Winning the Future?

Gotta hand it to the President for at least having a memorable, recurring theme in his State of the Union speech last Tuesday. We can win the future. Among other things, he used the notion of out-competing other nations to inspire young people to choose teaching as their career.

It shouldn’t be surprising that nationalism and zero-sum economic competition inform his administration’s priorities. At the same time, when he took office I held out a glimmer of hope that he would be a different kind of politician, one who would inspire us to make tangible and intangible improvements in ours and other people’s lives.

His emphasis on nationalism is problematic because national identity is both too small and too large an organizing principle.

It’s too small because our well-being is intricately linked with other countries’ well-being including Mexico’s, Canada’s, China’s, and India’s. And it’s too large because teachers-to-be are not inspired by the “global economic race” metaphor. The idea of global competition might inspire people to enlist in the military, but teachers-to-be are motivated by personal, intangible, humanitarian, community-based reasons. They don’t want to beat other nations, they want to make a positive difference in young people’s lives and their small corner of the world.

An emphasis on nationalism and zero-sum economic competition leads to a narrow math and science-based curriculum. We’ll be okay if we just produce more engineers, nevermind the universal questions posed by literature, the insight provide by historical perspective, the creativity engendered by the arts, and the struggles we have living and working peacefully together.

To earn the respect of teachers the President should have said the era of top-down federal government policy making is over. The “Race to the Top” program he described is more of the same with governors bypassing teacher leaders and pressuring school officials to adopt the reforms Arne Duncan has said will be funded. Reforms similar to the ones promoted by the previous administration.

Also, apart from a two-year freeze for federal workers, I was disappointed that the President didn’t call on us to make concrete challenging sacrifices to “win the future”. Absent calls of sacrifice, the good ideas felt disingenuous, especially in the context of the out-of-control deficit. I wish President Obama had tweaked his theme this way. Secure the future—for yourself, your family, your community, and others.

Last week, in a Florida grocery store mother-dear and I were on a mission for some non-frosted shredded wheat. There must have been ten different boxes of shredded wheat, but alas, almost all frosted. Running out of patience, she said, “There should only be two choices of each cereal.” Exaggerating, she added, “We’d all be better off if in life there were only two choices.”

When it comes to political parties, I wish there were three.

Costco’s Math Smoke and Mirrors

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Time to come clean. I’m addicted to these.

It started innocently enough in Chengdu, China in 2003. Each week while grocery shopping I was intrigued with all the Chinese women who would gather around the giant pistachio bin and fill their plastic bags with the very best one or two hundred. After spectating for a few weeks, I joined in. This brought furtive glances and embarrassed smiles.

How was I supposed to know real men don’t pistachio shop? Upon returning Stateside (love using that term, makes me feel cosmopolitan), imagine my delight when I learned Costco had picked them out and packaged them for me.

I can be too frugal for my own good. Given that, it’s nice there are at least two products for which I’d spend almost anything—iPads and iPistachios.

This theory has been tested lately as Costco’s California pistachios have skyrocketed in price. $14.99 for 4lbs, who cares, toss em’ in. $15.99, $16.99, $19.99. Yikes, now they’re just taking advantage of a helpless addict. The price increases have probably had little to do with supply and demand. More likely, they’re a Schwarzenegger state budget screw up surtax.

When I glanced and grabbed last week, I did a double-take. What?! $14.99?! Sweet! The last time they were $14.99 the President had stolen the election. Then, a second later, “What the hell, that’s a 3 pounder!”

Here’s how I imagine it going down at Costco headquarters in Issaquah, WA. Executive Meeting. Agenda item: Pricing limits of California pistachios. A suit does a quick PowerPoint presentation showing a precipitous decline in sales of California pistachios at the $19.99 pricepoint. What to do? Discussion ensues. The consensus, instead of selling 4 pounds for $19.99, let’s sell 3 pounds for $14.99, and hope people don’t really notice the math smoke and mirrors. Brilliant. A collective sense of accomplishment descends and the meeting is adjourned.”

It might just work. No, it will work on whomever lacks numeracy. And on addicts like me.

Bonus picture. What a minimalist, who asked for nothing, received for Christmas.

Perfect Christmas

Young, Anxious, Depressed

Today five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

That’s from Peter Gray, research psychologist and professor and Psychology Today blogger. The entire post is here.

Readers’ Digest version.

First, Gray explains:

The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, during World War II, during the Cold War, and during the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than with the way the world actually is.

Next, he highlights two reasons. Still quoting:

1) A decline in young people’s sense of personal control over their fate. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than are those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. The data indicate that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious. “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed. “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

2) A shift toward extrinsic, rather than intrinsic goals. Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person–such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks. There’s evidence that young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past.

Gray sees the two primary reasons as interrelated:

The shift toward extrinsic goals could well be related causally to the shift toward an external locus of control. We have much less personal control over achievement of extrinsic goals than intrinsic goals. I can, through personal effort, quite definitely improve my competence, but that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get rich. I can, through spiritual practices or philosophical delving, find my own sense of meaning in life, but that doesn’t guarantee that people will find me more attractive or lavish praise on me. To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals I can control my emotional wellbeing. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others’ judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.

Gray concludes by suggesting formal schooling is a large part of the problem. His solution? Less time in school, more time in unstructured outside of school activities. Over time, I’ve become more enamored with alternative education; consequently, I find his argument somewhat convincing. But I find his description of the problem more illuminating than his suggested remedy.

Here are three things, that in my opinion, could reduce anxiety and depression in young people.

1) More sleep.

2) More movement. With friends and minimal adult supervision (so that it’s more fun). Fifteen has been taking “Zumba” aerobic-like classes with a friend a few afternoons a week at the “Y”. Even better, thirty minutes of walking or running or swimming or cycling or weight lifting five or six mornings a week. I’d like to see clinical trials studying the effects of this proposal on adolescent anxiety and depression.

3) Compulsory service-learning as a school requirement. I could be talked into a year of National Service quite easily too. Recall the quote, “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” I have no evidence, just a gut instinct that a substantive “other-regarding” experience would reduce anxiety and depression.

Advanced Placement—Let’s Get Real

The single greatest challenge in teaching is helping disengaged lower performing students catch up while simultaneously challenging higher performing ones. That, pure and simple, is what distinguishes the very best teachers.

It’s so difficult a lot of times educators punt, organizing classes based upon, sorry for the jargon, “homogeneous ability grouping”. Instead of having four mixed ability classes, schools create remedial, standard, honors, and Advanced Placement (A.P.) ones.

Often within heavily tracked schools, one student ends up with nearly all remedial classes, and another, all A.P. The end result can be that the two students never interact in what is in essence “remedial” and “Advanced Placement” schools-within-schools.

The problems with Advanced Placement tracking.

1) Inaccurate perceptions crystallize and students get stuck in tracks  Also, research has shown teachers of remedial students have much lower than normal academic expectations. As a result, instead of catching up to their peers, the tend to fall farther behind.

2) Creeping arrogance. Too often, A.P. students develop a sense of superiority. They look down on their “remedial” and “standard” peers. Once when I was observing a student teacher in a “standard” or “remedial” English class, one of his A.P. students delivered a note from another teacher. After handing it over, the student asked, “What are you guys doing?” “Oh were just working our way through Chapter Two of Catcher in the Rye.” “Oh man,” he loudly announced on his way out of the room, “we finished that book last week.”

More widely discussed concerns with A.P. courses.

3) Students can earn passing scores on the end of the year exams through intensive memorization. This doesn’t prepare them well for college, the alleged purpose of the A.P. program.

4) Parents and students focus so exclusively on passing scores, that few develop any intrinsic appreciation or curiosity for the content. Just tell me what I need to memorize to pass the test. This doesn’t prepare them well for life-long learning (yikes, second use of jargon).

5) Usually, there’s a disproportionate number of Caucasian and Asian-American students in A.P. courses relative to each school’s demographics. Consequently, there’s a disproportionate number of Hispanic and African-American students in remedial courses.

A.P. programs exist because privileged parents want to extend their privilege to their children. A lot of these people are liberal progressives who talk earnestly about equal opportunity. “These people” are my wife and me and many of our friends. On this subject, we’re hypocrites. If we cared as much about other children’s futures as we do our own, we’d figure out a way to detrack our schools.

“I Am Thinking of Teaching”

Recently a friend and loyal PressingPause reader confided in me that he was considering becoming a teacher. Cool dat.

Here is the best book I’ve ever read on deciding whether to teach.

At some point during their teacher prep coursework and internship, every teacher-to-be I’ve worked with over the last two decades concludes “Teaching well is way harder than I ever imagined.”

So my first suggestion is to think again if you perceive teaching as an 8a-2:30p, summers off, easy gig. I’d bet a sizable portion of my modest teacher’s salary that teaching well is considerably more difficult and exhausting than you might imagine.

Having said that, our prospective teacher friend has attributes that would translate well in the classroom. He’s a deeply committed and caring parent of elementary age children, he’s resilient, has impeccable integrity, and rich life experience.

Given the bevy of thoughtful educators here, he probably doesn’t need the aformentioned book for guidance.

There are technical and qualitative ways to approach the question of whether to teach. Among the questions: 1) What are the technical professional requirements? 2) What are teaching’s challenges and rewards? 3) What do the best teachers have in common?

The technical requirements vary a bit from state to state and they change overtime so I’m a little hesitant to offer much specific counsel to our friend because he’s seven years away from wrapping up his first career.

In short, one has to decide whether they want to pursue elementary or secondary (middle school and high school) certification. The best way to do that is spend time with both groups in and outside of schools. If secondary, one has to decide what content area(s) to teach. In Washington State teachers are required to have 20 academic credits in any particular content area, called an “endorsement”, (e.g., English, social studies, math, biology, Spanish) and pass the corresponding West E, a content knowledge exam. Backing up a bit, one also has to pass the West B exam, a basic math/English/reading literacy test. The “B” is relatively easy, some candidates have to take “E’s” more than once before passing.

Then, you have to apply for, be admitted to, and complete a licensure program. They tend to vary in length from one to two years. Some are certificate or licensure only programs, others, like the one I coordinate, enable people to earn their certificate and a Masters degree simultaneously. All programs are a mix of coursework and an internship that culminates in full-time student teaching.

That’s a quick introduction to the technical professional requirements, but what about the equally if not more important qualitative considerations?

What “matters of the heart” guidance would you offer our fellow reader? What are teaching’s challenges and rewards? What do the best teachers have in common?

Parent-Teacher Relations

What I think I know about parent-teacher relations:

1) Based on anecdotal information—readers comments in periodicals and personal conversations with friends and acquaintances—I believe the parent-teacher divide is wider than anyone writing about education reform is admitting. Everyone is being far too polite.

2) Meaningful progress in improved parent-teacher relations won’t happen until both groups commit to exploring the mutual misunderstandings and related antipathy that have built up like water behind a gigantic dam.

3) Teacher education programs do a lousy job preparing new teachers to work constructively with students’ families. It’s not that it’s taught poorly, it’s that it’s often not taught at all. Too often, beginning teachers are forced to learn how to partner constructively with families on the job, sometimes from colleagues who exhibit negative attitudes towards families.

4) An increasing percentage of parents and guardians question whether teachers have their children’s best interests in mind. Ethnic, gender, and class differences sometimes translate into suspicion. At conferences, my “old school” mom and dad always said to my teachers, “What if anything do you want Ron doing differently next Monday morning?” In contrast, an increasing percentage of “new school” parents ask, “Why are you picking on my child? What do you have against him or her?”

5) School parents have delegated too much responsibility for children’s social and academic development to teachers. Take me for example. I quickly skim a few of the numerous pieces of work my tenth grade daughter brings home. Meanwhile, her history teacher shows one movie after another. Some may be justifiable, but others don’t make sense in the context of the curriculum. The opportunity costs of showing film after film? Zero historical novels, zero essay writing, very little analysis, debate, and critical thinking. Have I constructively expressed my concerns? No.

6) Too often, when parents do engage, there’s a tendency towards helicopter-parenting. Instead of expecting their children to take responsibility and help problem solve, they argue and ask, “I want my child moved into another class.” “Why isn’t my child starting when she’s one of the best players?” “Why should my child’s poor attendance affect his grade?”

7) Many teachers, especially secondary ones, want to be left alone and are too quick to assume negative things about engaged parents and guardians.

8) Teachers could bridge a large part of the parent divide by asking their students’ parents and guardians one simple question, “What would you like me to know about your son or daughter?” The follow up, “What do you think I could do to teach him/her even more effectively?”

9) All the talk of more convenient teacher conference times for working parents, providing food and childcare during conferences, and communicating meeting information in parents’ and guardians’ primary languages won’t translate into much progress until both groups honestly communicate their pent-up frustations as a first step in starting over on a foundation of heightened understanding, mutual respect, and partnership.


Recent Readers’ Comments

• Recently, a reader correctly wrote “A concerted effort has been made to paint American public schools with a broad brush as ‘failing’”.

K-12 students are in school approximately 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the year. If we’re unsatisfied with our eighteen year olds’ relative preparedness for life, maybe we should challenge parents and the businesspeople, politicians and journalists who regularly denigrate teachers to take more responsibility for it.

The U.S. economy is always in flux. When unemployment is low and the economy is humming no one credits public school teachers. That understandably breeds cynicism. We have many of the best universities in the world. If public schools are failing, how is that possible? The truth of course is that public schools are not failing, the problem is the uneven mix of strong, mediocre, and weak schools too closely tied to family’s socio-economic status.

Some choice is helpful, but it’s not a panacea for improved schooling. Free-market proposals that hinge in part on school closures are counter-productive. Sad that this needs pointing out—schools are different than fast food restaurants. Historically marginalized students need more resources to help catch up to their wealthier peers.

• In reflecting on my critique of the five-paragraph essay, another reader wrote that teachers will “ . . . teach exactly what students need to pass high stakes. When districts and teachers are judged by the number of student who pass these tests, there’s little they can do except teach to the test.”

That’s conventional wisdom. We repeat it all the time. In fact, a lot of beginning teachers tell themselves, “I’ll get fired, if I don’t teach to the test.” If that’s true, where are all the articles about teachers getting called to task, put on leave, or fired for their students’ disappointing test scores?

No one minds teaching to challenging, relevant, thoughtfully designed tests that require genuine thinking versus rote learning. Those types of tests can even inspire one’s teaching. The problem is the poor quality of most standardized tests.

If teaching is a true profession, when stuck with poorly designed standardized tests, teachers should respectfully but forcefully resist by saying to their principals, “Sorry if this gets you in trouble with your superintendent, but we’re not teaching to this test because students could pass it and still not be prepared for subsequent classes, college, or the workforce. In the interest of our students (and not the superintendent and not local realtors), we’re using the national standards and our professional judgment to teach a more rigorous, relevant, and inspiring curriculum.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The title of a new book by Amy Chua, a Yale law prof, guaranteed to create more conversation about parenting methods than any other book in ages. I read an excerpt in last week’s Wall Street Journal, and today, three different reviews.

Readers will either love or hate her story of how she’s raised her teenage daughters. From an Amazon marketing blurp: Here are some things Amy Chua would never allow her daughters to do, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.The truth is Lulu and Sophia would never have had time for a playdate. They were too busy practicing their instruments (two to three hours a day and double sessions on the weekend) and perfecting their Mandarin.

A few more excerpts:

• Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting.”

• Chinese parents understand nothing is fun until you’re good at it.

• I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Chua’s book-based Wall Street Journal piece titled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” is clear and provocative. I told the GalPal it would receive a record number of comments. So far it’s received 3,500 including this excerpted one by Angela Zhou:

I’m disgusted by this essay. Perhaps I’m biased, being a Chinese-American daughter myself, but doesn’t that give me a voice on this issue as well?

I’ve had it better than most of my friends who grew up with the so-called “Eastern” method of parenting, although the method itself transcends culture. I don’t think that any amount of piano or violin accolades, nor straight A’s, justify the extremities of this approach. I’ve experienced both sides of Eastern and Western parenting as my parents have mellowed over the years, comfortable and confident in my ability to forge my own path. Without coercion. I have memories of hiding on the top shelf of the closet when I was 9 years old, feeling like an absolute failure because I wasn’t like Suzy across the street, I didn’t have this piano award, I didn’t play violin like everyone else did, because I just wasn’t good enough for their standards and their expectations. But I also remember that as I got older, I learned things on my own, things that couldn’t be taught by tutors or extra courses. And right now as a junior in high school, I’m fairly content with what I’ve done.

Yet I won’t ever be able to shake off that voice in my head that says I have to be better than everyone else, the voice that I’ve been hearing since I was born. It’s not enough to be happy and self-aware – I need the accomplishments to back that up. I have a pathological need to win empty awards and get high grades – because my self esteem is now equivalent to my accolades. I’ll admit that I got a 2400 on my SATs, one of the typical Asian paragons of achievement – but what has that done for ME? I’m not any happier for it. Meeting and surpassing my parent’s expectations has done nothing for me.

Part of the issue as I see it is that these “Asian” parents give us our lives through birth, and then they give us theirs. Are they living vicariously through opportunities they never had, instead ‘bestowing’ them upon their children? But what of the children – do they become just vehicles for their parent’s dreams?

And meanwhile, what of our dreams? What if our generation does want to study the liberal arts and drama – must our generation be burdened with the guilt of not fulfilling our parents’ dreams for ourselves?

There are moments when it seems worthwhile. When all of our blood, sweat, and tears seems to pay off, when maybe it isn’t so crazy after all.

But a life is more than the occasional happy moment – it is also the in-between intervals of coercion, unreachable expectations, stress and agony. And what kind of a life is one that becomes dependent on external approval, external recognition, and parasitically high self-expectations?

But I implore any parent, any reader out there – when raising a child, think of the child as a human being. We are not machines. We have feelings and dreams and hopes, and they are often not your dreams and hopes. Give us a chance to follow them. [end of comment]

Chua generalizes a lot. Not all Chinese-American young people are academic and musical all-stars. She’d probably say that’s because they don’t have true Chinese mothers. Despite problems with the excesses of her parenting methods, there’s no denying it’s as clear and provocative a description of a distinctive approach to parenting as has appeared in a long, long time. For me, the main take-away is that parenting excellence takes many forms. That notion of varied excellence sounds simple enough, but many people have a hard time embracing it, as if parenting is an acultural zero-sum game.

Put differently, if the destination is competent, caring, self-sufficient young adults, there are as many routes as there are small groups of people in the world. Chua puts it this way, “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.”

The essay is thought provoking and deserves a careful reading.

Rush Limbaugh’s Appeal

Of my own free will, I listened to the first 45 minutes of Rush Limbaugh’s talk show Monday. As expected, he was angry at those who suggest his ilk are partially responsible for creating an environment in which extremists feel freer to act on their extremist beliefs.

I find small doses of Rush interesting from a communication perspective. How does he attract such an incredibly large audience? Most liberals, who can’t get past his content, are loathe to admit that he’s a talented and skilled communicator.

Are his ideas more insightful than other radio hosts with smaller audiences? Do people tune in each day because he’s an original and brilliant thinker whose insights challenge, surprise, and enlighten? Of course not, of course not.

My Limbaugh-listening friends would answer this way, “Wrong again Ron, it is his content. Rush skillfully fills a huge void created by the left-wing mainstream media. He taps into what me and a lot of other people believe about small government, the excesses of multiculturalism, and free market capitalism.”

My liberal friends might offer up hypotheses that denigrate his listeners. “Rush doesn’t believe half the stuff he says. He’s grown fabulously wealthy by figuring out how to tap into people’s fears, and worst, most basal instincts. The lowest common denominator in action.”

I believe Rush succeeds in attracting such a large audience for three reasons.

1) Rush does believe what he says. He truly is as conservative as an analysis of his thousands of transcripts would suggest. If his passion for his beliefs was manufactured, it would have subsided a long time ago.

2) Rush has created separation from the competition by being more more consistently ostentatious than the typical conservative talk host at your local radio station. Your local personality might be irritating, Rush is incendiary. Most ideologues are content to ruin the occasional dinner party, Rush isn’t afraid of a national furor.

3) Most people are overwhelmed by the complexity of contemporary life and appreciate Rush’s simplified, nostalgic vision of life where moderates and moderation is excoriated. Rush provides answers. People find comfort in his absolutist, broadest possible brush, black and white world inhabited by good and bad guys, patriots and dissenters, nationalists and internationalists, capitalists and socialists, one enlightened and one evil political party.

My vision for this blog as a place for “people who find meaning in essential questions, ambiguity, conceptual thinking, and nuanced discussions” is at complete odds with Rush’s modus operandi. Were Rush to read my “what this blog is about” statement, he’d laugh heartily, and say, “Good luck with that.”

But I don’t need luck. All I need is some counter-cultural readers who want to help create an alternative.

Gap Year

Recently The Wall Street Journal wrote about high school graduates who chose to spend a year traveling, volunteering, and/or working before beginning college. This is what’s referred to as a “gap year”.

Parents often worry that gappers will suffer from a loss of momentum and conceivably bail on college altogether. In contrast, I worry that too many over programmed eighteen year olds automatically continue their education without any real sense of self, knowledge of the larger world, or appreciation for the educational opportunities provided them.

I wish far more eighteen year olds took a year off between high school and college to travel; to do service or earn money; to gain financial withitness; to learn about other people, places, and themselves; and to develop an intrinsic (versus parental) sense of educational purpose. Give me a first year seminar full of gappers and I guarantee you our discussions will be even more interesting than normal.

What type of gap year is best, a formal, programmed one, or an informal, open-ended one?

One reader of the piece, Fannahill Glen from Jacksonville, FL, made her preference for informal, open-ended, European-style gap years perfectly clear. I quote:

The traditional gap year is conducive to future success because of its sheer simplicity: You take a backpack and whatever handful of cash you have, and go. It is up to you to forge travel plans, earn cash to live on, and make new friends and travel companions. Teenagers find themselves making industrious choices to do things like harvest bananas for rather small wages, eat fewer meals daily (and only from street vendors) to save money and sleep in hostels where they share toilets and bedrooms with strangers, because it’s all they can afford. Contrast the skills and maturity one gains from such an experience with the American version: Pay a company $35,000, let them find you a cool job in a chic country and work for free for a year, with vacations on the holidays. It’s like the vaunted Year Abroad, without the rigors of a classroom. Awesome, no doubt, but not exactly taxing on one’s intellectual and social development.

The vast majority of American parents are probably too afraid to cut their eighteen year olds loose Fannahill-style. In my thinking, a programmed gap year is preferable to a mindless continuation of one’s education, but like Fannahill, I suspect the loosely structured model provides even more intellectual, social, and educational bang for the buck.