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 The Cult of Smart by Freddie deBoer.

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

"Indifference" and the restlessness

 An article by Mark Lilla in the new journal Liberties (only available in print, alas) solidified some of my thinking on the restlessness. He talks about the concept of "indifferent" acts in ethics and theology. Do all of our actions carry inevitable moral weight? Is it possible to engage in some small activity without being good or bad, or is even a small act of leisure a sin? What if that act of leisure promotes morality? We see this all the time in modern lefty discourse, with endless articles about how "problematic" something or other is. One needn't be amoral or nihilist to recognize that you'll go crazy if you agonize over the ethics of every small deed. But people do that nonetheless. Just a few hours ago I was scolded over some small joke, because even though the person I told it to totally got it, some outside observer might lack context and think I was doing something bad. Lilla goes through the history of indifference in theology and philosophy, and I won't attempt to rehash it here. But I will note that the modern scolds of political correctness are searching for sin everywhere, and the modern restless educators feel like we must keep trying to further purify everything.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

My one key complaint about The Cult of Smart

I still have one chapter to go, so maybe Freddie will address this in the remaining fifty pages, but there's one big thing I dislike about his argument: He joins everyone else (including many of the people who want to retain absolutely every kid in STEM) in critiquing meritocracy. But there isn't one meritocracy, or at least there shouldn't be. There are many meritocracies. The credentials that will get you a job as a software engineer won't get you a job fixing cars. The credentials that will get you a job fixing cars won't get you a job selling real estate, and a real estate license won't get you a job as a dentist.

There are plenty of things to be said against particular forms of professional licensing, but the basic idea of people getting jobs if they demonstrate that they can do the job (or at least learn on the job quickly enough) is inoffensive to me and probably most people. Everyone, socialist or capitalist or whatever, wants the brakes on my car repaired by a person who knows what they're doing. The other drivers want it, the pedestrians want it, and the bicyclists want it. The capitalists want me to have my consumer desires fulfilled by that service provider and the socialists want my car to be maintained in a condition that won't hurt the interests of society.

We can debate whether that brake technician should go to trade school, get a certification from an industry organization, or just train on the job under the supervision of people who know what they're doing, but one way or another we all want that brake technician to demonstrate his skills and knowledge to the satisfaction of people in the field. We want the repair shop down the street to hire qualified brake technicians. That's meritocracy. It won't be perfect--maybe the shop owner prefers to hire friends and family--but as long as they cross some threshold of competence we accept that an imperfect meritocracy is way better than no meritocracy.

If meritocracy means that your ability to enjoy basic human decency and some safety net of protection hinges on some form of desert, well, yes, we can morph any concept into something insane. But if it just means that getting a job requires some demonstrated competence or ability, I don't think most people object. Likewise, nobody except certain co-workers thinks a kid should invest time and money in a physics degree if they struggle with freshman calculus after repeated attempts. But arguing against "meritocracy" in general sounds like arguing for unqualified brake repair technicians, or arguing for dentists who don't sterilize their instruments. It sounds like arguing for accountants who haven't read an updated tax code document in a decade. It sounds like arguing for the boss's idiot son over the qualified applicant with a great resume.

I have read other things by Freddie, and heard him engage with people in various discussions, so I know that he doesn't want dentists who don't sterilize their instruments. And I know from his book that Freddie, critiques of meritocracy notwithstanding, disagrees with my colleagues who want to keep kids in degree programs that aren't working out for them. But I still think that critiquing meritocracy in broad terms, without being clear on the kind of meritocracy one supports, is a dangerous style. If somebody reads all 240+ pages of Freddie's book then they know he's not opposed to the more sane forms of meritocracy. (I doubt he wants his MRI read by a total dunce.) But in the current rhetorical climate, I think it helps to be clear on what one means when arguing against a term that has several usages, some far more benign than others.

Cult of Smart, Chapters 7 and 8

 Chapter 7 explores educational discourse in light of Rawls' concept of the "Veil of Ignorance." Philosopher John Rawls argued that a just society is the sort that people would agree to live in if they viewed it from behind a "veil of ignorance", i.e. they had no idea what sort of station they'd occupy, or what sorts of abilities or limitations they'd have. People would want to live in a society where they know that if they are disabled they'll be cared for, if they're whatever race they won't be discriminated against, and if they're talented they'll get some benefit from doing what they do well (even while contributing to the care for the disabled, etc.). Rawls has been influential on the left, and Freddie's key point is that leftists have accepted an ethical philosophy built around the notion that some people might have different abilities.

Also, while Freddie makes his argument in a way that should appeal to people with many different perspectives, he doesn't hide the fact that he himself is very, very left-wing. And one staple of socialist thought is "From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs." It's not so different from the Parable of the Talents, in which Jesus says that those who have more should do more for all. Again, the key point is that it is perfectly possible to conceive of a charitable, egalitarian, and compassionate ethos that allows for differences in talent.

I like this quote on page 161:

Many people seem to believe that an assessment of academic potential necessarily involves an assessment of someone's overall human worth, despite the fact that the later does not at all follow from the former.

Indeed. Being bad at something can be a fact that does not diminish one's moral worth. I might be incapable of carrying a tune but that doesn't mean a musician needs to think less of me as a human. A musician might be terrible at physics but that doesn't mean I should think less of them.

Page 163:

When we look at a school system that we say is flawed, thanks to the impossible task that we've handed it, we are eeing our basic failure to really grapple with the reality of unequal human potential.

To be fair, Freddie is giving short shrift to the other inequalities that plague some school systems. If Chet McRitchie doesn't get the same high test scores as Rich Nobleford, the McRitchie parents might complain to the principal of their suburban high school, and the principal might need to take some headache medicine, but the higher level authorities are unlikely to strip away funding from the school. OTOH, if kids in an inner-city school get bad test scores (because of course they do), we know that authorities will continue to use that school as a canvas for their latest educational fad.

But, again, the fact that the task is hindered by nurture as much as nature does not make it any less impossible. What can a teacher do in the face of parents and neighborhoods and injustice and everything else that affects the kids in all the days and hours that they aren't in school?

Chapter 8 deals with Freddie's recommendations. I don't want to enumerate and address all of them. I just want to look at a few that interest me, because I blog books for fun, not for work.

Page 169, regarding whether it's a good idea to provide preschool and daycare and after school programs and other things for kids whose parents have to work and don't have good access to safe, enriching environments outside of school:

To constantly harp on the supposed academic advantages that these programs confer is to leave them vulnerable: they can then only be defended so long as those academic advantages actually assert themselves. As I've said, the research record for these programs is mixed at best, running to poor. If we make test scores and related indicators our primary argument, then we preemptively disarm ourselves in this fight.

Indeed. What if the "only" effect of afterschool programs or pre-K or whatever is that kids have a warm, safe, fun thing to do when their parents are working? What if the only effect of helping people is some human comfort but not an educational miracle? I actually see that as wholly consistent with my insistence that kids who do badly in physics shouldn't major in physics. What if the effect of them changing majors is that we don't solve a systemic issue but some people do spend 4 years actually learning something and experiencing the satisfaction of success? That doesn't guarantee a particular long-term outcome for them, but it won't hurt, and it will make 4 years of life genuinely good. Is that not good in and of itself?

Also, Freddie addresses and basically concurs with the argument made by Andrew Hacker in The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions. I like Freddie's version better because he makes it clear that he's totally fine with closing down some paths early on. He's considered all of the dark possibilities of our educational system and he accepts that some paths and tracks should be closed off early.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

More Freddie quotes

1)  Pages 79-80:

It's important to understand that the "blame teachers first" school of thought arises not from chance, or even convenience, but from absolute necessity. If we are to preserve the blank-slate myth and all that goes with it--the long climb up the academic ladder, the preeminence of pluck and determination, the righteousness of the academic sorting system, and the rewards if offers to those who succeed within it, the entire meritocratic edifice--then blame has to go somewhere other than natural talent.
If we've assumed away the possibility of inherent differences in natural ability, who else could we blame but teachers? We might immediately indict the parents, but there's a problem there too: we have precious few policy levers that can affect parenting. With the (thankfully) rare exceptions of criminal negligence or abuse, government officials don't grade how well parents are doing. We don't have state-run facilities where inadequate parents are sent to brush up on their parenting skills. Nobody is proposing standardized tests of parenting. Diving into the educational research archives, you can find yourself wondering how such an intuitively big piece of the puzzle could be so little discussed, but this is why. There is no policy mechanism to utilize, and thus no interest from the policy minded. Instead of looking in the dark where we dropped the keys, we are looking where the light is.

(There is a similar quote about why people focus on schools rather than parents on page 89, but the relevant language comes from a Rand corporation analyst, not Freddie's own words.)

I agree with what he said about how shocking it is about parents being ignored as key variables. Later, though, when discussing the role of genes in educational outcomes, Freddie claims that parenting has little influence. I don't quite believe this. I can believe that most parents cross some threshold of decent parenting so that the marginal effect of small differences in parenting will have little effect. And I can believe that the insane lengths to which elite parents go don't actually matter nearly as much as they think. That's not quite the same as saying that parenting doesn't matter. Indeed, Freddie agrees that plenty of social variables can negatively affect performance, so why wouldn't really shitty parenting have an effect? I think the only conclusion we can actually draw is that as long as parenting is reasonably decent by the standards of the wider social situation the kid is in (and most conscientious people will cross that threshold), marginal changes in parenting approach will not produce statistically significant changes in outcomes.

Also, I admit that I kind of support some form of the meritocracy. Or, more specifically, I support a meritocracy among many meritocracies. There should be many paths in society, and for each of those paths there should be some meritocracy. If you want to be an educated professional you should pursue a path that you can do well in, not a path that you'll flounder in. If you want to be a skilled manual laborer you'd better do well at that manual skill. If you want to sell you'd better be a good salesman. And so forth. Education is a reasonable and appropriate path into some pursuits, but a less useful filter for other pursuits. And there should be a safety net for those who just aren't doing well on their path through no fault of their own. But this is very different from a 1-dimensional meritocracy.

2) Page 81, regarding why people fear dystopian outcomes from acknowledging that some kids are smarter than others:

Even if we had perfect knowledge at conception about a given child's academic potential, there is no reason that we would be forced to act on this knowledge in an authoritarian way.

Well, not forced, but the darker side of human nature is a thing... Nonetheless, I agree that there's no reason why we must structure society so that book learning is the only way to be treated well. I love book learning. A lot. I think it's a crucial thing for most leaders. That doesn't mean it should be crucial to human dignity.

3) Page 114, regarding the obsession with fixing society and the economy via education:

Far more likely is that it will take ending socioeconomic gaps to begin closing educational gaps.

I've said this here many times before. Nonetheless, we have to believe that everything else will get better if we just "teach a man to fish." Conservatives like the idea of making the fisherman self-reliant, and liberals like the idea of giving the fisherman a certificate documenting that he is a fully-qualified member of the Fishing Profession, trained in Best Practices for Safe, Sustainable, Equitable, and Inclusive Fishing Boat Management. All of which is great, except they want to make everyone a fisherman, even though we also need boat repair technicians, net manufacturers, retail fish sellers, sushi chefs, oceanographers (STEM! STEM! STEM!), truckers to take the fish to market, etc. In other words, they tend to get myopic about what we should train people for.

4) Pages 120-121, regarding research finding that the only intervention shown to have much of an effect on performance gaps is individual or small-group tutoring:

As someone who spends a great deal of his time in the world of education policy and politics, I don't hear tutoring mentioned that often, certainly less often than I hear about gamifying the classroom, flipping the classroom, how technology will solve all of our problems, and so on. Why? Well, for one thing, high-quality tutoring is expensive; you have to train the tutors and you have to pay them. But I suspect the more important reason is that there's nothing sexy about tutoring. Tutoring isn't some new breakthrough, it doesn't lend itself to hype, and it has no major corporation pushing for its adoption, unlike ed-tech boondoggles like the Los Angeles school system's $1.3 billion iPad fiasco. In the world of education policy, attention--and, more importantly, dollars--flows to those programs that most flatter the policy world's obsession with "disruption."

Indeed. We know that one-on-one or small group attention works. We know this because Oxford and Cambridge have been doing it for a thousand years via tutorials, and it works. Yes, there are problems with measuring educational quality, especially since top schools only take top students. Still, given the chance, everyone always goes for individualized attention from an expert. It's how people have always learned best. It's why office hours are better than class time, even if that class time is spent with students sitting in circles and talking to each other. The teacher is smarter and more knowledgeable and more useful. We know this. Everyone knows this. It's why rich people pay for tutors and send their kids to schools with small classes.

Doctors, arguably our most elite profession, know this. It's why, after the large introductory lectures on physiology and whatnot, they get the rest of their training in small groups in the clinic. There's a senior doctor and then residents of varying levels of seniority and then students, and the group is small. Progressive kool-aid drinkers would focus on the hands-on aspect, but if scale were feasible then one doctor would supervise a whole ward of trainees. But they don't do that because it wouldn't work. Patients would die and residents would remain clueless. So instead they train in very small groups with intense supervision and instruction. And it works well enough that the rest of us trust them with our lives. It's expensive as all hell, but it works so well that people learn how to do insanely complicated things like take apart the most vital organs in the body and put them back together again, or how to diagnose a subtle and deadly illness successfully, and not kill the patient while trying things along the way.

Everyone in higher education knows this, hence PhD dissertations are done in that model. Again, it's expensive (the opportunity costs for everyone involved are astronomical), but it works.

In the less prestigious trenches, people apprentice for trades, and it works well enough that we can drive across bridges.

So everyone knows that intensive one-on-one or small-group instruction works, but it requires paying an expert to spend time. And nobody will get an innovation award for something that we've been doing since a caveman gave a kid one-on-one instruction on how to properly sharpen a stone.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Next book: The Cult of Smart by Freddie deBoer

I haven't felt like blogging much lately, but my latest read, The Cult of Smart by Freddie deBoer, has some choice quotes that I want to blog so I won't forget. Freddie argues simultaneously that education isn't and shouldn't be everything, AND that it's OK to recognize that some kids are smarter than others, some kids will benefit from being in more advanced tracks in school, etc. We don't need to push college on everyone, but we can recognize that some kids are probably better cut out for it than others, and that's OK.  Some key quotes:

1) On page 7:

For decades our educational politics have obsessed over between-group variation, that is, gaps between black students and white, between girls and boys, between rich and poor. But to me the more interesting, more essential, insights lie in the nature of within-group variation. Take any identifiable academic demographic group you'd like--poor black inner-city charter school students, first-generation Asian immigrants in Los Angeles public schools, poor rural white girls in the Ozard Mountains. There are indeed systematic differences in outcomes between these various groups. But what's more telling and more interesting is the variation within these groups. In any such groups, you will find students who excel at the highest levels and students who fail again and again.

Freddie goes on to argue that so much policy is aimed at getting everyone to the same target, which is insane.

2) On page 12, regarding the idea that effort is everything (which he has encountered in many teaching jobs):

The cruelty of that idea--that we are all so equal in ability that only effort and character can keep us from success--was apparent. The evidence was sitting at a desk in front of me, weeping real tears.

I've said repeatedly that a theory of success needn't be a theory of failure, but certainly they go together closely. Saying why people succeed says nothing about why people don't do what is required for success--maybe a cruel society has discouraged them from trying. Nonetheless, there's a strong implication that if they disregard a cruel society they'll succeed, and however well-intentioned that belief might be, it won't really help a kid who just isn't cut out for something.

3) Page 17, regarding "weed-out" intro courses in science and engineering:

And I grew to think that rather than representing a failure of educators to do their jobs, these classes that screened out students performed a necessary if unfortunate function for institutions dedicated to training young people for their futures.

There's nothing wrong with saying to people that if this is hard the next thing will be even harder, so the time to make a good decision is now, when changing course is still easy.

4) On page 20, an interesting indictment of "positive thinking" and related notions:

Everywhere I turned as a teacher I seemed to find the same empty talk of excellence (without the necessary corollary of failure), innovation (without any sense of what we should be innovating toward), and positive thinking (even while its acolytes accused everyone else of having failed).

The negativity and implicit judgmentalism of the "positive thinking" types is an important point. He's also getting at The Restlessness that I often talk about here. We need to be constantly innovating toward, um, something. The achievement of an impossible goal, I guess.

5) On page 64:

We of course should equalize the environment of all children by giving them safe, stable, happy homes in which to grow and learn. We should do so as an end, not as a means to achieving educational equality.

Amen to that. Children deserve good childhoods because they are people, and particularly vulnerable people at that. While we shouldn't be short-sighted, we also shouldn't subordinate everything to super-long-term planning either. Something can be good in the moment because this moment has value and a person deserves good.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Perlstein on liberals vs conservatives

 Quick thought about a quote on page 812:

There is a saying: Conservatives seek converts, liberals seek heretics. And: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.

There's a tension between these but it's a resolvable tension. Regarding the first point, it fits with history: Liberals trace their roots to the Puritans, who had a morality code to enforce, and oh did they enforce it! Conservatives trace their roots to the Scots-Irish, who have preferred revivals and conversions. They sin all the time and oh do they need redemption. Puritans sin, but they do so as blots on uptight perfect lives. They should know better, they know it, and they'll never let anyone forget it. The right, well, they're raisin' hell, ya know? Of course they need redemption. It all fits the history.

(For the record, I still prefer Puritans. I grade papers for a living.)

Of course, when you seek impossible purity you'll never find it, so in order to feel like you found it you'll have to fool yourself, and fools fall in love. And then you'll fall out of love.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

But what has he done?

The Cal State system has announced the selection of a new Chancellor to oversee the 23 campuses. He's been serving as President of CSU Fresno for several years, and if the campus is being run well then one can reasonably suspect that he'll do a decent enough job running the system. So far so good.

The announcement, however, says very little about his professional accomplishments and skills.  They're mentioned, of course. But far more attention goes to his ethnicity (Mexican-American), parentage (single mother), grand-parentage (immigrant grandfather), class background (first-generation college student), and place of origin (California's central valley). So what? Millions of people share these characteristics, and some of them would be great at running a university system while others would be terrible. Is he any good? We don't know.

At this point somebody could say that I'm treating him as a token, presuming that he must be lacking qualifications if they talk about identity, but that's not what I'm presuming. I think it's entirely possible that the CSU press release is doing him a grave disservice. (The CSU is well-known for doing people grave disservices on a daily basis.) Of course, it's also possible that he's an untalented and unaccomplished mediocrity, but that would simply make him utterly typical of CSU administrators. The CSU's untalented and unaccomplished mediocrities come in all sexes, genders, races, colors, etc. I've met pale and male administrators who couldn't manage their way out of a paperbag if handed a scissors and a map. I'm not presuming anything except that he probably reflects the CSU's administrators, and that the CSU PR office is serving him as poorly as the CSU serves everyone else.

And I still want to know what he's actually accomplished. Because, you know, he's just been promoted. It would be nice to know if the new boss is any good.