07 January 2013

while we're still on the subject of school....

while i'm on a blog post writing spree, i came across this particular gem on twitter this morning. i'll be going through large parts of this in this post, in the event you don't want to look at it yourself. i guess it's being referenced here in south africa, since school starts next week here -- the academic year is largely the calendar year.

but really? i can almost see some of this guy's point, but the fault lies, really, with the wahoos in texas who get to pick what textbooks most americans get, and in dull, uninspiring teachers. i know they exist, but i've never had any. or rather, i was just always so curious about stuff, that i would just raise my hand and ask a question whenever something didn't seem right. funnily enough, teachers like that. it shows you care. and because you care, they will care. .... which leads back to never having had dull, uninspiring teachers.

so let's tackle this bit by bit, eh?

That having been said, in honor of this school year, I have decided to give students some ammunition. Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.

Chemistry: A complete waste of time. Why? Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table? The formula for salt? How to balance a chemical equation? Ridiculous. Most of the people who take chemistry in college, by the way, intend to be doctors and while there is chemistry a doctor should know, they don’t typically teach it in college. Why should you take chemistry? Because someone is making you. Otherwise don’t bother. You won’t remember a thing (except NaCl.)

do you know what got me interested in chemistry? like really interested? a little ditty in my 8th grade science classroom explaining why you should never drink anything in the lab. here it goes:

poor little willie
his face you'll see no more
for what he thought was H2O
was H2SO4

for those who didn't pay attention in class, H2O is water, and H2SO4 is sulfuric acid, both of which are colorless and odorless. [the latter tends to have a light fizz to it, though, when it encounters impurities in the beaker in which it's held]

i asked the teacher: will we not see his face because he used it to wash his face in the lab, or because he drank it and died from his internal organs being dissolved? [think about it. it's a valid question.] the teacher - who was later my cross country coach in high school - was actually stumped. gave me this 'the force is strong in this one' look, and said, "both could be right. wow."

that's what turned me on to chemistry. later i realised that chemistry is nothing but tactile math, and really? balancing a chemical equation correctly is really fucking important: it can determine whether you end up with something inert that you can hold in your hand, or a gas that can kill everyone on your street.

my inner pyromaniac likes chemistry. chemistry is fun.

History: Yes yes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I guess no U.S. president ever took history because they have all forgotten the lessons of the Vietnam War, the history of Iraq and the history of foreign incursions into Afghanistan. You will learn untruths about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War II, all meant to teach that the United States is the best country in the world. Forget what they teach you in history. Read about it on your own if it interests you.

there is actually some agreement here, about the untruths about the details of those particular wars, and if you're really interested about them, you should look them up on your own. but humor the teaching-industrial complex anyway, mmkay?

but really? something else i learned in history? the roots of the white superiority complex. it helps me deal with the morons who leave comments on IOL, the often-misnamed thought leader, and even the hillbilly newspaper for the region where i attended school. the racist comments are a bit tamer on thought leader, to be sure, but on IOL and stateside paper, omfg. being a good student of history taught me why these people think the way they do, and how to just shoot them down when i'm tired of them.

English: There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

no argument here. but in this age of 24-hour, 500-channel television [okay, 90 channels if you live in south africa], no one really reads anymore. in order to write well, one must be able to read well. and yes, it's even more difficult to get people to be able to read well if you live in a country with a functionally illiterate president. [hey, if you think president zuma struggles to read in english, you should see him reading in zulu - and that's his mother tongue. *sigh*]

there are only 105 non-dictionary books in my house in south africa, which is one-tenth the number i had when i lived in the usa. when i mentioned this to a south african, he said "that's a lot." i was appalled. i was actually at a loss for words. [think about that one for a second.].

Biology. Now here is a subject worth knowing. Too bad they won’t teach you anything that matters. Plant phyla? Amoebas? Cutting up frogs? It can’t get any sillier. What should you be learning? About your own health and your own body and how to take care of it. But they don’t teach much of that in biology. They teach some nonsense part of it in health class which is usually about the official reason that you shouldn’t have sex.

blah again. this requires far more reading than chemistry. i actually didn't like this class in high school because i had to read a lot more background info as to why snails die when you throw salt on them, and got an understanding as to why jews and muslims think pork and shellfish are bad. [yes, there are biological origins in this.]

but since mainly i like to blow shit up, knowing biology enabled me to understand exactly how much damage i could reasonably expect to inflict on someone/thing with the right chemical reaction.

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when the economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations, none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he/she needs another leg.

full agreement here. i didn't take econ in high school because i took two languages -- in the usa that's kind of rare, but whatevs. full disclosure: i took the extra language to run up my grade point average to solidify my class rank as 2nd overall.

which leads us to.....

Physics. This could be important if the right things were taught. But they don’t. We use physics every day of our lives, but the formulas they make you memorize won’t help you much. The Wright Brothers did not have any theory of flight. They simply tinkered with stuff until their plane flew. That is called engineering. Trying stuff to see what works. The physicists came later and explained it. It didn’t help the Wright Brothers. Why don’t they teach engineering in high school? Because engineering wasn’t a subject at Harvard in 1892.

actually, the formulae they make you memorize do help, it's just learning the applications - which, again, comes down to engaged teachers. and the best way to have engaged teachers is to have engaged students, and the best way to have engaged students is to have engaged parents.

physics taught me how to win fights against people who were, on paper, stronger than me. with the laws of physics on my side, i can beat anyone who doesn't have a gun pointed at me. it's clear that this guy is a bit of a pussy who's never been in any physical altercation of note.

French. Another complete waste of time. Why? Two reasons.

You cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it and talking and listening and talking. In school they teach grammar rules and nonsense to memorize so that they can give you a test. My daughter could not get an A in English when we lived in France despite the fact that she was the only kid in the class who spoke English. Why? Because she didn’t know the grammar rules of English. The same thing happened when we came back to the United States. She could speak perfect French (a year in France will do that) but still couldn’t get an A in French. Grammar is like a physics formula, nice in theory but useless in practice, because the practical knowledge we use is not conscious knowledge.

The second reason is more subtle. School happens not to teach the French that people actually speak. No one says “comment allez-vous?” in France. They say “ca va?” But we don’t teach students how to speak foreign languages — at least not well.

Immersion is the only way to really learn another language.

so this guy's daughter couldn't get As in english because her parents didn't know english grammar, and couldn't get As in french upon her return because she didn't pay attention to grammar while in france. that's funny, when i was in school - waves cane - i learned english grammar in school. i guess this guy tuned it out or something.

more importantly, my mother drummed grammar [in english, french, and spanish] in my head as i was growing up. so clearly part of this is the problem of the author. i guess this is a position of white middle-class privilege because my mother was determined that i not sound like either a country bumpkin [in french or spanish] or a ghetto bunny [in english]. my complete inability to sound "street" in either english or french is a constant source of amusement to my friends to this day.

immersion is the best way to learn a language, but it's not the only way. really. [but then again pillow talk counts as a form of immersion, doesn't it? that's how i've learned to be able to get by in xhosa. i have people convinced that my xhosa is much worse than it actually is. it helps to overhear conversations about stuff i'm not supposed to know.]

hm, let's see what else i can encounter to get really opinionated about.....

matric results are out!

so, over the past few weeks, the results of the south african school leaving exams were made public. first were those of the private schools, where 98.15% of those students who sat the exams passed them, 83% of whom received bachelor's passes, meaning they could go on to university. given the cost of south african private schools, i would really hate to be part of that 1.85%....

on thursday, the government schools' results came out. 73.9% pass, and 26.9% of those received bachelor's passes -- including my kid. [yay!] we'll talk about the last two years of kiddo's schooling went, but first i want to talk about the marking system for the south african exams.


to get a matric pass, you need to get a 40% mark in a first and an additional language, and 30% or above in four other subjects.

to get a bachelor's pass, you need to get a 50% in two languages, and a combination of grades in the other subjects, all of which must be above 30%, to keep you above 50% overall.

a diploma pass and a "higher certificate" pass are between the two, with diploma being the better of the two. i could go into the details, but i'm sure someone leaving a comment will be more than happy to work out the details of what constitutes a diploma pass and a certificate pass.

anyhow, to an american reading this, one would think that these are ridiculously low scores for passing. i mean, after all, anything below 60% [or 70%, depending on where you are in the states] is failing, right? and, of course, one of the problems with the way that this is presented is that most south africans -- or rather, many of the loudmouths with internet access -- seem to think in the american line of thought, because, annoyingly, south africans are generally in love with most things american. *eyeroll* this really fucking annoys me to no end. [protip: hey, south africans! when other africans call you "the americans of africa" -- it's generally not a compliment. just so you know.]

but really? that line of thought is fine, but it's not valid.

if they really want to think on an american scale, then what they need to do is think on the grade point average scale instead, where 4.0 is an A+ and 0.0 is the lowest possible failure, in which case a 50% pass is a 2.0, which is the minimum GPA of what will get you into a four-year american university, but unless your parents are major donors, or you can pay full price, or you have some strong skill [sporting or something more esoteric], you're realistically not going to get a place, just as most people who get the bare minimum for a bachelor pass in south africa aren't realistically going to get a university place here.

i've found that trying to explain this to south africans is like banging my head against a wall, which is one of the reasons i'm even writing this post to begin with.

so, in american-speak, a bachelor's pass is a 2.0 minimum GPA, and a general matric pass, ie just to get the piece of paper saying that you've passed the matric exams is a 1.32, with the other two degrees of pass being somewhere between that.

to further complicate this -- and this happened to one of kiddo's friends -- you can have an aggregate grade that is high enough for a bachelor pass, but only get a diploma pass due to the marks you need for the languages. i've actually told the friend in question he should get a remarking done of his english exam; one more point and he gets a good bachelor's pass. his overall average was higher than kiddo's.

this happened to one of kiddo's friends from the class of 2011 as well, but he spent his gap year working in his potential field of study, and the university of cape town offered him a place for 2013. this is also fairly likely to happen to the son of a friend of mine, whose overall average is in the 70s, but his average in afrikaans is in the 40s.

does that all make sense?

another major difference between the american system of grading and the general british/commonwealth system of grading is that, generally speaking, the american system of grading starts you off at 100%, and deducts points as you go, while in the british/commonwealth version, you start at 0 and work your way up. it's actually a more difficult grading scale.

that is, if you're in the states and you get a homework assignment full of red check marks, you've probably failed, as they mark what is wrong. however, elsewhere in anglophonia, if you get a homework assignment back full of red check marks, you've probably done really well, because the check marks indicate that you have what the teacher was looking for.

it took quite some time for me to get used to that, having done high school and my first degree in the united states, but postgraduate work in both the united kingdom and south africa. i'd also worked in academia in britain immediately after finishing my first degree [thanks, bunac!], so working out the percentage equivalents to grades to make an accurate comparison was easier for me, but seemed strange at first.

something that's very interesting is that i can't seem to find the provincial breakdown of the pass results for any province *except* the western cape. and the western cape's results are pretty nice, in the grand scheme of things. you can look at the breakdown of the passes in the western cape here. of the 36,992 people who passed the exams with at least the minimum 1.32 average [on the american scale], only 20 are ineligible for further study, whether certificate course, diploma course, or university course.

of course, if the numbers are that positively skewed in the western cape, it goes a long way to explain why only the northern cape out of the other eight provinces have it broken down to any degree of granularity -- in many ways superseding the level of detail found in the western cape's page. that said, some of the other provinces' education department homepages don't seem to have been updated in years. wow.

i'm surprised that gauteng didn't have a breakdown. so many of the vaalies that i know want to gloat about the overall pass rate being higher than in the western cape, but how good are the passes? as whitney so famously said, i wanna see the receipts. donald grant has every fucking right to feel smug, to be honest....

....and so does, to a degree, helen zille. i'll put it like this -- i'm allowed to be too left-brained for the general south african public. she really isn't. she is a twitter queen, and one of the tweets that got the south african general public's panties in a bunch was about having to build schools for educational refugees from the eastern cape. since you only get 140 characters on twitter, trying to explain anything at length there is an exercise in futility, which is why i'm happy for this outstanding interview with akanyang merementsi [who i also follow on twitter] in which she clarifies her [correct] usage of the word "refugee" .... honestly, i haven't seen so many people get butthurt over the word "refugee" since -- people were forced to flee new orleans and southeastern lousiana after katrina. [wow, another american comparison.]

i bring up helen zille because if you go back to the breakdown of the western cape's results this year, you will see that there were 12% more students who took the matric exams in 2012 than 2011, and the pass rate went down by 0.1 percentage points. basically she's been proven correct. it would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that underprepared students came from the eastern cape in grades 10 and 11 and the schools here in the western cape couldn't undo the damage fast enough. there are mathematical ways in which i could spell this out, but maths are not a collective strong point of the south african public, so there's no point. *sigh*

 i don't believe that zille should have apologised for that "refugee" tweet; but she did, eventually. the culture of professional victimhood as espoused by the ruling party plus the paucity of critical thought as evidenced by the fact that only 12% of those who started school in 2001 gained university passes this year -- so many dropouts means that it's extremely difficult to have rational intellectual discourse in this country. if most of my friends [regardless of race] weren't from zimbabwe, i don't know how i would be able intellectually function in this place on a face-to-face level, to be honest.

all that said, the general state of public education in south africa is pretty appalling -- and, by and large, it's the most egregious in the provinces that can't be bothered to do any meaningful updates to their education departments' websites. [ahem]

i don't see how either angie motshekga [the basic education minister] or most of these MECs continue to have jobs. seriously. oh, right, i know. the bar is set low. mediocrity is acceptable. can you feel me rolling my eyes? i am. seriously. wtf?

i'm quite sure that people in other parts of africa were looking at the quality of the matric passes and planning on when they would move here with their freshly minted degrees to set up shop -- or, at the very least, their freshly minted A-levels, which are weighted much, much higher in the admissions scale than the matric exam, even though there's been some grade inflation going on there, too.


on a personal note, as i alluded to at the beginning of this post, kiddo got a bachelor's pass. because of the combination of family drama when he was very small and a lousy birthday, he was 19 writing matric exams. more to the point, he turned 18 in 11th grade, at which point he wanted to spend more time being cool rather than hitting his books, which was a real recipe for disaster.

X [his biological father] and i had him in a very good school, and he was doing well enough for the school [a sore point for me was the low expectations certain teachers and officials seemed to have for some of the nonwhite students, even though this was more than counteracted by other teachers and officials], but not as well as either his useful teachers or i thought he could do. so kid and i fought and screamed and gnashed teeth over various things over the past two years, most of which were related to his grades, which i felt weren't good enough for someone living in a house with me.

it got so bad that he moved out -- twice. that said, one of the nice things about it, to which i alluded in the last blog post, is that he and X have a relationship again.

so we were all happy when he received a bachelor's pass. having seen his report cards this year, i knew it would be close, due to his poor showing in one of his classes over the last couple of years [the very subject which provided his lowest exam result]. when i read him his grades over the phone, he said, "i'll take it, but how is this a bachelor's pass?" he'd read something that jonathan jansen had written about someone with far worse grades than he that was trying to get admission into the university of the free state.

throwing out the horrible grade, kiddo's aggregate was a shaky B [again, working on the american 0-4 scale]; inclusive of it, it is a solid C. but the very fact that he even questioned the validity of his bachelor's pass shows that prof jansen's books [and the fact that i brought them into my house] rubbed off on him. so i felt good. i'd even forgiven him of the argument we had the very day he left the house to go to the eastern cape to his grandparents -- calling him up with his matric results was the first contact with him in almost three weeks.

i refuse to stand in lines for clearing, so he must contact any university he wishes to attend when he's got the money lined up to pay for his first year -- i told him that if he gets below a certain percentage, he must work to pay for the first year, and i will pay for subsequent years provided he maintains grades. so i suppose he is going to spend the next few weeks emailing various universities in an attempt to negotiate a place for 2014 entry as well as pounding the pavement to find internships/starting work in the field he wants.