Week of 19 March 2007
Update: Friday, 23 March 2007 10:38 -0500
- I joined North Carolinians for Home Education.
Barbara mentioned that there is to be a home schooling expo in
Winston-Salem in late May, and suggested that I attend. When I visited
the web site, I learned that it costs $20 for non-members to attend the
expo versus $0 for members, and that membership costs $20. So why not
join? Particularly since one membership covers Barbara and me, and she
wants to attend the expo as well.
Actually joining was a bit harder than I expected. I filled out the web
form on the site and then clicked on the button to pay by credit card
via Paypal. Paypal really, really wanted me to pay from my own Paypal
account rather than by a credit card, but I eventually convinced it to
take my credit card.
The real problem was the moron who created the web form on the Paypal
site. It simply refused to accept the street address I was entering.
I'd entered the city as "winston-salem", used the drop-down
list to select NC, and typed in "27106" for the zip code. It kept
telling me that the city, state, and zip field were invalid. My first
thought was that it was case-sensitive, so I tried "Winston-Salem", but
without success. Okay, some forms choke on the hyphen and want a solid
string of letters, so I tried "Winstonsalem" and then "WinstonSalem",
again without success. I finally struck paydirt with "Winston Salem".
What kind of idiot created this form? Any reasonable form would have
been satisfied with just the zipcode.
So now I guess I'm officially a supporter of home schooling. I've
always supported home schooling, of course. In fact, I'd like to see it
go further. There's no good reason why home schooling should be limited
to K-12. I can easily envision university level schooling at home,
particularly with resources like MITOPENCOURSEWARE now available on the web.
For anything other than the hard sciences and engineering, there's no
reason why anyone should have to attend a physical university, or
at least not for a full four-year program. (Of course, other than
mathematics, I believe the hard sciences and engineering are the only
valid curricula for a university anyway.) For non-rigorous disciplines,
which encompass nearly everything that doesn't require laboratories or
hands-on access to equipment, there's just no reason to have physical
universities at all. Tele-learning could handle it all, and would be
much more efficient in terms of resources required and probably more
effective as well.
That raises the issue of credentialing, of course. Right now,
universities serve as aggregators and credentialing services, and
little else. Parents cough up unbelievably large amounts of money
(IIRC, undergrads at Duke Univerisity now pay about $50,000/year, for
example) and get little in return. A degree in chemistry or physics or
biology or engineering from Duke still means something, certainly, but
how much is a Duke diploma in, say, sociology or English literature
really worth? Next to nothing, I'd say.
What we really need is a nationally recognized standardized testing
agency for university-level subjects, something like the College Board
but for university-level students rather than high-school students. If
I'm hiring a chemist and an applicant shows me that he got very high
scores on the standardized tests for general chemistry, organic
chemistry, physical chemistry, biochemistry, calculus and different
equations, and so on, that really tells me something. I don't care how
he came by that competence, whether by studying at home or by attending
a physical university, because his test scores tell me he knows the
subject. Right now, if he comes to me with a degree from MIT or CalTech
or Duke, I also have some confidence that he knows his stuff. But what
if his degree is from Podunk U? That tells me next to nothing.
Of course, the colleges and universities would fight such a system
tooth and nail. They're in business to make money, not to educate
students. That's why they'll happily accept tuition from students who
have no business being in college and who are "majoring" in
non-rigorous non-subjects like Women's Studies or Sociology. The ultimate effect of
the system I propose would be to eliminate most colleges and
universities, and to downsize the survivors to a fraction of their
current size. Wake Forest University, for example, would probably be
among the survivors, but would have only hard science and engineering
undergraduate and graduate students. So long, English department.
Bye-bye Sociology department.
And that would, I think, be a very good thing.
I received a fair amount of mail about my post yesterday.
Interestingly, most of those who commented asked me not to publish
their comments. Here's one exception.
From: Ronald McCarty
To: Thompson Robert
Date: Yesterday 16:31:06
Re: Interesting Post
Interesting post on "home
university". I agree that the resources are available and quite
good to allow one to get a degree from home. In fact, I received my
masters' degree from Capella (http:// www.capella.edu). The quality was as good as that I received from the University of Maryland for my undergraduate.
However, I am not sure it is such
a good idea for most college aged young adults. Even though there
is little discipline required to make mid terms, finals, and in some
cases provide home work and tests (Maryland is a strong believer of the
tests and homework at the undergrad level), there is discipline
required that many barely have to get through the classroom
requirements. I'm not sure that I and most of my classmates had
the discipline to attend a home or virtual campus for the
undergraduate. I am unsure of the stats, but I know that Capella
was so worried about students staying enrolled with the lack of
discipline (in the name of flexibility to allow working folk to
attend). Large amounts of effort was spent on ensuring we participated
in the degree program. Although most of my classmates were in the
same boat I was (graduate degree while working) many simply admitted to
not having the discipline necessary and dropped out of early courses to
return to a local university...
I think you might be being a bit
hard on sociology. While I can never imagine myself seeking a
major in it, I did take a course in it as part of my undergraduate, and
I actually found the course quite practical (except for the 10 minutes
per week, where the text book or lecturer was trying to prove Sociology
a science since it was using the scientific method...).
Ironically, it helped me more than some of the graduate courses on
understanding why people (or actually groups) do certain things under
particular circumstances. (Sociologists at the time referred to this
action or reaction as social process; whereas business prefers the term
culture, change, and power (or influence.) I, for one, believe
that business degrees could replace one of the leadership or management
courses with sociology...many of the issues covered in an intro course
in sociology are faced by managers continuously...issues such as income
disparity within a group our outside, education progression and its
effect on the individual and group, and its application of qualitative
For example, taking the education
progression, many managers take the approach that if the person that
has received a degree since starting work, the employee will need an
environment to deal with the improved (on a needs hierarchy basis)
higher needs and lower needs (more money) that "goes" with the higher
education. Someone taking a sociology course will realize there
are multiple outcomes: loss/loss, loss/win, win/loss, win/win for the
individual and the group, and that there is most likely already a
social process for this situation based upon what has happened within
the group previously. There was also quite a bit of evidence
presented that if there was not a social process for this situation
("chaos"), then individuals and groups will most like force the issue
to a loss or win for all. While good managers manage to the
individual, realizing these social processes are in place, can help the
manager realize what is at play and where things will tend to want to
go if more pressure is not put in the right place....
There are quite a few comments over on the messageboard, including some replies from me.
- Today is the first day of spring, which means it's time for me to start thinking about doing our income taxes.
I'm working heads-down on the astronomy book, which means I don't have
time to post much here. Yesterday, I finished the Coma Berenices
constellation chapter, which I'd been working on for a couple of days.
I also knocked out the Corona Borealis and Corvus chapters, which were
short ones, and got started on Cygnus, which is another long one. I'm
making good progress, but these chapters require close attention to
detail, which is wearing. I generally start work when Barbara leaves at
8:00 and work pretty much straight through until 5:30 or so. By that
time, I'm pretty whipped. But the good news is that I should be
finished with this book in the next couple of months and ready to get
started full-time on the home chem lab book, which will be fun to do.
I had a very productive day yesterday. I started and finished the
chapter for the constellation Cygnus, which I'd expected to take at
least 1.5 days. Today, I'm going to try to knock out Delphinus,
Eridanus, and Gemini, which are short chapters. All of the
constellation chapters are already templated, which means I've
chosen the objects, verified their positions, and produced charts for
them. Finishing them up involves downloading and formatting images
for each object, inserting those images in the proper places, writing
the introductory text for the chapter, and then writing the text that
describes how to locate each object and what it looks like.
This afternoon, we have an appointment with a specialist in veterinary
surgery. She's going to examine Duncan and look at the x-rays Dr.
Taylor took before Duncan's surgery last week. We really, really want
to avoid surgery, but if she can excise the tumor entirely it may be
the best course of action.
We took Duncan in for a consultation yesterday with Dr. Gayle Jaeger, a
specialist in canine surgery. She's confident that she can excise the
entire oral tumor, although she would have to remove part of Duncan's
jaw and two teeth. We're waiting for her to consult with a veterinary
oncologist who's currently out of town, but from what Dr. Jaeger says
we could expect a complete cure.
I finished up the constellation chapters for Delphinus and Draco
yesterday, and got some work done on Eridanus and Gemini. I plan to
finish those today, and get started on Hercules.
There was an editorial in the morning paper about UNC taking steps to
address the problem of high textbook prices. Apparently, it's not
unusual for students to pay as much as $1,200 for textbooks for a
semester, and some individual books cost as much as $200. Many
professors require that students buy textbooks that the professor has
written himself, and to which he makes very minor changes each year to
prevent students from using last year's book.
It seems to me that there's an obvious answer here. Forbid any
professor to require or even recommend any book for which he is the
author or in which he has any other financial interest. In fact, to
prevent "sweetheart" arrangements, perhaps it should be forbidden
university-wide to require or recommend any book in which anyone
associated with that university has any financial interest. Allowing
professors to require students to buy books in which that professor has
any financial interest is an obvious conflict of interest.
Professors could still write textbooks, but it would no longer be
acceptable for those books to be required by the university with which
the professor was associated. That seems fair to me.
10:38 - From my friend Paul Jones, who's a professor of organic chemistry.
From: Paul Jones
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 10:17:56
Glad to see the book is coming
along. I didn't see the editorial, but either you or the writer
may have misunderstood. At least a little. It may well happen
that profs write books and then require its use in their class.
And that they make minor changes year to year to prevent used
books from being used. But, much more often it isn't their
students they screw, it is the students elsewhere. Small sample
caveat, but the only prof I know who has written a textbook gives his
students a copy when they enroll, so they benefit financially from
having their prof use that book (though I like students to have a book
that provides a different POV than mine).
Anyway, my point is that this has
little to do with one's own students. It is business as usual for
a textbook writer to make very, very minor changes that are entirely
superficial from one edition to the next. The schools then
require the newest edition, which takes away the market in used books.
Even when used books are still current, the schools royally screw
their students by giving pennies on the dollar if a student sells the
book back to the school. They then turn around and sell the used
book for 80-90% of its price new. Everyone but the student wins.
If any of your readers either are
or have college students DO NOT SELL USED TEXTS BACK TO THE SCHOOL.
(For that matter, if you're a science major, don't ever sell any
science book back - you'll just end up needing it again someday).
Also, very rarely is it impossible to use an old edition.
If, for example, their organic prof uses McMurray's 7th edition
and you can come by the 6th for half the cost, buy it. Hell, if
you can get a 4th or 5th edition, those would work too (I routinely
tell my students this and haven't had any troubles so far). It
may make the student work a little harder to figure out which questions
are assigned (this is an easy thing to switch around edition to
edition) or, occasionally, which section of a chapter the prof is
working in but it also gives the student a chance to explore the book a
bit. And they should be working all the damned problems anyway.
And reading all the sections. Finally, Amazon often has
better deals than university bookstores and they rarely run out.
Plus, the lines are shorter.
I'm not sure who drives this
business model, the profs, the schools or the publishers (likely all
are conspiring) but it is a system that really sticks it to the
student. I've heard that a prof who writes a successful textbook
likely can't pay the taxes on the book profits with his academic
salary. With that much money floating around, one would think
altruists such as university professors could ease up on the kiddies a
However, in my experience, albeit
limited, profs look out for the kids sitting in their classroom.
Whether this is because they're nice or because it's tougher to
screw a guy face to face, I don't know.
Department of Chemistry
Wake Forest University
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce