Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation

25th February 2021

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, by Susan Williams, tells a fascinating tale about how love, racism, and politics can intertwine to affect an entire country.  Sir Seretse Khama was born to inherit the throne of leadership in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland. This area would become Botswana, and Khama was to be elected its first president.  Seretse’s strong stance against corruption has helped make today’s Botswana one of the most advanced, with the highest GDP, in all of Africa. 

But behind all this is an extraordinary love story between Khama and his wife, Lady Khama. She was born Ruth Williams, the daughter of George and Dorothy Williams of South London. Initially, virtually everyone who was anyone in  Bechuanaland and England opposed the weddingthe English because they opposed a white woman marrying, of all people, a black man, and the Batswana because they opposed Khama marrying, of all people, a white woman. But the Batswana were soon to prove much more accepting, while the English powers that be (save for Churchill!) dug in their heels. We found the book to be a bit heavy on the behind-the-scenes political maneuveringwe would have loved to have known more of what Seretse and Ruth themselves were thinking. But then, a biographer can only work with what’s available. How Seretse and Ruth found a way through a world of rampant prejudice is the stuff of legend. 

Stunning New Neural Visualization Technique

A new technique called “Light Beads Microscopy” has shattered the ceiling of what was possible at large-scale recordings of the brain.  Alipasha Vaziri’s lab has been able to record from 1 million neurons at 5Hz. That is not only ten times more and twice as fast as the previous record, it also means researchers are now only 2 log 10 below the mouse brain and ~6 log 10 below the human brain. Terry comments with excitement about the fantastic imagery: “I see a lot of traveling waves and synchronous bursting.” And if you check the link, you can see the tremendous imagery,  too! [Hat tip: Gerald Pao.]

The Life Changing Value of a Book 

LHTLer Kathy Maloney writes “I was so excited to read in the 2/19 email that you chose Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Enigma! That book has meant so much to me for such a long time. I’d had math phobia and anxiety for so long until I read his book. I still count on my fingers to this day and math still kind of stresses me out, but that book made me see how math relates to nature, to humanity, to everyday life, and how it has inspired passion in so many people throughout history. I had no idea how much drama there has been related to math! I’ve never been interested in history and even less interested in reading about math, but this amazing book just completely hooked me and made me see math in a totally different way. Learning there was a time in history when the concept of zero had not yet been discovered was mind blowing for me. I’ve read it a few times, given it to people, and I think it’s my favorite book of all time, fiction or non-fiction. I found the book because around 1998 I happened to watch the PBS Nova episode called “The Proof” about Andrew Wile and his pursuit in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. Watching it, I just could not believe that this guy shut himself in his attic for seven years to solve a math problem. Why, why would someone do that?! Further, that this introverted, quiet man actually got emotional on camera talking about—math?! Who in the world tears up talking about math? I had to know more, so I found Simon Singh’s book and it totally changed my thinking and appreciation for something I’d hated and been afraid of most of my life. I highly recommend watching “The Proof” if you can find it, absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for spreading the word about this great book. I just finished your Coursera Learning How to Learn course and I’m reading A Mind For Numbers right now. You do great and valuable work, thanks for all of it!”

Making Millions Out of Worsening Racism

We’ve been asked why we haven’t touted the book White Fragility—especially since we are so profoundly supportive of efforts to lift education for the disadvantaged. This article by Charles Fain Lehman of the Manhattan Institute sums up our thoughts pretty well—we are not into helping build the financial empire of someone who, in reality, seems to encourage seeing racism everywhere so she can make a buck off it. Key grafs: “DiAngelo’s wealth is jarring in part because of her criticisms of white privilege. It is also surprising given that available evidence suggests the anti-bias training she peddles does not work.

“A review of nearly 1,000 studies of anti-bias tools found little evidence that they have any impact. In fact, recent studies suggest anti-bias training’s primary effect may be to encourage discrimination: Firms with diversity training end up with fewer minorities in management, and field research finds that training both reinforces stereotypes and increases animosity against minority groups.

“But DiAngelo’s concept of ‘white fragility’ offers an answer to that academic evidence: The negative responses whites express when told they’re racist are simply evidence that they lack ‘racial stamina’—and indicate that more $40,000 anti-bias sessions are necessary.”

Incidentally, the review article that Lehman refers to is “Prejudice Reduction: What Works? A Review and Assessment of Research and Practice.” This article concludes: “Notwithstanding the enormous literature on prejudice, psychologists are a long way from demonstrating the most effective ways to reduce prejudice. Due to weaknesses in the internal and external validity of existing research, the literature does not reveal whether, when, and why interventions reduce prejudice in the world… Entire genres of prejudice-reduction interventions, including diversity training, educational programs, and sensitivity training in health and law enforcement professions, have never been evaluated with experimental methods.”

If you are genuinely into social justice, as we are, it is vitally important to rely on sound scientific approaches and not just jump on the bandwagon with knee-jerk virtue-signaling that can actually worsen the situation. That way lies the destructive path of pathological altruism. If you are involved in a training program, ask the tough questions to make sure that program has concrete scientific evidence of its efficacy—don’t accept vague answers. An excellent book about training programs that “everybody knows” work—but which in reality worsen the situation, is Redirect, by premier psychologist Timothy Wilson, who (sort of) originated the concept of 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert.

What Great Educators Can Do

This excellent article describes how East LA native Sergio Valdez played an integral part in Mars mission. Sergio was taught by legendary high school math teacher Jaime Escalante.  Escalante, the teacher in the ’80s film “Stand and Deliver,” certainly didn’t mess around with the likes of DiAngelo or modern reform math approaches—it is an unfortunate fact that Escalante was consistently blocked by school administrators and the teacher’s unions. It will be great when leaders in education return their focus to real education, following the extraordinary Escalante’s footsteps.  We have no doubt this will unfold—our hope is that it is sooner rather than later!

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

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