Parenting Advice From The Ancients – The Procrustean Bed

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Good ole Procrustes (pronounced pro-crust-eez)… well, at least ole Procrustes – he wasn’t really what one would call “good.” Actually, he’s a total jerk, but, we can still learn more about our society (and, in some cases, about ourselves) from him, than we are comfortable with learning despite the passage of a few thousand years since he showed up on the scene.  Procrustes was an inn keeper/Greek God, in Ancient Greek lore. He would invite every passerby to spend the night. Sounds nice so far, right? Well, the thing is that Procrustes’ guest bed was oddly sized and made of iron. It seems that no one was ever a perfect fit for the bed. However, Procrustes had a solution. Anyone that was too short for the bed, he would physically stretch (like, not in a good way) and anyone too tall, he would amputate their limbs. That way, everyone fit the bed. Aside from now knowing why Procrustes was never a “fan favorite,” among the Ancient Greeks, you might think that reading this has been a bit of a waste of time. After all, we don’t engage in Procrustean behavior, do we?

I have some bad news. Our education system does to our children exactly what Procrustes did to his unwitting guests. In traditional education, we see a mirror image of Procrustes. Public schools have deliberately dumbed down the educational standards, in an effort to “level the field,” thereby punishing academically gifted kids, cutting off their ability to rise to their full potential, while still stretching those that do not thrive in the classroom environment to the point of absurdity. We have so destroyed the drive to “discover,” by commingling the idea of learning with the poison of what we call “school,” that kids – and even adults, openly express a disinterest in learning, even outside of school! The perception is that learning is something to suffer through so that we can get on with life.

To further compound the problem, parents have jumped on the Procrustean bandwagon, having decided that our ten year olds must participate in scheduled activities, around the clock. How else would they fill up their resumes and get into the best school, so that they can be “successful?!” We struggle to define what this success is, though, often failing to see that we are pushing them in the same direction that we took – into lives which the majority deem to be unfulfilling. To make matters worse, we are harming our kids in the process, as these actions have a net negative effect, as opposed to a neutral effect. Depression rates amongst I-gen (or Generation Z, whichever you prefer), are higher than any other generation on record. Suicide rates are up, too. But, here’s the real kicker – a study recently conducted by researchers at Harvard University concluded that Graduate students, across the spectrum of studies are suffering from mental health issues at a significantly greater percentage than the general public, and, other recent research suggests that there is a mental health crisis amongst graduate students – these studies included students at the nations top schools. If this is all the case, then we can only conclude that, in addition to engaging in parenting styles that are damaging our kids, even if they reach the pinnacle of academia, they will suffer further harm; meeting an even more grim existence than they are presently enduring. So much for that success that justified ruining youth.

To the homeschooling parents, I would encourage you to be very careful not to substitute your own Procrustean education for the one that your kids would have endured in a traditional setting. I’m not saying that anyone needs to toss their curricula and go full unschooling. I’m also not saying that unschooling is a bad idea. I am saying, you owe it to your kid to work to figure out what the best combination of educational approaches helps them learn (after all, that is what education is about right?) and sets them up for fulfilling life (which is, itself, something that will vary from person to person).

Become a teacher, they said. There are going to be SO MANY JOB OPENINGS, they said…

When I was in school (up until I started homeschooling, in eighth grade), every teacher I had told me (and everyone in my class, for that matter) that we should consider becoming teachers because there was going to be a “shortage of teachers,” when we graduated. Guess what: if you tell everyone that they should become a teacher because there are going to be a lot of job openings for teachers, the result will be that wayyyyyyy too many kids decide to become teachers and they flood the market and end up (mostly) jobless. In keeping with our Procrustean theme, be wary of pushing your kids into any given direction because everyone keeps saying that there are going to be so many jobs in that field. If your kid has a passion for that field, then awesome! By all means encourage them and equip them to succeed in that field; their passion will fuel their efforts and even if there are very few jobs, they will likely stand out from those that only followed a similar path in the hopes of finding job security. Otherwise, figure out which way everyone else is going/telling kids to go, and go the opposite direction.

By the way, Procrustes met a pretty nasty end. He was done in by another Greek God who (no joke) decided to punish him in the same manner that he harmed his victims. We all have to live in a world with these kids that we are currently doing a solid job of screwing up, and, for the sake of all involved, we might want to rethink our approach.

(Ed. Note: If you’d like to learn more about the currently demonstrable consequences of the approach we have been employing for the past few decades, see: “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Haidt and Lukianoff. See also, although less explicitly on point, “Antifragile,” by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.)

The Immeasurable Value Of Covering Material With Which You Disagree.

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Ed. note (Oh, boy… it’s never good when we start with an editorial note): Please read the whole blog post before gathering the pitch-forks and torches. I promise, I will be even-handed and it really won’t take you much extra time. Who knows, you might even find more ammo against me!  

One more challenge before you read on – Remember: Only cowards don’t click on links that they’re afraid of.

As I was preparing an interactive stock markets course for this fall, I started to wonder who would represent the majority of the class. Would it be the Christian Homeschoolers or the Secular Homeschoolers? Obviously, as homeschoolers, we defy traditional categorization – we don’t fit neatly into any box. However, I had some guesses, based on traditional notions of where we all fall on the sociopolitical spectrum. I suspected that this class would see higher enrollment from the conservative side of things, since they are more often affiliated with free markets and all that. I further imagined that a number of those on the secular side, would be more likely to view bankers, and markets, as evil, due to the fact that this is a liberal ideology and the secular crowd tends to be more liberal. However, the fact that I even had these guesses made me start to think about the significance of teaching material with which we disagree – and not from the perspective of, see why those people are evil?  The “see why those people are evil” approach is not teaching,  it’s brainwashing. Unless we are teaching all information outside of math with the critical analysis and an even hand, we aren’t actually teaching. Allow me to explain.

So, stock markets are incredibly complex, although, they can be broken down and explained to any high school student, and plenty of middle school students, by someone who has a solid understanding of them. I understand that some of love them and some of you hate them – and I can equally understand the reasons for both, as well. What I cannot understand, is how one can support or reject something that they don’t understand. In light of how much of an impact the markets have on our lives – consider that the market crash of 2008 wiped out millions of jobs and lead to a nationwide foreclosure crisis. It comes up in politics, it comes up in investment and retirement planning and it is a significant part of our society. If you don’t know what an option is, or what it means to short a stock, let alone knowing what a credit default swap is, then how can you possibly know which parts you oppose, or why? Unless we are outsourcing our decision-making authority to politicians and talking heads on tv, in which case, we are really in trouble.

Here comes the even-handed part: Christian Homeschoolers, are you engaged in the sciences? I don’t just mean teaching creation as fact and “teaching” evolution by making it seem like something that is patently absurd and false. There are many extremely intelligent Christians that believe in Evolution. I also don’t mean accepting evolution as a proven, objective fact – “strong evidence,” is not the same thing as objective fact. What I do mean to ask is: are you showing the science behind the theories. Showing it from a secular perspective, then showing from a competing perspective – both secular and religious. Yes, there are secular scientists that challenge the theory evolution. Few things are as settled as we choose to believe they are. In fact, it is only arrogance and misinformation that cause us to believe otherwise. The early church took over three hundred years to settle the question of whether they believed that Jesus was fully God. Beyond that, even with Roman Emperors killing people for so much as possessing a different viewpoint of Christianity than the officially sanctioned government view, we still end up with many different interpretations of the bible (as evidenced by the sheer number of denominations). Meanwhile, in far less time than it took for Rome to force the church to decide whether Jesus was equal to God, science has come up with myriad explanations – and changed almost all of them, as to how and why we are here, along with incalculable proclamations – many groundbreaking and many turning out to be completely wrong (1)(2). With that being said, we owe it to our kids to equip them with all the information available, teach them how to think critically, and allow them to figure out what they believe. As I am sure (almost) any Christian will tell you – one cannot receive salvation on the coattails of the faith of one’s parents. I would argue that the same is true of Atheists and those embracing the cult of scientism – your belief cannot sustain your child into adulthood. If they are told what to think, instead of how to think, they will have a weak mental framework, or foundation. It will eventually collapse under the weight of scrutiny. It is this belief that allows RealSchooling.com to honestly and unequivocally say that we are not hostile to religion or science – nor do we endorse atheism or any particular faith. We endorse the great search for objective truth and understanding, with the firm belief that the better we all understand one another, the better off we are.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey D. Hoffmann, Esq., Founder of RealSchooling.com and RealSchooling.blog

 

Would You Have Solved This Social Media Mystery? So Far, I Was The Only One.

Don’t be a sucker…

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The other day, I saw an amazing quote on a friend’s social media page by an ancient Greek philosopher. Whenever I see a quote that I either love, or hate, I do what everyone does – I check to see if it’s legit. You totally do that, too, right? Never mind, back to my story… So, I start looking for quotes from this ancient Greek philosopher and, not only can I not find any quotes from him, I can’t find him, anywhere. Now the guy that shared this quote is very smart and has written his fair share of research papers. I deeply doubted that he would be unaware of the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) most of the quotes strewn across the internet are completely unrelated to the person to whom they are attributed. On the other hand, that left me with only two possibilities: 1) He shared this quote from his cell phone and it autocorrected to some truly bizarre word that rendered finding the actual author of the quote completely impossible; or, 2) GASSSSPPPP – he’s the ancient Greek Philosopher! I sent him a message later that day, out of a desperate need to know the answer, because, that’s who you’re dealing with here, folks. I couldn’t let it go. I needed to know the truth! “Hey, buddy!” I said, casually… “I was just wondering about the origin of that awesome quote you shared earlier. I couldn’t find the author anywhere.” I see the typing bubbles… He asks, “do you really want to know?” I responded, truthfully, “No one’s ever asked me that before! The answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.” Before he could respond, I hammered out the words required to indicate that I believed it was him. He confirmed my suspicions. He theorized that people would become more engaged in a cool quote written by someone famous – or famous sounding, then they would in a great quote by himself, so, he created someone famous sounding. In fact, over roughly two years, he’d used the ancient pen name more than half a dozen times, to increased engagement, without anyone ever calling him on it. No one knows that this ancient philosopher, whose quotes they are sharing isn’t real – or at least isn’t ancient. Or Greek… No one, that is, except for me.

I want to make an important point here: I fact checked my friend’s quote, even though I believe him to be the type of guy who is unlikely to quote something that was not verified; the type of guy that doesn’t share news stories which are easily debunked. Why? Because I fact check everyone. I fact check my own writing, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, or lean too heavily on something lacking the appropriate amount of credible support. I don’t place blind trust in anyone, because everyone makes mistakes.

I didn’t always do this. Actually, I started when I was looking to see where one of my favorite quotes came from, only to find that it didn’t exactly come from anywhere. Do you want to know which quote I was looking for? Brace yourself. You’re not going to like this. What if I told you that Einstein never said the “fish quote?” You know, the one where the fish spends its whole life feeling stupid if you tell it that it has to climb a tree, or whatever… I’m not going to bother quoting it perfectly – because Einstein never said it! Someone did say something like it, though. That guy actually wrote a great piece on education and Einstein gets the credit – c’mon people! Didn’t Einstein get enough credit for things that he actually did?! Do we really need to give him some other guy’s credit, too?

Once I discovered that Einstein was reaching out from beyond the grave to use the internet to steal credit for other people’s quotes, I became suspicious of other quotes. It turns out they’re all fake. FAKE. Ok, maybe not all. But, your favorite internet quote? FAKE. If not fake, then, misattributed, which is even more messed up, in some ways (because if the person that actually said it can be identified, shouldn’t they get the credit?).

Okay, but really, who cares that they are fake?

Why does it matter? For so many reasons. First, because we give more weight of credibility to the words of well-respected people. It means more to us if we have Einstein, Plato, Jesus, Michael Jordan, or Mr. Rogers on our side of an argument – subject to the topic, of course; I’m going to Jordan for basketball pointers, not Plato – but, I digress. More importantly, it reveals how bad we are at identifying what is real and what is a fraud. It runs the gamut, from the brief quote, to the social and political articles that proliferate social media.

I suppose it makes sense. The basis of K-12 education is, “I teach you the answer, you reproduce the answer on the exam.” There isn’t much critical analysis, there (note: that isn’t a dig on teachers. They are handcuffed by the system – any decent teacher will readily tell you how frustrating that is). You can tell me that it isn’t really like that, however, I went to law school – I sat in a room full of highly educated people as they struggled desperately to grasp the concept that there wasn’t necessarily a “correct answer.” There were different possibilities; different potential outcomes. They had spent seventeen years of schooling getting straight A’s, because they learned how to remember and reproduce an answer. So, when we leave the classroom, we have been trained to listen to an answer and accept it as truth – at face value. This doesn’t work – in the classroom or in the real world. If we don’t learn how to question, and fact check, we will always play the role of the useful idiot; the tool that someone uses to get a vote or sell a product (or news channel – you pick, Fox, CNN, MSNBC… they’re all selling you the opinion they think you want to hear).

I’m trying to protect your credibility, here. If you can’t at least sort the real from the easily refutable, then you will lack credibility with anyone alert enough to distinguish between the two. Even worse, is when someone – like one of your kids, places a great deal of faith in your words, and believes them, almost, blindly. This person may be devastated when they discover that too much of what they learned from you was based on urban legends, and misinformation.

This whole thing should make you ask yourself how many things you’ve read and just chosen to accept as true. It presents some major issues when we consider our ideological, political, philosophical, and theological beliefs. In the end, it all comes back to my friends question: “do you really want to know?” For me, the answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.

Jeffrey Hoffmann is the founder of RealSchooling.com, Real Schooling.blog, and is a practicing attorney.

Hey, Homeschooling Parents! Are You Raising Skeptics?

What was it about the title of this blog post that made you click the link? Was it a fear of the possibility that you may be raising a skeptic or the fear that you aren’t? Well, before you decide whether you hope to raise skeptics or not, let’s make a distinction between two words that can get mixed up. Cynicism vs skepticism. Cynicism, or the act of being cynical, is defined as being: (a) contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives, or (b) based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest. Basically, cynicism thinks the worst of everyone, always. It is one step away from wearing a tin foil hat. Meanwhile, skepticism is defined as: doubt as to the truth of something. While I discourage cynicism, I’d make the case for skepticism – now, more than at any point in human history.

Before I get into the how and why of things, let’s just review a few objective facts:

  1. There has never been a single documented case of halloween candy tampering, despite all of those warnings that your parents, teachers, schools, and I’m pretty sure, even the government gave you.
  2. Pluto, is not (presently considered to be) a planet.
  3. Scientists recently announced that they had discovered a new organ – but, that claim was challenged by other scientists, because, well, we don’t even have a universal definition for the word, “organ.” Let that sink in. We can’t agree on the meaning of the word, organ.
  4. We’ve mapped out far less than 10% of the ocean – the rest is a total unknown to us.
  5. Only a few years ago, we discovered that, despite whatever experts had previously told us, there are hundreds of billions more stars in the sky that we believed were there.
  6. You do not need, for any reason, to wait an hour after eating before you go swimming.
  7. We know and have learned a great deal about life, our planet and the universe… but there appears to be vastly more that we do not know, than the total of what we do know – yet we often speak in absolutes, or with absolute certainty.  If you want a list of fifty more things that most of us are wrong about, click here.

Now that we have a list of things that we thought were true but have been demonstrated to be incorrect, let’s talk a little bit about why we should question nearly everything (in a good way). It is our nature to be drawn to things that reinforce our own beliefs. In fact, there is even a name for this: confirmation bias, and it afflicts all of us, to varying degrees. The extent to which there are varying degrees of impact relates to our own awareness of confirmation bias, and our personal desire to seek objective truth above our preconceived ideas. Absent this desire for objective truth, all human beings are extremely vulnerable to confirmation bias. The practical consequences of confirmation bias result in only reading articles that support the beliefs that we already held. Alternatively, the extent to which we read articles written from a differing point of view, is to only read them cynically, looking for ways to discredit the author and disregard the unsettling possibility that we are wrong about something. This approach doesn’t provide us with a complete picture, though. Instead, we end up with a very limited perspective. In fact, we never hear the other perspective, even if we encounter it, because we aren’t contemplating the actual merits of their position, we are only looking for an excuse to discredit them. This would be a great strategy, if we were never wrong about anything and possessed the ability to see all perspectives on our own natural intuition. Sadly, that turns out not to be the case. So the question becomes, how do we eliminate the inherent confirmation biases that we each carry with us?

Well, that is where the whole “being skeptics” thing comes into play. If we desire objective truth above reinforcing preconceived notions of truth, then we must:

  1. Engage the situation as a neutral observer –  meaning that we don’t care about being right or wrong, and we don’t have anything to gain or lose if the author’s position turns out to be correct;
  2. Consider the information being presented with a skepticism – which is to say, to ask, “how did the author reach their conclusion? On what information do they rely? What research methods were used to reach that conclusion? What are their peers saying with respect to their work?”; and
  3. Drawing our conclusions from the cumulative result of all of the information that was acquired.

Even after all of the above, there must be a willingness to reconsider the conclusion that you reach when presented with new information, in the future.