Friday, January 20, 2012

(empo-tymshft) Clothes make the person, even on the 21st century west coast

I recently attended an all-day event at a southern California university. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the institution as "Reindeer University." (Yes, it differs from the "Deer University" I have referenced in the past.) The university was hosting an event for transfer students, and some of the proceedings were organized by present-day students, many of whom were wearing black shirts.

But there were a rainbow of shirt colors there (Star Trek fans, no red shirts; sorry). During one of the sessions I got to talking to a woman in a blue shirt. She asked where I was from, and I replied that I was from Ontario, California.

"I went to the University of Redlands," the blue shirt replied. (Redlands is about 20 or so miles west of Ontario.)

Considering the event, I then asked, "Oh, were you a transfer student to Reindeer University also?"

The blue shirt then pleasantly informed me that she was not a transfer, and that she had completed her bachelor's degree at the University of Redlands. And she had also completed her Master's degree at the University of Redlands. It turned out she was was a director-level employee of Reindeer University, and not a student as I had assumed.

Someone at Reindeer University thought that it would be great to show the team nature of the institution by having various groups dress up in similar attire. But because the attire was casual, I was unable to perceive any difference between a high-ranking director who had made a career out of student services, and a student who had volunteered a couple of days of time to welcome new students to campus.

Something like this would have been less likely to happen in the past, or in other regions. If you have attended a similar function at an East Coast university in the 1960s, without question the staff of the University would have appeared in "professional attire." But the West Coast is more casual than the East Coast, and the 2010s are more casual than the 1950s. While the President of Reindeer University wasn't wearing a casual shirt, he wasn't wearing a tie, either.

But at the end of the day, I did encounter two people who were slightly more formally dressed. These two people, male faculty members, were both wearing ties.

Perhaps it was just a fluke - or perhaps these faculty members understood that in an educational environment, the professors who were teaching the students should comport themselves in a manner that demands respect. While Reindeer University clearly wants the students to be engaged - the phrase "learn how to learn" (a phrase I had heard in my college days) was repeated often - there was still the sense of a hierarchy, in which the people who were imparting the knowledge and challenging the students were, in a sense, on a higher level than the students themselves. After all, if professors and students are equal, then why bother to pay good money to go to college at all? Couldn't the students just gather together at a local library and teach each other?

Oh, wait a minute - that's an accepted educational method. For elementary school students.

The curriculum derives from a pedagogical philosophy that goes by several names—“Constructivist Math,” “New-New Math,” and, to its detractors, “Fuzzy Math.” I’ll stick with “Fuzzy Math,” since the critics are right. Nothing about Fuzzy Math makes much sense from a teaching standpoint.

One weakness is its emphasis on “cooperative learning.” Fuzzy Math belongs to a family of recent pedagogical innovations that imagine that kids possess innate wisdom and can teach each other while a self-effacing “facilitator” (the adult formerly known as a teacher) flutters over them. If the architects of Everyday Mathematics had their way, I would have placed my children in various groups, for the most part unsupervised, so that they could work on one elaborate activity after another, learning on their own.

Perhaps they could buy some brightly colored shirts for their self-education gatherings.
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