OT: Self-serving Servetus, or: A conversation about the inevitability of writing for yourself

One week of summer school down, five to go.

There’s a student in this class who’s extremely critical of me. Professors are not immune to suspicion from their students, and I’m perhaps especially not immune to it because I self-undermine on purpose.

“Don’t believe anything I tell you,” I say on the first day, “unless you can confirm it in at least two other places. I don’t lie to you on purpose, but I will always tell you what my sources are for the assertions I make in lecture, and so you should be able to verify what I’m telling you without too much difficulty if you want to.”

The student is a little older than most of our undergraduates, late twenties, and has that self-confident, “I know why I’m here and what I want to learn” vibe. This type of student is actually the kind I enjoy the most. I like her.

The issue seems to be the course readings. This class studies five major primary sources, and it begins with a memoir written by a conquistador. The student objects to the fact that the memoir is “biased.” How will we learn, she wants to know, what the real truth of the conquest is?

I say: Studying history will not tell us that.

She says: We just need a better textbook than this piece of crap.

I say: Where do you suppose another textbook would get its version of history from?

She says: Neutral sources.

I say: And those would be?

She says: You’re supposed to tell us.

I wait.

She says: Instead you tell us something, and you just say, “So and so says this about it, and so and so says that about it.”

I say: Should I not be doing that?

She says: You’re not doing your job. Because you’re not telling us what actually happened. It’s obvious none of these people you are talking about were neutral.

I say: No speech is neutral. No human can speak or write without a perspective. The best we can do as readers is come to terms with the perspective.

She says: A textbook wouldn’t include all this information from biased sources. It would tell us the truth.

I say: A textbook has to come from somewhere. As I believe I mentioned, accounts of this incident in secondary sources rely on four kinds of primary sources, each of which is problematic. All of the indigenous written sources for the study of this particular topic date from the post-Conquest and their creation was influenced by Europeans. Some cultural / oral / folklore evidence survives, but it’s affected by the period of time between us and the later recording of it under particular political circumstances. Some European sources date from during the Conquest, like this one we’re reading, but others date from afterwards. And some archaeological evidence has been uncovered by scholars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

She says: So when are you going to tell us about the neutral sources?

I say: There isn’t any more to tell. That’s all there is. There are other sources than the ones we read in this class, but they come from one of those groups, and they create the same problems for the historian.

She waits.

She says: So what am I learning? This is a total waste of time. I can’t even answer the simplest question about the Conquest after two hours of class.

I say: What do you want to know?

She says: I want to know what happened so I can tell my students when I have my own classroom.

I say: So you can be a neutral source about history?

She says: So I can tell them what actually happened.

I say: This class that tries to teach you how we know what can be known about the subject so you can practice coming to conclusions, and then to practice applying that skill so that eventually you can use it on subjects we don’t have time to tell you about in university or that may not even exist yet.

She waits.

I say, as gently as I can: If you’re this unhappy, maybe you need a different course.

She says: I just need a neutral textbook that will tell me what happened. Not like this book.

I say: See you next week, then.

I turn and start to erase the whiteboard.

~ by Servetus on May 18, 2013.

93 Responses to “OT: Self-serving Servetus, or: A conversation about the inevitability of writing for yourself”

  1. You are waaaay more patient than I am.

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    • Don’t know why that got stuck in spam.

      I’m not that patient — or rather, I come home and stew about it for hours, blocking myself from writing about what I want to write about. Frustrating.

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      • I get students like that but while I may stew over it for a while, I can’t get myself to write out the exchange anywhere because I don’t want another reminder, and just like you, it does become a block against creativity. I guess I try to keep my professional life away from my online life, which I guard with a passion, even though as a writer, I should be more open so that my writing – as soon as it gets out of fanfiction mode – can get more exposure out there.

        But then I don’t want students to read the stuff that I write anyway unless they find it on their own. And if they do, then that’s alright. It means they were meant to find it anyway.

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        • These are questions I deal with myself. It’s becoming more significant insofar as I now have Hobbit paraphernalia in my office and students see it. I had a really interesting conversation w/a student about tumblr about three weeks ago now that I’d love to blog but can’t risk.

          I think one of the things I would like to know more about is why even though my most natural talent is teaching, it’s created so many problems for what I want to do (writing). That’s a big generalization. But I need to explore that b/c teaching is going to be the easiest way for me to earn a living.

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  2. She sounds very bright but I think in this instance she wants what she cannot have. Is there such a thing as a truly neutral textbook out there?

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  3. nothing that comes out of anyone’s mouth or pen, is neutral, in my opinion. everything we communicate to someone else is tinged with our own bias. who we are & how we understand something is reflected in how we then pass that on to others; which words we choose, where we put the emphasis, etc. and can you truly understand a fact, without having a sense of where it came from? I can never just take something at face value, I need to turn it inside out and around a few times before it becomes real to me.

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    • Indeed — and part of what we’re supposed to be teaching is how, given the impossibility of neutrality, we work to evaluate the evidence we have.

      Not taking things at face value is a really important life skill. It’s what justifies to me teaching the history of a long-distant period.

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      • Precisely. This is perhaps the most important reason to teach history. It is a record of human thoughts and perspectives, and we learn how others thought, how others perceived events. There is no “God’s eye view” of “what actually happened.” To belive that there is is dangerously naive.

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  4. I’m sorry. I have to laugh (in horror) where do they get the idea that textbooks are neutral? Or that textbooks are the be all end all of knowledge. I’m not looking forward to summer term.

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    • In a way, what was odd about this conversation was that it didn’t take refuge in that favorite of all sophomoric platitudes these days: that because everything is relative, it doesn’t matter which solution you choose to a problem. I have that conversation way more often.

      But yeah, the thought that textbook authors in the U.S. would have no agenda … then again, I *hated* history textbooks in HS and I routinely encounter students here who are majoring in history beacuse they loved reading their textbooks.

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      • Gack! I struggle between variably suckish books for my survey class…they can’t do more than bits of primaries. The one I use, I do so with misgivings because it has a combined chapter on Greece and Rome and a stand alone chapter on Persia – nothing against Persia, but c’mon! I imagine one of the editors is a specialist. I think they like it because it wraps everything up in a nice neat package for them…or drags them unresisting to the desired conclusions. Blech!

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        • We actually do have a textbook, but it doesn’t discuss the incident that I’m talking about — part of what they’re supposed to evaluate is whether the pattern elucidated by the textbook applies to this case and if it does / doesn’t, what does that suggest to them about the textbook? I also spend most of my time in the semester arguing against the position in the textbook (no matter what it is) … all I want to do is confuse them.

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        • the primary sources for classical history are *hard*, as well. I remember when I TA’d Hellenistic Greece, and I was like, “what? pages of fragmentary inscriptions from excavated monuments? WTH is this?”

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        • Back in the day, we didn’t have a survey text in the class I had in “world history” on “ancient history” when I was twelve. We just had to take really dense and comprehensive notes on the lectures, and read the mimeographed handouts of translated excerpts. I guess students today would rebel at such a notion.

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          • General cultural literacy was possibly higher then. Most of the students who are in my introductory survey course cannot name even one significant figure from the period (or couldn’t until recently. Now that we have “The Tudors” it’s a bit diferent) and struggle to name one significant event or discovery from the period. If you heard a name in a lecture you possibly had an idea how to spell it or whether it might be Greek or Roman … these students do not have that. They are atoms swimming in the flow of time.

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          • Notes on lectures? Surely you jest?! (I see students all the time who write NOTHING in 75 minutes…where’s my harmonica, I should sing End of Semester Blues ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Good job dealing with that conversation! Just reading it I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I read the studies that relate to my field with a critical eye because even “facts” can be manipulated depending on the statistical calculations used or the conclusions drawn can be affected by who funds the study, the objectives of those conducting the study and so on. I hope your student realizes that nothing is neutral and critical thinking skills are necessary.

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    • All university instructors probably need protective headgear. ๐Ÿ™‚

      And yeah — lying with statistics. I *also* think statistics should be a required course at the university level.

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    • YES. My dad, who was a rheologist and a college prof, had a sign on his office/lab wall: “If you torture them enough, numbers will tell you anything.” This is very true.

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      • There was also a really great book called “How to Lie With Maps” a decade or so ago that I’m constantly referring to / teaching out of. Knowledge doesn’t exist, it’s created, so it’s vulnerable. It has to be reexamined and defended.

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        • Very, very true. “Knowledge” is not some static monolith, but something we generate from our perceptions, constantly questioning and testing.

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  6. Ah, the stages we go through on the route to trying to determine “truth”. Although I was convinced Richard III did NOT murder his nephews for eons, much (amateur reading of history since -) I don’t KNOW – just, not proven ๐Ÿ˜€

    We don’t arrive at “truth” at any stage of life – the quest, and the application of the mind to wending through the inexact/biased/existing documentary evidence is the point. Presenting an argument, based on one’s reasoning and also listening to other’s reasoning is part of the learning. “Truth” is not delivered in any text on a silver spoon. Perhaps your student needs to learn to listen to you, and what you are saying around her objections to the text. Good luck with her! (I seem to KNOWING I KNEW everything in my 20’s ๐Ÿ˜€

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    • luckily we don’t stay 20 our entire lives …

      I just refuse to put myself in the place of the lacking textbook. That’s part of the problem. She’d be fine if I told her what she should believe.

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      • Just a question @obscura and Servetus, who selects the texts for your courses?

        Fine, Servetus – just tell her! ๐Ÿ˜€ I had at least one prof who tried that…some believed, some didn’t…

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  7. Just a question @obscura and Servetus, who selects the texts for your courses?

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  8. Good, because that is my experience of profs and textbooks too. But she obviously missed the point of what you were saying in your lecture.

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  9. I create custom textbooks for a living.
    All I can say to this poor soul is HAHAHAHAHAHA. Bless her heart.

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    • wow, I learn MORE FROM THIS BLOG. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who does that. Is that fun and profitable?

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  10. It can be both. It’s also an interesting, frustrating, and at times terrifying window into the academic world today. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • I can only imagine. I ordered one once (from Penguin) and it was not a great experience, so since then I’ve just gone with complete single text sources (I never liked “readers” anyway). I felt like it was really expensive for what we got, though I’m sure the price was in line with what it cost to produce. And then if i wanted to change a single piece out the next semester, the old ones couldn’t be reused by later semesters of students …

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      • I won’t bore everyone with specifics, but yes, the bigger players in publishing tend to push you to use their own material. We can include pretty much anything: journal articles, book excerpts, web material, as well as original material. Our books are usually cheaper than the major publishers and contain only what the professor truly wants to use in class, so the student doesn’t have to purchase a slew of books they’ll only read one chapter from. (And frankly, probably not even buy.)

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  11. I thought I was stubborn. Lordy. Anyway, with what little I do know there has never been anything written that has been neutral about history past or present. We have our spin doctors and Ancient Rome, more than likely Ancient Egyptians, had their own version of spin doctors. So with all of these spin doctors how can history be and textbooks be neutral?

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  12. (headdesk) (headdesk) (headdesk) But then, I often got in trouble for just this sort of mental flexibility. It was a valued quality in the Honors College courses but made my regular profs go all stabby. And I could definitely see their point. :} No-one likes a smartypants who sends the class off on amusing but useless tangents.

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  13. Wow. That conversation would be hilarious if it wasn’t so scary. Ack! Is this what we can expect from those who have grown up assuming the basic truth of any subject can instantly garnered from Wikipedia?!
    Actually, I have hope for her as she appears to be earnest. She still sees herself as a disconnected observer. She doesn’t yet realize that she must participate in discerning what is truth.
    Neutral history? Very nice theory. Quaint. Who decides what’s neutral? She just hasn’t thought this through with the idea that there are no objective, omniscient truth-gathers out there.
    Well done, Servetus. You encouraged her to think it through. Let us know if the light bulb over her inquisitive brain illuminates at some point during this course.

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    • “Neutral history? Very nice theory. Quaint. Who decides whatโ€™s neutral? She just hasnโ€™t thought this through with the idea that there are no objective, omniscient truth-gathers out there.”

      Exactly. The student’s perspective on this is incredibly naรฏve. This is why it infuriates me that Critical Thinking is not a required course at every school everywhere. If she can’t understand the inherent brokenness of the idea of regurgitating rote facts without context in an effort to educate others, all she’s ever going to do as a teacher is perpetuate exactly the same rigid inability to reason that’s hampering her.

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      • …and bore her students to death..

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      • Well, and now we have states in the U.S. that have endorsed educational programs that prohibit the teaching of “critical thinking.” Sigh.

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        • We do it in our required freshman Gen class… I think they should all have a required exit class too…they really, in general, resist exercises that ask them to think and analyze rather than simply regurgitate factoids.

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    • yeah, she’s frustrated. So she might teach herself something by the end of the semester. Better frustrated than numb.

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  14. What a pain in the neck! I admire your serenity

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  15. It’s kinda scary..
    She should live in my country when my wonderful teacher has no real choice, there was one and only State-approved textbook. There was the times when good (decent) history teaching was just a thrilling and somewhat dangerous adventure. Lot’s of courage was needed.

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    • Thanks for saying this, Joanna. I really wish we could courses visited by citizens of countries that were in this situation because our students really don’t realize that in the not-too-distant past, people were persecuted and even killed for expressing a particular view of history. Our students have the amazing privilege of access (theoretically) to everything and they have no idea what a privilege that is.

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  16. Servetus, you are definitely a patient woman. It was fun reading your exchange with her. I bet she can be a pain to live with under the same roof at times too. It is the little things that tell you a lot of about a person.

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    • Well, persistence in itself isn’t bad. When I say I like her, it’s probably because I too can be stubborn ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • I can be stubborn/persistent too when it comes to something I truly believe in. Being rude and a pain in the ass is a whole other thing IMHO. It seems to me that she was trying to break you and make you squirm for her personal pleasure. I’ve known people like that in the workplace.

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        • huh. I didn’t have that vibe ๐Ÿ™‚ I suppose I’m more vulnerable to power struggle than the average prof, so if that’s true, it’s to some extent my fault for allowing her to behave that way.

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  17. I actually find her age and naivete (cluelessness) to be pretty depressing. How could she (and countless others like her) have gotten to her late 20’s and still have such a mindset? This attitude is just ripe for exploitation…I personally think the lack of a concerted effort to teach critical thinking at the high school level is the root of a majority of societal ills…Aaack, I need to go watch the Hobbit again.

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    • not sure why that ended up in spam.

      We have a generation of this about to happen in the U.S. The next twenty years are going to be hard.

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  18. [Commenting without having read the previous comments] I am surprised that you are using text books *at all* at tertiary level, Servetus? Maybe this is the European and academic arrogance coming through in me here (and I apologize for that), but I would have thought that by the time a student engages with the subject of history at *that* level they have fully grasped the crux of historiography: There is NO OBJECTIVITY in historiography. Or in text books, for that matter. That is the fundamental understanding of historiography – that what we can read in the sources has already been filtered through the writer’s mind. And it is now our job as a historian to sift through that and take from it what we can use. There can never be objective text books – as long as they are written by humans. Even a list of facts is subjective, as someone has made a choice over which facts to include. (I have my opinion on the dialogue with your student, too, but I cannot write that here without becoming unfairly personal.)

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    • I could write a dissertation on this, but the US university is a very different animal from the German one. One issue is that US students don’t get anything comparable to the option of a “Leistungskurs” in History in school — especially not those in public schools. “AP” is really nothing like college history; the closest that we would come would be “IB,” and that’s not very well known in the U.S., though it’s an excellent system. In the old days, a U.S. BA was considered the equivalent of the “Zwischenprรผfung” for the German M.A., and while I didn’t always agree with that assessment I can see why German universities made it.

      We also have the issue of what I teach not only having happened centuries ago, but not really being thought of in the U.S. as “our” history. None of our courses (with one exception) have prerequisites — and they are not exposed to methodology usually until their junior year. So I think most people use a textbook of some kind. In an introductory course, I have a brief textbook (about 200 pp.) and then five book length primary sources plus two in excerpt (because I couldn’t get them to read more than that). What the student is complaining about is that she doesn’t like the primary source (and the textbook we have doesn’t comment on the incident described in the primary source — a decision I made on purpose).

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  19. You are a very patient person, Servetus. What a pain in the ass. I’m not sure why you like this student, as she sounds like an upstart for upstart sake. She had a point the first time she made it. After that it just seemed like she was trying to hijack your class. If I had been in your class, trying to learn and hear the information shared, I would have been furious at such a show from her. In addition, she had the audacity to say that you were not providing her with “neutral” information so that she could teach her own class. Again, you are quite obviously a patient, and logically calm, person.

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    • Well, this conversation took place after class. Most students wouldn’t dare an open confrontation with an instructor in front of their fellow students for precisely the reasons you state — the sighs of disgust / frustration from fellow students. And I know how to shut down open defiance on the rare occasions when I can’t steer the confrontation in another direction, even though I don’t like to be in that situation.

      I’ve been a persistent student in my day. I guess in general I prefer frustrated to acquiescent. I’d rather have someone state and wrestle with their problems than stare off into space or just blindly accept what I tell them.

      We’ll see what happens … five more weeks.

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  20. I would like to get my hands on other history books to see how different there views on the same time in history from others. That is the point of history is the it is one persons viewpoint and that there is always another viewpoint on the same piece of history. We could both witness the same thing happen and see in a whole different view than each other. I find that part of history interesting. That is why I keep reading, to find new views that might even make me change my mind.

    My co-workers mom says that ” you are a puppy until your 30″. I am starting to think she is right. Good luck with your student. I would hate to think that she would think that she could teach from a neutral textbook. Even math books are not neutral, someone is always saying that there way to do math is the best. Critical thinking and commom sense seem to be lacking these days.

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    • It’s interesting, I’ve read some studies about this that argue that the level of independence and maturity that people now in their 40’s had at 18, isn’t now achieved until about the age of 26. Some of them attribute the change to the onset of “stranger danger”. The “keep your children close” response kept them from danger, but also impeded their development. It’s a compelling argument…I haven’t seen any of the feedback on it though.

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      • They’re also all connected to home by the twin umbilical cords of cell phone and social media.

        I can see why that would be comforting. But when I left home, I could call long distance for exorbitant rates in a huge emergency, or figure it out myself and write my mom a letter when it was resolved.

        I don’t know, I hate to romp on our students. Their lives are often difficult. Maybe their world is safer in ways that mean it’s not necessary for them to individuate as quickly. Or they are protecting themselves against other dangers I can’t see.

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        • I don’t know…in the long run, it’s not really important that they know who Genghis Khan is, but a lot of my frustration stems from a fear for them that I’m not sure that they fully comprehend …educational debt. Under achieving students accrue debt at the same rate as good ones, but are significantly less likely to have the ability to repay it and no chance if getting out from under it. They amass the kind of debt for a bachelors degree that I did to (almost) earn a doctorate. I don’t wish that on anyone.

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          • The debt is *really* worrying. Not just for them, but also for us. If the federal lending system ever tanks, no academic will ever work again. No one in my audience, anyway, can really afford to pay for what we’re offering.

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            • Exploring alternate career options as we type… maybe specialty candle shop ๐Ÿ˜‰ Kind of begs the question why other industrial nations can offer post secondary education at a fraction of the cost.

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              • I do think that the younger person don’t have the independence that we seem to have at there age. Son 1 is 21 and at his age we where his parents, married and he was a baby, no parents to help us out, sink or swim. Not that I would want to see him with all that on his plate, we where to young. I moved out of the house after I graduated from high school, there was no way I would live there anymore.

                The cost of collage these days is high no matter what age. My co-worker is $30,000+ in debt for school with just an associate degree from a private school that she don’t have yet, it looks like she will not fine a job in social work around here without a bachelors degree. She was told at the time she started that there was a 90% placement rate. She is doing it on-line from a school in Minnesota in a bigger city. I have the money to go saved up, but it is cheaper to go to a tech school and we have one of the best by me, so far my experience has been good and my husband enjoyed his time there too.

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                • yeah, my parents were married at 19. That is unnecessary. This is what I mean when I say I worry about passing on the trauma. There are things we went through as kids that really served no purpose and don’t need to be reproduced (having cavities filled at the dentist w/no anesthesia would be on my list).

                  I think the key is figuring out what education is best to get you what you want — and then realizing that often the degree just gets your foot in the door. You need to have experience, too, volunteer or ortherwise …

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  21. I perhaps would ask or advise her to change subject and go into accounting, as that is more of an exact counting and accumulation of information (though even there she would have to interpret the results). History will never be satisfactory to her in that regard.
    But you are a lot more patient and really handled the topic brilliantly, Servetus !

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  22. This exchange reminds me of two things…

    1) How bothered I’ve been by a minority of people who seem to be under the impression that digging up Richard III’s bones will somehow answer the questions we all have about what sort of man he was. We will never know…people can write as much as they want about him, but we can never know unless someone invents a time-machine. Even then what we know will be reliant on the time-traveller’s opinion, because inevitably there will be sides to take.

    2) Why I chose to study mathematics. It is not subjective. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 no matter how many ways people try to spin it ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  23. […] unbiased or neutral, so I have to step back and consider the source.ย ย  There was a really interesting discussion about this concept this weekย  in Armitageworld, on a non-RA topic (gasp) that brought this issue back to the surface […]

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