Textbook publisher sues librarian for pointing out that their books suck

(via Boing Boing) According to a public survey ranking 34 textbook publishers against each other, Edwin Mellen Press is the worst publisher of philosophy textbooks.  It's possible that may not be strictly enough to demonstrate truthfulness over the libel suit that Mellen has brought against a librarian at McMaster University, who wrote, "The Edwin Mellen Press was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices," but it's not an argument much in their favor.

There are not many college students who are thrilled about the common practice of price gouging on textbooks, something I've written about before, but at least in those cases it's a shakedown over access to information.

Edwin Mellen Press has brought a lawsuit against the librarian for Three Million Dollars. For pointing out that their books aren't very good.  This isn't the first time they've done it, either.

I hope what comes out of this, if it goes to trial, is some new case law severely restricting the ability of textbook publishers to do basically anything.  Like, it would be cool if there were a law requiring that textbooks be sold at maximum a certain percentage over cost, so at least if I'm going to pay eighty bucks for a book, it'll be printed on paper I can't see through.

Kids' soceoeconomic status and brain function

Children of low socioeconomic status work harder to filter out irrelevant environmental information than those from a high-income background because of learned differences in what they pay attention to, according to new research published in the open access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Hey, look!  More evidence that severe income inequality objectively handicaps poorer children.  This is from the recent EurekAlert article, Family's economic situation influences brain function in children.  It turns out, while wealthier kids' brains more actively respond to information they need to respond to positively, seeking opportunities, poorer kids' brains constantly scan for things to go wrong, and respond when they know they have to, when there doesn't seem to be any threat.

There were no significant differences between the two groups in the accuracy or reaction time during the task. The researchers did, however, observe differences in brain wave patterns between the two groups. Higher SES children exhibited far larger theta waves in response to sounds they attended to than to than those they should have ignored. In the lower SES children, however, this pattern was reversed – the theta waves evoked by the unattended sounds were much larger than those for the attended sounds.

[...]

The findings suggest that lower SES children have to exert more cognitive control to avoid attending to irrelevant stimuli than higher SES children, and that doing so therefore requires more mental effort. This may be because they live in more threatening environments, in which it might be advantageous to pay attention to a broad range of environmental stimuli which are not unambiguous distractions, and may turn out to be important for survival.

This is good science, but more importantly, isn't it kind of horrifying that some classes of American children are in such a more threatening environment that their brains end up wired completely differently?

Instructions for schools about the internet

Yesterday, Cory Doctorow posted a link to 26 pieces of advice for educators about the internet.  It's on a blog called Dangerously Irrelevant, which I think I'm going to follow now, and  here are some of my favorite points:

 E.  Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.

This is, I think, the most vivid explanation in the piece about the hypocrisy of many schools' (including my high school's) approach to the internet.  Perhaps even more so than most of the other tools school educates us about, the internet is a major way that people interact with the world now, and the above method entails teaching it wrong. 

I.  Students and teachers rise to the level of the expectations that you have for them. If you expect the worst, that’s what you’ll get.

and,

T.  When you violate the Constitution and punish kids just because you don’t like what they legally said or did and think you can get away with it, you not only run the risk of incurring financial liability for your school system in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but also abuse your position of trust and send messages to students about the corruption of power and disregard for the rule of law. [emphasis mine]

These two reflect the major problems with the approach of "Think of the children!" paranoia that seems to be the standard of the American education system.  It's like they're deliberately trying to anti-educate students into being bad citizens.

The whole list is awesome, and it illuminates one of the biggest issues in the US today -- we have serious education problems, that we're pretty much ignoring.

Another thing wrong with America's system for funding education

SourceFed reports on a 14 year old kid who was persuaded, by a for-profit college recruiter, to falsify documents in order to get into an online college before he was 18.  The college, Ashford University, took the government aid money and gave the kid online classes.  Then, when the government found out that he was actually 14 and hadn't graduated high school, they demanded their money back. From the kid, not the college.

PhoenixNewTimes.com reports more broadly on the phenomenon, which they compare to the sub-prime mortgage scandal -- it differs only in that this can't get big enough to implode the world economy.

Overall, the 15 largest for-profit colleges spend nearly $13 billion a year on recruiting and marketing.

It's a terrific business if you don't have to worry about educating students. Nearly 80 percent of them won't complete their programs within six years — almost double the failure rate at traditional colleges.

These organizations tend to charge around twice as much as a state college, and the article describes an approach that leads to a lot of students being flunked out -- not because they didn't do the work, but because the college doesn't have the resources to provide them the opportunities they need to graduate.

This kind of exploitative crap is the result of years of deregulation, and it's poisoning the future of America.  That sounds dramatic, but I mean it.  The institutional-scale failures of the currently dominant generation to prepare my generation to take responsibility for America seriously endanger the country's future.

That college at the top, Ashford University, should be dissolved.  The government should take all their money.  And after using part of it to relocate Ashford's students to real schools, then using part of the remainder to cover the costs of the dissolution, the government should recycle the rest of the money into the education system.

This should be done with every for-profit college that's preying on the weak, wounded people trying desperately to find some way to crawl up the increasingly rotting economic ladder.

Google chairman calls for computer science education

Google chairman Eric Schmidt gave a talk yesterday in London in which he raised his fears about the future of the internet.  He argued that the greatest threat to the future of the internet was not individual cybercriminals, but nations attempting to disrupt its function.

Eric Schmidt said [that] the internet would be vulnerable for at least 10 years, and that every node of the public web needed upgrading to protect against crime. Fixing the problem was a "huge task" as the internet was built "without criminals in mind" he said. (Source)

He moved on to a plea that British schools focus more energy on computer science and engineering (apparently British schools don't even teach computer science -- which, thinking about it, neither did my high school, except in a fringe occupational class only about a dozen students a year took.) and offered this excellent quote:

[S]o long as more kids aspire to win X Factor than win a Nobel Prize, there's room to improve.

Some thoughts on student debt

(Via John Green's Tumblr) ThinkProgress published some interesting stats about student debt today, from the New York Times.

1. The number of students who have to go into debt to get a bachelor’s degree has risen from 45% in 1993 to 94% today.

2. There is now more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the United States.

3. Over the last 10 years, tuition and fees at state schools have increased 72%.

4. During the late 1970s, Ohio spent 17% of their budget on higher education and 4% of prisions. Today, Ohio spends 11% on higher ed and 8% of prisons.

5. This year, national, state and local spending on higher education reached a 25-year low.

I've talked to a lot of people in my generation who think the whole college debt thing isn't a big deal.   I can sort of see where they're coming from, in a funhouse mirror kind of way.  Students are presented all the information, and make a decision about whether to go down that road.[1. And if they've already got a degree in finance, they even understand it!]  Why should the government subsidize the education of its citizens?

That last sentence is the one I want to focus on.  The government should subsidize the education of its citizens.  I mean, who in their right mind doesn't think that's a good idea?  An educated citizenry is an asset.  There's no sense in which it is not.  Like roads and an electric grid, the government should provide adequate education to thrive in the world.  If it doesn't, then the United States is not providing its citizens opportunities to thrive.