Educated by Tara Westover

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover is remarkable book that many friends have read and a popular selection for their book clubs. Westover was raised by Morman parents in rural Idaho. They fear the government and shunned doctors and hospitals. As a girl, Tara never attended a K-12 school. Yet, she wasn’t homeschooled either. Westover overcame this lack of education and eventually got a PhD at Cambridge. On the surface, her book is about her remarkable self-education, but is really about surviving a brutal childhood of mental and physical suffering. Like the political right denying Christine Blasey Ford’s assault account, Westover’s parents deny Tara’s testimony of assaults.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated is so riviting, so compelling, so fascinating because of Westover’s 27-year long escape from her Ruby-Ridge-like upbringing. Her father is a conspiracy theory nutcase and her mother a spiritual healer true believer. Her oldest brother is a psychopath who thrills on physically and mentally humiliating Tara, her siblings, and his girlfriends. Westover’s parents always sides with the brother, always demanding proof of his crimes, like Republicans at the Kavanaugh heearings, refusing any testimony as he said-she said unbelievable.

This denial her view of reality deeply warped Westover psychologically. Without the experience of going to school and seeing normal life, Westover grew up brainwashed by a father who saw our America destroyed by socialism. He taught his children that going to school meant being reprogrammed to accept false beliefs contrary to true Mormon theology and the original Founding Fathers. Westover’s mind was so deeply programmed by her father’s paranoia that she struggled to keep her own identify alive.

Educated works on many levels, and is beautiful written. It’s hard to imagine Westover ever recovering from her upbringing, much less getting a Cambridge doctorate or writing this book. It makes you wonder if all kids shouldn’t skip K-12 classes and we should instead torture them with brutal child labor until they hunger for knowledge on their own.

Educated is the perfect book to read for our times. It carefully documents the kind of freedom the radical right wants revealing how their patriarchical freedom oppresses women. Tara Westover grew up with a family that rejected both history and science. Her father is a survivalist Mormon and her mother is a rural healer/midwife that could have been pulled out of the 19th-century by a time machine.

Educated is a relentless book. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Normally, I fall asleep if I try to listen to an audiobook while sitting. I could listen to Educated for hours at a time while reclined in my La-Z-Boy with perfect alertness.


Where Did You Get Your Cherished Beliefs?

If we had a time machine and went back to the birth of a current Fox News conservative and stolen that baby Tea Partier from the hospital and given it to a very liberal family to raise, would that Republican from our time line grow up to be a Democrat in the altered time line?

In other words, are such basic personality traits as conservative and liberal come from being taught, or are they in the genes?

We know things like racism is learned.  David McCullough in this new book The Greater Journey talks about Charles Sumner who was studying in Paris in 1838 and encountered some black students.  He was surprised that they were treated no differently for their color and they acted and dressed no differently.  This made him realize that how Americans treated blacks in America and how they acted were due to the education of each.

We know that religion is learned.  It’s amazing that so many people stake so much importance on something they received from the randomness of birth.  Any child moved from one culture to another will grow up believing whatever religion they are taught.  In fact, nearly everything one believes comes from what one is taught.  And few people challenge the beliefs of their childhood.

You would think that people would grow up, go off to college, examine all the beliefs from around the world and then pick out the ones they like best.  That usually doesn’t happen.

Then we have biology.  What aspects of our personality come hardwired?  A large part of sexuality for one thing, but not all of it.  It’s rather amusing that some people believe that homosexuality is something taught and when they assume their religion is immutable.  Training a gay guy to be sexually attracted to women is as likely training a horny male heterosexual teen not to think of naked women.  Most sexual beliefs are hard wired.  Sure, certain kinks in the drive can be trained by society, but if you’re a guy obsessed with T&A or a gal who falls for alpha males, you’re pretty much born with it.

Interesting enough, your attitudes about sexual morality can be trained.  We know this several ways.  Adults change their attitudes all the time with training, but we also know people raised in different parts of the world have different attitudes about sex.  We also know if we transplant children from one culture to another their attitudes will change.  Attitudes towards gays have significantly changed in recent decades because of social education.

Once you realize that the beliefs you hold most dear are taught to you then you can free yourself of cultural programming and start to reprogram yourself.

When I was a teen I realized I ate what I ate because that’s how I was raised.  As an experiment I became a vegetarian.  When I was very young, before I was a teen, my mother tried hard to make me religious, and my Air Force dad tried hard to make me a pro-military Republican.  I tried to be what they wanted, but then I read too many books and realized I could be what I wanted.

If you hate blacks and gays, it’s because you were trained to hate them.  If you see all kinds of sins in the world, it’s because you were trained to see them.  Anyone who wants to be truly free must examine where their beliefs come from.

I recently read Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne, about the Comanche Indians.  The Comanches like to take captives.  They would torture and kill adult male enemies, and they would rape and enslave grown women, but they would raise captive children like their own, even if they were white, black, from another Indian tribe or any other race.  Captive children who grew up with the Comanches often loved their new way of life and would do anything not to be recaptured.  The most famous of these was Cynthia Ann Parker.  This really illustrates just how much of our beliefs are taught to us.  And it showed how smart the Comanches were because they knew they couldn’t retrain adults.

Religion, eating habits, philosophical beliefs, sexual morality, passions, hatreds, xenophobia – all are not relevant to the facts of reality.  They are clothes you can dress up in and change just as easily.  What’s important are to learn what’s real – aspects of reality that doesn’t change.

Too many people are looking at the 2012 political campaigns not because of what’s real, but because of things they were taught to believe.

Just remember, if you were taught to believe something, you could have been taught to believe something else.  If you are a Christian, you could have just as easily been a Muslim if you were born in a different location on our globe.  What’s truly valuable is what’s true no matter when or where you are born, and the same truth applies to all people.

JWH – 9/5/11

Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems

Today I read “Was the $5 Billion Worth It?” an interview with Bill Gates, Jr. at the Wall Street Journal, which asked him if he felt his money spent on fixing education in America was well spent.  Here is one significant reply:

Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn’t led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error."

Every night when I watch the evening news I get depressed because we are facing so many huge problems that we can’t seem to fix, no matter how much money, effort and brain power we put into finding solutions.  We have education, the budget deficit, global warming, health care, unemployment, the economy, religious conflicts, over population, and the list goes on and on.  At first I was going to list the war in Afghanistan, but wars always seen to end someday, so they fix themselves – the problems I’m talking about are the ones that never get fixed and we argue over the solutions our entire lives.

If we spend $600 billion a year on education, how come education in America is seen as a huge honking failure?  Today I read that only 12% of the American public believes in evolution and that around 50% believe that Jesus is due to return to Earth sometime soon.  Is that a failure of the education system, or does it show a basic inability for the average person to learn.

But if you look at our big problems there is one consistent factor that few people want to address, and that is we’re polarized over how we view the fundamental working of reality.  Essentially there are two philosophical opposing groups which I’ll label Science versus the Faithful.

The largest group are the metaphysical believers – people that think the Earth is our temporary home while God decides our true destination.  They believe Earth is the center of God’s creation and humans are his chosen beings, and this life is a test of our souls.

The other group, sees the universe as being very old and very big, and the Earth and humans are insignificant compared to the rest of the cosmos.  They see reality working by very exact laws that can be discovered through science and mathematics.  These people believe our lives are only as important as we make them for ourselves. 

God’s faithful, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or the many spiritual followers of Eastern religions believe in ancient holy books, written before science or history.  These spiritual texts can’t coexist with science.  The worshipers of these books firmly believe the key to metaphysical reality is within their scriptures.  Most of the faithful accept the tenets of their beliefs after only a brief exposure to their basic concepts.  Believing is very easy.  Giving up these beliefs are very hard.

The followers of science believe knowledge is vast and to understand reality requires reading hundreds of books.  They are the believers in good liberal educations, which means it takes twenty years of solid study to get a decent grasp on reality.  Learning is very hard, and it’s so easy to forget.

The faithful believe much of education is a waste, and that a good deal of it are lies.  They refuse to believe in evolution because they can’t comprehend it and because they intuitively understand it invalidates their most cherish belief, that we have souls that can exist in an afterlife.  They refuse to believe in global warming because they can’t comprehend the science and because they believe this life is not important, but the next one, an eternal life in paradise should be our ultimate concern.

It’s probably more than obvious that I’m on the side of science.  The really good question is:  If we were all on the side of science, could we solve the really big problems we face?  I think so.  But I know the faithful also believe if everyone believed the tenets of their holy books the world would be a beautiful place too.

I wish there was some kind of compromise so we could make everyone happen, but there isn’t.  The strange thing is the faithful think Earth is of no value, so why can’t they let us have this world since we loved it so much more.  The faithful should live like the Amish, pursuing simple lives, following their spiritual disciplines until they die.  I can’t understand why the faithful want to run this world when it matters so little to them in their philosophy.  Why do they want political power when they should be seeking piety.

Here a logic puzzle. 

We have four possible paths – two real actions betting on two choices.

  1. Global warming is a fact, we fix things
  2. Global warming is a fact, we don’t fix things
  3. Global warming is a scam, we fix things anyway
  4. Global warming is a scam, we don’t do anything

There are four results.

  1. We save the world
  2. We kill off civilization
  3. We get an energy efficient society
  4. We save some money

If the scientists are wrong the worse thing that could happen is we end up with a very energy efficient society.  If the client deniers are wrong, we end up living in hell.  No logical person would place their bets that lead to result 2.

Yet, for many in our society action 2 is where they want to place all their chips.  And is it any wonder that most of these same people are also desiring the end of the world by wishing for the return of Jesus.  Do they think the Rapture is brought on by overheating?

We will never solve our big problems as long as we’re polarized between science and faith, and neither side seems willing to change.

Someone needs to create a religion where the path to heaven lies in mastering science.  Has none of the faithful ever wondered if their purpose on Earth is to figure out the mysteries of reality?  I guarantee there are plenty of clues if you’re willing to study science.

JWH – 7/25/11

Waiting for “Superman” – The Indictment of the AFT and NEA

Waiting for “Superman” is an inspiring, if clunky, documentary about the problems of education in America.  The director, Davis Guggenheim, made two other popular documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud.  I doubt Waiting for “Superman” will ignite the political firestorm that An Inconvenient Truth did, it doesn’t feature Al Gore, but it essentially convicts the AFT and NEA teacher unions for causing the failure of the American education system.  To be perfectly fair, all viewers of this film should read the AFT and NEA responses to this documentary.


I called Waiting for “Superman” clunky because it starts off slow.  My movie buddy left after five minutes to go find something else to watch at the theater, but I think she regrets it after I told her how much better the film got and the fact that she picked a dud of a Woody Allen film to sneak into.  The show is also clunky with old clips from the 1950s Superman television show, amateur undercover video, dull press conferences and most unfortunately, uneven interviews with five students and their parents that was the core of the narrative.  The featured real people were not always persuasive and some of the kids seemed bored by being subjects of a documentary.

To me, Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ when it was presenting animated graphs.  The actual facts and figures about the failure of American schools are the real stars of this show – but I don’t know if they are accurate.  If you go see this documentary, don’t get sidetracked by the specific student stories Guggenheim tries to tell.  The five students and their families did generate a certain level of emotion with me, but sadly, they didn’t seem like particularly good sample cases.  Too much of the movie focuses on these kids trying to win school lotteries, time that could have been spent on sexier facts.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone in America should see this film.  I work at a College of Education, but not as an academic, so I’ve spent over twenty years hanging around with educational professionals and heard a lot.  And the ones I’ve talked to consider Waiting for “Superman” misleading if not fraudulent.    I’ve read many books, articles and seen quite a few other documentaries on the same topic.  It’s a complex issue that no 102 minute documentary can cover fairly.   The important thing is to get involved with the problem.  Education in America is like Global Warming, a giant iceberg in our Titanic’s path – if we don’t change course we’re going to crash and sink.  I’m sorry, that’s really a bad metaphor.  In both cases we’ve already crashed into the iceberg, the real issue is how many people are going to make it to the lifeboats.

Hundreds of high schools in America have over fifty-percent failure rates, which Guggenheim and others call failure factories.  This is the heart of the story, and Waiting for “Superman” does a B+ job of explaining.  This topic deserves it’s own weekly PBS show, like NOVA.  We spend so much of our TV time on partisan political histrionics while ignoring the real issues.  The Democrats, Republicans and Tea Party candidates have zero content value when it comes to dealing with the real problems in America.  Waiting for “Superman” at least focuses on something real and meaty.  The subject deserves at least 52 hours – one hour a week of required watching for everyone in this country.  We waste countless hours each week on political bickering that leads nowhere.  Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ for defining an important issue.

Not to spoil the movie, but Waiting for “Superman” makes the following hypothesis that needs to be tested:  If we change the system it is possible to teach kids from the worse economic environments to beat the average test scores now from the best economic environments.  This is the core of this film.  It says America is cruelly and inhumanly condemning millions of its citizens to educational starvation and stunted intellectual growth.  Waiting for “Superman” tries to express this graphically and emotional as a film, but I feel it only succeeds with a C- effort.

This is a heated subject, and Americans want to blame the students for not studying, the parents for not parenting, teachers for not teaching, and principals and superintendents for not leading.  They feel that taxes are being wasted on education in America, and many want to even abolish the U. S. Department of Education.  I give Waiting for “Superman” a B+ on explaining how such thinking is leading to national Hari-kari.

Waiting for “Superman” does have a prescription for educational success.  It suggests by showing the strengths of experimental schools that a longer school day, including Saturday classes, with a full-time school year, combined with  good school teachers that  we could have dramatic change.  To get good school teachers the film implies we need to do away with teacher tenure and allow school systems to fire poorly performing teachers.  Thus the burden of changes  comes from attacking the teacher unions, requiring them to give up job security and require working longer hours, and to work all year round.  That’s a lot to ask.

The film left out asking students and parents to do more.  I guess the filmmakers assume parents and students already want more for themselves and are willing to work harder, but I don’t think that’s true.  That’s where Waiting for “Superman” gets a big fat F.  It doesn’t show how kids and parents are failing the system.  Sadly, too many Americans are just plain ignorant when it comes to understanding the value of an education.  But we can only be a great nation if the average intelligence of our citizens is greater than the average intelligence of all the other national citizens we compete with on the world stage.

That’s why education is an issue that’s equal to global warming.  We could survive the worst scenarios of each, but who really wants to live in a Mad Max future.

JWH – 10/24/10

Get Rid of Textbooks!

Every year I acquire a few K-12 textbooks that are given away where I work.  I am amazed at the quality of these textbooks as compared to those I studied 40-50 years ago.  Mine were much smaller, plainer, and simpler.   Modern textbooks are marvels of knowledge presented in beautiful full color multimedia layouts.  And they are HUGE.  If children are studying these books this generation should be the most well educated generation ever.  Then why all the bad press about failing schools and under achieving kids?  Could the textbooks be part of the problem?

At first glance modern K-12 textbooks look more comprehensive than my general education textbooks in college.  If high school students mastered these books they should be much smarter than college students from the baby boom era.  But then I got to thinking, maybe these giant tomes provide too much content for young people.  Could academic apathy just be a rejection of being over programmed?  Are we trying to stuff too much into growing minds?

I picked up these textbooks for reference works.  I can’t imagine being in the 11th grade and having to master five of them in nine months.  Three of the volumes I picked up this year where American Literature (10th), British Literature (11th) and World Literature (12th).  I got the teacher’s editions and each volume has hundreds, if not thousands of teaching suggestions, questions, quizzes, activities, etc.  This is a lot to learn and to teach.

The goal is the systematic injection of facts, more facts, and endless concepts.  On the surface, the desire to educate is motivated by wanting children to have a deep and wide knowledge of the world and history.  This is great in concept, but I’m wondering is its wrong.

I can imagine an interesting experiment for some school systems to try.  Take 11th graders, and instead of giving them a textbook on British Literature at the beginning of the year, start the year by telling them they are required to each edit and produce a textbook on British Literature to be handed in at the end of the year.  All great literature before the 1930s is available on the Internet in public domain versions, and even selections of copyrighted material after that is available.  Students could collect the content, write an introduction for each piece, and an analysis afterward.  They could do the layout and graphics, and if they wanted, have a hard copy printed-on-demand for less than the cost of buying a professional textbook.

Wouldn’t students learn more by doing?  Wouldn’t learning about British Literature be more fun as a treasure hunt than rote memorization?  Teachers could still guide the students lesson by lesson by discussing a required reading list, but they could also expect students to find their own supplemental reading.

Teachers could lecture on authors, assign a standard poem, story or essay for all to read, and then require students to collect additional works from the author’s output that they felt an affinity for, to add to their personal textbook/anthology.  Lesson plans could be built around students sharing their experiences.  Competition would arise to who could find the coolest works to collect.

And why not let the students collect art work, photos, letters, diaries, and other content to supplement their poems, stories and essays.  Encourage them to study history, science, social studies, economics, etc. to help explain their selections.

It we had students create their own textbooks they’d have a book for life they could keep, revise and expand, and it might be more memorable and meaningful than being forced to study a book for one year that they turned in when school was over.  Also, they would have something to show their kids and grandkids.

What if college acceptance was based on the textbooks they created in high school?  I know this is a bizarre, radical idea, but the Internet is changing our society in all kinds of ways.  With computers, software and the Internet, students shouldn’t have too much trouble creating their own textbooks, and imagine what kind of textbooks they could create for the iPad, which adds the dimensions of sound and video.

Instead of buying students hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks, buy them Adobe Creative Suite and require them to be creative.  Expect them to work instead of memorize, I believe they will learn more that way.  Can you imagine a K-12 system that was based on productivity instead of passive learning?  And students would learn so many practical skills as a byproduct of this kind of schooling.  And the same concept could be applied to all other courses. 

We might have more scientists, engineers and mathematicians if students spent their time doing productive work rather than memorizing.  K-12 students in the course of their academic careers should make a telescope and microscope, design a house, assemble a car, build reproductions of all the classic science experiments, reinvent mathematics century by century, put together a radio, television and computer, and so on.

Every school year in a student’s K-12 life is really trying to learn about reality from the Big Bang to the present.   We weave the language skills with math skills and then start studying the history of reality over and over again, with each school year expanding on the previous one.  That’s a lot of knowledge to catch up on.  Maybe kids would learn better by recreating how it was discovered rather than being forced to memorize the facts.

I remember my elementary, junior high and senior high years, they were like a 12 year prison sentence that I had to endure by sitting and being forced fed a curriculum not of my choosing.  Study, memorize, test, study, memorize, test.  It was all so painful.

JWH – 5/14/10   

The Power of Positive News

One of the things I hate about TV news shows is they generally focus on the bad in the world.  Watching the news makes me think the world is full of evil people running amok.  Watching the news makes me think the world is in constant crisis.  Most national news programs start out with the worse depressing stories and if we’re lucky they will give us a minute of something upbeat at the tail end of the show.  Maybe they have it backasswards.   Let’s start with the good stuff, and give a couple of minutes to the depressing stuff we need to solve at the end.

One topic I wished the news would promote more is science.  Overall our society is fairly ignorant of how reality works.  Look how many people want to shape politics from knowledge gained from ancient religious texts and next life fantasies.  The stars of our society are jocks, actors and musicians.  Are ball handling, pretending and singing really the highest aspirations we want to put forth as ambitions our society needs?  We really need to raise the bar on challenging professions.

Watch this video of the 18 year old winner of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search, Erika DeBenedictis.  I have to wonder how it would change society if instead of showcasing the Oscars every year we present the Intel Science Talent Search instead.  We will always have a surplus of kids wanting to be professional athletes, movie stars and platinum record makers, so why promote their success so heavily.  Why not promote the successes of the kinds of people we need more of in this world.

Who are Erika’s teachers?  How did her parents encourage her?  What men and women inspired Erika?  What did she do for herself?  Some people are doing stuff very right – so why aren’t they getting more attention.  Her video on YouTube had 95 hits when I found it.  Here’s what 1,361,495 people were watching that day instead:

So why does this exceptional teenage girl that’s calculating optimal orbits for spacecraft get practically no attention, while stupid videos wildly succeed.  Television focuses on either evil or stupidity.  How can anyone find inspiration?  Does that mean ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN and other news content providers merely aim their content to what their audiences want?  This really makes me wonder what the average intelligence is in our country.

We actually want two things.  We want to produce more smart kids like Erika DeBenedictis, but we also want to educate everyone to understand how reality works.  This video, “Science Struggles in Schools” shows how hard it is to teach science, but it also showcases how fun science can be to students.

Natalie Angier wrote The Canon about the failure of science education while giving her readers a sweeping overview of the major sciences.   Her Introduction essentially explains what has happened to science education and public support for it.  I can’t quote it all, but follow the link and read it, but here’s one observation that we have to deal with:

Childhood, then, is the one time of life when all members of an age cohort are expected to appreciate science. Once junior high school begins, so too does the great winnowing, the relentless tweezing away of feather, fur, fun, the hilarity of the digestive tract, until science becomes the forbidding province of a small priesthood and a poorly dressed one at that. A delight in "Grossology" gives way to a dread of grossness. In this country, adolescent science lovers tend to be fewer in number than they are in tedious nicknames: they are geeks, nerds, eggheads, pointy-heads, brainiacs, lab rats, the recently coined aspies (for Asperger’s syndrome); and, hell, why not "peeps" (pocket protectors) or "dogs" (duct tape on glasses) or "losers" (last ones selected for every sport)? Nonscience teenagers, on the other hand, are known as "teenagers," except among themselves, in which case, regardless of gender, they go by an elaboration on "guys" as in "you guys," "hey, guys" or "hey, you guys." The you-guys generally have no trouble distinguishing themselves from geeks bearing beakers; but should any questions arise, a teenager will hasten to assert his or her unequivocal guyness, as I learned while walking behind two girls recently who looked to be about sixteen years old.

Girl A asked Girl B what her mother did for a living.

"Oh, she works in Bethesda, at the NIH," said Girl B, referring to the National Institutes of Health. "She’s a scientist."

"Huh," said Girl A. I waited for her to add something like "Wow, that’s awesome!" or "Sweet!" or "Kewl!" or "Schnitzel with noodles!" and maybe ask what sort of science this extraordinary mother studied. Instead, after a moment or two, Girl A said, "I hate science."

"Yeah, well, you can’t, like, pick your parents," said Girl B, giving her beige hair a quick, contemptuous flip. "Anyway, what are you guys doing this weekend?"

Which I guess is why the Erika DeBenedictis video only had 95 hits and why millions of kids will watch stupid kids doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing.  How do we change that?  If the news media focused on the positive instead of the negative would that change things?  If the nightly news opened with stories about people doing wonderful work instead of idiots crashing trains because they were texting, would that make a difference?

What is the potential power of positive news?  What professions should be the rock stars of our society?

JWH -  3/27/10

Kindle DX versus Netbook as Textbook

The holy grail of ebook visionaries is the electronic textbook.  Textbooks are huge, heavy and expensive and some poor school kids carry more weight on their backs than soldiers on a march.  It’s as common to see backpack humps on college kids backs as seeing cell phones in their hands.  Ebook promoters see dollar signs whenever they spot one of those humpback students lugging around all that printed matter.

And those ebook promoters are right.  Why carry forty pounds of paper when you can carry 1 pound of electronics?  But is the Kindle DX the answer?  I don’t think so.  First, let me give you a little story.  Years ago, before audio books were even common on cassette tape, I took a two semester Shakespeare course.  We covered almost 20 plays, each tested with a very detailed 10 question quiz.  I remember how I faithfully read and studied the first play and was shocked when I only got six of the ten questions.  The professor had a pattern.  Half of the questions could be easily answered with a fair reading of the play.  One question was always about a very obscure detail that kept most people from getting a perfect 10, and the other four questions divided the class between those who really got into the play and those who didn’t.

I realized a quick reading the night before class wasn’t going to cut it, so I went to the library and got each play on LP.  They came in boxed sets of 3-4 discs.  The records were old and scratchy, but usable.  This was in the early 1980s.  I’d play the records while reading the play – it took hours.  After that I always got perfect 10s on those quizzes.  Now my magic retention rate only worked if I faithfully followed the words on the page while listening to the same words spoken.  Reading or listening by itself didn’t work.  Other than these two Shakespeare courses I never used this learning technique again in school.

However, when I started using my ears as my main sensory input for reading back in 2002, I started playing around, experimenting with each form of input.  I paid attention to what I noticed when just reading with my eyes.  Then I paid attention to what I noticed, just from listening with my ears.   I would then read something I had just listened to, or vice versa.  Each time I’d found details I had missed with the opposite method.  I discovered what the eyes learned was different from what the ears remembered.

One book I did this experiment on was Emma by Jane Austen, a book I was reading for a book club.  I listened for an hour.  Then I reread that hour with my eyes.  Listening was great for getting a sense of character and dramatic action, but it was poor on retaining words.  Austen immediately introduced too many characters – that made the story confusing.   Each character live in a house with a name, often set in a different village, with another name to remember, so I was overwhelmed by people and place names.  Seeing all those names in print helped clear up many issues. 

Again, I concluded that to study a piece of writing for academic purposes, I needed to see it with my eyes if I wanted to memorize words and spellings.  However, by listening, I experienced the nuances of conflict, characterization and plot better.  Hearing stories helped me to to imagine 3D action and settings.  I saw color and details better when I heard the words rather than read them. 

Listening, which is far slower than reading, forced me to concentrate on the subject, and that was especially reinforced when I watched the words while also listening to them.  Seeing a word and hearing it made me think about it’s pronunciation and spelling more than when I just read it with my eyes.  But listening alone is terrible for learning spelling.  There are many books I’ve only heard that I have no idea how to spell the character’s names. 

I think these observations are key to the success of future etextbooks.  Strangely enough, the Kindle now offers to read books to their owners, but they also allow Kindle users to play MP3 or audio books while reading, although I think few people take advantage of this feature.  I sold my Kindle 1.0 to my friend who prefers to read with her eyes and loves to travel, but I do have the Kindle reader software on my iPod touch and do some reading with it.  However, iPods can’t multitask, so I have to play the audio book on my Zune and read it on the iPod touch.

From this one anecdote you might surmise that the Kindle DX will make a great etextbook, but I’m not so sure.  I found the e-ink technology clumsy for random reading, which is often what people do when they study.  Also, kids studying will be taking notes for writing papers or passing tests, so I think the future of etextbooks will be on netbooks, and those little devices are great at multitasking, allow reading and note taking and even cutting and pasting of quotes.

To really memorize details for a studied subject, I think you need to see it, hear it, and then write about it.  iPhones and Kindles don’t help here.  When I write this blog I keep a browser window open, with tabs to Google, Wikipedia and OneLook (a dictionary gateway site).

The computer literacy movement of the 1980s promised so much but delivered so damn little.  I’ve always wondered why programmers couldn’t write programs that taught math.  Kids will play video games for hours, games that mesmerize them into deep rapt attention, tricking them into learning a myriad of details from game play.  Teaching mathematics via interactive computer animation should be a no brainer, but most software that attempted the job came up with dull drills and tedious flash cards.  That doesn’t mean the concept of computer aided learning is a bust.  Anyone who has played with Mathematica should shout they’ve seen the light.

What’s needed is a synthesis of many learning techniques and technologies.  First, I think etextbooks won’t be ebooks.  That’s way too lame.  Etextbooks should combine video lectures, film clips, audio, computer CGI, and photos to go with old fashion black on white text, plus add tests, quizzes, puzzles, word problems, virtual worlds, games and any other interactive method to get kids to practice math.

If I had the money and resources to create etextbook on mathematics I would build my course around the history of math.  I’d take it from anthropological ancient history to theoretical here and now.  But I’d build it as a suite of components, usable on different platforms in different study environments.  So if the user only wanted voice, in iPod mode, they could spin through the centuries to find MP3 podcasts about the history of math.  If they were in a mood to play with their Nintendo DS, they could load up a mathematical game, or install a challenging game app on their iPhone.  If they were in the mood for a documentary, I’d let them stream video to their television sets.  Hell, I’d even offer to print puzzles for when they have to sit on the pot.

I’d also find some way to create a scoring system, especially one that could be tied to a Elo type rating system, like they use in chess, so students would feel challenged to compete.  It would be great if the American Mathematical Society had a way to rank people’s knowledge of the various Mathematics Subject Classifications.   Kids love video games because they enjoy beating friends with a specialized skill, and they also love competing against a computer too.  Traditional schooling is so boring and passive. Etextbooks need the challenge of competition, but it would be so tired if all they did was offer time competitions on who could finish solving ten equations first.

What if a Civilization type game required various mathematical skills to play, so if a student wanted to build a pyramid in the game he’d need to know geometry, or if she wanted her little Sims to sail across an ocean, she’d have to use celestial navigation to advance the game.

In other words, if publishers are only going to take the text from their printed books and put it in an ebook, that’s not going to work.  Even if the Kindle had full color and resolution to match the printed page, so a Kindle book could contain all the photos and illustrations of the real textbook, I still don’t think it will be equal to using paper volumes.  Modern textbooks are gorgeous compared to what I remember I had to use as a kid.  If I had the choice between 5 books, weighing 40 pounds, and 1 Kindle weighing less than a single pound, I’m afraid I’d shoulder the burden, because real textbooks are far easier to use, and much more spectacular to look at.  I kid you not.  If you haven’t seen a text in forty years, go find a kid and look at theirs.

When I owned my Kindle and subscribed to Time magazine, I found it easiest to read from page one to page last, and endure the time it took to page past articles I didn’t want to read.  There were navigation links, but between flipping back to the table of contents and to an article to see if I wanted to read it, it was just easier to stay in linear mode of page, page, page, page….

Etextbooks will only be better if they offer a variety of ways to study.  Ultimately, I don’t think individual etextbooks will be the answer.  I think students will subscribe to an online textbook service, and pay $4.99-$19.99 a month per course, and access a myriad of multimedia features, paying about the same as buying a textbook for a one semester course.

The old way to going to college involved scheduling a class with a professor and studying a book together in a room with other students for a few months.  Online instruction means studying on your own with a professor you might never meet who shepherds unseen students through a system of requirements.  Wouldn’t you prefer a textbook service that gave you podcasts to listen to at the gym or grocery store or while doing the dishes, and video lectures to watch before bedtime, and online games to play against your classmates, and ebooks to read on your iPhone at break at work.  Local college professors may stop lecturing, and end up becoming educational gurus who help their students find their way to enlightenment in the subjects they paid to master.

The textbook of the future will have to be very flexible.  I don’t even go to school, but I study all the time.  I just finished the audio book The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg about cosmology of the early universe just after the big bang.  I’m about to read the hardback and listen to the audio book of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which will go deeper into many documentaries I’ve been watching lately on The Science Channel and PBS, but I also want something more systematic, so I’m going to get a DVD set or two from The Teaching Company.  Their great DVD courses would be fantastic to keep on a netbook.

The more I study cosmology and physics, the more I feel the need to study mathematics.  I wish I could find something like the RosettaStone language courses to help me.  I also wish I had something that tested and rated my knowledge.  I don’t feel the need to go back to college and major in physics, but if an astronomical association offered online testing, with amateur rankings, I might be tempted by their challenge.  Our K-12 upbringing made most of us to hate learning, mainly because they made gaining knowledge all about passing crappy tests.  Video games are a form of test taking, a fun kind, that addict kids.

It’s a shame that most adults study new subjects like snacking on potato chips.  We constantly nibble on information but are never challenged to do anything with our empty data calories.  People will spend 60 hours a week playing online video games that require an amazing amount of study just to slay imaginary dragons or build pretend lives in Second Life.  Why not set up servers and let players build an historically accurate virtual Tudor England, so they could apply their hobby history scholarship to a challenge.  What if teachers told their students, “Your homework for this week is to create a virtual Mayflower, and show why the Puritans came to America.  Each of you must flesh out one historical character and show that person in twenty scenes from their life interacting with the characters your classmates create.  Please tell you’re parents they aren’t allowed to play this week.”

See why I think existing invention of the textbook shouldn’t be converted into a gadget that only displays electronic words and images on an electronic page because it’s lighter than a bulky book?  Modern textbooks are already bursting their bindings trying to become multimedia experiences.  E-ink would be a huge step backwards.  Go find a 2009 textbook, and flip through it.  What I’m saying will be obvious.  It will also be obvious that the weight of all the knowledge within that tome won’t be easily consumed by your darling rug rat.  Today’s kids chow down on HD video and 1080p Xbox games.  The Sirens of virtual worlds call to kids and the printed black letter on white paper, or gray e-ink, just won’t charm them.

JWH – 7/3/9