Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On fluff

I like this John Warner piece at Inside Higher Ed:
I read these edu-inspirations, and think about the ways concepts like learning styles, the marshmallow test, growth mindset, grit, and personalized learning take off and become policy and how an uncritical embrace of these “pseudo-ideas” makes the ground fertile for such behaviors.
They are no better than fads, the Pet Rock and Rubik’s Cube of education (or worse), and I see a link between our (very much including myself) willingness to embrace platitudes as long as they’re agreeable and suggest teaching and learning is something knowable, solvable, rather than an ongoing battle.
Yep.  People want the quick fix rather than the ongoing battle.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Next book: Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa

My next book is Notes on the Death of Culture:  Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa. It's a book about the ascendance of low-brow "culture" and the way it's crowding out high culture.  The problem is not that high culture is limited to a small group (that's always been the case), but rather that the natural constituency for high culture is abandoning it, partly because of the attractions of low-brow spectacle and partly because of a commitment to democracy (or at least the appearance thereof).  I'm part-way through the first chapter, and I lack the time to give a full analysis of what I've read thus far, but I want to quote two points from the intro and first chapter:

1) Page 3:
The naive idea that, through education, one can transmit culture to all of society is destroying 'higher culture', because the only way of achieving this universal democratization of culture is by impoverishing culture, making it ever more superficial.
It's not that Shakespeare and Homer and Gilgamesh will disappear--there will always be people who read them.  But when we democratize education, on the margin we erode the education given to the broad middle, with real effects on the 50th to 75th percentile (who will not be pushed as far as they might have been) and devastating effects on the 75th to 90th percentile (who will be pushed away from the heights they might have soared to).  Those above the 90th percentile will be fine, as they always were, and the more politically savvy among them will pat themselves on the back over what they did for those below the 50th percentile, but the good to great will be held back, to the detriment of all. Rather than pushing them to study Shakespeare more carefully than they otherwise might have, they will be encouraged to view the simpler fruits of pop culture as not merely good (because many of them are quite good) but as great and transcendent and equal to Gilgamesh. They'll be encouraged not to grapple with William F. Buckley (who was sharp, sophisticated, thoughtful, and often wrong) but to feel like they learned something after watching Colbert interview a politician.

(And, for the record, I think Colbert is a very smart and talented man.  I also think that something is lost when politicians are only interviewed by smart people in the setting of a comedy show.)

2)   On pages 32-33, Vargas Llosa notes that religion hasn't actually disappeared from the "educated" middle and upper-middle classes of the industrialized world.  Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, with educated clergy who have studied the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, have declined in popularity, but vulgar fundamentalist sects proliferate, as do "New Age" religions.  He describes upper-class Colombians who self-identify as atheist but attend ceremonies with shamans.  It used to be that the educated found their alternatives to faith in science and philosophy; now they consider it more liberal (in every sense) to take the democratic route of pop-religion with the masses.  Science and philosophy are hard, but consciousness-raising ceremonies with egalitarian roots (i.e. identification with indigenous culture) are easy, far less challenging.

For myself, I know on some level that religion is hard to defend.  At the same time, it is just built into me.  My mother and grandparents and Catholic grade school made me what I am, and the fact that I know how I was made does not change the fact that I was indeed made that way, and it is the core of me.  To walk away from that would mean that I would cease to be me.  I'd become somebody else.  It would be psychological suicide.  I am who I am, and I believe what I believe because it is built into me.  I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, and I can no more walk away from that than I can cease to love my wife or give up on doing math in my head compulsively.  That is how I understand whatever it is that is greater than humanity, and I cannot change that.  A life understood through the lens of the Gospels, and particularly the passion of the Lamb of God, that is a good life.  Christ's Passion may be seen as a fiction by some, but if it is fiction it is a profound drama offering us great insights, through the offering of bread, the betrayal, the challenges, the rejection by the mob, and the ultimate triumph in the face of a seeming end.

At the same time, I understand why others frame the problem of "What is greater?" quite differently. All that I can hope for them is that they find a hard answer and everything that it has to offer.  If that answer be science, or philosophy, or Sophia, or an uneasy embrace of nothingness, I hope it brings them something.

Of course, if we're going to speak of what is easy, never forget that what I am doing here is easy.  I am reading and opining, rather than reading exhaustively and analyzing deeply.  It's no different from the ascendancy of cable news punditry over investigative reporting.  Opinions are easy.  They can be important, they can be valid (if informed), they can be insightful, but they are still easier than investigation.  Never forget that.

Finally, lest I let my snobbery get the best of me, let me note that even the simple can be sublime.  Consider this song, which is largely the repetition of the same line over and over, but it is delivered with soul and depth.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Give it to me baby! Uh huh! Uh huh!

I don't have the time right now to process this deeply, but I loved this quote from a Chronicle article about "Design Thinking" (a very hot edufad at the moment):
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Confusion is a common reaction to a "movement" that’s little more than floating balloons of jargon. If design thinking (for short, let’s call it the DTs) merely involved bilking some deluded would-be entrepreneurs, well — no harm no foul. The problem is that faddists and cult-followers are pushing the DTs as a reform for all of higher education.
Oh, yeah!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

My basic problem with Feyerabend

Besides the fact that he attaches great significance to any report in conflict with accepted results (not distinguishing between work that has been replicated, work that has not yet been subject to replication efforts, and work that failed in replication efforts), he spends much time noting the non-existence of sharp lines and little time conceding that here might nonetheless be degrees of scientific/unscientific character in work.  He is content to note that there are no sharp lines but doesn't pay much attention to the fact that even in this gray continuum some work is much closer to one side than the other.

Once one establishes that binary categories are insufficient to describe a complex reality, it does not follow that there are no differences of degree.  This is a common problem in postmodernism (a label that he may or may not have accepted for himself).

Feyerabend thus far

I'm about half-way through Feyerabend's Against Method, having read 14 chapters. There's a perfectly fine point in it, one that could have been made in an essay rather than a book, but the postmodernists and critical theorists and others of their ilk are always too wordy. (Not that I'm one to criticize.)  His main point seems to be that if scientists stuck with supported theories, and only tried to apply supported theories to open problems, nobody would ever work on new theories and so new theories would never emerge and gain support.  He's obviously correct, and if he's arguing against philosophers with overly-rigid definitions of science then godspeed, Dr. Feyerabend.

However, he seems to be going farther, trying to deflate scientists as well as philosophers.  I suppose that's reasonable; I've argued against the "STEM Pedestal" before.  When he argues that the triumph of theories depends on scientists engaging in rhetoric, not just research, I want to disagree with him, but then I think of the Copenhagen Interpretation... Still, for the most part, I can't come up with much that he explicitly says that "attacks" science, except in the opening where he talks about students being "brainwashed" because they use Newtonian theory even when they have no intuition for it.  I don't think it's brainwashing to accept and apply a theory that you don't fully understand, if you're doing it because you have been assured by reliable people that they have experimental evidence.  Honestly, the greatest brainwashing happens not in freshman lecture but freshman lab, where we have students do ridiculously error-prone experiments that sure seem to contradict Newtonian mechanics, and then they write error analysis sections in their lab reports.

Of course, Feyerabend is a bomb-thrower.  He opens with quotes from Lenin ferchrissakes!  He's talking about revolutions so he opens with a Russian dictator.  He's a provocateur, which is fine, except I don't think he needed a whole book to make his point that science is more complicated than some philosophers have constructed it as.

As far as his understanding of physics, well, his critique of Galileo's observations was mind-numbing, and I'll skip it.  It's hard for me to say for certain that he's wrong.  OTOH, he cites Brownian motion as a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or at least a violation of the 19th century understanding of the 2nd law.  I can't speak authoritatively on how the Second Law was understood back then, but I can say that many spoke about it in terms of heat flow rather than the simple statement "Perpetual motion is impossible."  Brownian motion certainly challenged people's understanding of the 2nd Law (it wasn't really explained quantitatively until Einstein's work) but it wasn't a violation of the more careful statements of the 2nd Law to come out of that era.

He also cites the work of a Felix Ehrenhaft, who (according to Wikipedia) claimed to have observed magnetic monopoles, among other things.  Feyerabend, however, is quite impressed by Ehrenhaft. This sympathy for crackpots makes it hard to read Feyerabend at face value.

One other thing I notice is that, like so many historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science he focuses on the heroes of physics, mostly Galileo.  If the question is whether Galileo's work was important, the answer is "Duh!"  If the question is whether Galileo is the be-all and end-all of understanding science as science, well, no.  There are many other branches of science (and even other branches of physics) where issues of reproducibility, indirect measurement, the applicability of models, etc. manifest in distinct ways.  I'd love to see more high-profile philosophy and sociology of science focusing on something beyond the classic episodes in the history of physics.  I am told that a lot of it has to do with some of the biggest names in 20th century studies of science (e.g. Feyerabend, Kuhn) being former physicists.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The restlessness

In response to a recent Kevin Drum post on how reading scores are up but nobody wants to talk about it, the bloggers at West Coast Stat Views have a theory:
My opinion: because there is a lot of money in  education and it won't be possible to "disrupt" education and redirect this money if the current system is doing well.  Notice how there is always a lot of money in being a disruptive company, at least for the top management (see Uber -- it is clear that it pays better to run Uber than it does to run a traditional Taxi service).  
It also moves the goalposts.  If everything is falling apart then it isn't such a crisis if the disrupted industry has teething issues once they strip cash out of it to pay for the heroes who are reinventing the system.   
But if current educational systems are doing well, and slowly improving through incremental change, then it is a lot harder to argue that there is a crisis in education, isn't it?
I think that the shilling is definitely half of it.  Failures in the status quo can justify more money for something else.  But the other half of it is a restlessness, a refusal to accept that there are limits to what education can do.  We don't just want schools to produce some good results, we want them to fix all of the problems in the world.  And they can't. No educational innovation will fix that, so eventually people ask educational institutions to shed the pretenses and openly become much more. Look at this post by Dean Dad, asking for community colleges to effectively become full-scale social welfare programs in order to plug achievement gaps.  The moral case for providing for the poor is quite straightforward, but nobody asks the local free clinic to teach college composition.

Anyway, if this were only about marketing disruption, the teachers' unions would be saying very loudly that their results are more than good enough.  Some do, but it's always tempered by lamentation over how much more needs to be done.  And some of that is, of course, a call for more resources for themselves--failure can justify more resources for you as easily as it can justify more resources for your replacement.  Some of it is also a heartfelt conviction that schools need to do more.  The right and left both want the impossible from schools--the left wants to provide people with free schooling on how to catch a fish, the right wants to make sure that nobody can say "I was never taught how to catch a fish" as an excuse for not having anything to eat.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Buzzwords, information problems, and the self-sucking straw of administration

"I know words.  I have the best words."
--Kremlin spokesman

I have come to the conclusion that universities are trying to allocate resources to academic departments based on the professors' scores on the verbal and analytical writing sections of the GRE.

Let me explain.

Let's say that a department wants to hire more faculty.  Well, so does every other department on campus.  If funds are scarce (and they always are), you can't grant every request, so you have to prioritize.  You might start by looking at student/faculty ratios, something nice and objective and obviously tied to something that matters: teaching classes.(See footnote 1) However, everyone is short-staffed, so that criterion won't narrow down the list very much.  You could make a subjective value judgment to prioritize certain fields over others, but (1) that will earn you a lot of enemies, (2) even if you go there, you can't COMPLETELY neglect the other fields (on a STEM-focused campus somebody still has to teach humanities, and on a humanities-focused campus you still need some science classes), and (3) broad focuses still don't narrow things down.  So what if you decide that your College of Business is the most important thing on campus?  Within that college, will you give the next hire to the finance people or the marketing people?

So eventually you reach a stage where you need to make decisions based on specifics.  Now, if you're close enough to the field, you have detailed knowledge of what the department needs and what they would do if they got people with different types of expertise.  Your decisions still have subjective elements, but they are also informed by real knowledge of specifics.  The decisions are not superficial or silly, even if the people who make them are still fallible.

But what if you aren't close to the field?  Or maybe even somewhat close to the field, but not close enough to know for sure who will make the best use of resources?  I mean, I'm knowledgeable about math, and I have friends in the math department, but I can't sit down and say for sure whether our math department has greater need for an applied mathematician or a pure mathematician.  And I certainly can't say for sure whether the next pure mathematician should be a topologist or logician or algebraist or whatever else.

So what administrators do is they ask departments to explain how their new hire will align with campus priorities.  This might sound like a good idea on the surface, but any half-decent department can say (with at least some degree of truthfulness) that the person they're proposing to hire will be useful to the campus.  If (hypothetically) I wanted to hire an experimental particle physicist, I could align them with just about any plausible priority of the campus.  Critical Thinking?  "Experimental particle physicists will involve students in projects that require detailed data analysis."  Student Success?  "This faculty member will teach core classes required for success in the field."  Career Relevance?  "This faculty member will involve students in projects that teach them instrumentation and data analysis skills relevant to industrial careers in STEM fields."  Global Engagement? Diversity? "This faculty member will involve students in research projects as members of international collaborations with people from around the world."  Community Outreach?  "Particle physics is of high interest to the public, with books and public lectures on the subject being quite popular."

So I can fit this sort of physics professor into almost any buzzword that the people above me might decide to emphasize, and with a little thought I could fit just about any other plausible hire in my discipline into just about any other plausible buzzword.

At this point one might say "OK, so what's the problem?  Buzzwords don't have to get in your way! You can work around them!"  Well, first of all, it's a stupid way to do things.  If resources go to whoever writes the best essay on "How my desires fit with your buzzwords" then it amounts to awarding resources based on verbal ability.  Maybe I should be fine with that--more than fine!--because I like to read and write.  I could be King of STEM without ever doing another calculation or experiment, because I can use words.  But I also have some honesty in me, and I know it's a dumb way to do things.  It disconnects resources from facts on the ground, and instead aligns them with sophistry.  It comes back to what Timothy Burke said about the managerial classes and popular resentment thereof:
We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.

It would be more sensible to accept that if you've already decided to have programs in Business, Humanities, Social Science, Natural Science, Engineering, and so forth, then you have to trust that they have a good reason to be there, and instead of constantly asking people to argue their subjective intellectual merits in terms of buzzwords you should spread the resources around while demanding results measured by a few tangibles.  Thus we come to the problem identified by Hayek, namely that you can't really solve information problems without tangibles, and in the absence of profit numbers you'll have to look at something else.  Most measures can be gamed, and hard standardized tests produce unequal results.  So you'll have a hard time measuring educational tangibles in a way that doesn't corrupt the process but does satisfy political and societal needs.  While simultaneously satisfying a public that distrusts educational systems and wants hard accountability.

So what happens instead is that power accumulates in the hands of the people who write Strategic Plans and Assessment Reports and whatnot.  They create processes, impose those processes on us, and then suck up resources to further refine and expand their processes.  It's a self-sucking straw.

Of course, none of this is new, and higher ed is actually late to the game.  My mother was a nurse.  When she entered the profession nursing was a 3-year degree rather than a Bachelor's degree.  By the time I was in middle school a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) was needed to keep getting good jobs, so she went back to college to get her BSN. She found that programs had shifted from hands-on clinical skills to writing Care Plans that align with whatever jargon was being pushed by healthcare administrators.  Healthcare is far from a perfectly objective field (e.g. What counts as a "good enough" outcome when full recovery is not in the cards?  How much responsibility does the care provider bear when the patient's outcome depends in part on the patient's compliance with treatment and lifestyle changes?) but "Is the patient able to walk on their own again?" is still more objective than "What does it really mean to say that a student understands this philosophical tract?"

Meanwhile, I've heard from people in k-12 that you can do anything you want as long as you have lesson plans that summarize each day's activities in whatever jargon is in style.  This bullshit is actually hitting higher ed late, not early, cutting against the idea that we originated it in our Colleges of Education or Business or whatever.  It seems to be a thing cutting across many segments of society.  It's a disease of the bureaucracy, and it's metastasizing.

Also, some might wonder why I'm singling out historically feminine professions like teaching and nursing, but the military reportedly has similar amounts of buzzwords and kool-aid, and I don't just mean the indoctrination (in the best possible sense of the word) needed to get a man to charge into a hail of bullets for his country.  I mean managerial fads that promise quick fixes to intractable problems in the endless series of unwinnable conflicts that America has been involved in over the past several decades.  If the unsolvable problems of human nature and inequality drive educational leaders to embrace buzzwords and kool-aid, imagine how much more kool-aid you'd need in order to persuade yourself that you've accomplished something in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Finally, I wonder if there's really anything new about awarding resources on the basis of verbal prowess.  Besides everything we could say about charming salesmen and whatnot, writing began as a tool of administration.  The oldest writings that we have are, for the most part, not religious texts and epic poems but rather government and business records:  Harvests, taxes, land allocation, contracts, treaties, etc. Mesopotamian warrior-kings left fewer written traces than municipal administrators.  I suppose that this is how advanced civilizations have always done things.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

In that sense, Black Panther's Wakanda is incredibly unrealistic.  I don't have a problem with the premise of a secret and super-advanced society with amazing technology.  That's the premise, and if vibranium seems unrealistic just remember that it's a metal in the plotonite family of compounds, with properties determined by plotobolic mechanisms at the molecular plotting scale.  No, what bothers me about Wakanda is that such an advanced society would choose a leader via ritual combat.  Any such society would choose its leader from among elites who were educated in engineering and then promptly pressed into administrative roles.  Shuri, the smartest engineer in Wakanda, would spend most of her time complaining that she's been pushed into administration and is busy writing Strategic Plans instead of making stuff in the lab.  In fact, she'd probably be elevated over her meat-head brother (who just likes to work out and fight) and would be queen while he is a field agent.  (Until he gets promoted to the rank of General and fights from behind a desk rather than inside a suit of armor.)

(1) Note that teaching classes is only the fifth most important thing in academia:  Alumni donations, research, athletics, and parking ticket revenue all rate higher priority.