Archives for category: Curriculum

Jeannie Kaplan, who recently retired from the Denver school board, knows how to read the reports and data from the district. Here is one of her best posts. She is a stalwart critic of the data-driven corporate reform culture and has often noted how little progress students have made after a full decade of corporate reform and constant testing. The latest bad news concerned test scores in science and social studies. But the district superintendent Tom Boasberg did not issue a press release acknowledging the low scores and proposing more time for instruction in science and social studies.

 

Kaplan writes:

 

So, what happens when test results are so awful that even a crack public information office, focused on test scores and accountability, can’t figure out how to put a positive spin on standardized test numbers? Denver Public Schools and Superintendent Tom Boasberg faced this situation in late October when, after several delays, the Colorado Department of Education released its first Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) Social Studies (grades 4 and 7) and Science (grade 5 and 8) results. This is a somewhat ironic name since the academic success was nowhere to be found. The superintendent writes regularly about the wonders of “reform” in DPS and has historically been able to spin even the worst “gains.” This time, however, he was flummoxed.

 

CMAS results were released at noon on Monday, October 27, 2014. Boasberg’s email went out later that afternoon. His 11 paragraph epistle waxed on about these new standards, how helpful they will be, how they set higher standards for our students, and how they will help ensure “our students graduate high school ready for college and career in the 21st century.” In paragraph six he briefly shifts gears and half-heartedly bemoans “the overall number of state assessments and the time spent on them” and asks very quietly for the state to find a way to make assessments precise, targeted and SHORT “to lessen the amount of lost instructional time” This from the quintessential Broad trained superintendent. There is hardly a standardized test he hasn’t supported.

 

What did this data-driven “reformer” not cite in his email? You guessed it. The data! Of the six links in the email, none of them links to actual data and test results. Instead there are PowerPoints and generalities about CMAS and the like. Again, no test results or links to test results. The actual test results for the state and more importantly for Denver Public Schools are nowhere to be found. But do not fear. I am here to shed light on that missing piece and help ensure the truth be told.

 

The scores were in fact abysmal. Read her post to see just how awful they were. Some charter schools with “science” in their names did poorly, as did most public schools.

 

Kaplan writes:

 

The superintendent is right about one thing: he always proclaims the kind of school – turnaround, innovation, charter, traditional – really doesn’t matter when it comes to academic outcomes. Whatever school is academically successful, he is all for it. In this situation he is right: no school has been successful in teaching Social Studies and Science. In this regard the kind of school is irrelevant. What he fails to understand is if you are not allowed to teach the subject, children in any kind of school will not learn the subject. And if you can’t speak, read and write English with fluency, you most likely won’t do well on a test in English.

 

This is all very puzzling to me. I truly cannot figure out how telling people they are failing is a good strategy. I truly cannot understand the long term purpose of testing all the time. Most of all I truly am saddened by how the education decision makers either never understood the purpose of public education or have lost sight of it. If you have solutions for stopping this madness, please share them.

 

 

 

 

On November 11, the Ohio State Board of Education will vote on a motion to eliminate crucial positions at elementary schools.

 

The Board will vote on whether to eliminate “specialist” positions, that include elementary schools arts teachers, elementary school music teachers, elementary school physical education teachers, school nurses, school library media specialists, school counselors, and school social workers.

 

Will they call it “reform”?

 

Here is Peter Greene, reporting on the same horrifying spectacle, with more detail.

 

He writes:

 

This morning comes word that the Ohio State Board of Education will vote this Tuesday on some revision to the school code. The most significant revision reportedly under consideration is one that would make end state requirements for elementary specialists.

 

Currently, school code states that for every thousand elementary students, schools must have in place five of the following eight specialists: art, music, counselor, school nurse, librarian/media specialist, visiting teacher, social worker, or phys ed.

 

The revision would eliminate the section that includes that language. What would be left is this definition of staff:

 

Educational service personnel are credentialed staff with the knowledge, skills and expertise to support the educational, instructional, health, mental health, and college/career readiness needs of students.

 

The appeal for districts is obvious. Let’s have one music teacher for 10,000 students. Let’s have no music teacher at all. Great. Let me mention that this article also came across my screen this morning: “Youngstown kids second poorest in nation” Do we really need to argue that the poorest, most vulnerable students are the ones who most need these sorts of services and enrichment? Is there somebody in Ohio prepared, seriously, to argue that nurses and music and art and phys ed are unnecessary luxuries, and kids should just pack up their grit and do without?

 

The Twitter hashtag for this abomination is #ohio5of8

 

 

Marion Brady, veteran educator, suggests that we have lost sight of the true purpose of education. It is not to master subjects but to prepare for a full life.

 

Quoting the historian Carroll Quigley, he writes that society creates “instruments” to solve problems, then those instruments grow into “institutions” that become self-perpetuating:

 

“Quigley wrote at length about a social process called “institutionalization,” arguing that it played an extremely important role in societal health. To solve problems, he said, societies create “instruments”—hospitals to care for the sick, police forces to control deviant behavior, highway departments to build and maintain roads, schools to educate the young, and so on.

 

“But gradually, over time, those instruments become “institutions,” more concerned about perpetuating themselves than solving the particular problem that prompted their creation. Hospitals put procedures ahead of patient care; charitable organizations channel increasing amounts of money into administration. Generals and admirals cling to strategies and weapons that once worked well but are no longer effective.

 

“Schooling—not just in America but worldwide—has institutionalized. School subjects took shape as means to the end of improving sense-making. Gradually, however, they’ve taken on lives of their own. We don’t, for example, ask if algebra is so central to adult functioning and societal well-being that it should be a required subject, so important that failure to pass the course is sufficient reason to deny a diploma. We treat the subject as a given, arguing only about how many years to teach it, at what grade levels.

 

“What’s true for algebra is true for every school subject. The core curriculum adopted in 1893 moves inexorably toward ritual, largely untouched by classroom experience, research, and societal needs. Standards keyed to that curriculum—standards reflecting the biases of the writers, standards not subject to professional debate before adoption, standards not classroom tested—have been imposed top-down. Tests scored by machines, tests that can’t evaluate original thought, tests with built-in failure rates, tests that directly affect the life chances of the young and America’s future—are shielded from the eyes of parents, teachers and the general public.”

 

Today, the curriculum itself has been institutionalized as the Common Core standards. Those who wrote it think that teaching and learning can be standardized. What problem will this solve?

 

Brady writes:

 

“Common sense says that getting schooling right begins with getting the curriculum right, but that fact doesn’t seem to have occurred to the business leaders and politicians—educational amateurs all—now pulling the education policy strings. Instead of funding a rethinking of the blueprint, the map, the pattern, the model, they’ve spent billions locking a deeply flawed curriculum in rigid, permanent place with the Common Core State Standards.

 

“In a properly functioning educational system, the curriculum isn’t fixed. It capitalizes on local resources. Its relevance and practicality are obvious to all learners. It reflects their infinitely varied needs, abilities, hopes, conditions and situations. It continuously evolves to adapt to inevitable environmental, demographic, technological, and worldview change.”

 

The effort to write a fixed curriculum for the vast American nation can’t work, won’t work, nor does it make sense. Adaptation to change is the hallmark of thinking. Thinking is not static.

Rosa Rivera-McCutchen participated in a panel discussion about the Common Core and testing at Public Education on October 11 at the Brooklyn New School. She gave a powerful presentation about race, power, and privilege. The event was sponsored by the Network for Public Education. Read the transcript and see the video here.

She used Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail as the framework for her discussion:

“In thinking about my remarks for today’s panel, I thought it useful to draw upon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail because it’s an incredibly powerful way of framing the role of school leadership in the face of testing and the Common Core, and the impact they have on economically disadvantaged students and students of color. In the letter, King responds to 8 white clergymen who were supportive of desegregation, but were critical of the methods Dr. King was employing in Birmingham.

“The letter is meaningful in a number of historical ways, but it’s especially meaningful for me in the work I do as a researcher and as educator of future school leaders, because it really is powerful example of moral leadership in the face of not only troubling educational policy and also in thinking about well-intentioned resistance to the policies.”

“King wrote in the letter: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

“To King’s first point: collecting facts to determine whether injustices exist. Here, school leaders have to examine not just the intended goals of the policy; it is their responsibility to examine the application and the consequences of the policy.

So school leaders must ask themselves:

“How do the standards and the high stakes tests help my students? What is the impact on the curriculum? On the teachers? And equally important, school leaders must ask, are they equitable and just for all students?

“After determining, as all of us here know, that the answers to these basic yet critical questions are quite troubling, we move to the next step in King’s framework: negotiation.

“In the case of testing and the CC, it is clear that there have been numerous efforts to negotiate locally with the NYC Chancellors as well as with Commissioner John King and Secretary Arne Duncan. But when those negotiations become nothing more than stalling tactics and smoke in mirrors, as with the civil rights movement, school leaders must come to a point where they step away from the table and move closer towards direct action.

“But prior to the direct action, comes the third step, which Dr. King called, “self-purification.” This is arguably one of the most important steps in King’s framework for mounting a resistance. That’s because it demands that the resister, in this case the school leader, be reflective and consider the extent to which she or he has been complicit in perpetuating the oppression. They have to be honest with themselves about the extent to which their continued support of flawed policies has contributed to the harm. The school leader has to search inward to determine whether she or he is ready to face the consequences of resisting policies mandated from above, But beyond this, the school leaders particularly in communities that are more privileged have to look inward to determine whether their resistance will extend beyond their individual communities; whether they’re ready to engage in the kind equity work that will benefit ALL communities.”

Jeannie Kaplan reports here on Jonathan Kozol’s recent visit to Denver. Denver is a city that has become totally devoted to corporate style “reform” for a decade. Now the corporate reformers own the entire school board plus they have a U.S. Senator Michael Bennett.

Kaplan shows how Kozol’s message explains corporate reform, now deeply embedded in Denver:

“THE SHAME OF THE NATION shows how the business model has become the blueprint for education “reform.” Education “reformers” use business jargon to describe their activities: “rewards and sanctions,” “return on investment,” “time management,” “college and career ready,” “maximizing proficiency,” “outcomes,” “rigorous,” “managers and officers,” “evaluation,” “accountability,” “portfolios of schools” (like a portfolio of stocks – get rid of the losers, keep the winners).

“Mr. Kozol describes the infiltration of business into education this way:

“Business leaders tell urban school officials…that what they need the schools to give them are “team players.”…Team players may well be of great importance to the operation of a business corporation and are obviously essential in the military services; but a healthy nation needs it future poets, prophets, ribald satirists, and maddening iconoclasts at least as much as it needs people who will file in a perfect line to an objective they are told they cannot question.” (p. 106)

“Here is how Denver Public Schools has adopted this business tenet. Every email sent by a DPS employee is signed and sent with the statement at the bottom, My name is Jeannie Kaplan, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio… and I play for DPS!

“Further business verbiage: In DPS principals are no longer principals but building CEOs or building managers. At the district level there is a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, a chief academic officer, a chief strategic officer, and within the school buildings themselves there are managers for everything under the sun. You get the picture. And with all of these managers and officers DPS has witnessed increases in facility and resource imbalances and increases in segregation while academics have remained stagnant. Corporate reform is a failure in the United States. But politics, money and lies will not allow it to go quietly into the night, and Denver’s students and communities are paying the price.”

Kozol’s message is the opposite if corporate reform:

“We now have an apartheid curriculum . Because teachers and principals in the inner city are so test driven, inner city children who are mostly students of color are not allowed to have their voices heard through stories and questions, while white students are given that flexibility, opportunity and creativity.

“Test preparation is driving out child centered learning. Testing mania has become a national psychosis, driven by business.

“Racial isolation/segregation which does terrible damage to young people, is on the rise. In SHAME, education analyst Richard Rothstein points out how important it is for children of color to become comfortable in the majority culture and how devastating this new segregation is in the long term: “It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience.” (p. 229). That Tuesday night Mr. Kozol referred to the new segregation as a “theological abomination.”

“And finally, of course, Mr. Kozol believes small class size, enriched curricula, and equitable resources and facilities would offer an equitable education for all children. This recent article in the Huffington Post clearly and disturbingly describes the safety and health hazards brought into Chicago public schools because business has invaded public schools. Bugs, moldy bread, trash left for days, leaks left unfixed. You can bet the East coast decision makers who are driving this “reform” did not attend schools under these conditions.”

Students and parents are the most powerful voices in the battle to save public education from ideologues, one-issue zealots, misguided philanthropists, and greedy entrepreneurs. Why are they so powerful? They can’t be fired or intimidated!

 

Students in Jefferson County, Colorado, are holding a rally on Saturday. If you are anywhere nearby, please join them and show your support for them as they fight for a real education. Their school board is dominated by rightwing corporate reformers. The students have had enough of their school board’s love of privatization, testing, and censorship.

In this mini-essay, left as a comment, Bob Shepherd notes that Common Core testing assumes that there is only one correct answer when interpreting literature. This, he says, is a complete rejection of reader-response theory, which had been prevalent for many years. Shepherd has many years of experience writing curriculum, assessments, and textbooks.

He writes:

“Years ago, I was doing a project for one of the major textbook publishers—writing for a high-school British literature textbook. I was given an assignment to write a lesson on Robert Burns’s poem “A Red, Red Rose.” This poem begins, you may remember, with the following lines:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

One of the questions that I asked about the poem was, “Why does the speaker compare his beloved to a red, red rose?” And the answer I wrote for the answer key was something like, “The speaker wishes to communicate that his this person is attractive and that he loves her, and so he compares her to a red rose, which is a traditional symbol of beauty and of romantic love.” I could have elaborated: Probably through association with blood and with blushing, the color red traditionally symbolizes intense emotion, or ardor. Roses are attractive and share this property with the objects of romantic affection. For these reasons, it became conventional to speak of someone as being “a red rose” in order to communicate that a) she (or, more rarely, he) was beautiful and b) that she (or, more rarely, he) was an object of ardent emotion, and c) that that emotion was one of romantic attraction. The speaker is therefore using a conventional symbol.

I could have added that the reason why the poet chose to express this in a simile rather than in a metaphor (“O my Luve’s a red, red rose”) was probably as mundane as to fill out the meter. I could further have explained that it is the beloved not the speaker’s feeling that is compared to a rose, for later in the poem, the speaker uses the same word, Luve, in direct address:

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

The editor wrote back to me saying, “Don’t presume to tell students that there is ONE CORRECT interpretation of the line.” I responded, “What should I say instead?” She wrote back, “Say, ‘One possible reason is that red roses are traditional symbols of beauty and of romantic love.’” I pointed out that if I were to follow her advice, I would have to include a similar disclaimer (“one possible”) in almost EVERY STATEMENT made about any work of literature in the book, which would make for awkwardness. She informed me that I was being overly directive and not respecting the students’ right to his or her own interpretation and that this made her question my suitability for the job she had asked me to do.

Let me hasten to add that I do understand where that editor was coming from. She held a version of a reader response theory of literature that goes something like this: a text means whatever the reader constructs when reading it. This grotesque misunderstanding of what “a reader’s construction of a text” can reasonably mean had become the de facto orthodoxy in ELA lit texts at the middle-school and secondary-school levels. I call this a grotesque misunderstanding because a text is an act of communication and as such depends, usually, upon shared usages and upon the belief on the part of the reader and the writer that communication across an ontological gap of a communicable meaning is possible. To deny that—to say that any text can mean anything—is to undercut the very notion of communication, of transmission across that gap from one subjectivity to another. Part of teaching people how to read literature is to teach them about conventional usages and what those can reliably be taken to mean.

Now, one might say, but wouldn’t an alternate reading like the following be acceptable?

The convention of the red, red rose as a symbol of feminine beauty is part of an complex of objectifications found in poetry and song produced by men, particularly in the Cavalier and early Romantic periods, and the speaker probably uses this because he is a conventional, unthinking, objectifying pig.

The editor might have had a student response like that in mind.

But here’s the problem with that: the editor would be confusing significance (meaning as mattering to the reader) with interpretation (meaning as the intent of the author). Failure to observe this distinction leads to a lot of complete nonsense in writing and speaking about literary texts. The differing responses are to differing matters–what the author intended and what significance what the author did has for a particular reader.

So, how does all of this relate to the new tests?

Well, one remarkable characteristic of the new tests is that they have COMPLETELY OVERTHROWN what was the STANDARD CHURCH ORTHODOXY in K-12 ELA–the prevailing Reader Response/Constructivist/The Author Is Dead orthodoxy that texts have alternate readings, constructed by readers, that have to be respected. For the most part, the questions about literature on the new exams assume that THERE IS ONE CORRECT ANSWER. Am I the only one to notice that? Did millions of English teachers and textbook writers who were of the “readers construct texts” or “reader response” schools of thought suddenly change their minds about this?

No, their minds were changed for them, de facto, by people constructing the new tests based upon the new standards.

Shouldn’t I be pleased about this, given my defense, above, of the “one true” reading of the line from Burns? No, and here’s why: What we mean by “What does this mean?” itself differs depending upon whether we are talking about intent or significance, and intent itself is by no means cut-and-dried, simply there for discovery. Getting at intent involves a great deal of knowledge of matters like literary conventions and genres and techniques and historical periods and the thought and practice and life experience of the author and much, much else. So even if we made the assumption that any question on a standardized test must deal with intent and not with significance, it would still be the case that particular passages would be open to varying interpretations.

And the relevance of extra-textual matters to interpretation raises another issue with regard to the approach to literature instantiated in the new standards. Students and teachers are encouraged in these to follow a New Critical procedure—to examine closely the text itself, without reference to external materials. But intent does not exist in a vacuum. If someone leaves a note saying, “Tie up the loose ends,” it matters whether the note is from a macramé instructor or from a mob boss worried about possible informants! Texts exist in context.

When I examine the new tests and the questions asked on them, my overwhelming impression is that the questions were written by people who hadn’t the subtlety to understand what a complex business learning to read carefully and well is. As often as not, the questions FAIL because the question writer did not himself or herself understand some subtlety. Let me give an example to illustrate what I mean.

Suppose that a question on one of these tests reads as follows:

Which of the following best describes the attitude of the speaker in the first line of Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”?

A. Ardent affection
B. Casual interest

The test writer would probably think that answer A. is the correct answer.

But consider this: A deconstruction of that first line would look beyond the verbal intention—the intended communication—to other factors getting at significance. Why did the speaker use a hackneyed, conventional expression? Why did he express the conventional association in a simile instead of in some more sophisticated way? Do the facts that he chose a hackneyed convention and chose the simile, most likely, simply as an easy way to fill out the meter suggest that he did not give this poem much work or thought? In other words, is this first line suggestive of someone who is not as serious as would be another poet who, in this circumstance, would bother to say something original and real? I’m reminded of a fellow I knew when I was a kid who had written what he called a “general purpose love song.” He said to me, “The beauty of this song is that I can throw any girl’s name in there. Miranda. Amanda. Sweet, sweet Jane.” Is the casualness of Burns’s line related to the fact that in the last stanza, he’s outta here?

“Hey, you’re great. Really. I’ll be thinking about ya. Outta here.”

Hmm. Suddenly the wrong answer starts to look as though it might not be so wrong after all because now we are talking not about intent but about significance. Is this an accurate reading of the significance? I love Robbie Burns. I have participated with great delight in Burns dinners (though I shall always pass on the haggis). But he was a notorious womanizer, and this poem is a piece of tossed-off minstrelsy and not a great work of art like his “Song Composed in August” or “To a Mouse.” I don’t mean to take away from the poem by saying that. It’s a perfect specimen of its type. But it’s a conventional type. It’s a “My Darlin’ Clementine,” not Yeats’s “The Folly of Being Comforted” or Millay’s “Love Is Not All” or Burns’s own “John Anderson, My Jo.”

Myra Blackmon,a frequent contributor to Online Athens in Georgia, writes in opposition to those who want to teach a sanitized version of U.S. history.

She writes that it is important to understand that we have made mistakes, committed terrible wrongs, and that dissent and protest hold an honored place in our history. To pretend that we were always in the right is bad history.

Here is a sample of a great article:

“I worry when I read stories about groups demanding a more positive treatment of slavery — the greatest evil our great nation ever perpetuated — and an emphasis on the idea that God has somehow chosen America to be “better” than other nations.

“Civil disobedience, protest and questioning government are fundamental to our success as a nation. Without them, we would still have child labor, no protection for workers, legal segregation and discrimination. Women would not have the vote, and wives and children would still be considered the personal property of their husbands and fathers.

“The idea that we would discourage any disruption of the social order, all under the guise of “respect for authority,” frightens me.

“We were born of protest and a disruption of a social order the founders believed unjust and morally wrong.

“I love my country. I am proud to be an American. I believe to my core that we are an exceptional nation. Not because we never made mistakes, never had bad leaders and always rescued others from tyranny. I believe we are exceptional because we lived and learned from all our history.

“America is exceptional because we rebuilt our economy after the end of legal slavery, because we survived the Vietnam war, because we are working to repair the damage we perpetrated on the people who lived here before the Europeans arrived.

“America is exceptional, not because we are a Christian nation, but because we are a nation where the practice of any religion is protected. We didn’t get there easily.

“America is exceptional because we have maintained the orderly transfer of power through tumultuous times. We have learned from wrongdoing like Watergate and used those lessons to strengthen our democracy.”

On September 4, I posted two things about Marc Tucker’s latest accountability proposals. One was a brief summary of his ideas. I was especially impressed by the point he made that no other advanced nation tests as much as we do.

The second was a critique of Tucker’s accountability plan by Anthony Cody.

Cody wrote the following:

““We need to learn (and teach) the real lesson of NCLB – and now the Common Core. The problem with NCLB was not with the *number* of tests, nor with when the tests were given, nor with the subject matter on the tests, or the format of the tests, or the standards to which the tests were aligned.

“The problem with NCLB was that it was based on a false premise, that somehow tests can be used to pressure schools into delivering equitable outcomes for students. This approach did not work, and as we are seeing with Common Core, will not work, no matter how many ways you tinker with the tests.

“The idea that our education system holds the key to our economic future is a seductive one for educators. It makes us seem so important, and can be used to argue for investments in our schools. But this idea carries a price, because if we accept that our economic future depends on our schools, real action to address fundamental economic problems can be deferred. We can pretend that somehow we are securing the future of the middle class by sending everyone to preschool – meanwhile the actual middle class is in a shambles, and college students are graduating in debt and insecure.

“The entire exercise is a monumental distraction, and anyone who engages in this sort of tinkering has bought into a shell game, a manipulation of public attention away from real sources of inequity.

“We need some accountability for children’s lives, for their bellies being full, for safe homes and neighborhoods, and for their futures when they graduate. Once there is a healthy ecosystem for them to grow in, and graduate into, the inequities we see in education will shrink dramatically. But that requires much broader economic and social change — change that neither policymakers or central planners like Tucker are prepared to call for.”

For some reason, Tucker decided that Cody and I are one and the same person, apparently using different names when it suits our purpose. Cody wrote the second piece, and I quoted it.

I actually think that Tucker agrees with Cody, and I agree with them both, on the main issues at hand. We all agree that our schools would have higher test scores if there were less poverty. I think I can safely say that we believe that more testing and higher stakes won’t reduce poverty. I think I can say we agree that teachers should have better preparation for their work, more mentoring and support, and higher salaries. (Marc, correct me if I am wrong.)

Maybe where we diverge is on the value of high-stakes standardized tests. I don’t think they are necessary to improve teaching and learning. If they were, we would surely see them used at Sidwell Friends, Lakeside Academy, Groton, Dalton, Exeter, and Deerfield Academy. Instead, these institutions have small classes, respect their experienced teachers, have extensive programs in the arts, a well-stocked library, and assure that all students have a full and balanced curriculum. These schools do not judge their teachers by value-added metrics based on test scores. They are not faced annually with the threat of budget cuts and layoffs.

That’s what I want for all children. Marc, let me know where we disagree.

Bill Gates was on the treadmill one day, watched a video about history that he liked, and invited the professor to meet with him to talk about growing his approach into something that everyone could see. Now as this story in the New York Times explains, Bill Gates’ favorite way of teaching world history has been turned into a course that is being marketed to high schools across the country.

“As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).”

This is my favorite line in the article: “As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”

Yes, if Gates loved it, why shouldn’t everybody “watch this thing!”

Now, let me say up front that the course may indeed be wonderful, engaging, provocative, and informative. I have not seen “Big History” and cannot judge its quality.

But there is something unseemly about a history course sponsored by the richest man in America. This is akin to research on cigarettes and cancer sponsored by tobacco company.

I am quoted in the article asking whether the course will discuss or even mention the robber barons or the problem of income inequality. How will it treat the rise–and decline–of labor unions? I can think of many topics that would make the sponsor uncomfortable.

Please read the comments, especially the readers’ picks. Many share my concerns.

On this point, read Mercedes Schneider’s latest post, wherein she reports that the Gates Foundation funds mainstream media outlets and Gates himself regularly meets with representatives of the media he gives money to. I don’t know, it doesn’t sound right to me. If he is giving millions to major news outlets, won’t that affect their coverage of the Gates Foundation and Gates himself. Will they dare criticize their sponsor? This has a bad smell.

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