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July 12, 2011

Easy fixes for education, drilling debate

COLUMBUS _ "I know how to resolve this fracking controversy," Uncle Chet said, then sipped his second glass of red wine.

"Just don't do it," his wife, Alice, said from the couch where she was playing Scrabble against Hon and Buddy.

"And give up all that money?" I asked from the rocker, buoyed by the breeze from the window fan.

"It'll cost you in the long run," Alice said.

"Maybe not," Uncle Chet interjected. "It will cost us, collectively, but individuals will get rich. It's like it was with the 49ers: there's gold in them-thar hills, and people are determined to get it. They know how to mine it, where to sell it, and there really is no stopping them, short of a plebiscite."

"A what?" Buddy asked, looking up from his letter rack.

"A vote," Hon said. "Uncle Chet's just showing off."

"So that's how you'd resolve it?" I asked.

"Put it to a vote," he said. "Isn't that what democracies do before taking a big step? And don't both sides agree that this is a big step?"

"It would never work," Alice said. "The industry would have billboards, TV ads, puppet politicians, a sign on every bus in the city."

"Let 'em," Uncle Chet said "Let the industry and its opponents spend as much as they want trying to persuade us."

"That's not a fair fight," she said. "The little guy's going to get squashed."

"The little guy can do it Tea Party-style, meet in living rooms, put homemade signs on street corners, have marches down Main Street," he said. "And there is money in opposition. Around here, the more money, the more opposition."

"So they say," I said.

"So why not vote on it?" he said. "Equal voice for everyone."

"Because in New York, we don't have initiative, referendum or recall," Hon said. "In New York state, we rely on the professional politicians to put something on the ballot."

"I'll bet the professional politicians would be happy to pass this hot potato," Uncle Chet said. "They're being pressured from all sides: deferring to the public would be an easy out and wouldn't hurt their pay grade."

"It's not fair to those who want to drill," I said. "People don't live forever."

"Then tell those politicians to speed it up, put it on the ballot ASAP. Do it now!" he said. "And have every state college encourage students to vote, and ask the AARP to educate us oldsters. Make Election Day a holiday for everyone who votes, then accept the results until the next election. Isn't that the American way?"

"You've got it all figured out," I said and had a sip of summer beer in a green bottle.

"That's not all that's dawned on me," he said. "Yesterday, I saw a YouTube video by Salman Khan: `Let's use video to reinvent education,' and I realized how backward our system is in the age of the Internet."

"Never heard of him," I said.

"I have," Buddy said. "On technology."

"See," Uncle Chet nodded at the boy. "Khan has videos on hundreds of subjects, and he says we should be teaching people by having them watch informative, interesting videos at home, where they can pause, repeat, absorb the lessons. Then they go to school the next day to ask questions of the teacher, or engage in meaningful discussion."

"Now that does makes sense," Alice said.

'`It does," he said. "And most of the time, we do the opposite. We have students watch videos together, then struggle on their own at night, trying to master the subject. The way we do it now, everyone's supposed to learn at the same pace, boring some, stressing others. If we had a video-based curriculum, students could move at their own pace. When they'd learned a lesson, they could take the next one, delving into areas that interest them."

"Sounds nice, but it would take a revolution," I said.

"Maybe, but it would cost almost nothing, and that might spark a revolution in the age of $30,000 tuition," Uncle Chet said. "Think about it: With a single excellent video, you could teach millions of students for pennies each, lowering the cost of education and raising the quality."

"Would you need fewer teachers?" Alice asked.

"No," he said. "The teachers would still be directing their students' education, and not everyone would be on the same page anymore, so the job would be challenging."

"Of course, every home would need Internet access," I said.

"Of course," he said. "And with us ranked about 14th in the world academically, depending on who you read, we'd better make that a national priority."

Cooperstown Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, whom he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week. For more of his columns, visit

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