Sunday, October 08, 2006

Son of Sunrise Semester

"In another innovative move to share its intellectual treasures with the public, the University of California, Berkeley, announced today that it is delivering educational content, including course lectures and symposia, free of charge through Google Video. Because of the quality and quantity of these video offerings, UC Berkeley will be the first university with its own page on the Google Video Web site:, campus officials said. The campus is making more than 250 hours of content available to the public through Google Video.”UC Berkeley Offers Courses And Symposia Through Google Video, 06/09/27,

I don’t know how many older New Yorkers/Tri-Staters are out there, but some of my fondest memories as a little kid were waking up early in the morning and padding downstairs at 6 am to watch Sunrise Semester on WCBS before my parents woke up. Produced at NYU from 1957 to 1982, each day was a continuing lesson from a chosen topic. After watching a series of episodes about Ancient Greek civilization, you could then watch Introductory French. Or Introduction to Physics. Whatever was next on their academic roster. It was the basis of a free liberal arts education for millions of working people for 25 years.

Sunrise Semester taught me lots of things, most of which I don’t think I remember consciously, but much of which provided an almost subliminal foundation to my later learning. I remember being on a school bus for a fieldtrip at the age of 5 and someone saying they bet I didn’t know where babies came from or what sex was. Ah, but I had watched Sunrise Semester on Human Biology! I proceeded to repeat what I had heard about uteruses, ovaries, sperm, etc. Of course, it was all academic to me. I understood intellectually that some of those things were inside me, by virtue of being a girl, but it lacked any visceral (!) meaning. Also, my information regurgitation was half-assed at best and had absolutely no prurient value, so my grade-school audience was completely baffled. They had no idea what I was talking about. However, by Middle School, when we were officially learning human sexuality for the first time, I realized I still remembered it. It was like a refresher course, as opposed to learning it all for the first time. There were other subjects that I somehow absorbed like this, as well.

So imagine my delight when University of California, Berkeley started posting their introductory classes and symposia on Google!

My son couldn’t sleep one night and I thought, “Hey, let’s watch this Berkeley video. That’ll put him to sleep!” But he watched “Integrative Biology 131 -- General Human Anatomy” with the same fascination and half-understanding that I watched Sunrise Semester all those years earlier. He was up for another 2 hours, just watching ‘episodes.’ He’d ask me to answer questions that the professor asked the class and when I got them right, he was so proud. If I didn’t know them, he told me I better to go back to school – there were gaps in my education! He’d ask me to define the words that the professors used that he didn’t understand. Not surprisingly, I was explaining a lot. He completely dug the entire experience, saying with pride, “Hey Mom, we’re going to Berkeley!”

[If only he feels this way when he’s 17 – the ‘we’ part, that is. Although as of age 10, he’s leaning towards Stanford… I told him he better work his ass off and become WAY more interesting rather quickly if either school is his goal!]

The easy, public availability of course work from Berkeley follows in a noble tradition of Sunrise Semester and I, for one, am all for the democratization of education, regardless of all the usual demarcations of society we claim democratization opposes (race, color, religion, gender, etc.). In this particular case, I’m thinking of age. Age appropriate education is highly overrated. I know I learned more from all the Age INappropriate education in my life than any proscribed “school learnin’.” If anything, ‘appropriateness’ is indicative of the fearful approach education has swung towards generally – “Don’t teach children anything they might not understand – it could hurt their self-esteem, or worse, it could give them ideas and make them think outside the box!” I’m sure most people will disagree, but to me, this is yet another sign of the fear mongering that will, in my opinion, be the end society as we thought we knew it.

And now that I’m up on my soapbox, the trend of teaching towards state testing (yet more fear mongering) has devastated the imaginations of children forced to learn these lessons at figurative ‘gunpoint’ and “No Child Left Behind” increasingly means “No Child Learns Anything Interesting or Meaningful to Them” in the race to teach increasingly denuded state curricula. (And the states fudge their results to get their Federal funds, anyway, so who’s kidding who?). It takes extraordinary, imaginative teachers to rise above the imbecilities of these new standardized systems, designed to create cogs in the corporate machine of the Information Age, instead of passionate, creative citizens. My children’s public school is excellent and has worked hard to pretend that testing is meaningless to them. Yet my kids have still been guinea pigs to such insanities as “Executive Function” and all the other snazzy-yet-meaningless catch words that only teach them how to pitch, spin and run a board meeting! At eight! (And may I add to this the state sanctioned workbooks, which appear to be written by people for whom English is a third, and not fluent, language. If you’re interested in how school textbooks are chosen by states, read Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman’s funny, yet tragic essay in Surely You’re Joking, Professor Feynman! I find it hard to believe the corrupt, bureaucratic process has changed at all based on their continued poor quality.) It all adds to the burden on this new generation of young people who might test well, but that’s about all they can do. Whatever you do, don’t ask them a question they didn’t prepare for. Or ask them to argue a well thought out opinion. If you think I’m exaggerating, ask older college professors, who can compare the different generations of students, what they really think. Preferably after a couple of drinks. Add the young’s computer-bred intelligence to the mix and their world is reduced to the color-and-motion entertainment force-fed to them and intellectual choices seen in black and white. Ones and Zeros. Right answers and wrong answers. A binary cognitive view that blinds them not only to the greys, but every spectrum of the intellectual rainbow, as well as the infinites, the paradoxical and most especially, the ambiguities of reality, as well as leaving them uninterested in pursuing the depth and breadth of human knowledge for its own sake. But that’s another essay for another day. ‘Cause my kid 'n me R goin’ ta Berkeley!