Friday, January 11, 2013

Confused on a Higher Level!

Confused on a Higher Level

My high school chemistry teacher’s office door was covered with signs and pictures. Most of them were nerdy chemistry jokes or Star Wars paraphernalia, but there was one quote in particular that stood out:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems—indeed we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found have only served to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel that we are as confused as ever, but we think we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

I passed this door almost every day, but for some reason this ironic, somewhat depressing quote is the only sign I still remember.

I just looked up this quote, and it turns out that it comes from the introduction to a textbook called The Workshop Way of Learning, written by Earl C. Kelley in 1951. The sentiment, though, is eternal, and it reflects exactly what it’s like to have just graduated from college or high school.

There’s no question that I learned a lot in both high school and college. Still, a lot of the time, it seemed as if the more I learned, the more confused I became. For every book I read, there were ten more books I needed to read to understand it. It was only late in my college career that I gained any sense that I was making progress.

I hadn’t answered all of my problems, and I was confused as ever, but I was finally confused on a higher level.

It turns out that most of the great thinkers in history were deeply confused about almost everything. It was their knowledge of this confusion that made them great, in fact. Albert Einstein once said, “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Real knowledge is knowing what it is you’re ignorant about.

This may actually be something helpful to remember as you study for your SATs. However well you do on the test, however much you feel like you know or don’t know, the test is not a compendium of all knowledge.

Or maybe you won’t find this post helpful at all. I know it sounds kind of preachy, and I know that I don’t have any real authority to tell you how you should learn. But maybe you’ll get something out of it eventually, if not now then a few years down the road. Who knows.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions

So the world didn’t end after all, and 2012 is over. By this time next year, you’ll probably be halfway through with your first semester or trimester of college, taking a well-deserved Christmas break. By January 1, 2014, you’ll be resolving to fix all the things that didn’t go well and pursue more aggressively everything that made you happy.

I obviously don’t know what your first year of college will be like, and it would be stupid of me to make a set of resolutions for you. But I can tell you what I would tell myself if I could go back to that first year of college.

For those of you taking that next big leap to college, here are a few things that I hope will happen to you in 2013. May you…

Change something fundamental about yourself, even if you change it right back in a month. This could be as simple as your fashion or your diet, or as complex as your ethical assumptions. When I was a freshman, I was a vegetarian for a few months. Some people I know took salsa dancing lessons. Other people reconsidered their religious beliefs or attended protests.

Learn to enjoy writing papers. No matter what you study in college, you’ll be writing more papers than you ever wrote in high school, and most of them will be held to a higher standard. Paper writing doesn’t have to be a chore: it can be a tool for organizing your thoughts and expressing yourself to a wider audience. If you treat papers as an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about something you care about, Sunday night deadlines won’t be quite so nerve-wracking.

Read a book that will change your life. Invisible Man. A Brief History of Time. Infinite Jest. The Signal and the Noise. At some point during your freshman year, you will read exactly the right book at exactly the right time.

Take a class in something you couldn’t care less about. For me, an English major, this class was Physics. If you’re an engineer, it could be a class in English Literature or Gender Studies. It’s amazing how two seemingly unrelated disciplines shed light on one another. Worst comes to worst, you can now speak with more authority about why you completely dislike an area of study.

Think about publishing your work. Seeing your work in print is exhilarating, even if it only appears in a college newspaper or an underground rag. That being said, there’s no reason not to try sending a paper or poem you’re proud of to the Yale Review, just to see what happens. Not to mention the fact that a publication looks really good on graduate school applications.

Hate everything for a little while. Just for a little while. Moments of existential crisis prove that you’re really learning.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Five Intelligent Ways to Get Lost on the Internet

Here’s my official message: don’t waste time on the internet.

Of course, even while I’m writing this sentence, I have up four irrelevant tabs, along with itunes. I’ve spent more time on Facebook today than I’m willing to admit to myself. And I know for a fact that I will be back on Facebook before this post is over.

Everyone needs a break from work sometimes, and the infinite procrastination potential of the internet can be too tempting to overlook. The question is, then, how do you use an internet break productively?

Here are five websites which are educational and informative, but also interesting enough to give you the kind of break you need. Some of these are more popular than others, and you may be familiar with one or more of them. Hopefully this list will lead you to something both fun and helpful.

Open Culture

This website has a little bit of everything culture-related: interviews, full movies, online courses, art news, audiobooks, and more. You can find a musical collaboration between Kurt Cobain and author William S. Burroughs, a conversation between Quentin Tarantino and Howard Stern, a video based on a poem by Charles Bukowski, or a real-time simulation of births and deaths in the United States. If you have any highly specific interests—classical cinema, science-fiction, modern jazz—or if you’re hungry to learn more about culture, this site will keep you occupied.


Are you someone who prefers to take a break with games instead of text and videos? Try Lumosity, which features games designed to boost specific intellectual abilities. Lumosity will try to get you to take a “course,” which “assigns” games according to your apparent skill level. Unfortunately, you can only get so far in a course without paying a fee. Fortunately, most of the games by themselves are completely free.

Real Clear Politics

Here’s something for those people who don’t care so much about art or memory-boosting, but who know more about the members of the U.S. senate than they know about their own family. Real Clear Politics compiles political opinion and editorial pieces from all major news sources across the country. It’s a great way to check the pulse of the nation, to keep yourself informed, and also to make yourself really angry when you encounter an opinion with which you disagree. The site itself is pretty poorly designed, but its disorganization is helpful, in a way. It forces you to glance at articles and opinions you would never encounter otherwise.


Radiolab is a science-based radio show on NPR, so not surprisingly the most interesting feature of the Radiolab website is its podcasts. Although the radio show is an hour long, the podcasts are broken into ten minute segments for the benefit of the efficient procrastinator. If you’re not already familiar with Radiolab, it’s far more entertaining than whatever you imagined when you read “science-based radio show.” The hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, do captivating and innovative things with audio while telling fascinating-but-true stories about science: a crustacean which can see thousands of colors invisible to us, a 27-year-old man with no concept of language, a computer program which may prove that we are near the end of science.

Open Yale Courses

This one is more of a time commitment than the others. Yale University has posted several of its lecture courses on this site for free. Each lecture is approximately an hour long, and each course is approximately 20 lectures. Still, if you have the time, you may be surprised at how engaging some of these lectures are. My personal favorites are the Civil War course with David Blight and the American Revolution course with Joanne Freeman: Blight and Freemen are powerful speakers and they tackle their subjects with the kind of detailed knowledge I’ve never seen in a history class before. If history isn’t your thing, there are also courses on physics, economics, music, architecture, religious studies, economics, psychology, and more.

So next time you find yourself surfing aimlessly, try out one of these sites. Even if you don’t like them, maybe they’ll lead you to something else that’s both entertaining and educational. At any rate, it’s probably a better use of time than Twitter.

Have a great day! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Thanksgiving Poem about Test Prep

 Be thankful for questions whose phrasing provides
the answers to earlier questions inside;

for topics you’re certain will improve your score
because you reviewed them an hour before;

for the lightness of traffic, a moderate wait,
and the timer beginning a little bit late;

for problems you know how to do in your sleep.
Be thankful your neighbors don’t make a peep;

for a pencil that’s sharp, a bubble that’s black,
and a polymer chair with a comfortable back;

for writing the ultimate word of your essay,
just as the proctor says “Pencils away.”

Be thankful for turkey and rolls on your plate,
and for holiday blog posts, one week too late.

From all of us over at Victory Step,
may your holidays function like SAT prep:

may they be easier than they appear,
and be they the gateway to a very good year.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


About Eric Rosenbaum: Eric Rosenbaum is a blogger and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Humanities at University of Chicago.  

Last weekend, I went to a Halloween party for teachers. My girlfriend, a middle school teacher for Chicago Public Schools, was my ticket inside that chamber of secrets. While at the party, I couldn’t help imagining how my younger self would react to being surrounded by costumed teachers. Throughout middle school and high school, I was very interested in how my teachers saw me, or how teachers saw students in general.

Yes, I was excessively nerdy in middle school. But I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only person who has wondered how teachers speak about them behind their backs.

There was a particular policy at my school which made my desire to know the inner minds of teachers that much stronger. Once a month, all teachers gathered in one classroom to discuss students’ progress. I never learned exactly how those meetings functioned. In my head, I imagined the teachers deconstructing each student individually, meticulously uncovering and sharing each of their faults. Every time they met, I wondered if they had a picture of me on a bulletin board, my transcript projected on a screen.

It’s not that, at that age, I idolized my teachers or put undue emphasis on their estimations of me. More than anything, it was the mystery of those closed-door meetings that I found intriguing.

So I found myself at this party, surrounded by teachers in costumes. There was a Joker, a Dr. Who, and a Binder Full of Women. There was a guy dressed as Avril Lavigne with his girlfriend who was dressed as Skaterboy. One person came in street clothes, but wore a chicken hat. Another person came as a chef, carrying a loaf of sourdough bread which was eventually eaten by the other guests.

Some conversations circled around school. At least at the beginning of the night, when I was just trying to get to know people and the only tool in my conversational arsenal was, “So you’re a teacher?” But for the most part, nobody was interested in talking about work. And when work problems did come up, they were almost always about administrators or other teachers. Students were universally loved, but they were not the main topic of conversation.

This is a lesson I’ve had to learn repeatedly in my life after college: the people who ran the world were never as interested in me as I thought they were. Of course, teachers do care tremendously about their students, and they spend many hours a day, before, during, and after school, trying to help them. But they are far less critical than I imagined when I was younger. Those closed-door meetings which, in my imagination, were so reminiscent of a scene from The Wire, were probably nothing more than simple planning sessions in which a few persistent problems met practical solutions.

Maybe nobody reading this blog ever had trouble convincing themselves, like I did, that their mistakes were not remembered and recorded by their teachers. And I hope everybody realizes that their teachers are human beings with personal lives outside of work. But if anybody out there has similar worries as I did, take it from someone who has been there—teachers have Halloween parties too.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why Do I Need to Study Science?

Most people will never become scientists. Most people will never need to know how many protons are in an atom of Neon or what the atmosphere of Venus is made of. Unlike English, which is everywhere, and math, which is a fact of life, science is a specialized skill useful to only a small percentage of us.

So why study science?

The fact is, the material you learn in a typical science class isn’t physics or biology. I mean, you do learn that stuff (at least I hope so), but that’s not necessarily what science class is for. In science, you learn certain analytical skills which a math class can’t cover. Math teaches logical skills, or how to get from A to B when A and B have already been given. Science teaches analytical skills, or how to construct an argument in the real world where questions and answers aren’t always so clear.

Fundamentally, science class teaches how to look at a sea of chaotic information and make something coherent of it. Today, you watch a ball roll down an incline 20 times with 20 slightly different results, and from those results you create a hypothesis and a useful data set. Tomorrow, you are figuring out how many widgets your company should buy based on 20 different past experiences.

The “science” section of the ACT test is a more distilled version of what science class tries to teach. For the ACT, you don’t actually need any outside knowledge about science. What you need is a deep understanding of analytical thinking, including the ability to read and produce charts and graphs. If somebody hands you a collection of data about, say, owl mating patterns in the American Northwest, you should be able to understand the information, find potential flaws in the information, and make some basic predictions.

The scenario in which you’re handed a random collection of data is less far-fetched than it sounds. Maybe more than any other time in history, the world demands that we all be able to process large amounts of data. Buying a hamburger means considering calorie count, environmental impact, and workers’ rights, not to mention price. Experts make graphs out of everything, from politics[1] to sports[2] to pop music[3]. Everybody has constant easy access to up-to-the-minute stock quotes, on-demand weather reports, and breaking news. This information can be a boon if it’s used correctly, but it’s also easy to get lost in the sheer immensity of it.

Of course, as important as these abstract skills are, the actual information you learn in science class is useful too. This is an exciting time for science. Fundamental laws of physics are being questioned. Rovers are making miraculous landings on Mars. Cures for major diseases could be right around the corner. And almost every professional field now has some scientific component. In politics and law, issues like global warming and health care technologies are pressing. In business, tech companies are king. In the arts, more and more artists are blurring the line between science and creativity.

Science is becoming more and more important in the 21st century. But even if you know that you’ll never be a scientist (as I did in high school), the skills attached to science continue to be indispensable. The best professionals, citizens, and consumers of our lifetimes will be the best analytical thinkers.