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THE PARENT JUST SO! Today’s New York Times describes the progress of an admirable parent: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, JANUARY 21, 2006

THE PARENT JUST SO: Reading on fifth-grade level may not sound all that great—if you’re 26 years old. But if you were recently reading three years below that, that new level should sound pretty spiffy. In today’s Times, Dan Barry reports the admirable story of 26-year-old Ana Arias, and of Arias’ wholly admirable “refusal to accept her circumstances.”

Arias is making a very strong move. And oh yes—she’s a mother of two. Here’s the part of Barry’s report which we particularly noted:

BARRY (1/21/06): There was no turning back. Ms. Arias wanted to improve her life. She wanted to move out of her troubled corner of the Bronx, where some people stand still. Most of all, she wanted to read to Anastasia and Lihana at night, to correct their homework—to inject the written word into the family conversation.
Arias wants to read to her children at night. This is exactly the sort of experience which kids from low-literacy backgrounds often don’t get. Which leads, of course, to the situation described in that recent report:
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
The skills (and culture) of literacy are passed on in the home, long before kids show up for school. Low-income kids often miss out on that. They start out in school way behind—and often, the programs there haven’t been designed for children at their state of readiness.

We refer you again to William Raspberry’s “Baby Steps” program, designed to teach low-income parents how to help their preschool children (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/05). Have other such programs shown success? It’s one of the questions we will pursue when our new site gets started in Feb.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, a phrase in Barry’s opening paragraph recalled one of our favorite books for kids. The Bed Just So, this droll book is called. (Amazon: “A tailor gets no sleep until he finds a comfortable bed for a hudgin that has come to live with him.”) Alas! This winning book seems to be out of print. But if you find it in your library, and if you read it to your class or your family, you may enjoy it more than they do. And shouldn’t that also count for something?

Note: Pathetic—we can’t believe it. Barry’s wholly important report in hidden behind the Times’ wall.

AGAINST SIMPLE STORIES: Arias doesn’t have a high school degree. But as we continue to ponder that NAAL report, let’s conduct a thought experiment about the difficulties of interpretation.

Many adults with high school degrees have very poor reading skills, too. Let’s suppose that a bunch of these people do what Arias is doing. Let’s suppose they get into adult literacy programs and they improve their abilities.

Eleven years later, this might drive up the average scores of “high school graduates” on a new NAAL survey. But this rise in scores would have nothing to do with anything happening in high schools. But uh-oh! Confronted with a rise in scores among high school graduates, we might tend to think that the recent performance of high schools was somehow involved in the change. In this case, this “obvious” explanation would simply be wrong. But then, “obvious” explanations are often wrong when we’re confronted with a mass of complex data.

Why did the scores of college graduates drop in that latest NAAL survey? We don’t know, but we’d guess that the answer may begin with the widening of the college population. But alas! Some “experts” preferred a simpler story—a story which pounded on high schools and colleges. We’ll say it again—simple stories are great when you read to your kids. Elsewhere, such tales can be dangerous.

EINSTEIN MAY NEVER BE EASY: Oh heck! While we’re at it, we’ll also post this.

Hurrah! Our analysts cheered the following passage from a book review in last Sunday’s Times. Corey Powell had hired on to limn Leonard Susskind’s Cosmic Landscape:

POWELL (1/15/06): [M]ost of "The Cosmic Landscape" is structured not around philosophy but around the nuts-and-bolts concepts of modern particle physics. Here Susskind's long years as a theorist and lecturer at Stanford University prove a mixed blessing. He is a good-humored and enthusiastic tour guide but he clearly does not know how baffling he sounds much of the time. He coaxes the reader along with rhetorical questions and charmingly corny allegories. Still, this isn't much help when it comes to material like "Let's suppose that the Calabi Yau manifold has a topology that is rich enough to allow 500 distinct doughnut holes through which the fluxes wind. The flux through each hole must be an integer, so a string of 500 integers has to be specified." Um, is this going to be on the exam?
Hurrah! Normally, reviewers feel they have to pretend that books like this are amazingly readable. In fact, most modern Einstein-made-easy type books are, in large part, incoherent. But reviewers typically rush to say that the books are quite easy to manage.

For ourselves, we’ve spent a fair amount of time with such books in recent years, normally at the pool in the summer, marveling to see that the world’s best physicists can’t quite explain their complex subject. For a minor but striking example, consider the following early passage from Brian Greene’s best-seller, The Elegant Universe:

GREENE (page 25): Common experience highlights certain ways in which experiences by such individuals differ. Trees alongside a highway, for example, appear to be moving from the viewpoint of a driver but appear stationary to a hitch-hiker sitting on a guard rail. Similarly, the dashboard of the automobile does not appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the driver (one hopes!), but like the rest of the car, it does appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the hitchhiker. These are such small and intuitive properties of how the world works that we hardly take note of them.
“Trees alongside a highway appear to be moving from the viewpoint of a driver?” To put it mildly, that is a very unusual way to describe the experience to which Greene is referring. To be sure: When we drive along a highway, a clump of trees may be ahead of our car at one point, and then behind the car moments later. But would a driver ever say (or think) that the trees “appear to be moving?” In fairness, when we read this oddly-phrased passage, we more-or-less think that we more-or-less know what Greene is more-or-less talking about. But when we start things off with such odd constructions, deeper problems often follow. By page 31, Greene is describing the constancy of the speed of light in ways we find surprisingly unclear (as does almost everyone else who tries to “popularize” this concept). Clearly, Greene understands the math and science of modern physics—and he’s worked very hard to make modern physics accessible. But, to a surprising degree, he really can’t explain his subject in ways we average rubes can understand.

Of course, we lay readers often think we understand the jumbled constructions of such books. That is to say, we’re able to recite the words of the proffered sentences—sentences which maintain good subject-verb structure. This can give us the impression that something coherent has been said—and that we “understand” it. But as Wittgenstein endlessly noted, philosophers will often feel that they’ve read and understood some statement—only to find, later on, that their “understanding” breaks down under questioning. Indeed, Wittgenstein describes this puzzling experience as the essence of western philosophy—an activity in which we constantly credit incoherent statements without seeing that they just don’t make sense.

How does such an odd thing occur? Sorry—we think we hear a bell ringing somewhere. But let’s give three cheers for Corey Powell, who dared to say what is rarely said about a whole class of “baffling” pool books.

THREE CHEERS FOR GREENE: Three cheers for Greene, who makes an intriguing observation in The Fabric of the Cosmos, his successor to The Elegant Universe:

GREENE (page 77): To accept special and general relativity is to abandon Newtonian absolute space and absolute time. While it’s
not easy, you can train your mind to do this....I say “imagine” because in ordinary circumstances such as these, the effects of relativity are so tiny that they go completely unnoticed. Everyday experience thus fails to reveal how the universe really works, and that’s why a hundred years after Einstein, almost no one, not even professional physicists, feels relativity in their bones.
Even to professional physicists, the terrain still feels somewhat strange. Earlier, Greene makes a somewhat similar statement. (Page 47: “The relativity of space and time is a startling conclusion. I have known about it for more than twenty-five years, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think it through, I am amazed.”) We’ll popularize what Greene seems to be saying: Simply put, Einstein can’t be made easy. We’d like to see a book of this type start with this sort of observation. What is (in some ways) most salient here? In our view, it’s the limitation of our weak human instrument, not the complexity of the cosmos.