(Part I. Part II in progress…)

Agora won several Goya Awards for production (set, costume, cinematography, special effects, etc) and its screenplay. The film has received mixed reviews in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote in the Sun-Times,

This is a movie about ideas, a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition. At its center is a woman who in the fourth century A.D. was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and teacher, respected in Egypt, although women were not expected to be any of those things.

while V.A. Musetto complained in the NY Post,

The story revolves around Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a real-life philosopher whose proclamations about the sun being the center of the universe ran counter to religious beliefs of the time.

There are a few exciting battle sequences and the sets are lavish, but mostly the film meanders aimlessly for more than two hours.

Then Patrick Goldstein interviewed the director for the Los Angeles Times during Cannes,

At several points during the film, he takes us swooping up and away from Alexandria, allowing the audience to see the world from high above, as if watching from the cockpit of a satellite orbiting the Earth. I asked him why he chose that perspective. “For me, this wasn’t just the story of a woman, but the story of a city — and a civilization, and a planet — so I wanted to find a way visually to capture that. When you see things from a distance, you can see how relative things are. The ideas that so inflame people up close, that feel so scary and menacing, they look very different when you see them from a different perspective.”

The words “center,” “revolve,” “meander aimlessly,” “perspective,” “relative,” as well as other astronomical vocabulary pepper the reviews with various denigrating puns or praises, depending on the critic’s general assumptions concerning film aesthetics. I find it amusing that the reviewers – much like the besieged students in my favorite scene – come close to discovering a correct interpretation of the film’s message, but ultimately fall back on preconceived, fallacious notions.

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I often have difficulties reading the New York Times, mainly because it is so poorly written these days. A recent online opinion piece – Equalizing Mediocrity by Sandra Stotsky – shows why. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The case for national standards rests in part on the need to remedy the inconsistent aims and inferior quality of many state standards and tests in order to equalize academic expectations for all students. The argument also addresses the urgent need to increase academic achievement for all students. In mathematics and science in particular, the United States needs much higher levels of achievement than its students currently demonstrate for it to remain competitive in a global economy.

At this point, I would ask my students: what does the author argue for or against? I would expect my students to respond, “Not sure…”

(1) Look at the initial sentence and whittle it down to its most essential parts. It basically reads, “the case for P rests (partly) on a need for a remedy to X.” You should ask what else the case rests on if it only rests “in part” on a need for X. You should ask whether policies Q, R, S… also rest on this need. And you should also ask just what the author means in her use of the verb “to rest.” Does she mean X entails P (or Q, R, S…)? Or does she mean P (Q, R, S…) is only valid when X obtains, and would otherwise be invalid? (another way to phrase this is, if there is no context X, is there a basis for P?). Since none of this is clear, we can expect the argument to come out muddled.

(2) Check the evidence the author presents. She has none; the entire article relies on general assumptions. She shares no facts concerning educational inequalities, no clear indication as to which tests or measures may gauge academic success, and no indication as to why US students “need” to post higher achievement in math and science – nor any mention as to which nation posts highest math and science scores. How can she argue either way without these basic facts on hand?

(3) The author does not come down hard on either the pro or the con. She just kind of wavers. The assumptions about US students math and science achievements might strengthen the case for national education standards, but her prejudices against such standards dissuades her from taking that stance. To put it lightly, the author hasn’t thought out the issue for herself.

These problems occur very often in the New York Times columns and blogs. (I haven’t counted, but I stopped reading NYT on a regular basis once I felt nearly all their opinion pieces advocated various fallacies.) True, they’re problems that crop up in many places online – occasionally here, too. But when I see blatant horse**** in a piece lamenting the mediocrity, my blood begins to boil.

PS: What is the phrase “more uniformly mediocre” supposed to mean?? If you have a collection that, on the whole, appears neutral in some respect, how exactly can it become more neutral? Probably, she means to say, “Common Core will make each student mediocre, whereas before only the aggregate was mediocre,” which in and of itself does not preclude some very exceptional students… *sigh* By the way, my education followed a “common core” and it turn out fine…