed world.
With a population falling this far, this fast, come terrible problems. There are now about 60,000 empty houses in Detroit, says its mayor, Dave Bing. Vacant properties are magnets for crime, and once one house in a block has been vandalised, and often set alight, the problem tends to spread. As property prices in the city collapse, so too does the rate-base that is used to collect the taxes that go to pay for schools; so the schools decline too, encouraging yet more people to move across “8 Mile”, the road that marks the city’s main northern limit, or to plusher suburbs like Dearborn to the west or Grosse Pointe to the east. Those who are left are likely to be the poorest, least-skilled and so least mobile. Only 11% of Detroiters aged between 25 and 34 has a college degree; in Seattle, the equivalent figure is 63%. Around 50% of the city’s adult black males are unemployed, and 38% of all Detroiters live below the poverty line.
Yet physically, of course, the city remains the same size, imposing most of the same requirements of road maintenance, street lighting, rubbish collection and emergency-service response times. Detroit is a sprawling place, with the city itself (not the wider metro area) covering an area of 139 square miles, as it did in the 1950s when just under 2m people lived there, rather than the 714,000 it has now. You could fit Miami, Minneapolis and San Francisco into its city limits, and still have room left over. “We have a city that ought to be half its size,” says Mr Bing. He would like to concentrate his citizens, boosting the population density in areas that are still economically viable, while encouraging people to move out of districts that are not.
Politically, though, that has proved very hard to do. People, funnily enough, like their neighbourhoods and either do not want, or cannot afford, to move. Mr Bing is almost halfway through his four-year term, and faces re-election in 2013. Yet while he has drawn up a sensible-sounding plan, Detroit Works, which will help boost three pilot viable areas, with more to come next year, there is still no flipside plan for what to do about places that everyone knows are simply not saveable.
In areas like Brightmoor in the north-west, or Osborn in the north-east, you can see scenes of vandalism, decay and abandonment unparalleled in America. But it has fallen not to the mayor, but to the Kresge Foundation, one of the big philanthropic outfits that are Detroit’s main suppliers of funds for redevelopment (since the mayor is, in effect, broke and little help is available from the also-stressed state authorities of Michigan), to pay for the drawing up of a city-wide plan; and after a number of public consultations turned nasty, that plan remains still very much in development. Meanwhile, well-meaning charities and the city itself continue to pump good money after bad into Brightmoor.
Yet despite all the gloom, there is a bit of a sense that things might just be starting to turn, and the reason is simple: Detroit is now incredibly cheap. And that has drawn some admittedly rather pioneering types back into town.
The most remarkable of these is Dan Gilbert. A 49-year-old native of Detroit whose motto is “We can do well by doing good”, Mr Gilbert is reshaping Detroit’s centre. Last year he moved his main business, Quicken Loans, the largest internet mortgage company in America, from the quiet suburbs into a building on Campus Martius park, the heart of downtown. His 1,700 staff there were joined, earlier this month, by another 2,000 people whom he moved into a second building nearby. From his window Mr Gilbert points to some of his other acquisitions, including one, of 800,000 square feet, that he bought for just $8m and intends to let out. It is hard to beat $10 a square foot for downtown office space.
Mr Gilbert is buying other buildings for internet start-ups, and is planning a big new residential development and lots of retail space in the area as well. “The intellectual energy of a city depends on livability,” he says. “We have to create a hot urban core, and it is going to happen.” Miles of new river-walks and cycle-lanes help. So too will the planned construction of M1, a new light-rail system that will run in a north-south corridor from the Detroit river to 8 Mile Road. Since the city has no money, the $100m for its first stage is coming from investors, philanthropists and the federal government. Ideally, it would then link up with services reaching deep into the suburbs; but bureaucratic and political rivalries between the various municipal and county governments involved have so far stymied attempts to do it. It really should fall to Michigan’s governor to bang the necessary heads together, but this has not yet happened….
October 24, 2011
The champions of the European Union once touted it as a “bold new experiment in living” and “the best hope in an insecure age.” But these days “fear is coursing through the corridors of Brussels,” as the B.B.C. reported in September. Such fear is justified, for the nations of Europe are struggling with fiscal problems that challenge the integrity of the whole E.U.-topian ideal. Greece teetering on the brink of default on its debts, E.U. nations squabbling about how to deal with the crisis, debt levels approaching 100 percent of GDP even in economic-powerhouse countries like Germany and France, and European banks exposed to depreciating government bonds are some of the signposts on the road to decline.
A monetary union comprising independent states, each with its own peculiar economic and political interests, histories, cultural norms, laws, and fiscal systems, was bound to end up in the current crisis. All that borrowed money, however, was necessary for funding the lavish social welfare entitlements and employment benefits that once impressed champions of the “European Dream.” Yet, despite the greater fiscal integration created by the E.U., sluggish, over-regulated, over-taxed economies could not generate enough money to pay for such amenities. Now, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, admits, “We can’t finance our social model.”
This financial crisis means the government-financed dolce vita lifestyle once brandished as a reproach to work-obsessed America is facing cutbacks and austerity programs immensely unpopular among Europeans otherwise used to amenities like France’s 35-hour work week, or Greece’s two extra months of pay, or England’s generous housing subsidies that cost $34.4 billion a year. No surprise, then, that from Athens’ Syntagma Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, austerity measures attempting to scale back government spending have been met with strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and protests, some violent, on the part of citizens for whom such government entitlements have become human rights. In fact, such transfers of wealth have been formalized as rights in Articles 34 and 35 of the E.U.’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights.
Meanwhile, the solutions to the debt crisis all involve solvent Eurozone countries agreeing not just to finance some form of a bailout fund, but to institute even closer fiscal and political integration. This is something the citizens of those nations are loath to do, and sure to punish their politicians for attempting. Just look at Germany, where polls show that two-thirds of Germans oppose further aid for bailouts. The ruling party there has lost six state elections in a row. Or Slovakia, where the average worker earns $1,000 a month, and is in no mood to guarantee the debt of richer nations like Greece or Portugal.
Economically sounder Eurozone countries may approve stopgap measures such as increasing the European Financial Stability Facility by $600 billion, as happened recently. But they will find it politically difficult to cede even more national sovereignty and control over their economies to Brussels in order to find a long-term solution to the structural problems bedeviling the Eurozone economies. As economist Robert Samuelson says of this crisis, “Political paralysis meets economic drift.”
The reason for this paralysis exposes the fundamental flaw underlying the E.U.––the notion that nationalist loyalties and identities could be subordinated to a transnational institution run by elites unaccountable to the citizens. Long before Nazism demonstrated the destructive excesses of nationalism, the idea arose that a “federation of free states,” as Immanuel Kant imagined in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” could create global peace and order by transcending the zero-sum interests of different states and peoples.
In Europe, entitlements have become human rights.
In the nineteenth-century, communication and transport technologies like the telegraph, railroad, and steamship facilitated a global trade and exchange of ideas that seemingly brought people together into a “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations,” as the Preamble to the First Hague Convention put it in 1899. For many, what Kant called the “progress of the human mind” meant creating a global community of shared values and aims that could be codified in international laws and institutions presumably superior to the parochial cultures, irrational customs, and retrograde values of any individual country or people.
Unfortunately for the idealistic internationalists, the mass of humanity refused to go along with this project. Most people lived and found their identities in the local and particular cultures that they were now supposed to progress beyond. Indeed, from 1914-1918, millions of Europeans slaughtered each other on behalf of those national loyalties. In 1918, G. K. Chesterton explained why:
Nobody has any such ecstatic regard for the mere relations of different people to each other, as one would gather from the rhetoric of idealistic internationalism. It is, indeed, desirable that men should love each other; but always with the recognition of the identity of other peoples and other men. Now, too much cosmopolitan culture is mere praise of machinery. It turns ultimately upon the point that a telegram can be sent from one end of the earth to the other, irrespective of what is in the telegram.
In the end, Chesterton says, “Men care more for the rag that is called a flag than for the rag that is called a newspaper. Men care more for Rome, Paris, Prague, Warsaw than for the international railways connecting these towns.”
Our collective identities and loyalties are necessarily local and distinguished from those of other peoples, an existential fact that no amount of technological advances can change. This means that we want to be ruled by people like us whom we can hold politically accountable. And it means our nation’s interests and aims will necessarily be different from those of other states, and sometimes those different interests will lead to conflict.