education


Like many people, I looked at Nate Silver’s model for the presidential election outcome daily for the last six months. I hoped it would calm me down. It didn’t. I was not calm because his model was predicting somewhere between pretty close and extremely close the whole time, unlike during the 2012 election. Here’s what it looked like on election day–the blue line was the probability that Hillary Clinton would win and the red line was the probability that Donald Trump would win:

538-graph-election-day

A lot of people seemed to have looked at this and decided that Trump had very little chance of winning. That’s not what it says at all, and I think this points to a problem with our math curricula.

We could and should but do not have any kind of grasp of probability by the time we graduate high school. We need the education, because our brains have trouble taking base rates adequately into account. (See the second blurb here for a little more information.) We spend a lot of time learning algebra, which is for a normal person useful only for internalizing arithmetic and for the general brain workout, but we spend almost no time learning about probability. So we have an electorate swung in part by those living in genuine fear of being killed in a terrorist attack, which is a near-zero percent probability, and by those who were blasé about Trump’s chances of winning.

Basic probability is not hard to learn. Any teenager of average intelligence and a week of Dungeons & Dragons under their belt could have told you that Trump could easily win the election. The worst his chances ever got were about the same as rolling a 1 on an 8-sided die. It’s not great odds, but you don’t bet the life of your character on it, much less the fate of your whole game. And that’s the worst it got. It looks like he averaged around the chance of rolling a 1 on a 4-sided die. That happens a lot. Give it a try.

I’d love to see algebra classes replaced entirely by statistics classes, but I’d settle for replacing the first two weeks of Algebra I with an intro to dice gambling. The idea that knowing how to factor polynomials is more important than a real grasp of probability is hurting us.

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When my auto insurance company found out that I now have a masters degree, they said they are now taking level of education into account when calculating risk. The result: a three-dollar discount. Thanks, Progressive!

Now if only everyone would start calling me “Master Nathen.” That would be the icing on the cake.

It has been four years of sitting in hundreds of hours of lectures, reading thousands of pages of theory and research, writing hundreds of pages, and seeing clients for hundreds of hours. It has been long weeks, late nights, steep learning curves, and lots and lots of thinking. It is amazing how much learning you can do in four years of 60-80 hour weeks!  In 2009 I finished a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, with a research assistant position in Sara Hodges’ social cognition lab, a practicum position at a residential treatment facility for teenage sex offenders, an honors thesis entitled “Differentiating the Effects of Social and Personal Power,” and a GPA of 4.23. Yesterday I graduated with a Master of Education degree, Couples and Family Therapy specialization, 455 client-contact hours at the Center for Family Therapy and Looking Glass Counseling Services, one term as a counselor for the University of Oregon Crisis Line, four terms volunteering for the UO Men’s Center, a GPA of 4.19, and a “Pass With Distinction” on my final Formal Client Presentation. It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting four years.

It has also taken a bit of a toll on my health, but the major loss was in community. If you do not live in Eugene and we have not made a point of a regular visit, I probably have not spoken or even written to you much, if anything, since 2007. For that I sincerely apologize. It is not how I prefer to live but I could not seem to do this any other way. Know that I miss you. Let’s reconnect. Call me up, write, send me your unfinished song, your idea for a book, something to read and talk about. Let’s go for a walk, go swimming, have lunch, see a show. I am looking forward to it.

Couples & Family Therapy 2011 Cohort

Me & My Dad, June 14, 2011

Staff of NBTSC

NBTSC 2010 Oregon Staff

I’m in the woods of Vermont, preparing for the start of the east coast sessions of Not Back To School Camp. Today is staff orientation and the campers arrive tomorrow–over a hundred teenaged unschoolers. If I’m counting right, this will be my thirtieth session. I’ve only missed two since 1999.

In our first go-round of our first meeting, Grace asked us to say why we come to camp. This was my answer:

First, because this is where my people gather. The staff here are like family to me and for the rest of the year, they are dispersed. I can visit them one at a time or in clumps, by traveling. Camp is also where I am most likely to meet my future people. I’ve met almost all of my post-high school close friends at NBTSC.

Second, NBTSC provides the perfect supportive atmosphere to practice how I want to be and serve in the outside world: I want to be a space for love and inspiration to show up, strong and clear, for every person who crosses my path.

Third, since NBTSC happens once a year, every year, with the same basic mission, structure, and community, it provides a consistent backdrop to check myself against. My outside life continues to change, but here I am every year, back at camp. How am I showing up differently? How have I grown? Here that is quite clear.

Last, it’s super, super fun. The young people are beautiful, inspiring, and open. There’s lots of music, dancing and hilarity. I love it.

2010 Oregon session one group photo

NBTSC Oregon Campers (session 1) 2010

In spare moments I’m listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. I like this quote, from about 1:08:00. He is responding to “purists” who, apparently, believe that interesting writing has no place in academia; the information can be interesting, but not its presentation:

“For purists, I would point out that most academic writing is counter-educational, because it’s dullness insulates its information from nearly everybody.”

I listened to a story on NPR a couple days ago about a how high divorce rates and teen-pregnancy rates are correlated to the state’s political ideology. Republican states have significantly more divorce and teen pregnancy. In fact, as a whole, the US divorce rate has been holding steady since the mid-90s, while the “red state” divorce rates (and teen-pregnancy rates) continue to rise. That means the blue states make up the difference and their rates are falling. NPR speculated that it’s because in family-values states, people get married earlier because of social pressure or so they can have sex, but choose badly because they don’t know themselves as well as they would several years later, when Democrats tend to get married. They also note that states that are swinging Democratic, like New Hampshire, are starting to have less divorce and teen pregnancy too.

It makes some sense, though I wouldn’t have guessed it. There are a couple of things not made explicit in the story that I wonder about. First, I wonder if the Republican fixation on “family values” issues is being driven by this phenomenon; to someone living in a Republican state, divorce and teen pregnancy are really pressing issues, because their ideology and behavior are not matching up. It could even be a vicious cycle: Values driving divorce driving values…. Second, I wonder how much of this has to do with money. Social class, really. Red states tend to be poorer, and poverty puts serious stress on a marriage. And poverty is correlated with a lot of other stressors, like substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Also, they mention that the demographic whose divorce rates are dropping the most are women who have graduated from college. I’ve been attending a state university for a few years now, and I can tell you that it’s not full of poor people. These kids (‘ parents) have money.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book about marriage, Commitment, lays out her interpretation of a Rutgers report on divorce statistics. Here’s her list of things that correlate with divorce, in the order she mentions them. She lays them out with a lot more subtlety, humor, and personality, but read the book if you want that.

Your parents are divorced

You are alcoholic

You are mentally ill

You cheat on your spouse

You gamble compulsively

You are violent

You are younger than 25

You have not gone to college (especially the woman)

You have children

You lived with your spouse before marriage

You have different racial backgrounds

You are different ages

You have different religions

You have different ethnic backgrounds

You have different cultural backgrounds

You have different careers

You don’t know your neighbors

You don’t belong to social clubs

You don’t live near your families

You are not religious

The man does not do housework