When I was a little girl I had two main (American-as-apple-pie) agendas on my wish list: one, to be the proud owner of an American Girl doll, and two, to join the Girl Scout Brownie troup. My mother was a steadfast soldier against both fronts, no matter how much a begged and pleaded and whined, flipping the pages of the beloved catalog and circling favorite items until the staples wore off.

In retrospect, the anti-doll campaign was a pragmatic choice: the overly commercialized dolls were not only pricey, but had a tendency to lead to a sort of give-a-mouse-a-cookie effect (if i had the overpriced doll, surely I would need the overpriced little doll bed to match, and if I had the bed, certainly I would need a matching miniature quilt, and so on…), but I never did find out why she was so anti-Brownies. Maybe it was too establishment for her? Perhaps she was creeped out by religious undertones? Was it a health thing, as everyone knows Cookies are a Sometimes Food™ and selling gallons of Thin Mints would naturally lead to gallons of Thin Mint consumption (those motherf***** are addicting!)? I forgot to ask, and in any case the Girl Scouts have not been on my radar in many, many years. That is, until I saw this article in the nytimes that made me do a double take. And boy, am I glad that I never did get to wear that brown vest now.

The fact that the Boy Scouts actively discriminates against homosexuals is absurd. Scouting was popularized to be a healthy way for young boys to bond over outdoor and athletic activities that strengthened not only muscles but morals. Actively excluding a segment of the human population doesn’t seem like good ethical standards to me. For Pete’s sake, the founder might have actually been a closest queen!

Supporters have cited many “reasons” for the continued exclusion of gays, most of which you can read here (including the official statement by the Boy Scouts). One of the arguments is that sexuality has no place in the program, which is mostly catered for youngsters under twelve. In that case, why the need to discriminate, which, ironically, will be a surefire way to ensure that sex is now on the agenda?

I am fortunate to have grown up in mostly liberal environments and now reside in one of (if not the foremost) LGBT-friendly cities in the world. If I sat down and did a head count, I think I might actually have an equal number of straight and gay/lesbian/bisexual friends in my circle of closest acquaintances. I understand that not everyone is that lucky to be able to say the same, and what seems like common sense to me may be viewed as radical to others. But I am pretty sure that it is universally acknowledged that discrimination is hurtful. Even the littlest of Cub Scouts can vouch to that.

I realize that politics is complicated and that the Church provides much of the funding for the Boy Scout programs, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Last September, the military finally admitted that its “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” policy was serving no one and abolished it to cheers worldwide. Do we really need to repeat this discussion again, full of harmful stereotypes, in the ears of the children?

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Yesterday, Coursera, an online learning company founded by two Stanford scientists, announced its plans to expand and include additional major research universities. Naturally, this article  drew a slew of comments, reigning from praise to outright condemnation.

Since I am a very impatient person with a natural distaste for politics (who also believes that any newspaper article that has more than one page could be condensed and rewritten), I’m not going to attempt to make some highfalutin, well-constructed argument for or against online education. Instead, I’m just going to give my general feelings towards this debate, formed from my experience (paying thousands upon thousands of dollars) at an Ivy-League institution (institution also being one of my least favorite words in the English language).

Here’s my two cents:
I am a big fan of open-source anything (the Hacker in me) and the idea of making education more transparent and accessible is wonderful, especially if that means we can narrow the education/socio-economic gap and help dissipate the notion of academics as a privilege for the elite.

Ultimately, the discussion surrounding Coursera and online courses seems to point to a big question mark: what is the point of pouring one’s life savings into education when, theoretically, you could get “the milk for free”?

The answer in my mind is, in theory, clear: the money put into schooling is never, ever simply for the lecture notes, but more than anything, the human interactions that one makes. Having the Powerpoints of a Noble Prize-winning professor is no where near the same as going to his/her office hours or even hearing his/her voice live and being able to ask questions. Online education is great for gaining technical skills and a godsend for those short on resources, but it can never replace the value of human contact. Of course an Ivy-League education is worth the price tag: that alone, in addition to being surrounded by some of the most intelligent and motivated students in the world, is more than enough.

Yet I am not sure if I can wholeheartedly stand by the statement. My first semester at Columbia’s Engineering school was miserable– filled with huge introductory lectures taught by professors whose brilliance did not necessarily translate to teaching. The required introductory course for all first-year Engineers was both boring and disorganized and furthermore felt useless (what use was modeling gears in Auto-Cad to Chemical Engineering (my interest at the time), or Computer Science (what I do now)? ). I am fortunate to have found a field of study that I can genuinely say that I am passionate about, yet had it not been for a last minute decision to sign up for introductory Java, that may have never happened. Moreover, and more significantly, had the professor not been Adam Cannon, whose class is often considered one of Columbia’s best, I may have found Computer Science to be just as tedious and uninteresting as I did Chemistry, which I feel is both unfair and untrue about the subject.

Hopefully, the discussion about Coursera will direct attention not only to the benefits of online learning, but more urgently, the flaws of the current state of tertiary education that we pay so much for, especially in the fields of science and engineering. The small discussion seminars constituting Columbia College’s Liberal Arts “Core” are almost universally viewed by students as positive and community-building experiences. The two that I elected to take were genuinely thought-provoking and I feel have had a huge influence on my character. Why should a student who prefers science be subjected to years of lectures and problem sets? All students benefit from interactive environments. In fact, I argue that scientists are even more opinionated and vocal about their beliefs and interests. I think I’d rather be sentenced to hell in an eternal argument between a radical liberal and a Right-wing conservative than Emacs versus Vim.

To close the knowledge gap by raising the value of virtual education while lowering the quality of live teaching is a phenomenon that benefits no one. Online tools are a great innovation, and ought to be viewed as a challenge for traditional schooling to step up to its price tag, rather than a make-do substitute for the real thing.

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Mini Feminist Rant #1

16 Jul 2012

After discovering earlier this year a really simple way of avoiding the New York Time’s (very) loosely implemented firewall (which I am not going to tell you, since I am a supporter of the press and really there are quite a few dozen ways to avoid it) I’ve been following the Opinion pages on a regular basis, especially the “Room for Debate” section, which features different responses to a central question. Usually, these debates are well-rounded and bring me some faith back into the intellect of the human species. Occasionally, though, there is a really unfortunate WTF moment. Case in point, this recent discussion centered on the question “Are Modern Men Manly Enough?” Seriously, the description alone is enough to make me vomit: “Are men spending too much time at the spa and the gym in lieu of grittier, manlier pursuits? And if so, is this making them less masculine?” Really, NYT? Really?

Now, this wouldn’t have been so bad, if there had been lots of great, insightful responses debunking gender stereotypes etc. Instead, we get pieces titled “Where are the Meat and Potato Men?” and “Rediscovering the Don Draper Within“. Seriously. I’m pretty confident the latter is satire, though, thank Goodness, since I’m crossing my fingers that no one would say “I got messed up by my feminist mom in the 1970s, who taught me that gender was a social construct” with a straight face. But the Meat and Potato Men one looks to be serious, and seriously alarming. Natasha Scripture ends her piece, basically a description of personal dating preferences and how she was turned off by a date that cried to mourn the loss of Maurice Sendak by stating “I hope we don’t become so much like each other that we end up essentially morphing into one androgynous being. That would just be plain weird”. I’m a little weirded out myself.

Listen, gender, image, masculinity, and dating are all great topics that are truly worthy of discussion. But do we really need to revert to Mad Men stereotypes (as gripping of a show as that may be) to do so? And if we must, can we at least do it in an enlightened way?

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