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 re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Let's talk about Heritage

Every reader of this blog knows that one of my favorite books is Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  Another favorite book is Albion's Seed.  Both of them have a lot to say about the Puritans.  The Puritans were arguably the most intellectual of America's founding cultures.  Their clergy were educated at Oxbridge, and their sermons were transcribed and distributed publicly for discussion.  There were meaningful parallels with the Jewish tradition of reading the Bible, reading the commentaries, and then discussing and debating the primary text and the commentaries.s

They were also among the most egalitarian Western societies of their era, in terms of their laws on marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance.  They fell far short of our modern standards, but they were ahead of their time, and helped to enable the progress that has been made since.  They did own slaves, but they owned fewer than other American sub-cultures and abolished it well ahead of others.

Since America is currently debating whether Nazis and Klansmen are bad, let me note that some of the most ardent abolitionists were New Englanders of Puritan heritage.  They marched to Kansas with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state.  Uncle Tom's Cabin, an abolitionist novel dripping with Biblical references, was written by a scion of the Puritans.  John Brown was of Puritan descent.  Though we typically think of New Englanders as less militaristic than Southerners, fire-breathing abolitionists of Puritan extraction eagerly matched the Confederate ardor for civil war.

So, you want to talk about Heritage?  Yeah, let's talk about Heritage.  Some of us trace our cultural influences to New England, and the people who crushed the Confederacy are our Heritage.  Some of us look at the Confederacy the way we look at Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Moral Syndromes and the Two Cultures

Although it's not possible to map perfectly from the Two Cultures of C.P. Snow to the Two Syndromes of Jane Jacobs (if it were then Jacobs' book would have a lower Kolmogorov Complexity, being equivalent to a couple essays by C.P. Snow), I think there are a lot of parallels.  In particular, I am inclined to say that just as the STEM culture maps roughly to the Commercial Syndrome (a point I argued yesterday), the arts and humanities map more or less to the Guardian Syndrome.

At first glance that may seem absurd:  Artists are often great critics of political power, and are often pacifist critics of Guardian activities like war.  Moreover, artists love to defy tradition.  Besides, isn't art often put to Commercial ends, and without the corruption that we see when Guardian and Commercial activities are blended?

The answer to all of those questions is "Of course."  You can't fit all of life into a single, simple framework.  At best, a framework can generate insights to place alongside other analyses.  And though artists are often critics of the establishment, the arts are heavily reliant on patronage.  That needn't be seen as a flaw or indicator of hypocrisy; dissent can be a constructive element of a society, even while existing within it.  Moreover, while an artist of today may break from tradition in many ways, when a person in the future wishes to study that artist it will be necessary to look at the context of this time, to see the artist in the context of the society that he/she was breaking from or critiquing.  The study of the arts and humanities can illuminate the present but it also requires a look backward.  That is not a bad thing, it is actually a source of strength.  The study of arts and humanities is an attempt to learn from tradition, even while challenging it.  If one wishes to learn from the Greeks and Romans one can and should draw on contemporary sources, but one cannot escape the need for primary sources.  That need for connection with the past is a mark of how the arts and humanities fit more closely with the Guardian Syndrome than with the Commercial Syndrome.

At this point some ardent defender of the liberal arts will probably feel a need to say that many people study humanities in college but go on to have great careers in the private sector.  Indeed.  All of teaching, even in STEM, is a heavily Guardian-based activity.  And even armies rely on commercial products.  Identifying a field of study with one Syndrome does not mean that the rest of society must look askance at it.  A healthy society draws heavily upon the best of both Syndromes, and even individuals may have experience in both types of activities.  Simultaneous mixing of activities in one organization is different from partaking of both in the course of a well-lived life.

Now, one big difference between Two Cultures and Two Syndromes is that mixing two Syndromes in areas with very tangible stakes for money and power can result in monstrosities (e.g. Marxism and the Mafia).  Mixing Two Cultures in academia, if done properly, can be quite positive.  I respect historians of science, scientists using their tools to help archaeologists or art historians, computational methods applied to linguistics, etc.  Of course, it can also be done to dangerous effect, either through "interdisciplinary" work that lacks a rigorous foundation on either side or through the false ecumenicalism of STEAM.   But then again, academia is (properly) different from the rest of the world, which is not the same as saying that we're completely immune to problems that could plague the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Systems of Survival, mid-way thoughts

I'm half-way through Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  She divides many activities into "Commercial" and "Guardian" activities, and the associated value systems into "Commercial" and "Guardian" moral syndromes.  (The word "syndrome" simply means "things that go together", not necessarily "illness.")  Commercial activities are fairly self-explanatory.  "Guardian" activities are not just the military and police actions of government, but many things in government, and many things reliant on patronage or largesse.  The arts and sports fall largely under "Guardian" values because traditionally they have enjoyed substantial patronage. Also, athletic competition was historically an activity of warrior castes biding time between wars. Yes, art has been made for commercial purposes, and yes, sports are an entertainment business, but the local Little League team usually relies on sponsorship from the community, and the revenue-generating college football teams subsidize the track team.

Now, Jacobs also notes that when people try to blend the syndromes bad things occur.  You get corruption when government and business mingle, you get inefficiency when government planners try to provide goods that the market could handle better, and you get the mafia when a family uses bonds of loyalty and threats of violence (Guardian traits) to take control of neighborhood businesses.  Interestingly, the mafia loves its ceremonies and symbolism as much as royalty does, and as much as armies love their dress uniforms and parades, while businesses tend to pay less attention to aesthetics (except in advertising and branding, or in response to specific consumer demands).  Moreover, the Mafia dispenses largesse to the poor and the Church, to bolster their image and command loyalty, just as governments do.

The problems of mixing Guardian and Commercial activities help us understand why sports teams (traditionally Guardian, though now Commercial) pressure city governments (Guardians) to build stadiums.  They help us understand why there's so much corruption in revenue-generating college sports.  Yes, yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there a Division III College Athletics Director is dealing with a pole-vault scandal, but it pales in comparison with the corruption in Division I football and basketball.  It also helps us understand why agricultural policy is always and everywhere a quagmire:  Agriculture is most efficient as a commercial enterprise but because it relies on control of land (historically a government activity) it is always entwined with politics in ways that go beyond ordinary corruption or misguided regulatory zeal:  The value and use of land goes to deep values of what it means to be a state.

Anyway, let's take this to the things that I care about: Science and academia.

Jacobs argues that science is largely in sync with the values of the Commercial Syndrome:  Honesty is the best policy (unlike the deception and secrecy required for many security functions, whether espionage or sting operations), innovation is more valuable than tradition, collaboration with outsiders is to be welcomed (scientists collaborate internationally, just as merchants have always done business across borders), at the same time competition is to be encouraged (hence we look for replication processes to weed out error), etc.  I agree with these points, but at first I disssented because basic science is so heavily subsidized.

However, I think I can nonetheless endorse her equating of science with the Commercial Syndrome for three reasons:
1) No analogy is perfect.  Yes, the funding source is more than just a tiny flaw in the analogy, but we shouldn't just ignore the fact that in a great many ways the values of science fall much better under the Commercial Syndrome than the Guardian Syndrome.

2) Plenty of science happens outside of state-subsidized labs.  To the extent that science happens under state subsidy the rationale is generally some mix of long-term benefits (states can afford risk-reward ratios that competitive businesses can't), the value of knowledge and education (Guardian-provided activities) or national security (Guardian activity).  This doesn't change the fact that most science graduates go out and work in the Commercial realm.

3) Education fads, which drive me up the wall, have been pushed into the scientific community in large part through the efforts of the National Science Foundation and its "Broader Impact" criterion for grants.  The purpose of Broader Impact is service to the wider society, not the efficient advancement of the specific project in play.  It is the yoking of a community adhering (mostly) to Commercial values into Guardian endeavors.  And it sucks, just as the mixing of the two Syndromes so often sucks.

Yes, yes, edufads get some scientific respectability lacquered onto them, but it's mostly BS.  Education, with its focus on tradition and respect for the authority figure, is Guardian all the way.  Universities have always been subsidized by largesse.  Education is as Guardian as it gets. It's practically a priesthood, and it's about inculcation of social values as much as the sharing of knowledge.  And that's great, within its proper scope and place.  The practice of science should be Commercial and the education of people should be Guardian.  Hence we make teaching and research separate criteria for performance evaluation, and hence we have separate physical space, separate funds, etc. for those activities.  Indeed, graduate school is about transitioning from one to the other.  To the extent that it's inefficient, well, what did you expect when you transition between realms?

And the priorities and motives driving edufads and Broader Impact are all about national competitiveness and the moral legitimacy of the social order.  That is a thoroughly Guardian pair of priorities.  Eminently defensible priorities, but a poor match for Commercial activity.

Academic scientists are not the only people who have to straddle worlds, and to the extent that we are attempting a hybrid activity we should expect scandal and inefficiency.  But not all Syndrome-straddling activities are like the Mafia.  Jacobs notes that lawyers have to straddle the Syndromes, working in private firms and generally in support of commercial interests (law is far more about property and contracts than it is about criminal trials) but interacting with the government.  To the extent that they do it well it is by clearly understanding which duties apply to which parts of the job and to what types of activities.  We would do well in academia to think about which duties apply to which parts of the job.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


I don't have much to say about it, but this post from education policy blogger Robert Kelchen is well worth reading.  As long as education policy discussions are dominated by people who treat college as a given and state flagships as "backup" schools, we're doomed to insanity.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Next book: Systems of Survival

I couldn't bring myself to finish Hayek's Counter-Revolution in Science.  I got his point dozens pages ago, and he mostly went into tedious intellectual history after that.  Mind you, intellectual history can be fun, but he was zeroing in on individuals without saying anything terribly interesting or revealing.

After that I read some fiction and wrote some fiction.  Some of the fiction writing is still ongoing, but one story was submitted.  We'll see what happens.

The next non-fiction book that I'll blog here is Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.  I actually read it several years ago, but it's worth re-reading.  She wrote it as a dialogue between several characters discussing the ethical ideas underpinning societal structures.  She contrasts commercial endeavors with "Guardian" institutions.  Obviously police and the military are guardian institutions, but so are all other government offices, as well as educational and artistic institutions dependent on patronage.  The concept of duty comes up a lot, and since I believe that a dilution of the concept of duty is one of the problems with American higher education, I think this book is worth re-reading.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

This article is so on fire that the nuclei in the screen displaying it are being fused to release more energy

Oh, snap!
Many teachers, educational administrators, and politicians/policy makers believe in the existence of yeti-like creatures populating present day schools namely digital natives and human multitaskers. As in the case of many fictional creatures, though there is no credible evidence supporting their existence, the myth of the digital native (also called homo zappiëns) and the myth of the multitasker are accepted and propagated by educational gurus, closely followed and reported on by the media (both traditional mass-media, Internet sites, and social media) and dutifully parroted by educational policy makers at all levels. But while the myth of the existence of a yeti or other creature is fairly innocuous, the myth of their digital variants is extremely deleterious to our educational system, our children, and teaching/learning in general.
The article is titled "The myths of the digital native and the multitasker."  And it's on fire.

The lead author is a heretic whom I've cited before.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Speed matters

An idea that's gotten a lot of attention lately is "competency-based education", essentially the idea that instead of having courses of fixed time (e.g. a 15 week semester or 10 week quarter) you have shorter modules that students take and retake as needed, and they move on when they've achieved competence in whatever topic/skill/idea/etc. they are pursuing as part of their educational program.  For a professional program like business or engineering it is probably pretty clear what it means to achieve competence at some particular skill.  For many of the more skill-based aspects of science I think it also  makes sense.  For humanities, I assume that once somebody has, say, successfully read some list of writers and produced critiques that analyze specified aspects of the work in light of specified concepts, one would also achieve competence, and then move on to some other list of works and ideas.

It's not a bad concept.  It's not entirely objectionable.  But to the extent that the idea is based on a critique of a traditional course, I want to defend traditional courses from the critique.

The critique seems to be that in a traditional course a grade of (say) B means that you got most of it and did pretty well but didn't get all the way, which is fine, but you never know what the student was strong on and what the student was weak on.  To the extent that the critique is rooted in "you never know..." my question is "Who?"  Presumably the answer is "The person reading the transcript."  Fine.  In response, my next questions are "Who reads the transcript and what do they want to know?"

I've spent a lot of time interacting with people who hire physics graduates.  To a large extent they don't read transcripts at all, and maybe that should give us some humility about our enterprise.  But before we conclude that our transcripts thus need to be more information-dense in order to be more useful, let me observe something else:

The employers that I've interacted with seem to care (at most) about whether students took a lot of lab classes and used a few specific tools in those classes.  Beyond that, they just assume that students will need to be trained.

And that should not be surprising in science and technology.  Everything is highly specialized and rapidly changing. And every employer is working in a different niche, and hence needs people for a different niche.  Knowing that a person is smart and capable of learning seems to matter more than the specifics because of how steep the on-the-job learning curve is, even under ideal circumstances.

Given that, knowing very specific things is less important than knowing that the student has done lab work and can learn quickly.  In that case, the person who learned a whole lot in 15 weeks really is more valuable than the person who would need substantially more time to learn the same amount (which competency-based education would allow for).

So what a grade in a traditional class really tells is what  happens when you throw a lot of challenges at a person in 15 weeks.  The real question is whether the ability to surmount those challenges is predictive of ability to learn on the job.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On political correctness

No time for detailed comment, but I like this article from the National Post about political correctness and Twitter mobs.  The opening is priceless:
A journalist friend of mine recently attended his four-year-old daughter’s year-end dance recital here in Toronto. “Every dance was in some way about Canada,” he told me. “My daughter’s dance was Canada Geese. Another was Aurora Borealis. One dance was Our Aboriginal Peoples. And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, no.’” 
“It’s one of the youngest classes — very basic. No real theme, just introductory dance moves. The costumes are evocative of animal skins. The hair buns have little feathers. The theme was ‘Honouring the first people of North America.’ And I was freaked out. It was objectively innocent, benign, cute and even touching — and it was absolutely well-intended. But I’ve spent so much time in Stupid Twitter-Land that I expected the parents to stand up and start booing and hissing and calling for the studio owner’s head.” 
“No one did that, of course,” my friend added. “Normal people don’t do those things.”
My only criticism is that as the essay goes on he spends too much time talking about the precarious positions of the obscure Twitter users who police the norms of political correctness and not enough time dissecting why the respectable managerial classes care about those scoldings in the first place.  I get the interest in why someone administers those scoldings, but surely one reason why they keep doing it is that it works.  And the question is why does it work?  Why do editors of major publications and managers at high levels care so much about being scolded over such trivial things?

There's at least some acknowledgment that political correctness is a thing because people in the right positions care about these scoldings over things that ordinary people neither know about nor care about.  That's progress.  But I'd like to really unpack why the Right-Thinking educated and managerial classes care so much about avoiding these scoldings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Hayek, Chapter 10

All I have to say is that Hayek knows precious little about engineers.  Yes, they can be somewhat obtuse about things outside their technical interests, but generally their jobs require them to pay attention (even if more attention than they would like) to human factors, costs, uncertainties, etc. Rarely is the task as well-specified as he thinks, and rarely is the entire design under one person's control. I share his dislike of social engineering, but engineering is not what he thinks it is.

On the other hand, chapter 11 opens with a sentence that I can appreciate:

"Never will a man penetrate deeper into error than when he is continuing on a road which has led him to great success."

I look forward to reading the rest of it.

Hayek, Chapter 9

Having talked about the difficulty in getting people to see emergent order in chapter 8, in chapter 9 he talks about the belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order.  This is definitely a thing, especially among the educated classes.  I find it funny that technocratic liberals also tend to like "natural" food.  It's generally believed that if there is emergent order in an institution then there must be missed opportunities, because resources are not being directed.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how modern this is.  Central authorities have always banged their heads against emergent orders, determined to rule rather than go with the flow.  I doubt that they put it in the same technocratic language as their modern counterparts, but the ability to let go and steer on the margins has never been a strong suit of rulers.

Sadly, this chapter is somewhat jumbled (he took the opposition to planning a bit too literally), and not always well-argued.  Steps and connections are left out.  I did manage to parse out, eventually, what he meant when he talked about people trying to plan the progress of the human mind:  I don't think he was talking about engineering the human mind like geneticists in Orphan Black, but rather plans for scientific discoveries, technological progress, and the progression of ideas in other scholarly endeavors.  The problem is that you can't plan where you will go when you engage with the unknown.  Things almost always turn out to be harder than you planned, and sometimes serendipity happens.  Hayek's point was that if we knew what we could/would discover next then we would have already made the discovery, so there's a logical impossibility.  I just wish he had organized his thoughts more clearly.

After arguing that, Hayek quickly leaps to arguing against the idea that truth is not determined by deduction from observations, but from hidden causes which have determined the thinker's conclusions, and thus truth or falsehood can depend on the social position (race, class, etc.) of the person making the argument. It seems that he's arguing against ideas of implicit bias, but I don't really see how he got there from his previous point, unless he's making a very subtle argument against the idea that all of our knowledge is already in our minds (hence the possibility of planning) but some of it is fake (hence the possibility of bias or distortion).  It's a big leap of the argument.

Also, while I have no doubt that modern political correctness has plenty of antecedents (remember, one of the main themes of this blog is that all of this has happened before and will happen again), I'm mildly surprised that 1952 had substantial numbers of people arguing that implicit bias is a huge thing, or that the privileged cannot know certain things.  I suppose it's possible that the Marxists might have made the second point (I don't know, I'm just speculating) but that's the sort of argument that could easily be wielded by peasants against planners.  (Unless he's arguing against the idea that only the top of the ladder has the proper perspective.)

Near the end of this chapter, Hayek does offer one point that I like very, very much:  It is dangerous when people abandon religion but see no reason to submit to anything that they do not rationally understand. If people respect neither God nor arbitrary moral codes (and ultimately all "ought" statements are rooted in assertions rather than logic, a point that I spent this afternoon making to a colleague) then they could engage in great hubris.  If this comes at the same point in historical evolution as the rise of great technological capabilities (e.g. nuclear weapons) and a belief in the superiority of planning over emergent order then the unguided might create upheavals that lead to disaster.

I think we have the nuclear genie more-or-less controlled (arguably less, right now, with North Korea rattling the saber) but in higher ed I think we have undermined too many principles, leaving only short-term thought about individual selfishness.  Hayek might be greatly sympathetic to the good that can emerge from selfishness in market economies (and I am, as well) but institutions need rules (even for-profit companies require a certain amount of coordinated sacrifice for greater benefit down the road--it's the whole concept of investment in a project that involves more than one person!), and non-profit educational institutions supposedly offer a chance be supported while indulging one's passions via creative pursuits, in exchange for work that benefits students.  However, when the concept of duty collapses, when the quasi-monastic sacrifice inherent in academic work is regarded as an oppressive norm feasible only for men of a certain class and era, when pervasive and unfair bias is seen as driving every decision, then what is left but short-term selfishness?

Hayek, as a man of ideas, is less of a capitalist than he'd ever admit.  He wanted people to submit to duty and purpose without a clear answer to "Why do I have to listen and what is in it for me?"

Hayek, Chapters 6-8

To be honest, Hayek could trim a lot of his prose.  (OK, I could too, but a blog is basically a rough draft.)  That said, a few observations:
1) In chapter 6, I think Hayek is to some extent right to critique technocrats for treating social organization as a variable to play with for the purposes of optimizing some other measure, e.g. optimize productivity or learning or whatever.  What if people want to use their land for something other than the most profitable function?  What if people want to organize their region into small suburbs instead of subjecting their infrastructure to region-wide governance?

I can think of good reasons to optimize many things and ask people to re-organize in many cases, but are my reasons "good enough"?  That's a value judgment, and different people will reach different conclusions in different cases.  Technocrats treat people and their interactions as means rather than ends unto themselves.

2) In chapter 7, Hayek gets into the social scientist's assumption that outside observation is at least as good as inside knowledge.  I think that when it comes to operational details of a business, Hayek has a very valuable point.  That said, the detached view also has value, and you probably learn the most from a combination of perspectives.

However, I find it rather amusing to see a defense of local knowledge against detached outsider scientists coming from the right flank of the economic/political spectrum, because it comes quite close to "Westerners could never understand a non-Western society" arguments that you get more from the cultural left.  In fairness, honest libertarians have always combined economic views from the right with socially liberal views and respect for self-determination.  Hayek does not lack for self-consistency, but it's still funny to see a social justice argument from him.

I should add that in some ways Hayek and the social justice arguments for marginalized groups are the opposite of post-modernism.  PoMo types tend to (maddeningly) argue "You can see nothing because you are stuck inside the power structures that color your perspective", leaving unanswered "OK, but you're also spouting off while standing inside the power structures, so how do you know anything?"

I think the better PoMos have answers, but not the typical dilettante spouting off to be contrarian.

3) In chapter 8, Hayek talks about the possibility of an institution serving a purpose for which it was not designed.  I find this to be one of the hardest points to make in talks with colleagues.  As long as, say, the latest idiotic "Strategic Planning" or "Assessment" exercise has some ostensibly good justification, I'm supposed to focus on that rather than the fact that it never works but does serve the self-interests of bureaucrats disconnected from the stated mission of the university.  If people could better understand how patterns of action (or inaction) can be self-sustaining while running counter to earnestly-stated (and even honestly-believed) proclamations then maybe we could do a better job of fixing things.

Or maybe it would all devolve into cynical looting when people allowed themselves to discuss how things actually work.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Chapters 1-2 of _The Counter-Revolution in Science_

Hayek spends much of the first chapter arguing that bringing science to social questions has done little to bring insight.  I already gave my general critique of Hayek as an ideologue in the previous post; here I want to focus on the nature of social science, and what I think Hayek gets right and wrong.

The biggest difference between natural science and social science is that natural science is more about discovery while social science is more about testing.  Yes, natural and social scientists both make discoveries and they both test hypotheses, but human experience provides us plenty of ideas about social issues, and in some sense most social ideas are right within a certain domain of applicability.  You don't need a double-blinded, properly-controlled, statistically rigorous study to know that standardized tests cannot tell you the entirety of a person's abilities, that humans have biases, that people often manage to rise above their prejudices, that people also fall short of their ideals, and that small changes in policy can have large or small effects in difference circumstances.  As basic ideas, I think that casual observation of the world is sufficient support for all of them.

What social science can do at its best is answer questions like "When? Under what circumstances?"  Social science can take us from "People have many biases, but they don't always control our behavior" to "Unconscious biases measured by this instrument have demonstrable effects in these settings but not those other settings."  Social science can take us from "Sometimes policy changes matter, sometimes they don't" to "Raising the minimum wage by $0.25/hour from a baseline of $10/hour will have little effect on unemployment in a city with a high cost of living, but raising it by $2/hour in a locale with a low cost of living could have measurable effects on unemployment."  Social science can take us from "Standardized tests don't tell you everything" to "Due to the narrow range of scores, the quantitative section of the GRE has little predictive power for PhD students in such-and-such field, but the relevant subject test explains X% of the variance in outcomes as measured by the following instrument."

So social science does not necessarily tell us much that we don't know on SOME level, but it tells us much about when our intuitions are valid and what their limitations are.  Hayek, being interested in grand social questions and large "Ought" issues missed that, on some level.  Ironically, though, Hayek's grandest hypothesis was falsifiable by casual observations (Western Europe is not a hellhole) without fancy statistical methods.  He railed against a harder enemy than he was actually taken down by.

Natural science operates in domains where we have much less intuition, and much less prior experience from which to develop ideas.  By the time we know enough to even frame a precise hypothesis about certain topics, we're often on our way to testing it.  That's not to say that wrong ideas never take off, and that there's never a contest of hypotheses, but we're definitely operating in realms where we have (comparatively) fewer preconceptions to cling to.

Ironically, the people who most abuse social science are probably closest in practice to Hayek's approach to social questions.  They run with a few findings that flatter their preconceptions and ignore contrary findings.  They love "ought" more than "is."  The only difference is that they flatter themselves with a pretense of empiricism, whereas he is openly critical of the excesses of empiricism.

Next reading: Hayek's _The Counter-Revolution of Science_

I couldn't bring myself to read Dewey.  He's just too boring.  Now I understand progressive educators a bit better:  Reading Dewey would be enough to make anyone hate reading.  I'll try again, after I've had a bit more summer vacation to recover, but for now I need a break.

Instead I'm reading The Counter-Revolution of Science by F. A. Hayek.  I picked it up on a whim, while browsing the science section of a used bookstore.  Honestly, two chapters in, I think I'm going to be pretty critical of this book, but since it's a book that says a lot of things I'm inclined to agree with I suppose that my negative commentary on it will be a useful corrective.

This book is quite critical of social science as science, arguing that it's a mistake to approach social questions with the methods of natural science.  On the surface, I may be primed to agree, for a number of reasons.  First, as I've noted many times, the technocrats of the modern managerial classes like to derive their "ought" statements from news reports in the "According to a recent study..." genre.  They want the world to be simple. They want neat theories that avoid the complexities of human nature, and they want policies that people will comply with rather than either game it or push back.   Well, people aren't like that, but I work in a system where many try to pretend that people are or ought to be like that. So I ought to like a Hayekian critique.  Also, Hayek was very much a libertarian, and I lean libertarian in my non-academic politics, and to a certain extent that bleeds over into my academic politics. (Though only to an extent; in the end I still like the authority of the sage on the stage, and a true libertarian has to distrust authority.  In my defense, I like the authority of the sage who analyzes complex questions from many angles, not the authority of the well-funded technocrat who holds forth on Best Practices.)

In order to understand my ambivalence about Hayek's writings here, we first have to understand a bit about where Hayek was coming from.  Hayek wrote much on economics and politics, and won a Nobel Prize for his economics work.  However, while he did economics work that earned praise from the wider profession (I'm not qualified to judge it myself, I can only surmise that it must have been respected if he won a Nobel), he also produced a lot of political and ideological commentary that was much more controversial.  He argued quite forcefully that the modern Western administrative state will lead to tyranny as surely as the 20th century Marxist states did.  Indeed, among non-academic audiences The Road To Serfdom is arguably his most popular work, and in there he argues that the complexity of managing an economy will inevitably require a more and more comprehensive administrative state that ultimately takes away human freedom.

As much as I disdain managerial liberals, it is an empirical fact that Western Europe didn't turn into Eastern Europe.  That's just a fact.  There are numerous reasons for that, reasons that I won't pick apart in gory detail here, but surely we must include among those reasons the fact that managerial liberals tend to balance their well-meaning obsessions with a bit of selfish laziness.  They might want to make the world into a particular image, but they also want to see good things happen while carving out a comfy and self-flattering niche for themselves.  One easy way to do that is to let market-driven processes do their part in society (and thereby do some good), while also administering some programs that can be made to look like they are doing some good.  It's a win-win for everyone.  Western managerial liberals don't need the total domination that Russian rulers (and their viceroys) need.  Culture matters, and Western managerial liberals have ways of making themselves feel like they are doing good without the total domination that Eastern Europeans require.  So we simply haven't seen Western societies with mixed economies turn into Eastern European tyrannies.  I certainly won't defend everything that Western social engineers have done, but Hayek's prophecies failed badly.

Also, managerial liberals are ill-suited for true tyranny, because true tyranny requires that somebody be able to say "You!  Against the wall!  Now!"  Western liberals would  never do that.  They'd say "You!  Report to this place with the following forms filled out!  Within 60 to 90 days or as summoned!"  There have been plenty of abuses by Western authorities, plenty of individual-scale human rights violations that are as appalling as anything out of the East, but it isn't the managerial liberals who want to scale it up.  When they see those things they feel terrible and say "This calls for an immediate investigation and evaluation process, followed by a top-to-bottom review and retrospective analysis for the formulation of reform guidelines!"  That bureaucratic process might not do anybody any good, but it also won't entrench the abuses that they're responding to.  Mostly it will entrench ineffectual responses to abuses, while sending a message that abuses need to be kept on a level of "plausible deniability."

There's a ton that's wrong with it, but it doesn't give you Eastern Europe.  It gives you a modern US city, where the police can get away with a lot but they also can't scale it up.  What scales it up is political cover for the police, and that (mostly) comes from a different segment of the political spectrum than managerial liberalism.

Mind you, the tools created by managerial liberals can and will be abused by illiberal authorities of other mindsets, but the point is that the modern mixed economy isn't enough to give you the sort of illiberal regime that Hayek feared.  You need other elements.  Venezuela is as close as we've seen to a left-liberal state sliding into tyranny gradually rather than overnight, and Venezuela had elements beyond left-liberal administrative types overseeing a mixed economy.  It had an openly Marxist and populist demagogue.

But I'm getting far afield from The Counter-Revolution of Science.  I think I'll just stop this post here, with my critique of Hayek's most famous prophecy, and take up the current reading in the next post.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shills gonna shill; it's their code

The CEO of General Motors (a company that recently laid off workers) is announcing a $10 million initiative to improve STEM education and get more kids to learn how to code:
But the engineering talent and computer coding skills that the industry needs is in short supply. That's why General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced a new push to train engineers on Wednesday in New York City. The effort is specifically aimed at recruiting women and minorities. 
GM has long helped train engineers. Barra earned a degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan -- now Kettering University -- an engineering and business school that was, at the time, operated by GM. 
"A car today has hundreds of millions of lines of code," Barra said in an exclusive interview with CNN. "We do see a shortage if we don't address this and I mean fully fundamentally. Every child needs to have these skills."
Wednesday's announcement is part of GM's larger push to spend over $10 million in 2017 to improve education in the so-called STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math.
Well, I checked out their job openings.  As of June 28, 2017 they have 254 engineering jobs open, at a wide range of experience levels.  They could, if they wanted, take that $10 million and use it to bump up the pay and benefits by an average of $40k per opening.  Or they could invest in on-the-job training, bringing in people whose resumes show potential but aren't ideal matches to the jobs.  That's what they would do if the talent shortfalls were as serious as they claim.  Instead they're talking to reporters about STEM education.

What I find most fascinating is that GM used to operate Kettering University but has walked away from it.  If they have such great needs for STEM talent, why not keep running a university that meets their needs?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Amen, I say unto you, the edufad hucksters will always be among you

Not much time to say anything substantive about it, but I appreciate this article on the self-esteem fad of the eighties and nineties. It bears more than a passing resemblance to grit, growth mindset, and even values affirmation interventions.
Salerno said that these ideas totally transformed education in many parts of the country. It wasn’t just Koosh balls and cheesy mirror exercises — in many schools, prevailing assumptions about academic rigor and feedback changed too. The thinking went, “Don’t make kids feel bad about everything, because if they feel bad they’ll perform poorly,” as Salerno put it. Self-esteem also became centered in the long-running national conversation about societal inequality. “There was this sense of the inner city falling behind — specifically black kids in the inner city are not performing as well as other kids,” said Salerno. “And there was this assumption that it was because they lacked self-esteem.” If you can boost your self-esteem, you can close the achievement gap. The nice thing about this theory, Salerno noted, is it doesn’t require much of a fundamental reworking of the educational system — it’s something of an easy way out. In many cases, advocates focused on self-esteem “rather than hiring better teachers, spending more money on actual schools and instruction. It became a surrogate for the stuff that might actually have done some good.”

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Political correctness flatters the elite

I am too tired to comment on this, but I very much enjoyed this National Review article (did I really just type that?) about class, political correctness, and college.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Don't fall for the hype

Yesterday I attended another university's graduation ceremony, for a friend's son.  While walking across the campus I passed by this:
(The street and trees are not on the other side of the window; they're reflected in the window.)

It's the Hyperstruction Studio.  As near as I can tell, it's a special classroom for interactive teaching.  That's nice as far as it goes, but another page suggests that it's a single room with a lot of staff and technology support.  That's going to be a hard thing to scale up to some sort of "Systemic Transformation" or whatever, seeing as how you can't set up every room in every building to have a special layout and intense support.

The fact that academics feel a need for such special things, with buzzword names, talking about transformation and change in the context of something that is way too expensive to scale, it all speaks to the restlessness that seems to have gripped academia.  It's sad that we are so restless when we have the treasures of ages of knowledge, the tools to double that knowledge in short time, and a generation of students to pass those things along to.  Why so restless?

Incidentally, the home page for the Hyperstruction Studio has no links to the pages I linked above.  I found all of those links via Google.  There is something richly amusing about techno-hype types having such useless home pages.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Authority and character vs. process and markets

Working in a non-profit setting with a union and a tenure system, you learn certain things about character and its importance, largely because the motivating "sticks" of authority, process, and market forces are all removed from the equation.  There are processes to deal with poor performance, but they are slow and weak, market forces (if they motivate people at all) mostly only motivate them to build themselves up for jobs elsewhere, and arbitrary authority is somewhere between non-existent and plausibly deniable.  Without those sticks, only a sense of duty will push people to do more than the most minimal. (Some readers might think they know which situation or situations I'm referring to, but I might be referring to other situations as well, and I might even have a different take on the particulars than you realize.) There are good things that come with that academic freedom, of course, not the least of which is the safety to take risks, but there

A commonplace observation is that process or market incentives do not suffer from those defects, and to a large extent that is true.  However, it only goes so far.  In a process-oriented institution, the person who's willing to rules-lawyer things can always find a way to get away with the minimum.  You can make the process stricter, but at best that just defines the minimum upward.  It might get more out of people than you were getting before, but in a dynamic setting, the high minimum of one year is neither high nor low but rather irrelevant in another year, because needs have changed.  So then you're back to "Where does it say that I have to..."

The threat to fire is only effective to the extent that it is a feasible decision, and the transaction costs of replacing a person are real.  Some of it can be chalked up to bureaucracy and regulation and litigation risks and all that, but even in the least-regulated "at will" environments the cost of bringing a new person up to speed is real.  The nature of the labor market will determine how easy it is to get someone who requires only minimal time to become productive.

Of course, people can rationally decide to bear a high transaction cost and endure a period of lost productivity because they don't want "the minimum", but that is only rational if you think on a long enough timeline where the message you're sending reaps long-term rewards.  Ultimately, it's rational at one discount rate but not rational at another discount rate.

But real people are not computers.  They can make good decisions, but they can also choose to  incur costs that were ill-advised in hindsight, or luck out and make better decisions than they had any foreseeable odds of making with the available resources.  And that's OK, because we're human.  Process can only take you so far before choking on its own transaction costs, markets can only tell you "Well, it depends on your risk tolerance", and not-strictly-rational "because I said so" decisions carry potential costs (via morale).  Culture and character matter, and when they fail, and when processes and markets fail, "because I said so" is necessary.

We try to avoid that conclusion in the modern world.  To a large extent that's a good thing:  Process in many settings is known as "the rule of law" and it's a very, very good thing.  A reasonable amount of legal process avoids bloodshed, as history shows up.  Too much gums up the gears, creating a space for people to do the minimum. And Arrow's Theorem, Sen's Theorem, and related insights show us that political process isn't much better.

Markets are very good things, as the failures of command economies teach us.  But Coase's Theorem only applies when you have zero transaction costs, complete information, and well-defined property rights.  To the extent that those assumptions fail, room is carved out for people to do the minimum and get away with it. Holmstrom's Theorem bears that out. And with arbitrary exercise of authority comes the opportunity to suck up to the boss and get on the right side.

So we're back to the fact that character and culture matter.

We try to deny that, and as I said it's largely for good reason.  We try to seek the "win-win" solutions.  We try to insist that we're doing things for purely rational reasons, not just because we want to.  But in the end, character and culture matter.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The two cultures on display: Gender studies

In the past few weeks two articles from gender studies have gotten some attention.  The first was not actually from gender studies as such, but was from two people attempting a hoax against the field of gender studies.  Whatever you think of the hoax and what it does or doesn't teach us, it certainly put gender studies in the spotlight.  The second one, "Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities" got less attention outside of physics, but is arguably more significant because it was offered sincerely.

I tried reading the second one.  I gather that it is using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for ideas in feminist theory, but I lack the background to put it in context.  It is a very, very dense read, impenetrable to an outsider.  That is not necessarily an unforgivable sin for a scholarly work; much of scientific writing is impenetrable to the non-expert.  However, C.P. Snow offered a partial defense of the impenetrable nature of scientific writing, arguing that science is the more cumulative of our "Two Cultures", and hence it is impossible to make scientific progress (or understand such progress) without understanding a body of existing knowledge.  On the other hand, he also noted that a scientist need not have a detailed knowledge of literature from the distant past, as long as the scientist knows which specific ideas from the past remain valid after replication efforts from the past.  In humanities, conversely, engagement with the primary text is everything, but the nature of innovation is such that new ideas and new works of art and literature can be generated without reference to prior work.  Engagement with a primary text written yesterday can be as intellectually satisfying as engagement with a primary text written in 4,000 years ago.  In light of that, I've argued that social science sits somewhere between humanities and natural science, being akin to natural science in many of its goals and standards, but engaging with human issues like humanities and re-fighting many battles in each generation (not always for ill).

So, where does gender studies sit?

An exhaustive answer to that question would require far more engagement with the field than I can lay claim to, but I can examine the article on "Quantum Identities" and ask where it sits in terms of requiring a reader with cumulative knowledge.  In that respect, gender studies sits quite far along the cumulative end of the spectrum.

I then decided to do comparisons with other fields.  I first picked two very recent articles from two respected psychology journals, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (whose editor seems to be a reasonably productive academic) and Psychological Science (which also seems to have a pretty respectable editorial board).  I can't claim to understand the full context, import, or meaning of the work in either article as well as a psychologist would, but I can certainly get an idea of what they're  trying to do.  They are much easier on the reader than the gender studies article.  I can come away with some idea of what I get and what I'm unsure about and questions beyond "Um, wtf are they saying?"

Of course, I'm a natural scientist, which means I understand statistics and am accustomed to reading experimental articles, and I have done a fair amount of reading of educational literature, which has some overlap with the psychological literature.  Perhaps "harder on this reader than an experimental psychology article" is an unfair standard for me to use in evaluating gender studies.  With that in mind, I googled for "top journals in history" and all of the links sent me to American Historical Review.  I picked an article from a little more than a year ago (since my institution does not have access to the most recent year) with a title that is not particularly interesting to me.   Again, I can read it.  It is accessible.

Gender studies thus seems to make more demands on the reader than many humanities and social science fields.  The exceptions that come most immediately to mind are philosophy (generally considered a humanities field, though formal logic overlaps strongly with mathematics and computer science) and economics (definitely a social science field, but strongly influenced by mathematics).  Given the leaning of gender studies literature towards ideas and experience rather than statistics (that is not meant as a criticism), I think we'd have to situate it in the humanities, while acknowledging areas of interest shared with social science.

It's worth asking is what purpose dense jargon serves.  In the natural sciences it enables us to speak with precision, both so that we can make claims that are testable in quantitative experiments and so that we can reference specific elements from a large body of cumulative knowledge.  In philosophy, my understanding is that the purpose of dense jargon is precision in the drawing of fine distinctions.  It doesn't lend itself to clarity of exposition for the non-expert, but it does lend itself to clarity of distinctions for insiders.

In light of these considerations, my conclusion is that gender studies presents itself in a manner most similar to philosophy.  If other academics wish to critique the field, it would be most reasonable to do so in comparison to philosophy.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A few links: There must be some way out of here

I'm still trying to work up a post on Dewey, but Dewey is a heavy read and finishing up the academic year is absorbing all of my mental energy.  In the meantime, a few links on the general sense that something is wrong in the world.

1) From The American Conservative, Is The West Spiritually Impoverished?

2) Writer Jacob Siegel, whom I'd not encountered previously, takes up the issue of how hollow the modern left and right are.  Being an academic I of course like what he says about Evergreen State, but that's not all that I like. Something is hollow and the center cannot hold.

3) Michael Lind wrote this article last year on the realignments taking place in our political parties.  I must quibble with this part:
From the Reagan era until recently, the GOP’s economic policies have been formulated by libertarians, whose views are at odds with those of most Republican voters.
GOP economic policies were not always formulated by libertarians.  Libertarians (or facsimiles thereof) formulated GOP economic rhetoric.  There's a difference.

4) From The Hedgehog Review: I want to agree with this lament about the fall of general education, but then I get to this part:
In that first meeting, my colleagues and I from the School of Arts and Sciences quickly came to the same conclusion as my class. Our students shared less a curricular life than an extracurricular one. What bound them together was not their classroom experiences, their chemistry labs, or the books they read, but, rather, the clubs they led, the basketball games they worshipfully attended, and the parties for which they diligently planned.
I'm not much of a fan of NCAA Division 1 football and basketball, but I'm a huge fan of extracurricular activities, and I think that college sports other than D1 football and basketball are excellent for developing character and teamwork.  In fact, I think that half of what I got from my university was a culture of networking and extracurricular activities that has served me well in my career.

Also, the author makes a point about research universities eclipsing colleges as the crown jewels of US higher education:
To answer that question, we must go back to the late nineteenth century, when the research university eclipsed the college as the most important institution of higher learning in the United States. Throughout the 1880s and ’90s, as research universities such as the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cornell grew in national and international prominence, their critics and advocates alike began to worry that a coherent and morally edifying body of knowledge was missing from American higher education.
While his point is factually correct, it's worth noting that the universities in Europe and other industrialized countries are even less undergraduate-focused than US institutions, and have even fewer (if any) general education requirements than US institutions.  If we've lost something, we've at least retained more than anyone else.

5) Also from The Hedgehog Review, a nice article on guilt in our modern secular world.  I like this part:
Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.” One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.
Much of what maddens me about the modern academy could probably be traced to modern secularists lacking traditional outlets for guilt.  Interestingly, a colleague recently accused me of posing as a saint when I invoked the Parable of the Talents to explain some of my views on academic work and duty.

I also like this bit, regarding people who posed as victims of the Holocaust or other tragic events:
What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public? 
Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world? 
I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.
Yep.  But I would go farther and offer that offering oneself as a victim in need of sympathy also provides a service to those who are looking for an outlet for their own guilt.  One person shifts the burden of guilt and in the process provides another person with a means of discharging their own burden.  If we don't need to actually work to improve the material conditions of others, but only express the right sympathies and throw administrative budgets (which never come out of our own pockets) at the proper events and displays, then sins can be forgiven on the cheap.

So what's to be done?  Well, science offers no hope:
Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for. 
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.
Science has done so much for us but we remain who and what we are and were.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Finally, some sanity on privilege, college, and jobs

I'm not predisposed to agree with a professor of work-life law about, well, anything.  However, Joan Williams has a great article in the NYT that practically reads like a synopsis of the things I blog about.  To wit, class matters as much as race:
But something is seriously off when privileged whites dismiss the economic pain of less privileged whites on grounds that those other whites have white privilege. Everyone should have access to good housing and good jobs. That’s the point.

And some sanity on college and the job prospects of people who don't go to college:
The second [step] is for Democrats to advocate an agenda attractive to low-income and working-class Americans of all races: creating good jobs for high school graduates. The college-for-all experiment did not work. Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates. We need to continue to make college more accessible, but we also need to improve the economic prospects of Americans without college degrees.
Accepted wisdom that decent nonprofessional jobs are gone for good lets elites off the hook. In fact, the United States has a well-documented dearth of workers qualified for middle-skill jobs that pay $40,000 or more a year and require some postsecondary education but not a college degree. A 2014 report by Accenture, Burning Glass Technologies and Harvard Business School found that a lack of adequate middle-skills talent affects the productivity of “47 percent of manufacturing companies, 35 percent of health care and social assistance companies, and 21 percent of retail companies.” Middle-skill jobs are important jobs: radiology technician, electrician, modern robot-heavy factory worker, emergency medical technician, wind turbine technician. In some cities, a construction boom is hobbled by a lack of plumbers. We might ameliorate this problem if we stopped talking about plumber’s butt.
I'm just baffled that something this sensible could be published in an elite outlet like the NYT.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Two quick links

One of my themes here is that liberal establishment ideas are rooted in unexamined assumptions and privileges.  So, two relevant links:

1) From Quillette, an article arguing that the difference between Eastern and Western Europe on the issue of Muslims refugees is that Eastern Europeans have been the conquered rather than the conquerors. I personally support taking in refugees, but I think the mindset of those who disagree is worth understanding rather than dismissing.  However, I think the biggest error in this piece is exaggerating Western European openness to refugees.

2) Timothy Burke uses the example of Donald Trump to dispute Jonathan Haidt's claim that liberals don't have a sense of sacred vs. profane.  Burke argues that liberals simply hold sacred very different things than what conservatives hold sacred.  Here I strongly agree with Burke.  Liberalism has plenty of religious aspects.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In which I quote the Gospels

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells the story of people who are given bundles of money ("talents", from an old Greek word) by their master; some invest it and make more and give their master the profit, while others simply save it away and when their master returns they give back what they were given without increase.  The master is angry at the one who did nothing with what he was given, and is pleased at the ones who made much of what they were given.  This is not a parable about stock markets (Jesus wasn't a fan of the moneylenders) but rather a parable about the duty to use what you are given. But progressive education is based on the idea that the most important thing we can do is lower the bar to admit everyone, which essentially demands that the best students twiddle their thumbs for the benefit of their less-advantaged peers.  Their talents are not to be developed.

Now, that idea is not without defensible motivations, even if they are mistaken motivations.  The following section of the Gospel of Matthew is about those who serve the least of Christ's people; you are blessed when you help them, because by helping them you help Him.  It is believed among those who teach in non-elite institutions that we are doing what Christ commanded, but I do not believe that collecting tuition checks in furtherance of credential inflation serves the disadvantaged, and I do not believe that it dignifies the less intellectually gifted to water down a Bachelor's degree.  What is wrong with getting vocational training and then getting a productive job? I would rather dignify the work that they can do, and embrace the ethos that all productive work is noble, than hold up a particular credential as the most respectable path for everyone.  At the same time, I would rather empower those who have talent, and help them make the most of what they have.

Of course, there is nothing worse than hypocrisy, and I do put my actions where my words are.  I've invested quite a bit of time in helping students network for jobs, including students who are not necessarily from the most privileged backgrounds.  I have done a lot of resume critiques and spent a lot of time helping students prepare for interviews and career fairs.  Indeed, this week I will be helping somebody go over a presentation for a technical interview.  So I do act as I speak.  And I believe that if I can empower disadvantaged but talented students to get jobs, I can help them to help the communities from which they hail.  But this requires recognizing that human variability is a thing, and that we must develop those who have talents rather than expecting them to sit back while we focus on those who are least-prepared for what we have to offer.

As an aside, an interesting thing about the word "talent" is that the modern English usage (meaning "ability" or "aptitude") is derived from the Parable of the Talents.  In older language it referred to a unit of weight used in regard to money (i.e. the money that the Master gave in the parable).

Awesome quote from The American Conservative

Not much time, but I must share this quote from an article in The American Conservative:
Administrators aren’t particularly loyal to the core higher-ed mission of discovering and disseminating knowledge. Many are failed academics whose only talents are regurgitating on cue vacuous corporate jargon—“innovating in strategic processes,” “developing new thought leadership platforms,” and so on—and attending conferences with each other. And in student grievance, they have found an endlessly renewable energy supply.
This is an unlikely alliance between corporate middle-management and self-styled student radicals, adolescent zealotry getting pimped by bureaucrats. And it’s playing out all over higher ed. Over the last two years, usually in response to some rash of undergrad intolerance, colleges and universities have hired about 75 new “diversity” administrators.
Indeed. The fact that identity politics is so compatible with administrative interests should be setting off warning lights in the minds of liberals, but elite liberals have no concept of how co-opted they already are.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We broke our postmodern cage and ran

We're revisiting the 90's right now, partly because Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell just died and partly because some people attempted to replicate the Sokal hoax, publishing a nonsense article full of dense gender studies jargon.  For those too young to remember the glories of the 90's, Sokal published an article full of incomprehensible postmodernist jargon, making some sort of pretentious claim about physics being just, like, your opinion, man.  Or something.  It wasn't really supposed to make sense.  Anyway, these authors published an article arguing that the whole concept of a penis is just an invented concept, or something.  Then they published an article revealing that their first article was never meant seriously, and the fact that it nonetheless got published proves that the field of gender studies is bunk.  Or something.

Now, whether these authors have really taught us anything about alleged problems in the field of gender studies is very much a contested claim, not the least because the article was turned down by an undistinguished journal before being accepted by an even less distinguished journal.  But I'm not interested in dissecting alleged problems in the field of gender studies.  Rather, I want to note a different point, about the contrasts between the fashionable postmodernism of the 90's and the fashionable identity politics of today.

On the surface there are similarities.  The identity studies and identity activist types of today and the postmodern literary theorists and Science Wars types of the 90's both agreed that you can dismiss an idea if it is Western, patriarchal, colonialist, yadda yadda.  Both are ultimately signaling games for people with a certain type of education.  And both are largely rubbish from an intellectual perspective.

Still, there are two key differences:
1) The PoMo guys didn't seem to believe in truth.  OK, they probably believed that Western, male, yadda yadda ideas were even less true than others, but ultimately they seemed to think that everything is just, like, subjective, man.  So, yes, they would reject Western, patriarchal, yadda yadda ideas, but they'd also reject any other idea if you got too enamored of it.

The modern identity politics types, OTOH, seem to believe that they have access to truth.  They don't just want to tell everyone that stuff is complicated and depends on your point of view.  They want to claim that truth comes from the margins and so while my white, Western, male, yadda yadda opinion might be wrong, theirs is right.  There are problems with claiming moral authority on the grounds that truth can only come from the margins, as I've noted before, but they certainly make that claim.

2) The PoMo guys had hard reads.  Foucault is not for the faint of heart. Marx (not PoMo but nonetheless appreciated by a certain type of humanities scholar) can only be read with a lot of caffeine and cigarettes. OTOH, I am pretty sure that you could do just fine with the modern politically correct types if you read a few privilege think-pieces and just nodded along with whatever they said.  They have truth, and as long as you acknowledge that it's good.  There's no intellectual game to be played, no idea to be skewered, just a "yes-and" discussion.  Remember your victim hierarchy, defer to others* the loudest when in doubt, and it will be fine.  You don't need thick books or nuanced arguments, just rhetorical cudgels.

So, as much as I like the 1990's, and as much as I would like to return to them, we aren't there.  We're in a different era.  The PoMos read thick books, and as much as they annoyed me back then I would gladly take them over the current wave of identity politics.

Mind you, the 90's did have political correctness, but that was a different beast, an angrier one than the PoMo types.  And I never had to encounter much of the PC because it had already self-discredited by the time I entered a pretty Republican-heavy college.  It didn't disappear but it dial back a notch.  PoMo was a lesser evil, in retrospect, because it was always just a game, a game that ended the second that we got a Republican in the White House and (more importantly) the EPA.  Science is only a social construct until somebody tries to ignore it.  Then every liberal turns into a raging technocrat.  But while "That's just, like, your opinion, man" gets tossed aside when practical considerations dictate so, identity politics shows little sign of abating.  Alas.

Anyway, the post title comes from a song that was written by Chris Cornell (who died this week) and was covered by Johnny Cash in 1996 (the year of the Sokal hoax).

*My apologies for Othering people :)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Back to book blogging: The Philosophy of John Dewey

I'm reading a collection of essays by John Dewey.  About 2/3 of the volume is on philosophy, and largely out of my depth, so I've just skimmed those parts.  But now I'm at a 1931 essay titled "Science and Society."  The editor of the volume indicates that this essay deviates somewhat from Dewey's usual views on the nature of knowledge--he treats science as impersonal, objective knowledge, whereas usually he stressed the contextual nature of knowledge and learning.  That is actually unsurprising to me, because the second half of this essay reads as technocratic, and technocrats have a soft spot for the opportunities offered by objective knowledge.  Of course, he spends the first half of the essay urging would-be technocrats to be less smug (and good for that!) but Dewey was neither the first nor last technocrat to think that if they just rethought the project they could totes make it work.

He starts by noting that the societal changes wrought by technology had not actually changed human nature:
In its effect upon men's external habits, dominant interests, the conditions under which they work and associate, whether in the family, the factory, the state, or internationally, science is by far the most potent social factor in the modern world. It operates, however, through its undesigned effects rather than as a transforming influence of men's thoughts and purposes. This contrast between outer and inner operation is the great contradiction in our lives. Habits of thought and desire remain in substance what they were before the rise of science, while the conditions under which they take effect have been radically altered by science.
Maybe that's because technology isn't actually new to human beings.  Indeed, we control the planet precisely because we are the best tool-users on the planet.  So a technology-reliant existence isn't a new existence for humans, it's actually all that humans have known for at least a few tens of thousands of years.  We fought off predators by using spears rather than superior muscles and speed, we survived the ice age with fire and blankets rather than fur and insulating fat, and we acquired food with tools rather than claws.  And while I freely concede that the pace of technological change today is greater than in ancient times, when I read the classics I do not notice any substantial differences in human nature.  The Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek philosophers, the scribes of ancient Egypt, they all show people who are remarkably similar to today's people.  The educated classes of today feel compelled to visibly celebrate diversity, but similarity is a much bigger fact of human existence.

Having just conceded that humans of 1931 are remarkably similar to those of the past, Dewey goes on to note that information technology has not transformed society:
No sooner do we begin to understand the meaning of one such change than another comes and displaces the former. Our minds are dulled by the sudden and repeated impacts. Externally, science through its applications is manufacturing the conditions of our institutions at such a speed that we are too bewildered to know what sort of civilization is in process of making.
Because of this confusion, we cannot even draw up a ledger account of social gains and losses due to the operation of science. But at least we know that the earlier optimism which thought that the advance of natural science was to dispel superstition, ignorance, and oppression, by placing reason on the throne, was unjustified. Some superstitions have given way, but the mechanical devices due to science have made it possible to spread new kinds of error and delusion among a larger multitude.
The airplane binds men at a distance in closer bonds of intercourse and understanding, or it rains missiles of death upon hapless populations.
Honestly, this reads like an account of the hopes and subsequent disappointments among those who envisioned the internet as transforming society and freeing people.  Yes, the internet has enabled great things, and spread information to be used for good, but it has also been used for dull entertainment and malignant propaganda.  Let us remember that Wikileaks was originally founded as a site for undermining totalitarian regimes via the cleansing light of truth, but in 2016 it was used to advance the political machinations of a Russian dictator and his billionaire puppet.

Also, if we were to change the dated term "mechanical devices due to science" to "information technologies enabled by science" we would have something that any reader in 2017 would think is a critique of the internet.  It's been noted before that the rise of cinema was accompanied by predictions of the demise of universities (classes would be delivered on film reels), as was the rise of television.  It seems that every new information technology elicits the exact same cycle of euphoria and frustration.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Beyond information technology, Dewey's basic point is not so different from Kentaro Toyama's Law of Amplification: Technology doesn't so much level or transform human society as allow us to do what we were doing before only moreso.  The advantaged can derive more advantages from technology (though they can also fall if they don't keep up with competitors), the disadvantaged can be left behind in the new economy as they were in the old (though some can also discover a new path forward), people who seek to do good with technology can do more good with new technology, and people who seek to do ill with technology can do the same.

Having noted the ways that science has enabled both good and evil, merely amplifying on human nature rather than transforming it, Dewey goes on to note a point that has my most enthusiastic agreement (though not his):
Shall we try to improve the hearts of men regard without to the new methods which science puts at our disposal? There are those, men in position in church and state, who urge this course. They trust to a transforming influence of a morals and religion which have not been affected by science to change human desire and purpose so that they will employ science and machine technology for beneficent social ends. The recent Encyclical of the Pope is a classic document in expression of a point of view which would rely wholly upon inner regeneration to protect society from the injurious uses to which science may be put. Quite apart from any ecclesiastical connection, there are many "intellectuals" who appeal to inner "spiritual" concepts, totally divorced from scientific intelligence, to effect the needed work.
Indeed, my own belief is that character matters in every age.  Dewey will go on to urge that we apply the methods of social science to solve the problems of human society.  However, the 20th century saw the formulation of theorems (e.g. Holmstrom's Theorem, Sen's Theorem) that demonstrated the limits of what can be accomplished via institutional designs.  There's no way to totally automate decision-making.  And central planning failed.  In my own job I am seeing more and more evidence that "best practices" only take you so far, and in the end you need to hire and retain people with character and values that drive them to do the job within a reasonable incentive structure; process only gets you so far.

Anyway, Dewey does name two areas where the application of science to social problems has been beneficial:  Insurance (where we use statistics to price and mitigate risk, so that people can take the risks that inevitably accompany attempts at great things) and the germ theory of disease/hygiene.  However, the first example involves something that people can choose to buy, and that can be priced without subjective value judgments, and the second ties quite closely to facts of the natural world.  Neither relies too much on the steering of behavior.

He goes on to consider education as an arena for the application of science to social problems.  Despite the exasperation I often display with educational fads, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the idea of applying science to educational problems.  However, I believe that the passions aroused by the cultural, ethical, and political dimensions of education often leak into educational studies, and people believe that their subjective choices about which question to ask shape the answers that they get and (more importantly) the ways in which those answers are applied.  For instance, it is only very recently that people looked at whether "reformed" physics classes were as good as "traditional" classes for improving student understanding of the topics and skills that get greater emphasis in "traditional" classes (since "reformed" classes often emphasis different aspects of the subject).  For decades, many researchers were emphasizing "conceptual understanding" over quantitative problem-solving, for a number of reasons.  I have argued before that this is in part because of the cultural baggage that gets attached to mathematical reasoning (at least in the US), but most of the people who study physics education in the US are natural scientists who have not done a lot of reading on American cultural history, so they are blind to their own assumptions.  It is interesting that the lead author in the study I linked here is a psychologist, not a physicist, and is probably better-trained at unpacking cultural baggage and accompanying assumptions than most physicists would be.

(Then again, Dewey was trained as a philosopher, a field that specializes in skewering assumptions since at least the days of Socrates, yet he also fell into the technocrats' trap.)

So, as far as my own views go, I'm a big fan of social science as science, but skeptical of social engineering.  It's the difference between pure and applied science.  As far as Dewey, I find it fascinating that he could start an essay by noting the ways in which the technological environment experienced by humans has failed to change thought and behavior, but then express great confidence that science can be used to shape social environments in such a way as to steer human behavior.  In that sense the essay falls flat.  On the other hand, I give him full marks for understanding the distinction between changes in the technological environment and changes in human nature.  He even managed to note ways in which the information technology of his era failed to live up to hype about transforming society.  Too bad he didn't carry that humility forward in thinking about social engineering.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Common People

I have the song "Common People" by Pulp in my head.  Time to parody it and rant about the anti-intellectualism of the upper classes:
They're from back east,
They have no thirst for knowledge.
But they want to sculpt the kids in college,
That's where I
Caught their eye. 
They told me that their grant was funded,
I said "In that case we'll bring you to our department."
They said "Fine"
And then in thirty seconds' time
They said: 
"I want to teach the common people,
I want to help the common people learn,
I want to teach with common people,
I want to teach with common people
Like you."
Well, what else could I do?
I said "Huh.  I'll see what I can do." 
I took them to a freshman classroom,
I don't know why but I had to start it somewhere,
So it started there.
I said "Pretend your grants aren't funded."
They just laughed and said
"You're so funny!"
I said "Yeah?
I can't see anyone else smiling here." 
Are you sure
You want to teach the common people?
You want to teach whatever common people need?
You want to teach with common people?
You want to teach with common people like me?
But they didn't understand. 
They just smiled and spent their grant.  
Teach a class at six o'clock,
Thank your chair you have a job,
Grade some labs written by fools,
Pretend you liked to go to school,
Still you'll never get it right,
Cuz when you're working late at night,
Writing lecture notes for fall,
If you called your Dean they could stop it all, yeah,
You'll never teach like common people,
You'll never teach whatever common people need,
You'll never fail the common people,
You'll never watch your career slide out of view,
And then rant and drink
Because there's nothing else to do.

I need to add more.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lies, damned lies, and education research

As profiled today in Inside Higher Ed, the Center for Community College Student Engagement (a research center at UT Austin) released a study which shows that students who take full loads at least some semesters (preferably early on) are more likely to graduate than students who are always/mostly part-time. There are at least three plausible reasons why this might be true:
1) The more units you take the closer you are to finishing.
2) Attending full-time produces benefits beyond the accumulated credits, e.g. more interaction with faculty and classmates.  They provide data in support of that.
3) People who attend full-time have the advantage of some amount of financial security and stability in their personal lives, so they can focus on school.

 It appears that they did indeed ask students if they received Pell grants, i.e. they did ask about personal financial situations, but the summary that they provide says nothing about the analysis of that data, and simply says that everyone should attend full-time as much as possible.  When the summary and recommendations say nothing about the analysis of financial information, it's hard to know whether they controlled for the third possibility, so it's hard to know if full-time attendance for all is a good recommendation or not.  But they don't dwell on that.  They just tell everyone to go as much as possible.

Sadly, this is par for the course in much of educational research.