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 books that I don't have a strong motivation to blog about.

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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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Inclusivity and the legitimacy of class privilege

I've said before that the way academics talk about inclusion feels like a desperate bid for legitimacy.  The Chronicle has a review of a book about the switch to co-education in the Ivy League, and while I don't have time to summarize the entire review (and even if I had the time I wouldn't summarize it; I'd rather read the whole book than summarize a review) I think this line is worth quoting:
Skillful presidents and wardens, she argues, managed to convince skeptical alumni that their all-male alma maters must admit women or forfeit their elite status. Coeducation was necessary to shore up class privilege.
This is consistent with things I've noted in other contexts.  Interestingly, it's not just the elites that see diversity as the guarantor of legitimacy; people in non-elite educational institutions talk about their diversity as a way of deflecting questions about whether they are providing a meaningful educational experience for their students.  Personally, I think that the disadvantaged need their education to be even better, but what do I know?

To be clear, I think that going coed has been a hugely positive thing for higher education, and diversity and inclusion (when honestly pursued, rather than pursued cosmetically for the purpose of feeling good about one's own benevolence) are great things.  However, I think it's also clear that these things get viewed through the lens of preserving one's own status rather than sincere care for others.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Thought Leaders vs Public Intellectuals

I like this article  in the Chronicle:  Public intellectuals, people who know a lot, are on the decline, while "thought leaders", who have one Big New Idea (that might not actually be new at all) and they evangelize for it.

I think this explains a lot.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Politically incorrect

America doesn't have a problem with political correctness.  America's tribes have a problem with political correctness.

You can say anything you want in America.  You can't say anything that you want and still remain respectable in the eyes of various cultural groupings.

In America you can say that institutionalized racism and police brutality are so ingrained in our law enforcement services that it's impossible for the community to maintain confidence in the police.  If you say that in my academic circles you'll be regarded as speaking a common-sense truth that too many people deny.  If you say that in front of some of my non-academic Facebook friends they'll see you as Part Of The Problem.

In America you can dispute the claim that 1 in 4 female college students will be raped, and suggest that it's an exaggeration proffered to score political points.  You can't say that and retain credibility in certain academic circles.  You can say that and gain credibility in certain conservative circles.

In America you can say that abortion kills children.  You can say that and retain credibility in many religious communities.  You can't say that and remain respectable in a lot of liberal circles.

In America you can say that signing up for military service is morally questionable when America's wars for the past generation (or longer) have been so morally questionable and so remote from the stated purpose of defending freedom.  You can't say that and be electable, or be respectable in the eyes of a lot of my Facebook friends.  You can say that and be credible in certain left-wing circles (not to be confused with centrist liberalism).

In America you can say that America's gun obsession is irrational and primitive.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural and political contexts.  You cannot say that and be seen as credible in many other situations.

Finally, in America you can say that there is no God and religion is a lie.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural groupings.  You cannot say that and be elected to statewide office, let alone US Congress or the Presidency.  And depending on which (if any) Abrahamic faith you do or don't single out, you might get people to change their reaction from sympathetic to wary or vice versa.

Now, I happen to agree (at least to some extent) with some of the things that I wrote above.  I dissent from some of them.  Others I view as dramatic over-simplifications to the point where agreement and disagreement are equally meaningless. There's no need for me to demarcate for the reader which ones I agree or disagree with. But all of these are examples of protected speech that simultaneously get a lot of heads nodding while getting other people to reach for the torches and pitchforks.  Switch some of the statements and some people will switch sides.  Consequently, whether or not political correctness is a problem, whether or not orthodoxy is enforced, and whether or not a topic is radioactive, is a highly contextual matter.  Complaints about political correctness are almost as dubious as dismissals of those complaints.

I was thinking of this in the context of the Timothy Burke essay that I blogged a couple months ago.  If claims to truth are strengthened by being on the margin, then academics have a two-fold reason to contest complaints about political correctness and deny that it exist.  There's the obvious one: We academics have a genuine interest in ideas and debate, so we certainly don't want to admit it to ourselves if there are times when we stifle the exchange of ideas.  People can simultaneously hold a value in their hearts but also fall short of the ideal embodied in that value, but who wants to admit it?

Then there's the less obvious one:  If the marginality of the speaker is relevant to the truth value of their statements then enforcement of orthodoxy is self-defeating, and if somebody were to prove to us that we are enforcing an orthodoxy they would have taken a step to refuting the truth value of our claims.  We thus have to push back and deny that this is what we're doing, because otherwise we lose intellectual credibility both on our own terms (we've just loss our claim to the high ground of the margins!) and the terms of more rational people.

People are strange.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The other thing that the factories did

I think the nostalgia for the Good Factory Jobs is as much about the anxieties of A Certain Professional Class as it is about the anxieties of those in genuinely precarious positions.  You see, nobody in my professional class knows "what to do about" people who don't go to college.  We know that America can only be a stable, prosperous country if opportunities to contribute to and benefit from that prosperity are broadly-distributed, but none among us actually know what a person can do for a decent living without a college degree.  OK, we know that there are plumbers who make good money, and a number of other highly specific occupations that can lead to a comfortable middle-class life without a college degree.  But beyond that, most of us (me included) aren't entirely sure what else can be done.

I think we have the vague sense that success in a lot of the better manual/mechanical jobs requires the right combo of mechanical aptitude, general people skills, and business sense.  We aren't entirely sure how people develop these skills; we assume it's in a vocational track at the right high school or community college.  We also have the vague sense that some kids get that from their upbringing, from parents who had those things and imparted them.  However, the continued existence of an underclass tells us that there are plenty of kids who aren't being raised by/for that kind of middle class.  So we aren't entirely sure what should be done by/for/with/about the kids who aren't college material.

Well, we tell ourselves that we'll just send more people to college and adopt some sort of Best Practice to promote their success, but we aren't entirely sure what that means (and privately we sort of realize that it's a foolhardy idea, even though we'll never say it in front of policymakers).

Now, it is an empirical fact that while we do indeed have an underclass, we also have a working class that sits above the desperate underclass but below the guy who owns a highly successful plumbing business.  They are doing something, but people in my professional class don't really know what it is.  The truth is that it's thousands of different things, with varying levels of compensation, varying prospects for advancement, varying degrees of steadiness or precariousness, varying amounts of physical strain on the body, etc.  From the dentist's assistant to the guy who fixes your tire to any number of other people, these jobs are out there.  They aren't a perfect solution to anyone's problems in life, they don't always spread around prosperity and opportunity as broadly as one might hope, but they're out there and people do these jobs.  Some of these jobs are better than others, but people like me don't necessarily know which ones are better.

Also, we don't know how people get these jobs, how they prepare.  And, of course, there isn't one single answer.

But people in my professional class need A Single Answer.  We write Strategic Plans.  We draft Mission Statements.  We work in institutions charged with Training The Workforce and Providing Opportunity.  How can we do that if the world doesn't have An Answer?

Now we get to The Good Factory Jobs.

The Good Factory Jobs told older versions of me exactly where working-class kids went after high school.  The factory was there.  It was very visible.  You could see it from the road on your morning commute to the corporate office or government bureau or academic institution where people like me work.  We might not have ever set foot in those places, but they were right there, so we assumed that that was What Was Being Done About It.

But then The Good Factory Jobs left.  That was a genuine setback for a lot of people. At the same time, they didn't all go on welfare; many of them found jobs of numerous sorts. But we don't see those jobs.  Mind you, I'm not trying to minimize that by making this all about me and my colleagues.  I'm just trying to explain how little my colleagues and I understand this.

So even though people in my professional class would never (openly) vote for Trump, we all secretly hope that he brings those factories back.  Partly because, hey, however unrealistic it might be, wouldn't it be nice if it worked?  (Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either.  I'm just saying.)  And partly because then the factory would be The Answer.  We would know where the working class kids go.

But we don't know.  So we flounder on about how Higher Education Will Fix All.  Even though it won't.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The hand-wringer test

I have a casual interest in linguistics--I enjoy browsing an Indo-European dictionary and occasionally tweet about what I learn.  I thus came across this discussion of whether linguistics qualifies as a STEM field.  If the question is whether linguists approach questions in their field with a scientific mindset, or draw upon approaches akin to those in the natural sciences, the answer is an unambiguous yes.  Moreover, if that is enough to qualify a field as STEM then most/all social science fields are either STEM fields or at least have sub-fields that count as STEM.  Linguistics may have elements that are more akin to humanities (qualitative and descriptive analysis of texts and behavior), but it also has social science and even natural science (e.g. neuroscience) components.  It is, a minimum, a good fit for the stated description of STEAM, if not STEM.

However, I mostly approach the definitions of words from a descriptivist perspective, not a prescriptivist perspective.  STEM sits on a pedestal, and the descriptivist's question is not whether linguistics belongs on the pedestal but whether the gatekeepers will recognize its right to stand on the pedestal.  Linguistics may fit the gatekeepers' stated criteria for inclusion in STEM, but people are rarely honest about the criteria that they actually employ to determine admission to a pedestal.  You have to watch their actions, not just listen to their words.  And from my experience in a university where the local culture perceives its moral legitimacy as deriving from our work on bringing students into STEM, social science is only STEM when we're trying to be collegial with social science faculty, or when a social scientist is studying issues of STEM equity and the STEM workforce.

As I said in my post about STEAM, the way to figure out if a field is STEM is to do a though experiment involving students changing majors.  Suppose that two twins, Alice and Bob, start off as electrical engineering majors.  Alice then changes majors to physics, while Bob changes to a social science field.  Which decision would elicit more hand-wringing among the people who worry about the STEM Pipeline?

A tempting rejoinder is that we shouldn't care about the hand-wringers, we should just look at the intellectual rigor of the field, and we'd have to agree that there are plenty of things in linguistics that qualify as science.  I don't deny that, but I would note that (1) there are plenty of people whose work is definitely not science but is nonetheless intellectually rigorous (e.g. good scholars in the humanities) so why is intellectual rigor a sufficient criterion for inclusion in STEM? and (2) if we go down that road then most departments on a university campus would have STEM components (e.g. there's plenty of chemistry in art, plenty of acoustic science and technology in music, plenty of behavioral science in marketing, etc.) and STEM becomes so broad that it papers over the distinctions that make for intellectual diversity.  If STEM is the arbiter of good then everything is STEM and everything is good and everything belongs on campus, but we already agreed that the art and literature and business faculty should work on the same campus as the physicists and biologists and mathematicians, so what was the point of this label again?  Oh, right, STEM is on the pedestal.  Well, maybe instead of putting everything onto the pedestal we should point out how silly the pedestal is, and how ultimately destructive it is to the notion of intellectual diversity.

Anyway, I have a casual hobbyist interest in linguistics, and I certainly respect the rigor and value of the field, but I think that instead of including everything in STEM we should question why inclusion in STEM is considered so valuable.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The lie that my high school teacher told me

In my previous post I blogged about how there's no real mystery to academic achievement, how my teachers told me I'd be on my own in college so I studied accordingly.  Now I want to talk about a lie that they told me:

One of my high school English teachers said that in college you're expected to read books that aren't explicitly assigned.  She said that if a literature professor assigned a novel it was understood that besides reading the assigned novel you should be independently scouring the library for critiques of the novel and background on the writer, so that you could come to class prepared to contribute to the discussion.

I took that to heart.  The summer before my freshman year of college I was given the reading list for the humanities class that I would take that fall.  The class had a pretty long list of classic works, and I decided that I would read the thickest book on that list during the summer, so that when all hell broke loose in fall I would have the worst assignment out of the way.  So I read The Brothers Karamazov.  And then I did one better: I read a biography of Dostoyevsky, because my teacher said that you're supposed to be proactive like that.

Well, in the middle of that first semester we were reading Dostoyevsky (and chemistry was hard as hell and sucking up all my attention, so I was very glad that I was ahead in my humanities class), and during one of the discussions a classmate started offering assertions about the author's life and views and how they related to whatever scene in the novel.  I honestly don't remember what her point was, but I do remember that her assertion about Dostoyevsky's life was 100% wrong (remember, I'd actually read a biography of him, though I don't remember much of it 23 years later), and when I pointed that out the professor and class were rather uninterested.

So much for the idea that you have to be on top of things in college.  Mrs. Sadowsky lied to me!

Why I am what I am

I went to a decent high school.  Not fancy, not lousy.  Science labs were OK but we weren't putting out national science fair competitors.  Most kids weren't poor but most weren't upper-middle-class either.  Not particularly disadvantaged but not a lot of affluent kids either.  Pretty much in the middle.  Which is fine.  We had college-prep classes but we also had a lot of vocational classes.  It was a decent school in the middle of the class hierarchy.  I was more privileged than a lot of the US but less privileged than a lot of the people I later met in college.

One thing that was repeatedly driven home to me by my teachers was that we would be on our own in college, and that there would be no hand-holding.  It was repeatedly said that we would have to figure it out, that they wouldn't patiently explain to us how much we should be reading and reminding us to study and reminding us to do our homework and turn it in on time.  It would be hard and we would be on our own.  This was repeatedly said to me and my middle-class friends.

And, to a large extent, that was true.  College was a bit more structured and supportive than my high school teachers made it sound, but only a bit.  Ultimately, it was on me.  I accepted that from day one, and it felt utterly unsurprising to me that I was doing well because I studied all the time.  It felt utterly unsurprising when friends and dorm-mates who studied less didn't do as well.  It's the natural order of the world.  Likewise, in grad school I felt a bit more burned out, a bit more interested in my own life, and I didn't do as well as I did in college.  I still got through, but I was not on top, and that was no surprise to me because I didn't put as much in.  Then I became a professor and buckled down more and published more and got decent student evaluations because I put in a ton of prep and none of this seemed at all surprising to me.

So you can imagine how strange it seems to me when people keep saying that we need to do more for students who don't know how to study, how to take notes, how to manage their time, etc.  It baffles me that we are supposed to be responsible for their success.  Why would we be?  Why would it be my problem that people who never put much effort into mastering freshman material are now doing poorly with advanced material?  Why is it my duty to fix this?  It's not like I could actually do anything about it (you only get the benefit of years of effort by putting in years of effort--there are no secret tricks), so why is it my responsibility?

Likewise, it seems strange to me when people say that it's so unfair that we attach weight to grades and test scores.  I got into a college with people who were way above me in the class hierarchy, people whose parents had more money and more degrees, people who had attended prep schools and magnet schools.  I was there because I had done at least as well as they had done on the SAT (among other things).  I got better grades than them in college.  I out-studied them, out-performed them in the academic arena, and moved ahead academically.  Isn't that how it's supposed to be?

I've spent more than two years reading and blogging about the cultural currents that underlie the notions that seem so strange to me, but I'll be honest:  To this day there's still a part of me that thinks "Well, duh, I studied my ass off because my teachers all told me that that's what I'd have to do to succeed in college.  What else were you expecting?"

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Project idea: Incentives, measurement, and fairness

Among the problems that I find most fascinating and most frustrating is the that of people who want to systematize education and incentives.  We all agree that what we really want is meaningful, intensive, in-depth discussion of important topics, creative assignments, and lots of attention to students as individuals.  We all agree that this is hard to systematize and measure, even if some approaches are clearly less bad than others.  We all agree that the things that are easiest to measure are not quite what we desire. We all agree that the more you incentivize something the more that people will focus on hitting the metric rather than doing what the metric is supposed to be a proxy for (sometimes called Campbell's Law).  And we all agree that without incentives of SOME sort people will get lazy.  So we have a hard problem.

My thought is that if a simple metric isn't TOO distant from what you really want, and if the competition isn't TOO intense, then being measured will keep people from being lazy, but because you still have some flexibility (the competition isn't so intense as to push you into a single-minded focus on that metric) and because you yourself actually value the thing that REALLY matters (and the metric isn't completely decoupled from it) then you'll show up to work and split your effort between hitting the metric and doing the more meaningful thing that everyone REALLY values.

But if the competition is more intense then you have to hit that number no matter what.

As to the people measuring you, on some level they know that the simple metric is flawed, but they face two other pressures;
1) Measuring something closer to what they want would be more expensive.
2) Because those measurements are of limited precision and may be subjective, it would be seen as unfair to focus so much on them.  Indeed, I sometimes think that the current focus on the findings of bias research plays into this:  The output of the bias research community has demonstrated that everything we do can be unfairly biased.  It's thus tempting to seek simpler and more transparent technical evaluations instead of subjective appraisals of nebulous quality.

So here's my idea for a model:

An administrator has a pot of money to allocate and people.  The funder assigns money based on two measures, and easy one and a hard one.

The researchers getting the money have to allocate their efforts among three things: Leisure (bad!), hitting an easy target (which generates some utility, but quickly reaches the point of diminishing marginal returns), and hitting a hard target (which takes more effort but yields more satisfaction).  

The administrator's utility payoff is based on 3 things:
1) How much effort people allocate to doing hard things.  The payoffs here are huge, because the administrator gets to take credit for good things that happen in the system that he/she oversees.
2) How fair and transparent the administrator is.  The more the administrator rewards easy things, the more that political bosses and/or the public will perceive him/her as fair and transparent.
3) How much time the administrator invests in measuring the hard thing.  The payoffs here are negative because it's hard to measure.

The researchers' utility payoff is based on 3 things:
1) How much time they spend on leisure.  There are diminishing marginal returns here.  Zero vacation days will kill a person, but after too much vacation they want to get back to the lab.
2) How much time they spend on hard things.  There are increasing returns on scale here, because you don't get anywhere until you've invested a lot of effort.
3) How much money they get from the administrator.

What can we say about the Nash Equilibria of this problem?  It strikes me as posing issues similar to Holmstrom's Theorem.

On some level I've basically outlined the issue to the point where a key idea can be presented:  The easy measure is useful to the extent that it satisfies the public's need to see that the system is honest, and also keeps researchers from being lazy.  The easy measure is parasitic to the extent that it diverts time away from what is meaningful.  You can say "Just improve the easy measure so it's more aligned with what you value!" but the key points are:
1) Measuring valuable things is hard (by assumption).
2) Aligning the easy measure more closely with what you really value is great, but if the competitive pressures are high enough you'll eventually see the difference between the easy measure and what  you really value.  When competitive effects are weak then people will still allocate a lot of time to hard but satisfying efforts.  When competitive effects are strong then people will devote much more time to easy things.

Of course, it's nice to make these points, but the system that I work in doesn't reward blog posts.  The system that I work in rewards peer-reviewed journal articles, and journals reward mathematical formalism.  I could just sit down and do it but I have lots of other projects on my plate, so I need a collaborator to prod me.  If anyone wants to help please let me know!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Myths about learning styles and digital natives

Inside Higher Ed has a nice essay on the helplessness of students, the most extreme example being a student who emailed a professor to ask for the name of the author of a book.  (The student had a copy of the book, and the author's name was on the front cover.)  In the comments section we got to talking about how this helplessness contrasts with the myth of the "Digital Native", the information-savvy student who doesn't need anything traditional in education because they have the world's information at their fingertips.  One commenter pointed me to an article titled Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.

I don't have time to give a detailed response to the many excellent points in that article, but I will note that it is basically a literature survey that debunks the myth that today's students are information-savvy, great at multi-tasking, and attuned to their own unique learning styles.  I particularly appreciated this cynical observation:
Thousands of articles and books have been written on learning styles and their application in education. Furthermore, a lucrative commercial industry has been set up around (a) selling measurement instruments meant to help teachers diagnose their students’ learning styles and (b) holding workshops and conferences meant to provide information and training to teachers on how to align their teaching to the learning styles of their students. Yet there are fundamental problems with regard to both the diagnosis of learning styles and the alignment of instruction to these styles.
Yep.  The more hype and enthusiasm you see around something in education, the more likely that there's a vendor or workshop presenter hunting for cash.

Interestingly, one of the authors of this article (Kirschner) is also an author on a lovely piece of heresy from the previous decade.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

One more thing from the Deresiewicz essay

I forgot to quote this part:
I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps.
There's a belief that tolerance is about bringing together people whose identities are different, not people whose beliefs (or lack thereof) and practices are different.  There's an idea that diversity of the first sort--a diversity achieved through presence, not practice--not only confers moral legitimacy but also automatically exudes a sense of comfort.

I remember encountering bits of this in college in the 90's.  It was different from intellectual relativism, postmodernism, etc.  Those ideas involved hard reading and mental challenges that went deeper than smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."  It was not as developed as what's going on now, but the stirrings were there.  Contra Deresiewicz, it didn't come from Foucault or the humanities faculty, it came from Student Affairs.  It is the process of academia replacing academics with administration.  Academic work should exhaust the mind when it's done right, not make everyone feel happy-shiny and smug.

Make a whole new religion, a falling star that you cannot live without

William Deresiewicz just published a nice essay on political correctness. It is longer than it needed to be, but it still has plenty of good stuff.  I don't have time to frame a single, cohere response, so I'll just address it in bits and pieces.
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.
This seems accurate, though I think it's important to emphasize (as he does later) that this is to a large extent an elite phenomenon.  The viewpoints he describes go beyond the most elite institutions, but the rigidity of the code, and particularly its power over the wider student body, is not as bad everywhere as it is in the places that he's talking about.

As to this:

The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
The first sentence seems wildly inaccurate.  I can't speak to humanities, but I haven't heard anyone mention Foucault (outside of a few libertarian friends with decidedly non-leftist views on power) since the 1990's.  Frankly, if today's campus identity liberalism were rooted in Foucault it would be a step up--at least Foucault is a hard read!  The writings that matter in identity liberalism on today's campuses seem to be shallow think-pieces at the level of Slate and Huffpo, emotional personal accounts, and egregiously misapplied/misinformed social science, not French intellectuals.  Indeed, the last sentence notes the unscholarly attitude of identity liberalism, further casting doubt on the assertion that it's rooted in thinkers like Foucault.  They don't want thick treatises, they want 3 Quick Tips For Implementing Best Practices!

Also, French postmodernists would have cast a disparaging eye on claims to objective truth, whereas today's identity liberalism holds that privilege blinds one to truth and oppression opens one to it.  There is an objective moral code, an idea of settled questions, as Deresiewicz notes.  French postmodernists would laugh at the idea of settled truths, let alone settled moral truths.

But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
 Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

This I agree with 100%.

And this:

There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group. 
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous. 
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”

Here's the most important part:
The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it. [Emphasis added]
Exactly.  That's why people eat that shit up like pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.

Later in the essay, Deresiewicz acknowledges the role that class plays, and the difference between elite private and non-elite public institutions:
But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.
I'm at a non-elite public institution, and while few of the faculty were first-generation students, some definitely came from more privileged backgrounds than others.  The politics correlate pretty well with the level of parental privilege.

Post title explained:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How narratives are formed

One should always take it with a grain of salt when CEOs complain about skill shortages (maybe they'd get more skilled people if they offered more money), but here I'm less interested in the CEOs' claims than in the response to them.

Here's what CEOs said about the challenge of filling jobs:
One executive said in discussions with White House officials that his company has 50 participants in a factory apprenticeship program, but could take 500 if enough were qualified. But he said that in his experience, most students coming out of high school lack the math and English skills to absorb technical manuals.
That certainly accords with my experience.

Here's what the sub-headline says:
Manufacturing leaders urge President Trump to encourage high-tech skills training.
Basic math and English skills are not high-tech.  They're essential to a high-tech job, but they themselves are not high-tech.  And that's the problem: People want the hot and new, not the fundamentals.  CEOs say that they will train people for high-tech manufacturing if they have basic math and reading skills, journalists translate that into high-tech skills, and no doubt some shill in higher ed is busy explaining that this is why we need people with advanced degrees in STEM...because a CEO wants a reasonably competent high school grad who can be trained to work on the production floor.

On the other hand, I find it fascinating that the CEOs are talking about technical manuals.  Normally we assume that it's higher ed that's stodgy and unable to Get With The Times, but here we see business executives saying that they need people who can read manuals while the most progressive kool-aid drinkers in higher ed all say that we need to embrace the post-literate society and de-emphasize books in favor of videos.  I find this amusingly ironic.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A fun little argument in relativity

Confession:  I know next to nothing about general relativity.  My graduate work was in materials and optics.  My current research is mostly on optics and biophysics.  I enjoy the elegance of special relativity, but I never studied general relativity.

In a couple weeks I'm teaching students about Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial reference frames, and I felt like I should try to learn at least a few tidbits of general relativity.  I wanted to understand gravitational time dilation, so I came up with a nice little argument that I'm quite proud of.

Suppose that a pair of particles collide and produce two photons.  One photon goes left, the other goes right.  We use mirrors to send them upward (i.e. to a place to higher gravitational potential) and then recombine them.  The photons collide and produce a pair of particles of the same type as the original particles.  (Such things can happen, though the cross-sections are small.)  If the photons did not change their frequencies, i.e. did not lose some energy, then we have a new pair of particles at higher gravitational potential energy but with the same kinetic energy. We have gained energy. We can let those particles fall and extract energy from the system to power machines...for free.  We have thus produced energy from nothing, and that's not allowed.

The photons must thus lose some energy, i.e. must change their frequencies. Say that the kinetic energy of the new particles is zero, i.e. mgy(final)=KE(initial)

The frequency shift can be found via:

KE(initial) + 2m = 2*omega (initial) = 2m + 2mgy

And 2m must also equal 2*omega(final), since the two photons have just enough energy to produce the particles, so we get that 2*omega(initial) = 2*omega(final) + 2*omega(final)*gy

omega(final)*(1+gy) = omega(initial)

omega(final) = omega(initial)/(1+gy) or approximately omega(initial)*(1-gy) (to first order)

(We are working in units where hbar and c are equal to 1.)

So the fractional frequency shift has to be of order gy/c^2.  Once we have the frequency shift, we can argue that clocks based on oscillations of EM fields must run slower lower in the gravitational field, since the people above them are receiving consecutive ticks at longer intervals.

I will present this at the end of my lecture on Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial frames, along with the argument that a guy in a falling elevator sees light curve.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Next Book: Edward Teller's Memoirs

I haven't been blogging books lately, for a lot of reasons, but I'm determined to get back to it.  Right now I'm reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.  Teller has a lot to answer for (e.g. his treatment of Oppenheimer, his utter fascination with WMD), but we're entering an era where peering inside the minds of villains might be of great practical significance.  He was a towering figure who participated in great events, working with Heisenberg as a postdoc before going to the West and getting involved in nuclear weapons.  His narration of events may not be wholly reliable, but his mind is worth peering inside.

Besides, every villain has an origin story, and in that origin story there is tragedy and triumph.  One uplifting thing I've already learned from Teller is that the British were quite proactive in recruiting German scientists as early as 1933.  I had no idea how much effort the British put into that; it is a credit to them. There's plenty else to fault them for, but at least that episode is a good one. A part of me wonders if I should be helping my Middle Eastern colleagues find jobs overseas.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Public schools have charters too

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education there is now much discussion of charter schools and school choice.  I have no interest in debating the merits or demerits of Betsy DeVos in this venue, and I will not offer a final stance or recommendation on charter schools.  But I will offer an  observation on the wider context:

The most substantial criticism I've seen against charter schools is that they get better results by being selective about their student bodies, filtering out students with weak preparation or behavioral problems.  To the extent that the question is whether the performance of charter schools is truly superior in an apples-to-apples comparison, whether "is" statements regarding their alleged merits are based on scientifically valid comparisons, I think it's an entirely fair point to raise.  I haven't reviewed the data closely enough to know whether it's an empirically valid point, but if we take the claim at face value it is certainly valid.

On the other hand, if the question is whether excellence (by whatever yardstick) can be cultivated when one abandons democratic mandates, I think that the performance of charter schools is telling us something very, very important.  I'm not convinced that the public schools are irredeemable if we speak of the schools as buildings with trained people inside them, people who could accomplish tasks if given resources and leeway.  I am convinced that the demands we make on public schools are impossible to satisfy, and that no amount of Special Programs and bureaucratic infrastructure ladled atop a school can bring about True Democracy in education.

The people invested in the system itself--and its democratic legitimacy--cannot admit this.  Even a person who is of right-wing leanings has to believe that with proper accountability we can somehow get schools to serve all students equally, at least if that person buys into the cross-partisan democratic narratives that Americans have long bought into.  To reject these democratic assumptions you need to either have a dark, naked embrace of inequality, an idea of better and lesser people, or you need to be individualistic and believe that there is no one-size-fits-all and a system can really only serve those who choose to be served. Either way, you have to reject the charter that the public schools labor under.

My favorite teacher in high school said that America could have the best public schools on earth if we struck one word from the laws governing them:  "Compulsory."  The success of charter schools proves that.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Another critique of meritocracy

In my previous post I linked an essay on meritocracy that is actually a critique of another essay.  Here's the original essay by Helen Andrews.  I lack the time to dissect it in detail, so I'll just quote my favorite parts:

First, a candid acknowledgment of how hard it is to have procedural, neutral meritocracy without de facto aristocracy:
Others favor the slightly more radical solution of redefining our idea of merit, usually in a way that downplays what Guinier calls “pseudoscientific measures of excellence.”37 She even has a replacement in mind, the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, the testing of which involves Legos. (Why are you laughing? It is backed by a study.) This is even less likely to work than fiddling with the equality-of-opportunity end. For one thing, the minority of families willing to do whatever it takes to get into Harvard will still do whatever it takes to get into Harvard. They have adapted to new admissions criteria before, and they will do so again. Furthermore, unless families are abolished, successful parents will always pass on advantages to their children, which will compound with each generation. It does not matter how merit is defined; the dynamic of meritocracy remains the same, its operations inexorable.
If you set up a game, people will play it.

Second, a candid call for the elite to abandon pretenses:
The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label. By all means this caste should admit as many worthy newcomers as is compatible with their sense of continuity. New brains, like new money, have been necessary to every ruling class, meritocratic or not. If ethnic balance is important to meritocrats, they should engineer it into the system. If geographic diversity strikes them as important, they should ensure that it exists, ideally while keeping an eye on the danger of hoovering up all of the native talent from regional America. But they must give up any illusion that such tinkering will make them representative of the country over which they preside. They are separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities. That is what makes them aristocratic.
I'm not sure that I buy the prescription, but I certainly agree that affirmative action cannot be achieved neutrally, so if you want to integrate the elites then you should do so unashamedly rather than trying to cook up a procedure that will magically but neutrally deliver the desired result.

A good declension narrative and a critique of separating "critical thinking" skills from knowledge of facts:
“How to think bigger” is indeed a fine quality for a governing class to have, but this young man was cheated if his teachers tried to cultivate it as a skill in isolation and not via the discipline of learning “particular things.” It was the meritocratic ideology that paved this road to ignorance. Being open to all comers, with intelligence the only criterion, meant that no particular body of knowledge could be made mandatory at an institution like St. Paul’s, lest it arbitrarily exclude students conversant only with their own traditions. This has predictably yielded a generation of students who have no body of knowledge at all—not even “like about what actually happened in the Civil War.”
Every snowflake thinks that their lack of knowledge is compensated for by their superior ability.

It closes with a good call to action:
The task of reforming our present elite ought to be entrusted to someone with a feeling for what is good in it. For all its flaws, this elite does have many virtues. Its moral seriousness contrasts favorably with the frivolousness of certain earlier generations, and its sense of pragmatism, which can sometimes be reductive, can also be admirably brisk and hard-nosed. What is needed is someone who can summon a picture of the meritocratic elite’s best selves and call others to meet the example. But this process can begin only when this new ruling class finally owns up to the only name for what it already undeniably is.
But how can we do that if we won't admit that we're elites? That's the same problem identified in the Timothy Burke piece that I blogged yesterday.


I don't have a lot of time to jot down all my thoughts on it, but I like this post on meritocracy.  In particular, I like three points:

First, that our concept of meritocracy motivates people to work frantically but not always thoughtfully, constantly striving for tokens of success.  The most creative advances are often risky, but insecure meritocracy affords less risk tolerance than aristocracy.

Second, she notes that if we completely demolish the idea of meritocracy we motivate even more short-term behavior (in the absence of aristocracy):
What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

Third, I've noted before that the problem with meritocracy is not that the Ivy League uses SAT scores or whatever, but that we risk moving toward elite monoculture by having only a few ways to get a seat at the table of power.  As the blogger says:
We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What does it mean to be "Establishment"?

I haven't been blogging much lately because I haven't been reading much of relevance to this blog lately.  But I came across a great post by Timothy Burke that reminded me of one of my old posts on what it means to be an insider or outsider. In noting how many liberal professionals identify with the masses and think of themselves as outside agitators rather than realizing how institutionalized they are, Burke writes:
One of our great weaknesses at times has been how some of us have adopted an insistence that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position. Because we didn’t see our ties to the establishment as virtue and we didn’t understand that our forms of power were important for defending what we had already achieved, because we had a reflexive and attachment to the idea that we were in no way powerful, that our share of the status quo could only be found in some future progress, never even partially achieved, we were unready to wake up in the year 2016 and discover that we were not only a part of an ancien regime threatened by a mob, but that we actually wanted to defend that regime rather than rush to join the mob at the barricades. It would have been better if we’d defended it that way long before this moment. But it will help even now if we recognize that this is part of what we’re doing: defending a structure of manners, of virtues, of practices, of expectations, of constraints and outcomes, against people who either don’t recognize that this structure is important for them or from people who genuinely do not benefit from that structure. That we should not be ashamed to defend our loosely shared habitus, because it really is better for the general welfare than the brutalist, arbitrary, impoverishing alternative that the populist right is pushing forward in many nations.
I myself feel ambivalent about my institutional nature, partly because of my roots in Franciscan grade school, partly because I am a contrarian, and partly because the most institutionally respectable thing in higher ed is to position oneself as a Change Agent.  I'm unabashedly traditionalist, which feels like a very anti-institutional stance when everyone is looking for Great! Amazing! Transformation!  I'd feel more comfortably institutional in a musty old library (for my traditionalist side) with slightly uncomfortable furniture and climate control (for my guilty Catholic roots).

This may be the most controversial part of Burke's post:
Some thought that you were only the Establishment if you were wealthy, or white, or male, or held a certain set of specific political ideologies and affiliations. But you can trace the existence and continuation of a great many jobs–and life situations–to a political economy that depended on the civic, governmental and business institutions built up in the United States and around the world after 1945. The manager of a local dance company in a Midwestern city who only makes $40,000 a year and is an African-American vegan lesbian with a BA from Reed is still linked to the Establishment. That dance company doesn’t exist without the infrastructure where small trickles of revenue flow from cities, states, and nations into such organizations, without the educated professionals who donate because they believe in the arts, without the dancers themselves who chase a life of meaning through art but who also want to get paid. It’s not that there wasn’t art–or patronage of art–in the 19th Century or the early 20th Century–but there was less of it, and it was less systemically supported, and less tied to a broad consensus at the civic and social center about the value of art and education everywhere. Some of us are very powerful in the Establishment, some of us grossly misuse and abuse the power of the Establishment, some of us are the wealthy beneficiaries of its operations and others poorer and less powerful at its edges. But even out at the edges, still linked, still reliant on the system, and still in some sense believers in much of what the Establishment entails.
I'm from the middle class, which is above the lower-middle class but at the bottom of the Establishment.  We have comfort derived from norms and continuity but little room for excess.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we're commoners, but we have a level of safety that the lower-middle class doesn't (while they in turn have just enough employability to not be among the truly poor). Nonetheless, we and our compatriots above and below all insist that we're equally middle-class. This American trait of everyone insisting that they're middle class (no matter how high or low they actually are) is of old lineage, as noted by de Tocqueville.

However, when those of us from the middle class move up the ladder, and find ourselves among the children of the upper-middle class, we can see both what we had and what we didn't have, so we are massively turned off when the children of the upper-middle class (and above) put on airs of commoner status:
So you've been to school for a year or two
And you know you've seen it all,
In Daddy's car thinking you'll go far,
Back east your type don't crawl.
Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz,
On your five grand stereo.
Bragging that you know
How the ******* feel cold
And the slum's got so much soul!
It's time to taste
What you most fear!
Right guard will not help you here.
Brace yourself my dear,
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
It's tough kid, but it's life.
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
Don't forget to pack a wife.
There are days when those lyrics run through my head repeatedly.

However, what should be more controversial is this part:
We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.
I whole-heartedly support it, but many people in my professional class would scream bloody murder.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blank slates to the left of me, blank slates to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with truth

There's a nice essay on the concept of a "blank slate" in Quillette.

The basic idea of a blank slate is that all humans are equal in capacity.  It's a foolish notion, but it's a nice one, and it's usually a notion associated with the left:  The left recognizes that the world is not a place of equal opportunity, that people are saddled with all sorts of disadvantages by nurture rather than nature, and that all too often people try to wrongly shift the blame from the cruelty of man (nurture) to the cruelty of unequal genetic endowment (nature).  Some even go farther and (wrongly!) ascribe the disadvantages of entire groups not to the cruelty of man (nurture) but rather genes (nature).  Consequently, people on the left tend to be suspicious of genetic explanations of human behavior.  To the extent that this suspicion is merely skepticism of hypotheses that are difficult to prove and often wielded to evil ends, it is an intellectually healthy suspicion.  To the extent that it is a rejection of neurobiological inquiries into human behavior it is an unhealthy suspicion.

The author in Quillette points out that the right has its own version of a blank slate:  They argue that not only are people born equal in natural endowment, they remain equal in practical capacities even in the face of unequal nurturing, and hence unequal outcomes are primarily the consequence of bad choices, or moral failings.  It is as absurd as rejecting the idea that individuals' brains differ in part because of genetic variability among humans.  If the left is insisting that the slate was blank at birth, the right is insisting that the slate has NOT been vandalized even after years or decades of unequal conditions in a cruel world, or that the marks are at least easily erased.

Of course, the left has its own moral analysis as well:  While recognizing that it is absurd to expect the disadvantaged to simply shrug it all off and succeed equally, some do insist that college professors would obtain equal outcomes if we merely gave enough chances, and were enlightened enough in our evaluations.  If we just followed "best practices" then we would see gaps shrink substantially, and the persistence of gaps thus follows from our choice to abstain from "best practices."  It shifts the moral responsibility from the vandal who made the mark to the professor who was unable to erase it.

Like all seductive lies, it's partly true:  Some people will, if given a chance and some support, defy the odds and rise to the occasion.  To structure educational programs as Darwinian competitions with one chance and no more is both foolish and unethical.  (I will note that my grading formula rewards improvement and provides some forgiveness for initial failures.)  But it is important to recognize that working to remedy inequity in this way is costly and risky.  It won't always work, and it will cost more than simply giving one chance and moving on.  If you nonetheless value opportunity then you will accept costs and risks.  If you don't actually value opportunity then you will deny that it has a cost (because that which is without value is without cost) and insist that the only problem is a failure to identify the "right" criteria, the "right" measures.

I remark on this because, as I have noted before, our theories of success and failure can be double-edged swords.  A theory that success that success is rooted in "grit" or "growth mindset" is the key to success (rather than evil standardized tests) can be shiny and progressive if it is used to undermine evil standardized tests, but it can also be turned around and used to blame the poor and disadvantaged for lacking the moral virtues of grit and growth mindset.  A moral theory that says we are all equal in capacity can be used to blame a cruel world for failure, but it can also be used to blame failure on choices by people of presumably equal capacity.  The fact that the left and right go in such different directions from ostensibly similar assumptions means that there are additional embedded assumptions that people aren't always articulating openly.

For me, I will be disappointingly wishy-washy and say that EVERYTHING matters for success and failure.  Some kids really ARE born smarter than others.  Sorry, but it's true.  On the other hand, unequal conditions in life will ALSO leave their marks.  Some of those marks CAN be erased.  Others are much harder to erase.  Some people will surprise you and outperform expectations.  Some won't.  It's worth it to give people a chance.  It's ill-advised to keep pouring in resources as the returns diminish.  Some people really do fall on bad choices or rise on good choices.  Some people are stuck.  Abandoning personal responsibility in your moral calculus is ill-advised, but so is treating personal responsibility as the only variable.  It's complicated and we have to muddle through.

I wish I had some sort of magical solution, but I don't.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Re-examine privilege: Not the concept, the word. And its usage.

The concept of "privilege", the idea that some people don't have to deal with shit that other people have to deal with, is an important one with great relevance to many aspects of life.  As I have said before, if I were pulled over by the cops I'd rather be a poor white person than a rich black person.  I think we can pretty much take it as a given that--all else being equal--in America it's better to be white than non-white.

Many educated people use the word "privilege" to describe this relative advantage.  I've said before that I'm not much interested in telling sociologists what sort of jargon they should use when sociologizing.  If "privilege" is the technical term, so be it.  But this word has escaped beyond the confines of sociology and ethnic studies, and into the wider world of the scribbling classes, of think-pieces and op-eds and essays written and read by many educated and managerial professionals.  It's in the zeitgeist.  I doubt that your average swing voter in rural Ohio read the full catalog of privilege think-pieces at Slate, Huffpo, and Medium, but I suspect that many have been made at least somewhat aware that there's a cottage industry of educated desk-workers who think that lower-middle-class white men doing manual labor are "privileged" by dint of their gender and color.

That is so stupid that it verges on being a hanging offense.  In colloquial usage, "privileged" is a word for kids whose parents have money and/or connections.  The white kid whose father lost his job at the steel mill and now works at Wal-Mart is NOT privileged in the conventional usage of the term.  Yes, yes, that kid is privileged in the sense of sociological jargon, but who the fuck gave you the idea that ordinary conversation should be conducted in sociological jargon?  What made you think that the jargon of a social science field would work constructively in the wider political arena?

If the chattering classes describe enough lower-middle-class whites with a word for rich kids, eventually word is going to get out and there will be a backlash.  I believe that the timing of that backlash can be pinpointed to November 8, 2016.

And my complaint here is about more than just connotations and jargon.  Describing the same concept with some word less hackle-raising than "privileged" would be an improvement, but not by much.  Why are liberals spending so much time talking about the advantages of the lower-middle class?  On what planet does that make sense?  It makes sense for conservatives to say "See, the lower-middle class doesn't have it so bad" when arguing against redistribution, but on what planet does it make sense for liberals to talk about the advantages of the lower-middle class?

Finally, even if liberals stopped using the word privilege, and stopped dissecting the alleged advantages of lower-middle-class white people, there's an additional problem with all of the discussion about lower-middle-class Trump voters:  The fact that everyone trying to understand "what went wrong" is mostly talking about lower-middle-class Trump voters.  The lower-middle-class wasn't the only group that voted for Trump--in fact, Trump's strongest support was in the upper-middle class (although I suspect that numbers would look very different if I could find exit polls disaggregated by race and income).  Nonetheless, regardless of how things would look on a finer-grained scale, the undeniable fact is that Trump got support from many different sectors of American society, yet almost all of the post-election analysis has been focused on either blaming or excusing the lower-middle class.  The clear message is that the lower-middle class is some mixture of culpable for what went wrong and pitiable victims who made excusable errors.  Not much dignity in that picture.  People higher on the socioeconomic ladder are spared the indignity of post-election dissection.

I never thought I'd say this, but I kind of want the Marxists back.  I mean, say what you want about the tenets of revolutionary socialism, dude; at least they don't describe unemployed factory workers as "privileged."  In light of everything that's happening right now, I'd give anything for academics to abandon their tedious dissection of intersections of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., and go back to tedious dissections of class.  A left that cares about class can build solidarity between lower-middle-class whites and the rest of their coalition; a left that cares about identity will splinter.  (I should emphasize that I'm not much of a leftist, but I'm even less of a Trumpista.)

There's a lot of blame to go around here, but certainly much of it belongs in academia. We need to ask ourselves what our implicit assumptions are when socioeconomic diversity gets far less attention than race, gender, etc.

Social vs. Natural Science: The cumulative difference

I've been reading other things, things that I simply haven't had the inclination to blog, but whilst reading about some controversies in social science I realized that one of the things that Snow used to demarcate the line between science and humanities can also demarcate a line between social and natural science:  The cumulative nature of knowledge.

I should state at the outset that I do, in fact, acknowledge that social scientists have cumulative knowledge, that they do, over time, develop and refine a body of generalizable knowledge about human beings.  That's not to say that every theory or every finding turns out to have wide applicability (or even replicability), but the process of social science can indeed select, filter, and refine the body of knowledge, just as natural scientists do.

In the sense that social science can produce a refined, tested body of cumulative knowledge, social science is akin to natural science, and distinct from arts and humanities in the sense that Snow articulated.

On the other hand, because social scientists study humans they have to confront human prejudices and cultural inertia, and thus they have to re-fight certain battles in every generation. Topics like, say, gender differences, get re-fought in each generation, and the cumulative weight of data will not dampen the appeal of gender essentialism as a way of legitimizing inequality. (One could easily come up with other perennial battles; I simply picked that one for the sake of easy illustration.) In that sense, there is a human limit on the extent to which social sciences can, in practice, be as cumulative as natural science, or at least a limit to the rate of accumulation, because of the need to re-fight battles in each generation.  There is much less of that in natural science.  OK, evolutionary biologists have to re-fight battles in the public sphere, but not within academia.  And biologists studying development, cognition, and gender will have to join social scientists in re-fighting gender battles in each generation, but that reflects their position at the intersection of natural and social science.  Closer to (my) home, we physicists have to help each cohort of freshmen overcome Aristotelian intuitions about motion, but that battle really only takes a semester.  By the end of the semester they know that they ought to be Newtonians; they might still have Aristotelian impulses, but they know that they're supposed to check those impulses.

So, if we take the cumulative nature of natural science as a line of demarcation between Snow's "Two Cultures" then I think a tri-partite division of liberal arts is appropriate:  The humanists can generate new works of art and inspiration and analysis in each generation of a changing world, without the constraints of the past, the natural scientists develop a cumulative understanding of nature, and the social scientists seek to build a cumulative understanding of people but do so while re-fighting perennial battles of human culture and prejudice.