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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, May 7, 2016

I had no idea that Eric Hoffer spent time watching education reformers

Between the Devil and the Dragon, page 70:
Total innovation is the refuge of the untalented and the innately clumsy.  It offers them a situation where their ineptness is acceptable and natural.  For we are all apprentices when we tackle the wholly new, and we expect the new to show the apprentice's hand--to be clumsy and ill-shapen. 
Yet, however untalented and clumsy, the innovators have a vital role to play.  For it is the fate of every great achievement to be pounced upon by pedants and imitators who drain it of life and turn it into an orthodoxy which stifles all stirrings of originality.  The avant-garde counteracts this deadening influence, and fulfills the vital role of keeping the gates open for the real talents who will eventually sweep away the inanities of the experimenters and build the new with a sure hand.
Yes, that is the dilemma of innovation:  There are real innovations and there are frauds and cheap imitations and minor tweaks that get over-sold.  There are truly creative types and real talents and then there are the dilettantes.  The problem is that the dilettantes can easily become the enforcers of orthodoxy if they are welcomed into the temple, but they can just as easily keep some space open on the fringes.  It's a tough balance.

Hoffer's point about orthodoxy also reminds me of how Hofstadter closed his chapter on Dewey:  "And so the quest for a method of institutionalizing the proper anti-institutional methods goes on."

Friday, May 6, 2016

NYT gonna NYT

I finished a task early and I foolishly decided to check out the NY Times Education section.  Why? Beats me.  I guess I hate myself.  Anyway, here's the article that leaped out at me:
How Colleges Can Again Be Levelers of Society
The word "Again" carries a lot of assumptions about the past. Education has certainly had a leveling effect, e.g. via mass literacy.  Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have usually not been levelers in US history.  The major exception was from the aftermath of WWII and the GI Bill through the college educations of the Baby Boomers.  This corresponded to three unique circumstances:

  1. An influx of young men (and some women, e.g. my grandmother) who had spent several years subject to extraordinary levels of discipline (i.e. people with some pretty unusual preparation and maturity).
  2. An era in which the US enjoyed unrivaled advantages in the international marketplace because much of the world had suffered huge infrastructure losses and a lot of places had decided to try the most inefficient economic system ever invented.  This was also the era of extraordinarily good factory jobs.  We were the global leader.  We could be good at anything because we had a unique economic perch. I am less than convinced that we can get back to that era now.
  3. An influx of "low-hanging fruit".  When most of your population has not been sending people to college, there's going to be plenty of talent out there to identify and admit.  When a larger proportion of your population is in college, finding the remaining suitable talents is going to be harder.  With such people being thin on the ground, your remaining options are to either lower standards or else commit extraordinary resources to helping the poorly-prepared succeed.  The later one sounds noble, and it gets a lot of praise, but it runs up against such trifling things as the limitations of human ability and the fact that the same people who pay lip service to success also want speedy graduation and minimal costs.  Extraordinary assistant means extraordinary resources.

Naturally, being an NYT Education article, they gloss over that.

They do lament that it's hard to get colleges to admit and support students who can't pay full tuition, because such students are expensive to support:
Colleges that enroll the highest percentage of low-income students are need-blind, which means they make admissions decisions without considering ability to pay. They offer enough financial aid to completely close the gap between the cost of college and what a student’s family can pay. And they actively recruit low-income students. 
Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, a public policy institute, said that between 20 and 25 private schools and many public colleges do all three things, among them many Ivies, Stanford and small colleges like Pomona, Wellesley and Amherst (another leader in educating low-income students). 
The vast majority of colleges don’t. Enrolling poor students is costly, especially because each scholarship student will take the place of someone who could pay in full. The financial crisis of 2008 sliced into endowments. States are cutting public schools’ budgets. 
In addition, the money colleges do have increasingly goes to students who don’t need it. Private colleges engage in bidding wars for talented wealthy students. Burd writes that the same thing is happening at public colleges, where tuition is higher for out-of-state students, and bidding wars for them gobble up a growing percentage of aid. While this crowds out low-income students, and many colleges say they would like to stop, they do not because their competitors are still doing it.
Well, yes.  Offering financial aid means spending money.  That's how it works.  There's no magical unicorn who will shit gold bricks out its behind.  Fortunately, the NYT has identified a way to get around this problem!
“Every incentive these days is to not get low-income students,” said Burd. “It takes a huge personal commitment from a leader. The only thing driving it is their conscience.”
Oh, so that's all it takes:  A triumph of the will!

Now, this prescription was offered after profiling efforts to broaden admissions and access at Vassar.  According to a NYT article from two years ago, Vassar has an endowment of $340,000 per student. If we assumed a 4% return, to be a bit modest, that's $13,600 per student per year.  With a full cost of attendance estimated at $65,000/year, they could give a full ride to 20% of their student body.  Not every college can say the same.

I eagerly await the day that the NYT tries to make a point about higher education without restricting its attention to elite places with hefty endowments.

Hoffer on growth

My decision to read Between the Devil and the Dragon was inspired by a visceral reaction to a Hoffer quote about the learned.  One theme of the book, especially the collection of aphorisms in the first section, is that humans are creatures whose nature is to change their nature, and to learn and grow and adapt and innovate.  I like this quote from page 16:
Both the revolutionary and the creative individual are perpetual juveniles.  The revolutionary does not grow up because he cannot grow, while the creative individual cannot grow up because he keeps growing.
One thing I've noticed is that many in higher ed are determined to find and participate in some sort of revolutionary transformation.  As I've said before, American higher education is haunted by a spirit of restlessness.  It may not have all of the uncompromising idealism and fanaticism of revolutionaries (which is a good thing, because revolutionaries eventually set up guillotines), but it certainly exhibits a rhetorical longing for some of the same things as revolutionaries.  Consequently, people often keep shifting from one fad to another, without necessarily pushing any farther forward.  This seems consistent with Hoffer's observation that revolutionaries do not actually grow.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

More on technocrats

Between the Devil and the Dragon, page 24:
To make of human affairs a coherent, precise, predictable whole, one must ignore or suppress man as he really is and treat human nature as a mere aspect of nature.  The theoreticians do it by limiting the shaping forces of man's destiny to nonhuman factors: providence, the cosmic spirit, geography, climate, economic or physiochemical factors.  The practical men of power try to eliminate the human variable by inculcating iron discipline or blind faith, by dissolving the unpredictable individual in a compact group, by subjecting the individual's judgment and will to a ceaseless barrage of propaganda, and by sheer coercion.  It is by eliminating man from their equation that the makers of history can predict the future and the writers of history can give a pattern to the past.
This reminds me of what I wrote about assessment several months ago:
OK, so we're up against a trifling force like human nature, but when has that ever stopped a technocrat?
I'm glad I picked up this book.

Hoffer gives us an insight on the technocrat

The first twenty pages of Between the Devil and the Dragon are a collection of very short pieces, most of them just a few sentences or a couple paragraphs.  I usually skip such things, but out of curiosity I read, and I'm glad I did.  On pages 12-13, Hoffer has an intriguing insight into the technocratic mind:
Both the scientist and the savage postulate the oneness of man and nature.  The difference between them is that the savage tries to influence nature by means which have proved their efficacy in influencing human nature, while the scientist wants to deal with human nature the way he deals with matter and other forums of life.  The scientist reads the equation human nature = nature from left to right, while the savage reads it from right to left.  Yet it is worth noting that Darwin, too, read the equation from right to left when he read cutthroat capitalist competition into the economy of nature. 
The remarkable thing is that the fanatic deals with men the way the scientist deals with matter.  There is a startling similarity between Bacon's prescription for mastering nature--"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed"--and Loyola's formula for manipulating men--"Follow the other man's course to your own goal."
I never thought of it this way before, but the analogy to shaman religious belief is fascinating in light of the interplay between religious and technocratic language in educational matters, especially when people are trying to play off the fruits of social science research, as I have touched on before.  On the other hand, a few pages earlier Hoffer discusses how the Abrahamic faiths separate man from nature, unlike many other faith traditions of the ancient world, and cast man as being made in the image of God.  Of course, the ordering of human affairs will thus inspire religious passion in one who sees man as being in God's image as much as it will in one who sees man as being part of the same supernatural world as the animals and plants around them.

(Somebody might object that a lot of technocrats are atheists, at least in modern academia, and thus do not see man in the terms of either religious tradition, but cultural leaves a heavy imprint on us.  We are often most like the things that we reject, because we rejected those things after feeling the burn of their brand.)

Anyway, this is something to ponder more fully.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Next book: _Between the Devil and the Dragon_ by Eric Hoffer

The next book that I'm going to read and blog is Between the Devil and the Dragon by Eric Hoffer.  Hoffer was an interesting man:  Self-educated, he wrote numerous books and essays on social and political topics, the most famous being The True Believer (a book on fanatics and mass movements, which I read nearly 10 years ago).  However, while he was a well-respected writer and social critic, he mostly worked in manual labor, living on skid row and then as a wandering laborer for many years before getting a job as a longshoreman in San Francisco (which he did for 27 years).  The True Believer is a book that I very much enjoyed, being nominally about fanatics and movements but in truth being a wide-ranging exploration of human nature and societies.  The current book is a collection of essays and other works, and The True Believer is in this compendium.  I probably won't re-read it, but I probably will read the rest of it.

My reasons for pick this up are two-fold.  First, obviously, Hoffer was an insightful person with a broad and deep knowledge of history and penetrating observations about people.  My second reason is petty, and perhaps one that Hoffer would not approve of.  I came across the following quote from a collection of aphorisms that Hoffer had published:
In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
This presumes a false dichotomy, while exemplifying a classic style of progressive American anti-intellectualism.  The quote was offered up in a comment thread that had turned to the fashionable psychological concepts and the nature of success.  Its popularity seems to arise from an embrace of a false dichotomy that Hoffer would probably not endorse:  If one spends enough time as a learner, one will eventually become quite learned.  One can be learned and keep on learning, a point that Hoffer would probably grant.  The learned ones who are in the most trouble are the ones who have become comfortable and lazy.

Anyway, I was most bothered that an anti-intellectual dichotomy would come from a writer that I so deeply respect, so I googled the quote, found the source, and then raced to the library to find the context.  Alas, the context is a book of short aphorisms, which is to say that there was no context because the aphorisms were offered independently rather under some thematic organization.  So I looked around the shelf for other books by Hoffer, and found that Between the Devil and the Dragon also has quite a bit to say about intellectuals and the spirit of the modern era.  I'm hoping that I'll find in Hoffer's writings the nuance that was lacking in this invocation of Hoffer for an anti-intellectual point.

Now, of course, Hoffer himself was not a traditional intellectual.  We can debate whether or not the word "intellectual" should be applied to him at all (he apparently eschewed it), but there's no denying that he was a great learner, he had learned a lot, and he offered up quite insightful and informed writings.  What label you wish to apply above and beyond those basic facts is basically a semantic issue.  He was certainly not credentialed in the way of those who typically get called "intellectuals" but he certainly could match many an intellectual for depth and breadth of knowledge, mastery of language, and subtlety of thought.  So, while it would be a mistake to cite a wise longshoreman if I'm looking to defend credentialed intellectuals (or at least credentialed and self-styled "intellectuals") I think it is quite proper to look to Hoffer if I want to speak up for the value of deep thought over superficial fads.

Let's find out if he agrees with me.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How we got here

There's another, equally priceless article on degree inflation in the Chronicle today:
Decades ago, there were many ways to train for work, good work, and educational tracking played a role. Proponents of the practice said it let instructors focus on the needs of students at specific levels of ability and prevented "teaching to the middle," which didn’t sufficiently challenge advanced students. 
But by the 1970s and ’80s, civil-rights advocates and education researchers were pointing out that minority students were disproportionately set on lower-level tracks, taught by weaker teachers, relegated to rote learning, and burdened with the perception that they were dumb. Studies found that those students scored lower on tests than they would have if they’d been tracked higher. 
The GI Bill and the explosion of community colleges in the 1960s had already expanded the understanding of whom college was for, and in 1983 the presidential report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" was the "educational equivalent of a declaration of war," says Mr. Carnevale, of Georgetown. Comparing students’ performance on standardized tests in the United States and other countries, the Reagan administration sparked an obsession with achievement, the dismantling of vocational tracks, and the mantra of college for all, he says. To remain competitive and stem a moral and economic decline, America needed to raise its standards. 
Schools began to push general education as preparation for college. "In a fit of progressiveness, we threw away vocational education," Mr. Carnevale says. Instead, he says, the curriculum favored "ever higher levels of abstraction in subject matters where it is not clear why you learn them at all until you are ready to go to college."
(Emphasis added.)

As is so often the case in the US, the legacy of our racist original sins is so bitter that even the fixes wound us (as pointed out in the emphasized part.).  As much as I support, at least in principle, some sort of European-style tracking system that gives equal respect to vocational and academic preparation, in the back of my mind there's the nagging acknowledgment that America has never been good about separating its people into different groups and treating them differently.  We have a lot of baggage there.  OK, Europe has the baggage of its class system, anti-Semitism, and countless bloody wars on their soil, but the class system and anti-Semitism both separated their societies into a large group and a fairly small group. Educational tracking, dividing the society into a few groups of roughly comparable size, doesn't really hit the same notes.  OTOH, racial segregation in the US divided society into two groups of comparable size.  (Yes, African Americans are only 12% of the population nationally, but in the areas where most black people live they are a much larger percentage of the population.)  And the other original sin, against the Native Americans, involved expulsions of pretty large groups of people.

And there's more than just ancestral guilt and bad baggage here.  One thing that we Americans have always done well is assimilate immigrants.  We're amazing at it, which is pretty strange when you consider just how much racist baggage we have.  Nonetheless, we're really, really good at it. So good at it that we get scolded for favoring assimilation over diversity.  (This is usually said by somebody using a PC jargon that is itself a distinctively American thing, once more showing just how awesome we are at assimilating people.) Giving people chances to break with the past is what we do and we do it better than anyone else.  So it's woven into our cultural DNA that your fate shouldn't be decided in middle school.

So I can comfortably say that we've gone too far with "College for Everyone", but then I pause and realize that all of the other options, if taken too far (and this is America, the land of Big Gulp sodas--we take everything too far) could put us on some bad paths.

ADDENDUM: Some more choice quotes from the article.
Our economic and social problems stem more from the wide gap between rich and poor, and jobs sent overseas, says Ms. Ravitch, than from too few people pursuing a bachelor’s degree. We’re projecting economic insufficiencies onto the education system, she says. "The college-for-all talk is like fairy dust sprinkled over the conversation."
Yes, as I keep saying, you can't make education the sole fix for economic problems.

Inflation: Not just for currency and balloons

The Chronicle has a fascinating article on South Korea, a country that sends a vast proportion of its students to college:
Seongho Lee, a professor of education at Chung-Ang University, criticizes what he calls "college education inflation." Not all students are suited for college, he says, and across institutions, their experience can be inconsistent. "It’s not higher education anymore," he says. "It’s just an extension of high school." And subpar institutions leave graduates ill prepared for the job market. 
A 2013 study by McKinsey Global Institute, the economic-research arm of the international consulting firm, found that lifetime earnings for graduates of Korean private colleges were less than for workers with just a high-school diploma. In recent years, the unemployment rate for new graduates has topped 30 percent.
The part about earnings makes sense.  I would expect that in a country that trains too few people for vocations you'll see higher earnings for people in vocational paths than people in lower-ranked universities.

Moreover, expanding access to higher education has not decreased the stakes of competition.  If anything, it's raised the stakes:
Because a degree itself isn’t valuable currency, competition has heated up for admission to the handful of elite universities, most of which in Korea are public. Mr. Jho, the Fulbright scholar, says the scramble for limited places can begin in elementary school. Parents who have the money to give their children an edge spend as much as a sixth of their income on hagwon, or private cram schools. Those who cannot afford extra tutoring are at a disadvantage. "It’s a stratified system," says Mr. Jho. "It’s a system that is privileged for the middle and upper class."
This is a point that I made repeatedly in my blogging about Lani Guinier's Tyranny of the Meritocracy: You cannot easily get rid of competition.  You can modulate it to a certain extent, but people are going to compete, one way or another.  Credential inflation is real, and it escalates competition because it makes it harder to distinguish oneself.


In this morning's Los Angeles Times, there's an op-ed calling for the College Board to release detailed question-by-question data on the SAT.  The op-ed claims that this data is necessary to address questions about fairness and achievement gaps.  This is a fine thing to be concerned about, but before you let this op-ed push your buttons take a look at the author info at the end of the article:
Jay Rosner is the executive director of The Princeton Review Foundation.
I wonder why a test prep service would want detailed data on a test...

Mind you, there are plenty of good reasons why the world would benefit from more transparency in such a high-stakes matter as the SAT, and the pecuniary interests of the op-ed writer do not make the concerns any less valid.  However, it is important to be reminded that even righteous causes attract all sorts of people with financial angles.