Senior Project Oral Presentations 2016

This is the critique I wrote and emailed to a teacher who is a friend of my sister.  My sister invited me to go with her and be one of the judges for the presentations of the high school senior projects at her friend’s school.

I had heard about this problem with thinking methodology, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it staring me in the face.  It was blatant and shocking.  If someone cannot think at the conceptual level, there is no way for that individual to adequately understand or deal with the major issues of the day.  Our Founding Fathers warned that only an educated populace could preserve their freedoms.  In America today we are in imminent danger of losing our rights–forever. 

Senior Project Oral Presentations 2016

In the oral presentation of his High School senior project the topic of one young man was electric cars.  He stated that everyone should buy one because of its economy and because it helps to keep the environment clean.  His personal project was upholstery.  In the question period my sister asked: “What does upholstery have to do with electric cars?”  The teacher said that they both have to do with cars.  “It’s a great connection” she said.

THAT is the problem I thought.  It’s the teacher, not the student!  But, the teacher cannot be blamed either because she is a product of the educational system.  Can an error of this magnitude be a mistake?  Is the educational establishment unaware of this problem or are they doing it on purpose?

The common thread in all of the presentations was a concrete bound mentality as opposed to one that functions on the conceptual level!  One who is concrete bound cannot see beyond the actual objects that he perceives.  He sees an electric car and relates that to the upholstery he sees in the same car.  He does fully grasp that the motive for creating an electric car is to keep the environment clean.  The environment is “thing” to him, not a concept.  He is really not environmentalist per se; he is merely repeating the words he hears like a trained parrot.  He does not understand the concept of or the idea behind environmentalism.  An electric car is also a thing to him rather than a cause to support.  A concrete bound mentality deals with concretes; it does not readily function in the realm of concepts (abstractions).

Two thoughts were in the forefront of my mind regarding the student’s topic of electric cars.  First, were they really more economical?  I checked online and a new Nissan Leaf lists for $29,000.  A Nissan Versa lists for $12,000.  The difference is $17,000.  If you drove 12,000 miles per year (realistic here on the small island of Maui), got 30 miles per gallon, and paid $3 per gallon, your annual gas bill would be $1200.  At that rate $17,000 would buy gas for over 14 years.  Even if the cost of fueling (charging) the electric car was zero, conventional cars are more economical than electric cars–at least for the first 14 years!  But, does a concrete bound mentality grasp the concept of something being “economical”?  Does he truly understand what it means?

The most important issue was the claim about not polluting the environment.  One of the essential components of an electric car is the battery bank.  This is the area where technology has yet to make that great leap forward.  Regarding pollution the weak link are the batteries.  The manufacture and disposal of the batteries cause more pollution than do conventional cars, per car, and the environmental danger is significant.  Furthermore, how is the electricity that charges an electric car generated?  With fossil fuels?  Electric cars are not better for the environment.  At least in 2016 electric cars have not yet come of age.  It is an unattained dream for the future, not a reality today.  But, a concrete bound mentality has trouble grasping the full meaning of the concept “future”.

These obvious issues about electric cars were not adequately addressed–if addressed at all.  The problem is one of thinking methodology, of “thinking” in non-essentials.  Man possesses a conceptual consciousness in contrast to the higher animals who possess a perceptual consciousness.  He alone can project his thoughts into the future, for example.  Man is the rational animal.  All of the words in human language with the exception of proper names are concepts.  Man’s knowledge is conceptual.  To function fully as a human being he must be able to think in principles on the conceptual level.  Proper thinking methods are not being taught to these students.  They are not being adequately prepared to function in society as thinking adults.

More examples.  The topic of the first speaker, who I thought made the best presentation, was sustainable houses.  The appropriate audience for such a presentation would be the population in general, not a specialized one who already understands the terminology.  Thus, the first task would be for the presenter to briefly define what she meant by “sustainable” because the average person on the street does not know what that word means.  A short definition adapted from the dictionary would suffice, something like: relating to a method of using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.  Applying this concept to a house, it would mean a lifestyle that would allow the house to last for a very long time with minimal input and maintenance.

The next logical question would be: why is a sustainable house design desirable?  One could write a book on this subject, but a short explanation would suffice in a 15 minute oral presentation.  The presenter should not assume that the audience shares her values, e.g., they may not agree with politically correct environmentalism.  Thus, she must explain the “why” even if it is only a brief indication.  She should be conversant with the objective arguments both for and against her position.

The presenter could also have given a few brief examples of what a sustainable lifestyle would consist of.  Examples are always good because they help to “concretize” the concept, to make it real (not so abstract) in the minds of the audience.  After describing the attributes of a table, one could point to an actual table and say, “this is an example of a table”.  That would concretize the concept.  An adult human mind should easily transition back and forth between concepts and the concretes to which they refer.

Her product or application was to design her dream house, presumably by using principles of sustainability.  I am personally involved in this process right now so her project hit home for me.  She could have pointed out an example or two of how this or that feature of her dream house incorporated a sustainable principle, but she did not.  This point in her presentation would also have been a great opportunity to present at least a few of the major principles of sustainable housing if they had not yet been presented.  They had not.   I noticed that her dream house had a somewhat complex roof design.  How does she integrate that with the idea of rain catchment which she had mentioned earlier?  It is much easier to design a gravity fed gutter system for rain catchment when the roof design is simple.

I asked her (probing question) what direction her sunroom faced, and she didn’t know because she hadn’t thought about it.  The latitude in Bellevue, Washington, at noon (real time, not time zone) on the summer solstice (approx June 21), would put the sun in the direction of due South at an angle (not almost directly overhead as in Maui).  It would be at an even lower angle at noon on the Winter solstice (approx Dec 21) but still in a direction of due South.  For her sunroom to be most efficient by maximizing exposure and warmth it would need to face due South.  I wouldn’t expect a high school student to necessarily get into this amount of detail, but the direction your house faces is a significant consideration regarding its design–especially if it is to be your sustainable dream house.  This is for her edification if you choose to mention it to her because she aspires to be an architect.  Architecture is a challenging and admirable profession.  By the way, The Fountainhead is an excellent and popular novel among students of architecture.

The topic of another student was overfishing.  She pointed out that the supply of fish will be depleted by 2040 (?) (I have forgotten the exact date she gave us).  She also pointed out that a large percentage of the world’s population depends on fish for food.  The obvious question begging for an answer is: how do we solve this problem so that all of these people do not starve?  But, the question was never addressed.  Instead, she told us about her experience building a small fish pond in her backyard.  This by itself can be interesting and informative, but within the context of her original topic, the letdown was tremendous.  This was another example of thinking in non-essentials.  Building a small fishpond has nothing to do with the problem of overfishing causing starvation.

My final example is a student’s presentation about invasive species in Maui.  Some of the obvious questions would be: What is an invasive species?  Why is it bad?  How did the invasive species get here?  Who was responsible?  Should they have known better than to import a non-native species that would cause harm?  What are the possible solutions to the current problem?  Will the solutions be different for plants in comparison to animals, or are they categorically the same?  How can we prevent other invasive species from getting to Maui in the future?  The student touched on some of these questions, but never fully addressed them.

His personal project was to organize a pig hunt.  This was excellent so far as it goes.  It helped to reduce the current population of pigs that are threatening our native species and destroying Maui’s fragile environment.  But, within the context of the “big picture” we need a continuing policy that will help to solve the problem on an ongoing basis, not just one pig hunt however successful.  The student did not elaborate on his research into the problem nor speculate on some possible long term solutions that could be investigated.  Again, my impression was that his approach was myopic.  He did not look at the issue using a broad conceptual framework, and this was a consistent limitation in all of the student’s presentations.

The intent of my commentary is to point out and illustrate the nature of the problem.  The students all seemed to be intelligent and enthusiastic.  They cared about their project.  They were all great kids.  Educating them well is a solemn responsibility, and we should all do what we can to assist teachers toward this end.  This critique is my small contribution to the process.  I hope it helps.

There are two books that could help teachers to teach proper thinking methods and to explain why ideas matter.  The first is: Teaching Johnny To Think by Leonard Peikoff. ttp://

The title essay (first chapter) in the second book explains that fundamentals ideas underlie all of our values and our basic view of the world.  Thus because of their importance, we should be careful about which of these ideas we accept and adopt.  Philosophy: Who Needs It? by Ayn Rand

The essay is also available online at:

Reply to a teacher who commented on my critique:

Children need to be taught by example.  They are not mature or mentally developed enough to study theory or “methodology”.  I attended a class at the annual Objectivist Conference a few years ago in which a method of teaching astronomy was explained.  The starting point was observational data.  The kids made field trips where they were instructed to observe certain things for themselves.  Then, they returned to the classroom and went over the facts that they had personally observed.

Basically, the kids (around 5th and 6th grade, if I remember correctly) were guided through and repeated the steps that the pioneers of astronomy actually went through to arrive at their conclusions.  Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo.  Most kids today accept that the earth revolves around the sun because that is what they learned in school.  Ayn Rand calls this the argument from authority.  Dictators love it because it conditions people to accept “facts” from an authority figure.

But, the kids who went through the actual process of arriving at a conclusion based on their personal observations have learned to think for themselves.  They know that the earth revolves around the sun cannot be convinced otherwise.  They know what is true.  If you told them that the earth is at the center of the solar system, they will look at you like you were crazy–or stupid.  They have been taught to be independent and objective thinkers.

The way to teach children to think is to give them hundreds and thousands of good examples throughout their elementary and high school years.  By the time they get to college, they will be able to abstract out the method on their own.  They already know how to do it implicitly.  They will merely take the next step and make their implicit knowledge explicit.  Studying the “methodology” of proper thinking in college will be easy for them.

The educational establishment is now involved in indoctrination rather than in education.  It has been a long and slow process of corruption that has taken more than a century, but we are getting close.  People are being molded to be docile subjects, not to be independent minded citizens.  “Where belief is mandatory, thinking is prohibited.”  The Ayn Rand Institute is dedicated to spreading the ideas that result in individual rights.  These are desperately needed to combat the opposite ideas that result in collective “duties”.  But, if people are not capable of thinking on the human level, all is lost.  We, or our heirs, will all be subjects in some form of Socialist/Collectivist tyranny.  This is ultimately what is at stake regarding proper thinking methods.

Peikoff’s Teaching Johnny to Think is an excellent and clarifying presentation of a rational theory of the educational process.  I heard the original lecture on cassette tape many years ago.  It was later adapted into a written format by the woman who is given credit for it inside the book cover.  I can only hope that this short book can make a difference.

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