Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Little Black School Book

Dr Mark Lopez is the author of the best study of public policy in Australia, The Origins of Multiculturalism. (His eccentric research method was to talk to all the people involved and read all the documents.) Origins shows lucidly how public policy actually works.

For about 18 years, he has run a private tutoring business, Competitive Advantage, helping students cope with their teachers. He gave evidence to a Senate inquiry about his experience and the experience of his students.

Dr Lopez recently published Volume 1 of The Little Black School Book: The Secret To Getting Straight ‘As’ at School and University which distils what he has learned and his methods. The book has received some media attention.

The aforementioned link has video of author talking about his book and origins.

The Little Black School Book is a case of Machiavelli meets the self-help genre. It is, at times, a bit disturbing in its unsentimental realism. This is not a book about bravely stating your views regardless of consequences, it is a book about dealing with people in authority over you so as to get the best results (for you) that you can. It is about subterranean empowerment: about apparently dancing to the tune of teachers and examiners to get the outcome you want, using techniques Dr Lopez originally developed in his own experiences as a student—in his Ph.D. thesis which became The Origins of Multiculturalism, Dr Lopez adapted the linguistic techniques of C17th freethinkers in avoiding Christian persecution in order to get around academe’s hegemonic multiculturalist discourse—and which he has refined over 18 years of running a tutoring business.
The Little Black School Book is divided into four chapters. The first, First Principles, sets out the underlying approach. The second, Learning the method: Your first steps towards your empowerment concentrates on the three purposes of note-taking (establishing the appropriate student persona for best results, recording information, establishing a psychological profile of your examiner). The third and longest, Success through the mastery of basic, advanced and super-advanced study skills, goes through a range of study skills. The fourth, Closing Thoughts, recapitulates the message of the book.

Since it is a primer for students from high school to university, it covers all aspects of study, no matter how basic – including public speaking, given students are likely to make tutorial presentations and may face oral exams. But even an experienced researcher and essayist can read various sections with profit.

The book has wider interest as well: the discussion on ideology (Pp 28ff) is particularly enlightening, covering the nature of ideology and recent social history. Similarly enlightening is the related discussion on the fact/value dichotomy (Pp 43ff) and what Dr Lopez identifies as two different mindsets – one where ideology is used to verify facts and one where facts are used to judge ideology. The former is congruent with science populariser Matt Ridley’s characterisation of political correctness as deriving is from ought (e.g. it ought to be the case that there are no major differences in range of aptitudes between men and women so it is to held to be the case that that is so). It is also congruent with Victor Davis Hanson’s recent comments about what students are so presented as being “academic” in contemporary universities:
Political correctness, meanwhile, turned upside-down the old standard of inductive reasoning, the linchpin of the liberal arts. Students now were to accept preordained general principles—such as the pernicious legacy of European colonialism and imperialism and the pathologies of capitalism, homophobia, and sexism—and then deductively to demonstrate how such crimes manifested themselves in history, literature, and science.

Dr Lopez has some particularly apt advice about writing to maximise one’s appeal:
If you express yourself tactfully and avoid the use of value-laden words that suggest bias, you can allow the members of each audience segment to highlight in their own imaginations what appeals to them in your work and to brush over material they find less appealing or unappealing … While it is unlikely that you will have each of your audience segments thinking the same way about your work, you make it far more likely that their responses are predominantly positive. (p.160).

A constant theme in The Little Black School Book is that one is dealing with people’s emotional responses and—given the very high subjective content to judging merit in humanities subjects—the trick is to elicit positive emotional responses from the person marking your work. That this process can be profoundly empowering if one approaches it deliberately and knowingly.

The Little Black School Book is carefully and precisely written, making the points it wishes to convey highly accessible. It is an excellent investment for any student seeking to do well, but it makes points that are more generally enlightening.

[Declaration of interest: Mark is a personal friend. Though I was touting The Origins of Multiculturalism as the best book on how Australian public policy works before I got to know him.]

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