Archive for December, 2010

The “Internet” Game

December 24, 2010

   In Wikipedia, the game “Telephone” is defined as a game where all the players stand in line and the first player whispers a phrase or sentence to the next player.  That player then whispers what he or she heard to the next player, and so on.  At the end, the last player announces the statement to the group, often to general hilarity because it is so different from the original statement.

   I think we need a new format for the game because the internet has made that kind of communication obsolete.  “Telephone” was fun because it showed that the normal social conventions for getting information are so unreliable and fragile.  We may think we know the truth about something from what we hear from other people, whether news sources or our neighbors, but that trust is often misplaced.  The “telephone” game was an appropriate paradigm for this process.  In the past, gossip was passed along, caller to caller, until the whole community knew salacious details about someone’s life.  But when you traced the information back to the original source, you often found that much of it wasn’t true.  Hence, the “telephone” game.

   But the “Internet” version of the game makes the old-style “telephone” game a relic of the past.  In cultural terms, it’s sitting on the sidewalk waiting for the truck.  If any game is going to reflect the way people today go about finding the “truth”, it ought to show how the internet has totally transformed this process. 

   Like “Telephone”,  the “Internet” game only simulates actual social behavior.  But instead of people standing in line, it requires a mob of people squeezed into a large room, or a gymnasium.  Instead of forming a line, people stand around in no particular configuration, which means that there can be no sequential order for passing on a message.  If you want to start a message, you  just pick someone standing near you and tell it to him or her. That person, in turn, passes it on to someone near them, and so on.  One of the problems is that you might be telling the “message”, or some version of it, to someone who has already heard it before, only they might not even recognize it by then.  After all, it just may be a new message from somebody else standing in the mob.

  The point is that the internet can be a blessing or a curse, at least with regard to discovering the truth.  As far as the “game” is concerned, it isn’t a game at all because you don’t know when it begins or ends.  Unlike “telephone”, the joke has no punch  line because  the original message may never be knowable, and its repetitions may never end.  Sure, we may like to think that a fact is a fact; all you have to do is declare it.  But, somehow, whatever you say will get repeated by someone, somewhere, with changes made that you may never know about.

   I’ve come to believe that there are many people who actually like this about the internet.  They like the speed with which you can learn about the world. Perhaps most people like that about it. But I think something is lost in the process.  Maybe it’s just the feeling you have that somebody is to be trusted because they are careful about what they say.  They want to convince you that they believe it themselves, and they want to show you why they believe it. I think that if you can’t do that, maybe you should just shut up.


Changing The Teaching Profession

December 9, 2010

  This is not a researched submission.  I’m only reacting to the recent flood of hysterical proselytizing  by “experts” over America’s imminent collapse because of the crisis in education.  It seems that half of the coverage predicts total third-world status for us because we’ll never catch up to those Asian superkids who outperform us at every turn.  But the other half is for the optimists who see the tide turning now.  That group believes that a new system of “accountability” will weed out the dead weights from the teaching profession, and America’s kids will regain the number one spot.

  I know that Tom Friedman, and others, believes we already have the magic formula; now just do it!  Just reward those superior teachers, and let more smart, ambitious kids into the profession.  Let them be compensated on the basis of improved test scores and graduation rates!

  Off the top of my head, I see two problems with this plan.  The first has to do with how women now view the teaching profession.  I base this on memories of Mrs. Singer, my teacher for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.  That’s right: fourth, fifth and sixth! For three straight years, this woman had the greatest influence on my intellectual development.  Was she a good teacher?  Of course she was, but more importantly, she would never choose teaching as a career today. Not only because opportunities  for women in general are better; it’s that the opportunities for women of her intelligence, dedication and, above all, discipline have greatly expanded.  Mrs. Singer would not be an ordinary middle-manager today.  She would reach for the top, and private industry would grab her up.

  Mrs. Singer entered the teaching profession after World War II.  That’s when women lost the advances made during the war, and the returning soldiers reclaimed leadership roles in the economy and the government.  Teaching was not a field that promised that kind of prestige or financial rewards for men, and it doesn’t offer them today either.  Men went back into private industry, and women, even the smartest and most ambitious, put their energies into teaching.  But today, the smartest women have little incentive to limit their careers the way teaching does.  As a result, the women who go into teaching today are not of the quality of Mrs. Singer.

  The second reason has to do with the nature of teaching as a career.  Private industry, especially finance, will take the top people because it offers the kind of rewards that it can afford.  Sure, it’s competitive as hell, and has no security whatsoever, but the sky’s the limit if you have the hunger.  It demands your best, and those who want to compete with the best get a thrill out of testing themselves every day.  When they fail, the cushion is that they know they can get that buzz again when they start over.

  Teaching will never offer that thrill, or those rewards, so don’t even talk about it.

  But what about the other professions, like law and medicine?  Can we get young people of that quality into teaching instead?  Not likely!  Unlike law and medicine, teaching jobs are primarily in the public sector.  Doctors and lawyers may have to endure the mind-numbing drudgery of their jobs, but the payoffs as privately employed professionals can be spectacular.  Not so with teaching.  The drudgery is only relieved when they get a “cushy” administrative job –these are mostly useless, except as a way to keep them in the classroom by dangling the prize — only given to a few — of collecting a paycheck  in a real office someday, and letting those other suckers be stuck with the kids! 

   This is what happens when the boss is the taxpaying public, who will always resent the people who serve them because they see the costs out of their own pockets.  Every day, the media spoonfeeds the masses a steady diet of small-scale corruption, bureaucratic laziness and ineptitude.  Teachers, even the most dedicated, are always smeared with this myth, and all efforts to change it have failed.  No, in terms of salary and benefits, the main competitors of teachers are cops and firemen, but they risk their lives every day.  At least, that’s the popular conception.  Taxpayers will respect professions that they won’t go into, for any amount of money, when the reason is plain fear.  Teachers, on the other hand, are mainly seen as overeducated clerks who “entertain” the kids.  The popular conception of the job is anything but “heroic”.

       But, as I said, I have no statistics on this.  I’m speaking from the gut only.  For the good of this country, I still hope that the experts in the field will prove me wrong by making real changes in the teaching profession.

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