The Aggregate: A Hot New Take on Climate Change // The Homework Revolution // The Psychology of Walls
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
This week’s edition is in the business of asking important questions. Each of the articles below rely on the power of research and history as tools to help us examine the past, situate ourselves in the present, and empower us to imagine a better future.
Could Our Love for Summer Spell the End of Humanity?
Slate – Julia Sklar, “What if Global Warming Were Global Cooling?”
This article from Slate magazine was originally published at Undark.org, as part of a larger journalistic collaboration through the Climate Desk. In this piece, Julia Sklar takes a thought-provoking look at the general response to climate change, and speculates that our lack of concern for what very well may be the eventual end of the world that is influenced by a subconscious inclination toward warmer weather.
“In a report called “Most Like It Hot,” the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans prefer to live in a city with a hot climate, and only 29 percent prefer cold locales. Even human psychoses reflect this preference for warmth. Almost always, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are triggered during the cold, dark winter months. Only 10 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms during the summer.”
It is almost laughable to think that our DNA plays a part in allowing us to remain unconcerned about climate change, especially if it means we can wear shorts and flip-flops for an increasing number of days each year. At this point, it seems only fitting that our fondness for warm weather may actually be the final nail in our species’ coffin. If climate change is the mask-wearing axe murderer in a scary movie, then humans are the almost unbelievably stupid character who gets themselves killed in some poorly-thought out escape attempt in the first twenty minutes of the film— even though the audience was screaming at them not to open the closet door the entire time.
“Would there be more urgency and better compliance with initiatives like the Paris climate agreement if we were facing the threat of an ice age instead? […] It’s not a completely outlandish thought experiment. From roughly the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s, there was a prolonged period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age. Glaciers around the world grew robustly, and average temperatures dropped by about 1 degree Celsius from those of the preceding medieval period.”
I believe that Sklar makes an incredibly valid point here, and while there is now widespread understanding that climate change means more than just the planet getting warmer, people still don’t seem to be grasping the matter with any sort of urgency. It is not unlikely, however, that the response to climate change would be far more alarmed and the solutions far more fast-acting given the threat of an impending eternal winter. During and after the aforementioned Little Ice Age, widespread innovation and problem-solving measures were implemented on a massive scale.
“Across Europe, there was a broad move away from beleaguered agrarian societies, whose livelihoods were inextricably linked to practices, like small-scale farming, that climate change could easily topple. Instead, societies began to embrace institutions that were meant to imbue order, stability, reason, and understanding amid climatic chaos: science academies that explicitly excluded theologians, university systems that swelled in size, and improved roads and canals that facilitated the spread of education, medical care, and global trade.”
If people in the 1300s didn’t have toilet paper, but could figure out how to adapt to climate change, then what’s our excuse? The historical record proves that humans have the capacity to think and innovate in a timely manner when it comes to accommodating a rapidly changing planet. However, the response to climate change in today’s world does not seem to measure up in scale or urgency when it comes to addressing some of the biggest threats to life and the environment as we know them.
“Yet here we are, armed with the knowledge our forbears were missing, having nonetheless just closed the books on the fourth-warmest year since 1880. Instead of marshalling the ingenuity of an Age of Enlightenment, as our predecessors did, we’ve spent the past few decades in an Age of Complacency. […] But at the most basic human level, our gut feelings about our day-to-day experiences with weather do matter. They inform our inclinations about preserving the long-term patterns of climate—and preserving those patterns means protecting the winters that some people hate.”
Sure, Sklar is correct in saying that fighting to preserve a world with regular weather patterns and seasons might mean fighting to preserve a degree of inconvenience in human existence. However, tolerating even our least favorite seasonal weather (like blizzards, rainstorms, etc.) will eventually seem like child’s play compared to the natural disasters we stand to face if climate change accelerates, unchecked, at its current rate. It is in our best interest to invest in solutions that can be implemented on the most effective and widespread scale possible, and I hope we can all be convinced of the value in putting away our flip-flops in January if it means saving the world.
Is There a Better Way to Assign Homework?
The Atlantic – Joe Pinsker, “The Cult of Homework”
In his article for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker takes a look at how homework in American schools has changed over time, and specifically at its most modern inception. Attitudes toward education, homework in particular, have been shaped by larger social and cultural pressures throughout American history, resulting in an ever-changing Goldilocks-esque formula for how much homework is “just right” for students at each grade level, K-12.
“The 21st century has so far been a homework-heavy era, with American teenagers now averaging about twice as much time spent on homework each day as their predecessors did in the 1990s. […] But not without pushback. As many children, not to mention their parents and teachers, are drained by their daily workload, some schools and districts are rethinking how homework should work—and some teachers are doing away with it entirely.”
In recent years, schools and even entire school districts across the country have begun to reduce the amount of homework assigned, or even have done away with homework altogether. Inevitably, this has generated passionate responses – both positive and negative – from parents, students, and educators everywhere in America. Pinsker takes time to dissect reactions from two of the most widely accepted schools of thought regarding homework, and uses several studies to support each set of claims.
“As educators reduce or eliminate the homework they assign, it’s worth asking what amount and what kind of homework is best for students. […] In the first camp is Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper conducted a review of the existing research on homework in the mid-2000s, and found that, up to a point, the amount of homework students reported doing correlates with their performance on in-class tests. This correlation, the review found, was stronger for older students than for younger ones.”
In the other camp of ideas, some argue that homework is and always has been irrelevant in student growth and success. There are skills and aspects of personal growth for students that will eventually have far more bearing on their ability to be successful and fulfilled individuals than their ability to complete three hours of AP Euro outlines every night.
“‘The practice of homework assumes that only academic growth matters, to the point that having kids work on that most of the school day isn’t enough,’ [Alfie] Kohn says. What about homework’s effect on quality time spent with family? On long-term information retention? On critical-thinking skills? On social development? On success later in life? On happiness? The research is quiet on these questions.”
Asking these kinds of non-traditional questions provides valuable, new insight that might finally allow educators to update and fix an outdated system. This is how America’s education system should operate— the way classrooms run should be reimagined every few years as social and cultural demands in the world outside of our schools change as well.
“The typical prescription offered by those overwhelmed with homework is to assign less of it—to subtract. But perhaps a more useful approach, for many classrooms, would be to create homework only when teachers and students believe it’s actually needed to further the learning that takes place in class—to start with nothing, and add as necessary.”
There is power in being able to redesign and rework aspects of an institution if they no longer serve those they were designed to help. In this case, reimagining the type and the amount of homework that is actually beneficial to students stands to help the education system in America evolve in unforeseen, positive ways. America’s education system is in desperate need of this kind of innovation that breaks away from tradition in favor of practices that actually benefit the kids in the system.
Living in the Shadows: The Psychology of Walls
The New Yorker – Jessica Wapner, “Do Walls Change How We Think?”
Jessica Wapner is a science journalist based in New York City, and in this article for The New Yorker she takes a fascinating historical perspective on an issue being grappled with across the world today. Border security and border walls are divisive issues that tap into some of humanity’s oldest tribal tendencies. The desire for security, protection, and the preservation of the status quo are all tightly wound up in debates about border security, even if they are not particularly apparent at first. Throughout this piece, Wapner examines the intricate, potentially sinister, relationship between the physical manifestations of borders and their psychological effects on people around the world over time.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, inspired hopes for a borderless world. But the construction of such barriers never stopped. If anything, border walls have proliferated. […] Their construction has inspired an entire field of research dedicated to studying their effects. Psychologists, economists, geographers, and other specialists regularly publish reports in outlets such as the Journal of Borderland Studies, and much of their research suggests that border walls may be affecting the people who live near them in unforeseen ways.”
Wapner provides a series of fascinating studies and anecdotes as evidence of the way walls affect the people who live near them. The studies prove that physical walls can permeate the human consciousness in ways that damage people’s ability to be open-minded, and essentially limit their ability to think clearly about the world at-large.
“Experiences at the wall can be stressful: checkpoint interrogations, [Cornell sociologist Christine] Leuenberger writes, can lead to feelings of “humiliation, demoralization, denial, anger, or aggression.” But the aggregate effects of border walls can be surprisingly subtle. The continued existence of brick walls and concrete barriers dividing back yards and streets perpetuates fear of “the other”; it also reinforces the persistent segregation […] which keeps both fear and the walls alive.”
It is bold, yet not unreasonable to assert that the fear of an “other” — the fear perpetuated by building walls — can paralyze democratic action (or civic participation of any kind), and result in the yielding of power to an increasingly authoritarian government. History has proven time and time again that when the public is brought to a point of inaction due to fear, they relinquish unquestioned control to their leaders. When this happens, governments tend to overstep their bounds and feel emboldened to push the most extreme aspects of their agenda. (That was a long-winded reference to what happened in Germany before the Holocaust. This sounds frighteningly familiar, doesn’t it?)
“Almost all of the fifty or so structures [walls] built since 2002 have been designed for the latter purpose: keeping “others” out. A political agenda built on nationalism is well served by suspicion and paranoia about the motivations of foreigners. Arguably, the mental-health problems that walls exacerbate also benefit nationalist leaders. Despondency can weaken our ability to resist; depression and anxiety may affect how we vote.”
Nowhere on Earth should people feel the need to fear what lies on the other side of any wall. We have come too far as a species to rely on primal fears and instincts, which ultimately damages our relationships with other humans, to govern us. After all, we are people of the same planet before we are citizens of any country.
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.