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Split the Infinitive. Please!

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

split-infinitive

[Illustration taken from an article by Tom Chivers in The Telegraph*]

There’s not much to this post. Just a one-sentence quote from a letter to the editors of the New York Review of Books written by Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff. But I’m going to take some time getting to the sentence, in order to provide context. The context comes in two strands.

1. The first strand is not germane to the point of this post, but it seems only fair that I explain what Rogoff’s letter is about. Rogoff and his Harvard colleague Carmen Reinhart wrote a 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, that became immensely influential as a source for those arguing in favor of economic austerity policies. Last April, three University of Massachusetts economists published a paper showing that the Reinhart-Rogoff paper had errors in its data and analysis. Controversy ensued.

A highlight of the controversy has been an ongoing argument between Reinhart-Rogoff and Paul Krugman, including this letter written to Krugman in late May and Krugman’s response.

Which brings us to the New York Review, on whose pages Rogoff has continued the debate, noting that Krugman has used a review of a book by other writers to continue “his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart.” Krugman responds that

Mr. Rogoff and Ms. Reinhart seem to have misunderstood the nature of this discussion. I have never attacked them as individuals, and have often praised their earlier work. However, their claim that severe negative consequences follow when public debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP has had an enormous, malign impact on policy discussion. It doesn’t matter whether they themselves are policy hard-liners; the alleged result was out there—and despite important questions raised about their claims from the beginning, they did nothing, as far as anyone can tell, to dissuade others from citing their work on behalf of harsh austerity policies. I’m sorry if they feel mistreated—but this is about policy, not about personal feelings, theirs or mine.

2. The second strand is the persistence of the rule not to split infinitives in English writing. The nonsensical nature of this rule has been well treated over the years in a sequence of articles by Geoff Pullum at Language Log and Lingua Franca. See, for instance, this and this and this from last June and this from a year ago.

Here is the opening paragraph from the first of the linked Pullum articles:

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by “splitting an infinitive” (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

Now to the point of this post, which is to offer another stunning example of the damage done when a writer insists on not splitting an infinitive. The writer is Kenneth Rogoff, the example coming from his New York Review letter. I have already quoted a fragment from the opening paragraph. Here is the paragraph in full.

In his review of books by Mark Blyth, Neil Irwin, and David A. Stockman, New York Times columnist Professor Paul Krugman continues his attack on me and Carmen Reinhart. Never mind that only one of the three books even mentions us. This is no obstacle to Krugman’s relentless campaign narrowly to circumscribe and grossly to misrepresent our research and its influence. His goal seems to be to paint us as extremists whose work is only referred to by conservatives. In reality, our long-standing position has been as centrists in the economic policy debate.

Narrowly to circumscribe. Grossly to misrepresent. How dare he!

*The Chivers article is well worth reading, though beware its final paragraph. (See here and here and the note at the end here for the reason why.)

Categories: Language

A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

Public Education

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

ravitchreign

This is weird. Three nights ago I finished a post on Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I logged into my WordPress account a few minutes ago and it didn’t show up on my list of posts. I searched my list of drafts in case something went wrong when I clicked on the publish button, but it wasn’t there. I was getting anxious that the post was lost entirely, but then I spotted it, listed as a post from September 15, two weeks ago.

I don’t know how that happened. In case you missed it, this post serves as a pointer. It’s here.

In addition to pointing, let me add some new content by noting the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, reviewed by Jonathan Kozol today in the Sunday NYT.

Whenever I see a Ravitch piece in the New York Review of Books, I read it immediately. In the same spirit, I should download the book right now. However, I fear that I’ll find it to be an expanded version of the articles I’ve already read.

In any case, I’m a big fan. So too is Kozol, and he sure knows a lot more about the issues than I do. From his review:

Diane Ravitch was for many years one of the strongest advocates for the testing-and-accountability agenda. Because of her impeccable credentials as a scholar and historian of education, she was a commanding presence among critics of our schools. Some years ago, however, she reconsidered her long-held beliefs and, in an influential book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” parted ways with her former allies and joined the highly vocal opposition.

In her new book, “Reign of Error,” she arrows in more directly, and polemically, on the privatization movement, which she calls a “hoax” and a “danger” that has fed on the myth that schools are failing. Scores go up and down from year to year — usually, as she explains, because the testing instruments are changed and vary in their difficulty. But, pointing to the National Assessment of Education Progress, which has sampled math and reading scores every two years since 1992 and, in an alternate version, every four years since the early 1970s, Ravitch demonstrates that levels of achievement have been rising, incrementally but steadily, from one decade to the next. And — surprise! — those scores are now “at their highest point ever recorded.” Graduation rates are also at their highest level, with more young people entering college than at any time before.

[snip]

What passes for reform today, Ravitch writes, is “a deliberate effort” to replace public schools with a market system. The “unnatural focus on testing” has produced “perverse but predictable results.” It has narrowed curriculums to testable subjects, to the exclusion of the arts and the full capaciousness of culture. And it has encouraged the manipulation of scores on state exams. “Teaching to the test, once considered unprofessional and unethical,” is now “common.”

All of this, she says, has continued unrelentingly under the administration of President Obama, who has given “full-throated Democratic endorsement” to “the longstanding Republican agenda.” The president’s signature education package, Race to the Top, is “only marginally different from No Child Left Behind.” In fact, it compounds the damage by requiring that states evaluate teachers, partially at least, on the basis of yearly gains in students’ scores — no matter if the teacher has a different group of children from year to year, which is usually the case, and no matter whether a teacher has more troubled children, or more with disabilities, than another teacher who comes up with higher scores.

In its funding practices, the White House has “abandoned equity as the driving principle of federal aid,” offering new funds on condition that states expand the scope of competition by opening more charter schools and outsourcing normal functions of public schools to private agencies. This, Ravitch says, is “the first time in history” the government has “designed programs with the intent of stimulating private-­sector investors to create for-­profit ventures in American education.”

Ravitch’s book and Ripley’s converge in their focus on Finland. Kozol again:

If we are to cast about for international comparisons, Ravitch urges us — this is not a new suggestion but is, I think, a useful one — to take a good, hard look at Finland, which operates one of the most successful education systems in the world. Teachers there, after competing for admission to schools of education and then receiving a superb course of instruction, are “held in high regard” and “exercise broad autonomy.” They are not judged by students’ test scores, because “there are no scores.” The country has no charter schools and no “Teach for Finland.” But, as Ravitch reminds us, there is one other, crucial difference: “Less than 5 percent of children in Finland are growing up in poverty.” In the United States, 23 percent do.

Maybe I should read it after all.

Categories: Books, Education

Pirouette

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

pirouette

We’ve been sitting on a bottle of Long Shadows Vintners’ 2009 Pirouette for a while, finally finding the occasion two Fridays ago to open it. Andy and Cynthia were here to join us for a pre-Yom-Kippur dinner, which warranted a good bottle, and the Pirouette was it.

Long Shadows is becoming one of our favorite Washington wineries. From the website:

Long Shadows brings seven highly acclaimed vintners from the major wine regions of the world to Washington State, each an owner-partner in a unique winery dedicated to producing Columbia Valley wines that showcase the best of this growing region.

Founded in 2003, Long Shadows is the brainchild of Washington wine luminary Allen Shoup. As president and CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle and its affiliated wineries, Allen spent 20 years building the reputation of the growing region … .

After leaving Ste. Michelle in 2000, Allen’s commitment to advancing the Columbia Valley remained undaunted. He spent the next three years developing Long Shadows, a proposition that was as simple as it was complex: recruit a cadre of the finest winemakers in the world; give each vintner access to Washington State’s best grapes; and outfit a winery to accommodate a diverse group of winemakers’ exacting cellar specifications.

With the vision in place, Allen began by introducing a dream team of celebrated vintners to the vines and wines of the growing region. The idea quickly sold itself; and from the beginning, the wines have enjoyed critical acclaim that has continued to grow, vintage after vintage.

The Pirouette is made by Philippe Melka and Agustin Huneeus.

Philippe Melka and Agustin Huneeus, Sr. teamed to combine the traditions of old world winemaking, the advancements of new world technology, and small lots from Washington State’s finest vineyards to craft this enticing red blend.

The 2009 is a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec. Oh, right, it says so right there on the bottle, pictured at the top. I really didn’t need to add much. The bottle just about says it all.

What the bottle doesn’t say is that it was as fine a bottle of wine as we have drunk in ages. Unfortunately, we bought just the one, and they’re now sold out. Perhaps we should invest in the 2010.

Categories: Wine

Our Border Patrol

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

usborderpatrol

One casualty of our extended kitchen remodel is my listening to NPR’s On the Media, which is broadcast here in Seattle on Sunday evenings from 6:00 to 7:00. Sunday used to be my evening to cook dinner. (Gail, don’t laugh.) Okay, not so much lately, or in the months before the remodel, but if I cooked at all, that was the night. And while cooking, or doing dishes, I would listen to OTM.

This week’s edition has a compelling story, one I would have missed altogether if not for the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, whose twitter feed I follow. This morning, he tweeted, “Listen, please, to this report on unaccountable Border Patrol abuse of US citizens by Sarah Abdurrahman.” I dutifully followed the link and listened, making this evening’s broadcast dispensable.

Abdurrahman is an OTM producer and was herself the subject of such abuse. The title of her piece is “My detainment story or: how I learned to stop feeling safe in my own country and hate border patrol.” The website explains:

Earlier this month, OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman, her family, and her friends were detained for hours by US Customs and Border Protection on their way home from Canada. Everyone being held was a US citizen, and no one received an explanation. Sarah tells the story of their detainment, and her difficulty getting any answers from one of the least transparent agencies in the country.

When you can spare twenty minutes, give the story a listen.

You may also wish to see the US Customs and Border Protection website, from which I’ve taken the photo up top. Its caption: “The priority mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.”

Categories: Government, Security

Chris Horner at the Vuelta

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Chris Horner

[Photograph: Rodrigo Garcia/Corbis]

A week ago, nearly-42-year-old Chris Horner stunned the cycling world by winning the Vuelta a España, the last of the season’s three-week-long grand tours. Unfortunately, the race was difficult to follow in the US, and his feat received limited coverage.

The second of the tours, the Tour de France, has become a major sports story here. But good luck if you want to follow the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta. Part of the problem is that television coverage in the US is restricted to NBC’s Universal Sports, which is not generally available. (I complained about this last month in the context of the track and field world championships.) Internet streaming is restricted as well, offered only to those with cable or satellite packages that include Universal. So forget watching it.

And forget reading any coverage in US papers other than short AP reports such as this one:

The American veteran Christopher Horner won the Vuelta a España on Sunday at the age of 41, making him the oldest champion of one of cycling’s three-week grand tours.

Horner completed the traditional arrival to the Spanish capital with his RadioShack-Leopard team-mates without mishap.

Horner, who will turn 42 next month, beat his nearest challenger, Vincenzo Nibali, by finishing ahead of the Italian in each of the final three mountainous stages before Sunday’s 110km flat ride from Leganes to Madrid.

Michael Matthews won the 21st and final stage in a sprint.

The previous oldest winner for one of the three grand tours – the Vuelta, Tour de France and Giro d’Italia – was Fermin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour at the age of 36.

How Horner won is worth a few words. His challenger Vincenzo Nibali is one of the world’s best riders, in his prime at 28 years old. He has had great success in all three tours, with a win and a second place in the Vuelta (2009 and 2012), third, second, and first in the Giro (2009, 2019, 2012), and a third in the Tour (2011). On Thursday of week three, Nibali began the stage in first place overall, 28 seconds ahead of Horner and poised to win another grand tour.

Thursday brought the first of three intense mountain stages, on each of which Horner finished ahead of Nibali. By the end of Thursday’s stage, Horner was just 3 seconds behind Nibali overall. A day later, he was 3 seconds ahead. And Saturday, in an astonishing performance, Horner finished second on the stage, 28 seconds ahead of Valverde in third and Nibali in fourth, thereby extending his overall lead to 37 seconds over Nibali and 1′ 36″ over Valverde. The final day in Madrid is left for the sprinters to fight for stage victory, with the overall leaders maintaining their positions. Hence, Horner had victory in hand.

I would have loved to watch those mountain stages.

Categories: Cycling

Nothing New Under the Sun

September 22, 2013 1 comment

alfalfa

The big domestic political news a few days ago was the House vote to make deep cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (food stamps). This was a follow up to the House Republicans’ decision earlier in the summer to separate SNAP from the farm bill and approve ongoing subsidies to farmers. And this despite the fact that the cost is minimal, the benefits enormous. I mean, food!

According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly four million people would be removed from the food stamp program under the House bill starting next year. The budget office said after that, about three million a year would be cut off from the program.

The budget office said that, left unchanged, the number of food stamp recipients would decline by about 14 million people — or 30 percent — over the next 10 years as the economy improves. A Census Bureau report released on Tuesday found that the program had kept about four million people above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty. The census data also showed nearly 47 million people living in poverty — close to the highest level in two decades.

Historically, the food stamp program has been part of the farm bill, a huge piece of legislation that had routinely been passed every five years, authorizing financing for the nation’s farm and nutrition programs. But in July, House leaders split the bill’s farm and nutrition sections into separate measures, passing the farm legislation over Democrats’ objections.

The move came after the House rejected a proposed farm bill that would have cut $20 billion from the food stamp program. Conservative lawmakers helped kill the bill, saying the program needed deeper cuts.

I don’t quote Paul Krugman often. You don’t need me to find him. But he nailed it in his blog yesterday.

The idea that food stamps represent a problem — not a small blessing that has made this ongoing economic disaster marginally less awful — represents an awesome combination of ignorance and cruelty.

See too this passage five decades ago from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (courtesy of Atrios in a post yesterday in which he added the comment, “Our politics never changes”).

Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a longlimbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counseled one and all, and everyone said, “Amen.”

Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all. He was a proud and independent man who was opposed to unemployment insurance and never hesitated to whine, whimper, wheedle and extort for as much as he could get from whomever he could.

Categories: Politics, Writing

Policy Change

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

policychange

So many posts to write. So little time. I’ve been thinking for a while of a policy change here at Ron’s View: shorter posts.

I’ve generally not wanted simply to link to an article, or quote from one, though I do that from time to time. I try to add something of value. Or maybe not of value, but at least of myself. However, the posts just aren’t pouring out.

Therefore, I am announcing a change. I’m going to be writing shorter and less-thought-out posts. If I have more to say, I can always return to the topic.

Let’s see if I can turn out a few posts this evening under the new policy.

Categories: Writing

Math Love

September 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Perhaps you have already read Manil Suri’s op-ed piece How to Fall in Love With Math in today’s NYT. It’s currently ranked #1 in their list of most e-mailed articles, so it certainly has gotten a fair bit of attention. But if you missed it, follow the link and have a look.

Suri is both a successful mathematician and distinguished novelist. Not a common combination, but not unheard of either.* He maintains separate math and fiction websites.

*There’s Eric Temple Bell, a prominent American mathematician of the first half of the twentieth century who wrote influential works of math history and—under the pseudonym John Taine—was a pioneer in science fiction. Bell received his Master’s degree from the University of Washington and returned as a faculty member after receiving his PhD at Columbia, moving on to Caltech a few years later.

Suri opens his op-ed with a tale familiar to mathematicians.

Each time I hear someone say, “Do the math,” I grit my teeth. Invariably a reference to something mundane like addition or multiplication, the phrase reinforces how little awareness there is about the breadth and scope of the subject, how so many people identify mathematics with just one element: arithmetic. Imagine, if you will, using, “Do the lit” as an exhortation to spell correctly.

As a mathematician, I can attest that my field is really about ideas above anything else. Ideas that inform our existence, that permeate our universe and beyond, that can surprise and enthrall.

We all have stories like this. Many, having asked what we do and learning that it’s math, are momentarily at a loss, but then may point out that they were never good at it. A few decades ago, University of Chicago mathematician Paul Sally told me his favorite reply, one that echoes Suri’s comment about doing the lit: “I was never good at reading.”

Occasionally I adopt Suri’s tack and endeavor to explain that there’s much more to math, but it generally doesn’t end well. Undeterred, Suri carries on:

Gaze at a sequence of regular polygons: a hexagon, an octagon, a decagon and so on. I can almost imagine a yoga instructor asking a class to meditate on what would happen if the number of sides kept increasing indefinitely. Eventually, the sides shrink so much that the kinks start flattening out and the perimeter begins to appear curved. And then you see it: what will emerge is a circle, while at the same time the polygon can never actually become one. The realization is exhilarating — it lights up pleasure centers in your brain. This underlying concept of a limit is one upon which all of calculus is built.

Suri concludes on an optimistic note:

Fortunately, today’s online world, with its advances in video and animation, offers several underused opportunities for the informal dissemination of mathematical ideas. Perhaps the most essential message to get across is that with math you can reach not just for the sky or the stars or the edges of the universe, but for timeless constellations of ideas that lie beyond.

Speaking of today’s online world, Vi Hart has achieved renown over the last couple of years with her youtube series of enticing mathematical videos. I have embedded one at the top.

Categories: Math

Smartest Kids in the World

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

smartestkids

Four days ago I announced a policy change at Ron’s View, promising shorter and less-thought-out posts so that I could return to old posting volumes. Four posts followed that evening, but nothing since. Maybe it’s time to work through my backlog of drafts and get some of them out, finished or not.

For example, when we were on Nantucket a few weeks ago, I assembled some pieces about a book I had started reading, intending to write in more detail once finished. But that has yet to happen. Let me salvage something from those pieces.

During our Nantucket stay, I read Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller Never Go Back, to which I had devoted three posts (last one here). The day I finished it, I saw a reference to a book that had received a lot of attention when it came out a few weeks earlier, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I downloaded the free Kindle sample that night, read it, then downloaded the full book the next morning.

Regarding the attention the book received, in the NYT alone there was both a Charles Blow column and a Sunday review by Annie Murphy Paul.

From the review:

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”

[snip]

But Ripley … has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.

It’s the review’s conclusion that really got my attention.

Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.

Still, I forgot about the book until that day on Nantucket. It’s short. After downloading it, I read a ways into it while we sat by the ocean, read another chunk in the afternoon by the bay, then finished it the next day.

Here is the blurb from the book’s website:

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. What is it like to be a child in these new education superpowers?

In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, 15, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for a gritty city in Poland.

Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. They had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

And there’s also a video:

By far the most enjoyable passages are those in which we follow the three American students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Back when I read the book and started this post, I anticipated elaborating on this. No point now. The students are mostly forgotten.

I also anticipated quoting some passages about math education. Not that I claim any special expertise on this, despite years of teaching mathematics. I know a few things about math, maybe even a few things about teaching, but not much about how K-12 math education is best done. I have ideas, yes, but haven’t studied the research or the data, so I don’t presume that my ideas have any special merit. Nonetheless, there were some fascinating bits.

Here’s one, not from the main text, but from an appendix on “how to spot a world-class education.”

In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. … strange things happened on this visit. When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded; I got the sense that no one wanted to say anything off key that might hurt a child’s admission chances.

Then a parent with three children at the school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question.

“Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?”

“You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”

I was speechless. Imagine visiting a tony private hospital that only admitted healthy patients who could afford its services, and finding out the surgery practice was weak. What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted. That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange?

But no one said anything. Maybe all the parents were stunned as I was. Then the tour guide parent added one more thing.

“Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.”

Suddenly, the parents perked up.

“Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”

I wandered out into the parking lot, mystified. Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.

I would say more, but I have to go catch some highlights from tonight’s 49ers football game.

Categories: Books, Education