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 feel like blogging.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Thoughts on Pinker's _Blank Slate_

I very much enjoyed The Blank Slate, but I haven't been in the blogging mood lately.  So I won't be doing chapter-by-chapter blogging.  I'll just comment on a few over-arching themes:

First, people obviously fear theories of genetic factors underlying intelligence and other abilities because of the attraction that such theories hold for racists, sexists, and other foul bigots.  Pinker concedes the need for caution, but also notes that the idea of humans as malleable blank slates was beloved of Marxists.  And the Marxists have managed to hold their own when it came to killing and oppressing.  Ultimately, the problem with racists is the same as the problem with communist:  They want to control people on the basis of their theories, and kill anyone who gets in the way. If we conclude that individual abilities are strongly (but not solely) influenced by genes we can either oppress people whom we deem to be genetically unsuited for certain paths, or develop a plethora of different educational paths for everyone to find and hone their strengths.  One of these things is very different from the other.

This is somewhat reminiscent of my observation that a theory of success is not enough; you also need a theory of failure.  If you have a theory of success, your theory of failure could be that disadvantaged people lack the characteristics that lead to success, or that they are denied the opportunity to utilize/develop those characteristics.  There's no such thing as a standalone theory of success that blames or exonerates the disadvantaged; to have such a theory we have to supplement it with a theory of why the disadvantaged didn't or couldn't do whatever it is that our theory says is critical for success.

Second, Pinker argues that the effects of parenting are smaller than people want to believe. I think he's over-stating his case (more on that in a moment), but to whatever extent parents don't matter, teachers must matter even less.  Also, he argues that neural plasticity isn't as powerful as people like to think, i.e. brains aren't as malleable as people believe.  As a person responsible for teaching 18 year-olds, I wish he'd also said that to whatever extent the brain is plastic, that plasticity decreases (which is different from saying that it completely disappears) with age.  You can't expect me to change people as much as a kindergarten teacher can, and you can't expect a kindergarten teacher to change people as much as a parent can.

Third, when he argues that parents matter less than we want to believe, he refers to the fact that well-designed studies of parenting practices and household characteristics don't find that those variables explain much of the variance of various outcomes.  However, the proper control groups are people from similar social classes, neighborhoods, etc.  I think it follows that if we just vary one characteristic of a household but keep everything else in that household similar to the rest of the neighborhood (i.e. the rest of the control group) then not much will change.  Well, that just means that what matters is that parents provide the same general baseline as everyone else, not that they get everything right or jump on every fad.  A parent who doesn't provide the same overall baseline as the rest of the neighborhood could very well produce a different outcome (better or worse) than a parent who does the same as the rest of the neighborhood.  A particular fad or whatever doesn't matter, but overall adherence to the big picture does.

Of course, he also says that even if parents don't matter for various long-term sociological outcomes as many people would like to hope, so what?  Parents matter as long as they are in a child's life.  Failure to do the basics would matter, provision of the basics matters a lot, and loving family relationships enrich life.  They might not move the needle much on sociological outcomes but who cares?  Not every moment of our lives has to be calibrated to some social reform agenda.  We can simply live as social primates with loving bonds and make the most of that.

Finally, I like his point about how literature, poetry, and other artistic endeavors might be better windows into human nature than much of the ideologically-constrained and often non-replicable social science out there.  That doesn't mean that every poet, novelist, or sculptor out there is equally possessed of timeless insight, but if something is widely-recognized as brilliant it might be resonant with something in human nature and human experience.  We can learn a lot about humans by pondering those works that have resonated with us throughout the ages.

So I guess I'd better keep reading.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Next book: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

My next book will be The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.  He talks about human nature, its biological contributors, and why people deny it.  Since human ability is a constant concern of educators, this should be well worth reading.

Nietzsche: Eh.

I agree with much of his cynicism about human nature, but I want insight, I want to understand the origins of bad ideas more deeply, and I want to know the origin of GOOD ideas as well.  I agree with him that most people will never free their minds, but I freely choose to use my mind for some end that betters society, because I actually do believe in my endeavors, and in service.  I am not getting that from him 80 pages in.  I'm getting increasingly tedious prose.

The one point I really liked was when he noted that there are people who could free their minds but choose to follow the leveling impulse and pursue fuzzy egalitarian agendas.  I suppose I'm at a midpoint between him and them.  I'll never drink their kool-aid, but I do want to make things better.  I just want my eyes to be open as I do it, because I honestly believe that it will be better for other people, better for my sanity, and better for the bigger intellectual project that I actually care about.

The other point that I really liked, as noted in the previous post, was that all philosophies only contain what philosophers want them to contain.  I think the deeper point is that no idea can contain more than went into it.  This is something that I think about a lot in physics.  I still can't quite believe that the Hamilton-Jacobi equation, which gets us within an inch of quantum mechanics, is an inevitable consequence of Newtonian mechanics (with time reversibility made more explicit than Newton made it).  I need to think more deeply about this, and figure out where the hidden assumptions are.

So, auf wiedersehen, Herr Nietzsche.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"Beyond Good and Evil", chapter 1

Chapter 1 is a rant about what philosophers get wrong.  I don't have a lot of time, but he seems to make 2 big points, plus an ancillary one relevant to a hobby of mine:
1) Philosophers and scientists haven't really come to terms with the fact that humans and their brains are material things, operating by the rules of the material universe, and aren't really separate from the universe. So where do thoughts and sensations come from?  How do we separate our thoughts and sensations from the outside world?  How can we honestly consider thoughts as something of conscious volition?

2) A philosophy is what the philosopher wants it to be.  He might portray it as the inexorable consequence of some defensible assumptions, but those assumptions were chosen to give a particular conclusion.  If he didn't like the conclusion he would modify his assumptions.  Honestly, this sounds particularly post-modern.  "All ideas just reinforce your preferences in service to the power structure, man!"

3) He thinks the similarities between German, Greek, and Indian philosophies arise from grammatical similarities of Indo-European languages, and ventures that speakers of Uralic languages would philosophize differently.  That is an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Very extreme.  Since linguistics is a minor hobby of mine (I have a dictionary of Indo-European root words) I am amused by this hypothesis.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Next book: Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche.

My next read will be Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche, largely because of a recent op-ed that I read, which argued that Nietzsche wrote about how people search for meaning in a world that has lost religion.  I think this has much relevance to academic life and the restlessness I see.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The restlessness (cont.)

I can't find a link to it (it seems to only be in the print edition) but this morning's LA Times ran an op-ed by Sue Prideaux, who was explaining how the far right has taken Nietzsche out of context.  I am not qualified to evaluate that argument, but I was fascinated when she said that Nietzsche's famous "God is dead" quote refers to the problem of humans seeking meaning and order in the world when they no longer have belief in God as a source of authority.  I think this is part of why people are so desperate to derive "ought" from "is", because they have no higher authority than material facts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

How the shills work

You can shill for anything and get academics to jump on board, as long as you wrap it in the mantle of social justice.  While this article is nominally ecumenical about postgraduate study, a disturbingly large portion of it is devoted to the question "How can we get disadvantaged students to take on nondischargeable loan debt and attend law school?"  Never mind that salaries for new lawyers are strongly bimodal.

But remember, their main interest is in making sure that disadvantaged students are included.  Maybe they're just being included in the debtors' prison, but still, they're being included.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Echoes of "Hypotheses non fingo"

I haven't felt like blogging anything in a while, but I am currently reading Newton's Opticks. I had always heard that Newton held back progress in optics by promoting a ray theory, but I am struck by the clarity of his thought and care of his experiments. He really made a lot of progress on color.
Furthermore, in Book II, Part II, Proposition XII, he acknowledges that light has an oscillatory behavior. He knew that these rays had some characteristic that oscillated in time. This part has echoes of "hypotheses non fingo", his refusal to pronounce on the nature of gravity:
"What kind of action or disposition this is; Whether it consists in a circulating or vibrating motion of the Ray, or of the Medium, or something else, I do not here enquire."
He goes on to concede that a wave model might work, but says he will not pursue that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Privilege, class, and diversity

I like this essay from the Hedgehog Review.  The three final paragraphs are the best:

 The concept of diversity first germinated in the corporate world, and was quickly seized upon by academia in the 1990s. It arrived just in the nick of time. The previous two decades had seen the traditional mission of the university undermined, if not abandoned, under pressure from a highly politicized turn in the humanities that made its case in epistemic terms, essentially debunking the very idea of knowledge. The role that the upper-tier university soon discovered for itself, upon the collapse of ideals of liberal learning, was no longer that of training citizens for humane self-government, but rather that of supplying a cadre to staff the corporations, the NGOs, and the foundations. That is, the main function of elite schools is to supply the personnel required to run things in an economy that has become more managerial than entrepreneurial.
The institutional desideratum—the political antipode to hated “privilege”—is no longer equality, but diversity. This greatly eases the contradiction Furet identified, shielding the system from democratic pressure. It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity. Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat). We eventually reached a point where this was more weight than our electoral system could take, as the election of 2016 revealed. Whether one regards that event as a catastrophe or as a rupture that promises the possibility of glasnost, its immediate effect has been panic in every precinct where the new class accommodations have been functioning smoothly, and a doubling down on the moralizing that previously secured them against popular anger. We’ll see how that goes. 
The term shibboleth is interesting. Its definitions include “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons” and “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” It is a random Hebrew word that acquired its present meaning when it was used by the Gileadites as a test to identify members of an enemy tribe, the Ephraimites, as they attempted to flee across the Jordan River. Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6). I think it is fair to say that one’s ability to pronounce the word diversity with a straight face, indeed with sincerity made scrupulously evident, serves as a shibboleth in this original sense. It answers the question of whether one wants to continue as a member in good standing of those institutions that secure one’s position in the upper middle class.

It's all about legitimizing the status quo while dismissing class.  An upper class can be diverse in terms of gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc., but by definition it cannot be diverse in terms of class, nor can it be equal to other classes. (And if you're confused about why I would separately list sex, sexuality, and gender in the previous sentence, that just points to another shibboleth that you can't pronounce, you heretic.)

I think it's particularly interesting how diversity is now the concept placed in tension with privilege, instead of equality.  When I was a kid, the privileged kids had affluent parents.  Now the white lower-middle class is deemed privileged, and the men of that class especially so.  That's quite a rhetorical trick.  Equality (whether economic, or of opportunity, or whatever) got pushed aside somewhere along the line, replacing solidarity with celebration of difference.  I'm not a Marxist, but on this one I see their point.  Yes, there are very valid points about the differences in the life experiences of men and women, or white people and people of color, but it's quite remarkable that the word we used to use for rich kids got co-opted to frame those very valid points.  The word may have a new denotation, but it still carries old connotations that sit uneasily with the new usage.

Also, I think there's a very important point in there about the difference between a managerial economy and an entrepreneurial one.  Founders/owners of privately-held businesses (or even businesses that have gone public but still have a very strong Founder presence) are often quite different from people who climbed corporate ladders.  They aren't always self-made people who rose from nothing (Trump built his empire on inherited wealth) but they are people who spent most of their careers making their own decisions (sometimes appropriately bold decisions, sometimes risky follies) rather than answering to a boss.

Corporate managers aren't fans of the regulatory state, but they can often make compromises (even lucrative compromises) with the regulatory state more easily than an entrepreneur can.  A corporate manager has spent his career answering to people, and following rules written by higher-ups who may be several time zones away.  This leads to a different demeanor and ideology than men who didn't have bosses.  And while privately-held companies typically face most of the same PR and HR issues as corporations of similar size, the quirks of founders play can play more of a role in how they respond to those issues (though more on that below), so they may have more room for managerial liberals (with all of their diversity talk) than a company still dominated by an entrepreneur.

One interesting exception to this dichotomy is Silicon Valley.  Large tech companies are mostly young (at least in comparison with other corporations of similar size, though Google just entered its third decade), but they are, for the most part, very socially liberal.  Mind you, I have no doubt that there are plenty of Google and Facebook managers who hate taxes and regulations, but the prevailing cultures of those places are famously liberal (at least on social issues) and unabashedly pro-diversity (unlike most of the right-wing billionaires who rose to power in the pre-internet era).  This has helped them make peace with the same cultural and regulatory issues as older corporations.

So, Trump is, on the one hand, a rich guy who has ripped off many ordinary people, and treated many workers like shit.  On the other hand, in this economy dominated by corporate managerial types (often liberal, at least in their acceptance of rules and certain PR and HR imperatives) rather than entrepreneurial types (who are often right-wing), Trump is an exception, a rich man who doesn't talk like a corporate manager.  That helps me to understand why he has appeal among some (not all) middle class white voters.  It's not the only factor, of course, but it's among them, and helps to make sense of why they see him as different from the other rich guys.

Finally, let's return to this line:
It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity.
This helps me understand why so many academic administrators honestly see themselves as "change agents", even while repeating the same slogans and buzzwords as every other administrator out there, and diligently following in the templates taught to them at workshops.  It explains to me why academic administrators from families of administrators see themselves and their advancement as bold and progressive rather than the fulfillment of a status quo destiny laid upon them when sperm met egg.  It helps explain why I, from a family that has grown more educated with each generation, a family that still circulates stories of immigrant roots, feel old-fashioned and traditional rather than progressive in academia:  Because the born insiders are all proclaiming their progressivity, leaving tradition as the only refuge of the outsider.

My only dissent from the above-quoted observation is that I don't see this as a uniquely contemporary thing, an artifact of a new liberalism that replaces economic class solidarity with diversity.  Hofstadter noted that Dewey's disciples, all managerial types, were desperate to find a way to institutionalize anti-institutional ideology.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Educational research and the promise of easy fixes

This article from Psychology Today discusses the necessity, temptation, and challenge of interpreting data.  It discusses a study that found a correlation between students' attitudes towards math and their performance in math.  While the study could not establish whether strong performance leads to positive attitudes (i.e. people like something that they do well at) or positive attitudes lead to strong performance (they push ahead and succeed because they are confident), and while the authors did acknowledge that, they nonetheless gave an optimistic take on their data.
This is a correlational study. As the authors say in their penultimate paragraph: "We could not determine the direction of causal influences between positive attitude and math achievement because of the cross-sectional nature of our study (see, however, Table S10 in the Supplemental Material)."  
Yet they also say, in the very next paragraph: "In conclusion, our study demonstrates, for the first time, that PAM in children has a unique and significant effect on math achievement independent of general cognitive abilities and that this relation is mediated by the MTL memory system." In fact, the title of the article is "Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavioral Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms."  
The words "effect" and "supports" are causal language. They are saying that positive attitude causes math success. Here's why that's great news: Change a kid's attitude and you'll make them better at math. Thus dawns another glorious sunrise in correlationville.  
This study does not demonstrate causation. It doesn't involve an intervention. These optimistic conclusions should not be taken at face value because there are other, equally valid, ways to look at the data.
The article goes on to note that there are significant stakes in how we interpret findings like this:
The optimist is going to invest funds into improving attitudes to create a positive cycle. The pessimist is going to give extra math help to kids who are struggling at a young age to prevent a negative cycle. 
I take the pessimistic view, and not just because of my personality.  Frankly, I think the pessimistic view can lead to more effective interventions.  If you believe that attitude is everything then you actually get to be kind of lazy.  It doesn't matter how long a problem has been allowed to fester, you can always step in at any point and start promoting positive attitude and things will improve.  On the other hand, if attitude alone isn't enough, then in order to produce good outcomes in a cumulative subject like math you really need to get it right from the start. You need to push on kids (and parents!) from a very early age. It's the only way to fix things.

We want to believe the optimistic take on psychology research, because it promises that small nudges, simple interventions, changes in attitude, etc. are all it will take to fix stubborn problems. Some of this point was made when I was reading Lee Jussim's book on bias research:  If stubborn problems in society are just the result of our biases rather than the lasting marks of inequality, at any point we can turn it around by just making different decisions.  But if disparities arise from failure to prepare people properly and equitably from an early age then we have a much bigger problem, one that we cannot simply wish away.

Monday, August 27, 2018

More from Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism"

(Not exact quotes, just synopses of points I want to remember.)

pg. 168:  He says that cults appear when dominant religions fail.  He identifies cults as groups that offer allegedly suppressed truths, rally around heterodox leaders, and offer the opportunity to be transgressive.

I really, really, REALLY want to join a cult.  The modern religions of the educated professional classes are failing, and I want a person smarter than me to give me the freedom to transgress.

Strangely, one of my favorite pieces of music lately is Lana Del Rey's Off to the Races.



pg. 179: Societies will find no easy resolution if they admit the existence of legitimate grievances and promise just remedies.  I don't know that academia can actually deliver remedies, but a bunch of people promised that we would, so here we are.

pg. 185: "A conservative measures social change by the distance from the past; a revolutionary from some mark in the future."  Then I wonder what to say of the kool-aid peddlers who proclaim that the revolution is ALREADY HERE AND YOU NEED TO GET ON BOARD NOW!!! They are definitely not conservative, but they are far too interested in their immediate comfort to be revolutionaries.

pg. 198: The burdens placed on universities are inevitable consequences of a post-industrial economy.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bell on religion

On page 155, Bell cites Emile Durkheim, who apparently viewed religion as dividing the world not into men and gods but sacred and profane.  Seen in that light, the religiosity of a society is measured not by supernatural belief but by extremes of moral convictions.  I think our modern politically correct era is a very religious one.  However, it's a religion that cannot identify itself as one, so we lack the language and customs to respect it, critique it, constrain it, and channel it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Latest book: Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

I'm reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell.  Seventy pages in (out of 339) the book very much has the feel of a polemic, but I'm getting interesting bit of cultural history mixed in.  The question he's tackling is how a very capitalist society that was shaped by Puritan frugality and discipline has spawned such licentiousness while still remaining so capitalist.  What corporations pander to in their customers is so different from what they need from their employees, but the two have to co-exist.

The book really got interesting for me on page 61.  After describing the disciplined cultural legacy of the Puritans, he starts chronicling the backlash.  Apparently writers as early as 1915 were demanding a re-examination of our cultural roots, a re-envisioning of America as a place for not just the descendants of Puritans but also immigrants, African Americans, and urban life.  What's ironic is that the cultural and political descendants of the Puritans were foremost among the crusaders against slavery.  A less racist America is very much an America that embraces the multi-faceted legacy of the Puritans, examining their shortcomings and working to do better, but also holding on to their most positive contributions.

Bell quotes writers who saw the Puritans only as sexually repressed people.  First, sexual repression was hardly a trait unique to Puritans.  In that regard they were unremarkable among the many strains in the Western European culture that they came from.  Their values of learning, work, discipline, frugality, and egalitarianism are what made them remarkable.  Nonetheless, too many people to this day only remember them for that.

I will grant that some American ancestral strains were more open about sexuality, particularly the Scots-Irish (for whom "out-of-wedlock birth" was arguably redundant) and the Cavaliers who founded the Virginia aristocracy (and probably believed in Droit du seigneur).  However, they weren't so much liberated as bad at hiding hypocrisy.  The Scots-Irish might not have been terribly disciplined about sex but they were fervent about religion, and proclaimed themselves quite devout adherents of the most conservative strains of Christianity. And while powerful men in every society have always seen themselves as entitled to women, the Southern elites took it to particularly nasty places.  That doesn't mean that everyone else was forgiven similar indiscretions.  They were open about sex but not necessarily free about sex.

But, anyway, Bell makes the case that a century ago people sought a new Bohemia and they did so not by looking South (for then they'd have to see what comes of lack of restraint) but rather by pissing on the legacy of the Puritans.  Rejecting an idea is so much easier than arguing for its opposite, because if you start to examine its opposite you might find all sorts of unfortunate examples and precedents.  But the idea itself probably has tons of easily-identified downsides.  So, much better to argue against Puritan morals than to argue for the actually-existing cultures that rejected them.  It's the licentious version of "Oh, we just haven't seen Real Communism yet!"

Interestingly, these Bohemians of the early 20th century liked to call everything that they did "New."  "New Poetry", "New Democracy", etc.  This feels very much like the restlessness of the present. They'd probably love pedagogy workshops.  "Oh, we don't assign homework.  That's so old-fashioned!  No, we assign Take-Home Assessments!  They're totally different!"

I'm now at the part where he blames transportation and mass media for freeing us from constraints.  If you live in a world where a trip of even five miles is a big deal, you will spend most of your time in a tight network of people.  If a trip of twenty miles is no big deal, you can have more ties but also looser ties, and more activity can take place out of sight of your closest ties (such as they are).  And the movies, TV, and radio can all advertise and create material lust in your heart.

Let's see where this goes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Havel: Systems seek legitimacy

I've read about half of the Havel book so far, including the famous essay "The Power of the Powerless."  I'm linking a .pdf copy with a few of my favorite passages highlighted.  The essay is largely about how people try to live honestly in a system that demands lies.  He returns repeatedly to the metaphor of a Greengrocer, a store manager who puts up a sign that says "Workers of the World Unite!" in his window.  The manager isn't an ideological man, and almost certainly doesn't think of his government as one that's particularly concerned for the plight of ordinary workers.  But the system demands that he put up this sign so he puts it up.  He has bills to pay, a family to care for, and a life to live.

Of course, the real message of his sign is not one of labor solidarity, but rather a way of saying "I am a man who complies with the system and does what he has to, so please leave me alone."  However, he can't just post a sign saying that explicitly.  For starters, it would offend his own dignity if he were to admit what he's really doing.  It's much better to have a pretext, so that if somebody were to ask him why he displays that sign he could respond "What's wrong with worker unity?"  It would avoid him having to say what he's really doing.

But what struck me most was how much the government itself preferred the soft message.  The Communist governments apparently desperately wanted the legitimacy that comes from ideology.  None of them believed in the ideology, but having an ideology meant not having to say what they really were: Men (and women) with guns who could compel people to do what they were told to do. They didn't really want to be gangsters.  It just sort of worked out that way.  As he says:
This explains why ideology plays such an important role in the post-totalitarian system: that complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.
He keeps referring to these systems as post-totalitarian because they aren't interested in naked power in the way that Stalin and his ilk were.  Yes, there were thugs in those systems, men who would be happy to just do away with pretense and rule by force (and the collapse of Communism arguably enabled some of them to shed their pretenses and act more openly, as evidenced by the exploits of gangsters and oligarchs in the post-Soviet era), but there were plenty of men who had to persuade themselves that what they were doing was not gangsterism.  They surely knew that they weren't really building a workers' paradise, but having ideology on paper meant that they were at least following codes and laws.  They were products of civilization, heirs to Hammurabi, following a code, however flawed it may be.  They were not the barbarians living by the rule of might.  Some of them needed to believe that.

I see surprising analogies in the egalitarian ideologies of academia.  We pay lip service to so many mantras about student success and opportunity, we deny so many obvious facts about how not all students will succeed, and we tell ourselves that our every benefit is really for their benefit.  We drink this kool-aid and tell ourselves we're engaged in a project of changing the world rather than conferring credentials on those who show up while truly educating only those who work for it.  We tell ourselves that we believe the things we're told because it's easier than admitting that we only repeat these words in order to receive our paychecks.

When I prepare documents with ritual phrases in them, I am a greengrocer who needs to keep paying his bills. I speak some truths, but only at the edges of the permissible.  I don't cross certain lines because I make far more money than my wife and I need to keep us supported.  I know what I am and what I do. I don't like it, but I know it.

I would have made a shitty Communist, and I would have been almost as shitty as a dissident.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Next book: Open Letters by Vaclav Havel

The Federalist Papers were tedious.  I read the first 30 in detail, then skimmed the next 30, then read about the Electoral College and then gave up.  There are common themes, but they are tediously developed.

Now I'm reading Open Letters, a collection of writings by former Czech playwright, anti-communist dissident, and eventual Czech President Vaclav Havel.  It's kind of eerie how some of his critiques of communism could also be critiques of capitalism.  For instance, in his 1975 letter to Gustav Husak, the leader of Czechoslovakia, he notes that after a moment of freedom in 1968 (swiftly crushed by Soviet tanks), the Communist Party focused on economic development in order to appease people, while not easing up on political and social oppression:
Yet these same authorities obsessively justify themselves with their revolutionary ideology, in which the ideal of man's total liberation has a central place!  But what, in fact, has happened to the concept of human personality, and its many-sided, harmonious, and authentic growth?  Of man liberated from the clutches of an alienating social machinery, from a mythical hierarchy of values, formalized freedoms, from the dictatorship of property, the fetish and the might of money?  What has happened to the idea that people should live in full enjoyment of social and legal justice, have a creative share in economic and political power, be elevated in human dignity and become truly free themselves?  Instead of a free share in economic decision making, free participation in political life, and free intellectual advancement, all people are actually offered is a chance freely to choose which washing machine or refrigerator they want to buy.
Is he talking about communism, or about the ways that conformity is enforced in any society?  The grand ideals of failed communism don't sound so different from the grand ideals of any other reformist movement.  Yes, central economic planning enforced by secret police is a particularly stupid and destructive approach to "reform", and I don't want to sound like I'm trivializing it by equating it to other reformist projects.  I'm glad that modern reformists have (mostly) given up on that stupid idea.  Still, they haven't lost whatever it was that drove privileged kids to read Marx in the first place.  They still think they can free society if you just put them in charge.  Technocrats and techno-utopians are still self-servingly stupid.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Federalist No. 1

An interesting point from Federalist No. 1:
An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
I am generally skeptical of technocrats, yet zeal for firm and efficient administration are pretty technocratic things.  On the other hand, the technocrats I deal with always claim to be promoting scalable Best Practices for achieving some egalitarian goal.  Perhaps it's egalitarian demagoguery under a mask of dry technocracy.

For all the problems of technocrats, I'll take the real ones over demagogues any day of the week.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Next book: The Federalist Papers.

My next book will be the Federalist Papers.  I'm reading this edition, because I like to read things on paper, but you can get them for free online.  This is a departure from the usual genre of books that I read, but I'm fascinated by the American civic religion.  I spend a lot of time reading about the unique secular religions of American academics (progressive pedagogy, Diversity And Inclusion, etc.), and it would be nice to compare with a very different strand of secular religion.  (Though the secularism of the religion around the Constitution is sometimes tenuous; at least one American-born religion considers the Constitution a divinely-inspired document.)

Points I'm particularly interested in:
1) How a product of messy compromise was somehow sold as a seamless garment to clothe a new Republic.
2) How Americans persuaded themselves that the form of government outlined in the Constitution is the only way to maintain a stable, prosperous, and liberal representative democracy.  A quick look around the world should show that there are plenty of parliamentary systems that do just fine despite not sharing our notions about separation of powers.
3) How people persuaded themselves that the most important cleavages in America are large states versus small states.  Vermont, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nevada all have very different social, political, and economic interests, yet we preach the importance of protecting "small states."  This becomes especially salient when (as has happened twice in this century) a President takes office despite losing the popular vote.
4) Are there seeds of the strangely American idea that the military isn't "Big Government"?  I know that many of the Founders were skeptical of standing armies, yet the people who revere the Founders most loudly also loudly proclaim their love of a large standing army.  Were there seeds of this even then?

One interesting thing I've learned just from the introduction is that the term "Federalist" for those who advocated ratifying the Constitution was something of a rhetorical coup.  Federalism is a system of government where authorities of constituent units (states, territories, provinces, cantons, or whatever other name) retain substantial autonomy from the national government.  Systems that aren't called "federalist" generally have much stronger central governments (and correspondingly less autonomy for the lower levels) than those called "federalist." Yes, a political scientist could add quite a bit to that definition, but it's at least a decent starting point.  The US Constitution provided a stronger central government than the previously-operating Articles of Confederation had, so the strongest objections to the Constitution should have been the ones called "Federalists."  However, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay stole the word "Federalist" for themselves, forcing the opponents of the Constitutions (and advocates for a looser confederation) to call themselves anti-Federalist.  Whoever lays the first successful claim to a potent word will enjoy a potent advantage.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Yet more acronyms for the same old pedestal: STEMM and HACD

Via this article in Science, I see that we now have two new acronyms:  STEMM (just like STEM, but the second M stands for Medicine) and HACD (Humanities, Arts, Crafts, and Design).  There are now official reports saying that we'll get better science if scientists are broadly educated.

Since I support the ideal of broad education, I suppose I should be glad of this.  But I'm not, for three reasons.  First and foremost, it's the same old Important People, releasing a report on Best Practices and sounding important. Also, I don't think that the measure of arts and crafts and whatever else is the extent to which they benefit STEM, it's the extent to which they benefit people in whatever endeavors.  I don't know that unicycling and juggling and volunteer work in grad school helped me as a scientist, per se, but they kept me sane while I happened to be doing science.  I don't know that writing science fiction makes me a better scientist, but as a person who works with people I enjoy writing about people.

Finally, as much as I will defend breadth, I will also defend STEM as such.  STEM is broad in its own right.  So what if a scientist gets their relaxation from math puzzles, or tinkering with their car, instead of painting or rock climbing?  So what if a molecular biologist also loves to go on nature hikes and collect interesting rocks or insects?  People should pursue their breadth wherever it is most fulfilling to them, and if that's both STEM and humanities, great, but if it's two different things within STEM, that's also great.

Everybody is searching for some magical formula, some perfect balance between the STEM...I mean, STEMM, on the pedestal and whatever else is currently in favor.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Article on Assessment

I have an article at Inside Higher Ed titled "Some Questions for Assessophiles."  The comments are not entirely favorable, as you might expect.  I have since been pointed to this most interesting blog critiquing assessment, and this most interesting interview with Molly Worthen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On fluff

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 21, 2018

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

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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

My basic problem with Feyerabend

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

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

Feyerabend thus far

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The restlessness

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

In other news, the Pope is Catholic

I came across this meta-analysis of studies of the effect of class attendance on college grades.  A meta-analysis is not a single study, but rather a statistical analysis of a large body of studies.  Any one study might find a given result for any number of reasons.  However, by comparing many studies one can get an idea of whether there are any consistent findings, and put outliers in context.  That's what a meta-analysis is.  In short, these authors find that class attendance is an excellent (not to be confused with "perfect") predictor of college grades, even better than test scores and high school GPA.  Also of interest, attendance is a better predictor than personality traits (aka "non-cognitive traits"), throwing cold water on occasional claims that track record matters less than potential as evidenced by non-cognitive traits.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Measuring success, chapters 10 and 11

These last two chapters compare test-optional institutions with similar institutions.  They focus on liberal arts colleges rather than the sort of place that I work in, but these comparisons get at the setting in which these debates are loudest.  The short version is that test-optional and test-requiring institutions followed almost identical trends from 1992 to 2010 when looking at measures of diversity, application numbers, and average test scores.  There are small differences, but they are small.  I think it comes down to the fact that test-optional initiatives are parts of much larger contexts.  Institutions that don't abandon the SAT still strive for diversity, and institutions that do abandon the SAT don't just say "OK, no need to do anything else about diversity.  We did what matters."  So the presence or absence of tests in admissions is just one factor among many.

Which is a metaphor for so many things, if you think about it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Judas Iscariot, Administrator

Last weekend I saw Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time.  I really, really liked it.  But then, as I was singing Judas' big musical number "Superstar" to myself, I realized that the lyrics can be interpreted as the words of a university administrator.  To wit:
Every time I look at you I don't understand,
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand,
You'd have managed better if you'd had it planned,
Translation:  "You need to engage in strategic planning."
Why'd you choose such a backwards time and such a strange land?
Academics love to talk about how horrifying it would be to live in a small town or non-coastal city.
If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation,
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.
Translation:  "We could solve all of our problems if we jumped onto the latest digital fads and offered more online classes."
Don't you get me wrong!  Don't you get me wrong!
Don't you get me wrong!  Don't you get me wrong!
I only wanna know!  I only wanna know!
I only wanna know!  I only wanna know!
Translation: "Please submit reports.  We need to know that you are spending your time on teaching, not wasting your time on irrelevant busywork."
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed? 
Translation: "In this time of tightened budgets (for everything except ballooning administrative ranks), we need to see evidence of shared sacrifice.  Are you doing more with less?  Can you submit a report on that?"
Jesus Christ, Superstar,
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Translation:  "We've reviewed your student evaluations.  Please submit a self-reflection in response, so that we can put it in your file."
Tell me what you think about your friends at the top,
Who'd you think (besides yourself) was the pick of the crop?
Translation:  "These performance reviews needed to be done yesterday.  We'll need you to work on them.  Please fill out the rubrics I'm attaching."
Buddha:  Was he where it's at?  Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain?  Or was that just PR?
Translation: "We are pleased to announce our new diversity initiative."
Did you mean to die like that?  Was that a mistake?
Translation:  "Could it be that your problems are a result of lack of proper strategic planning on your part?"
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?
Translation: "Or could it be that your budgetary problems were a deliberate sabotage that you'd use to demonstrate need when requesting more resources?"

On the other hand, it seems that Judas' thirty pieces of silver were not worth a whole lot, whereas university administrators make far more money than the people who engage in such trivial tasks as teaching and research.

Measuring Success, Chapter 9

This chapter, by Rebecca Zwick (researcher at ETS and professor emerita in the education school at UC Santa Barbara, aka U Can Study Buzzed, aka my beloved alma mater), looks at the tangible outcomes from test-optional and top-percentile admissions.  "Top percentile" admissions let in anyone who graduates in the top X% of a public high school class.  This has certain obvious virtues (anyone who makes it to the top must be more driven than most around them), it has the potential to increase diversity (the top students in a poor, minority neighborhood get in on the same footing as the top students in a rich, white school), and it does so in a race-blind manner.  Anyway, Zwick looks at the data, and a few take-aways:

1) These admissions policies don't seem to hurt graduation rates or college grades much, if at all.  This is consistent with the finding in earlier chapters that kids with high grades but low scores (and we can reasonably assume that such kids are common among those who don't report scores or get in because they graduated at the top of a school in a disadvantaged neighborhood) do pretty well.

2) On the other hand, there is still sorting:  Students who don't report test scores tend not to major in STEM.  That isn't a bad thing, IMHO.  If a kid has a great art portfolio then they should go to college and major in art, regardless of what their SAT math score is.  OTOH, that kid probably shouldn't do physics if their SAT math score is abysmal.  The previous sentence is only disparaging if you place physics on a pedestal that towers over the arts, and I don't place it on such a pedestal.

Anyway, these findings are reassuring, because there's something of a cottage industry in newspaper articles about minority kids who do well in a non-challenging high school but then flounder at a flagship.  Such kids surely exist, and definitely deserve some compassionate counseling on alternatives, but they are apparently not a major factor in the big picture, which means they are not a major impediment to diversifying large cohorts.

3) The gains for diversity are nowhere near what people were hoping.  When you go test-optional you have to look at resumes and essays and letters, all of which are at least as susceptible to manipulation and response to class and culture as anything on the SAT.

4) In a humorous aside, regarding the legality of affirmative action and alternatives to affirmative action, the author quotes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as saying that "only an ostrich" would perceive top-percent admissions plans as race-neutral.  Whether or not the effects actually match the intent, they are designed and scrutinized in a discussion about race, with everyone hoping to achieve a diverse outcome without mandating a diverse outcome.  Say what you will for or against such agendas, but I admire Ginsburg's rhetorical flourish.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Measuring Success, Chapter 8

This is an interesting chapter.  Most of it is actually a republished chapter from Crossing the Finish Line, a 2011 book by Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson.  They used large data sets from 21 flagships and 4 state-wide systems to look at a very large cohort of students who started college in 1999, and see what predicted success.  They found that high school grades were less important than test scores, though test scores still have some predictive value.  This makes sense to me:  The ability to succeed at sustained tasks is distinct from (though not wholly unrelated to) the ability to do well on a test.  Also, a person who isn't strong at the things measured on tests might still find areas where they can succeed, while a person who can't devote themselves to regular academic work will have trouble succeeding at anything, even if they have certain mental traits.

After that portion of the chapter, some researchers at the College Board re-run that analysis with more recent data, and find similar trends, though the predictive power of grades has gone down while the predictive power of tests has gone up.  This is consistent with a hypothesis of grade inflation (per an earlier chapter).

Monday, April 2, 2018

Measuring Success, Chapters 4 and 5

Chapter 4 was a case study from one school that used merit scholarships to boost enrollment by good students, and included SAT scores in the mix.  They focused more on enrollment than performance after enrollment, so I ignored it.

Chapter 5 is on "discrepant" students.  We've all known This One Person who got bad test scores and good grades, and This One Other Person who got good scores and bad grades.  The single most important thing any academic can consider in any conversation on this topic is whether a new rule would be fair to This One Person and This One Other Person.  But for the bad people (like me) who want to look beyond This One Person, chapter 5 looks at college performance on the large scale, not just the anecdotes.  And it appears that the people with better high school grades than scores have outcomes that are almost as good as those of people with similar grades.

On the surface, this would seem to undermine the case for using test scores.  However, these people have scores that are SUBSTANTIALLY worse than their high school grades might suggest.  If you just look at people with test scores that are within the normal range for people with those grades, differences in performance between people with similar grades but different scores (albeit not outrageously different scores) are indeed correlated with grades.

Interestingly, the people with substantially better grades than scores tend to be women and minorities.  Again, at first glance this might seem to lead to a slam-dunk case against tests, but (1) we're talking about the outliers, not the people in the normal band (i.e. there are still plenty of women and minorities whose test scores are not discrepant, and the test scores continue to have predictive power for them) and (2) while women and minorities are more likely to have test scores that are substantially worse than high school grades than the other way around, the situation seems to reverse if we look at college grades for women and minorities in the "normal" (non-discrepant) band of grades and scores.  So, complicated things are complicated.

On the other hand, people with poor grades but good scores do somewhat worse than people with similar scores (not surprising), because "smart but lazy" is a thing. (On the other hand, sometimes people with bad scores deliberately take easy classes, and sometimes people with good scores deliberately take hard classes.  Complicated things are complicated.) Again, on the surface this would suggest that only grades matter, but we're talking about outliers.  If you look at people who are closer to the normal range, differences in scores still have predictive power.

Interestingly, there's some evidence that people with better scores than grades tend to go into harder majors than people with better grades than scores, and this confounds some of the analysis.  This is not surprising to me; STEM does have some epically smart but lazy people.  (Yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there is a supremely lazy literature major with a perfect SAT score and horrible grades, but those people are more commonly STEM majors.)

My main take-aways are:

1) Test scores matter but they aren't the ONLY things that matter.  (Duh.)  This point has been agreed on by just about everyone who's ever suggested using test scores for decisions.  Yes, I'm sure that somewhere out there is a literal straw man who has suggested eliminating grades from consideration and ONLY looking at scores, but that guy (and you just know it's a guy) is ignored by everyone else.

2) The studies in this chapter are mostly based on small samples and so should be interpreted with caution.  We should probably err on the side of rewarding work, while not completely ignoring tests.

Measuring success, chapters 2 and 3

Chapter 2 is a very detailed breakdown of data on college grades (freshman and 4-year) and college completion rates versus SAT score and high school GPA.  The message from many analyses is clear:  In every band of high school GPAs the SAT has real predictive power for performance in college, by multiple measures.

Of course, one cannot discuss this without discussing equity, so they make the same point as the previous chapter:  The SAT actually over-predicts college performance for minorities (because performance is also affected by disadvantages that are NOT fully captured in scores).  More importantly, they cite a different study than the previous chapter cited.  This gives me somewhat greater confidence about the point, when multiple investigators can cite a plethora of studies rather than everyone rallying around the same study.  We should always be suspicious of narratives built around This One Study.

Chapter 3 has one big point:  Grade inflation is real, and it's more prominent at schools serving affluent and white kids than schools serving poor kids from disadvantaged minority groups.  Consequently, if you base admissions decisions on grades rather than test scores you won't actually accomplish your equity goals.  Their main evidence for inflation is that they look at how high school grades have trended upward (in many but not all schools) for students in comparable bands of SAT scores.  Since the College Board does a lot of work to try to make SAT scores comparable across years, this strongly suggests that grading is getting more lenient (in some but not all schools).  And the schools at which grading is getting more lenient (based on this line of analysis) are whiter and more affluent than the schools with less grade inflation.

Not having examined the data myself, I am obviously not in a position to weigh in on the validity of this work, but if other authors have found similar things in multiple independent analyses then we should seriously consider the implications.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Next book: Measuring Success

The next book that I'll blog about is Measuring Success, an edited volume with 11 chapters, 3 authors, and 26 contributors.  The book is about the predictive validity of standardized tests in college admissions.  This book poses something of a dilemma for me.  On the one hand, it is rich in data and citations to the peer-reviewed literature. On the other hand, the editors include Lynn Letukas and Ben Wildavsky from the College Board (the organization that produces the SAT) and someone from a research center that includes the College Board on its client list.

I think the proper response is to take this with a big grain of salt.  Nothing should be taken as a priori truth, but can be taken with a suitable dose of "Assuming that similar results are found in multiple, independent investigations..."

The first chapter is probably the least rigorous, simply because it's an introductory chapter titled "Eight Myths about Standardized Admissions Testing", hence several points are touched on briefly (though many of the same themes are visited in more depth in subsequent chapters).  The putative myths are:

1) Standardized tests are very poor predictors of freshman grades:  The authors concede that weak correlations are found if you look only at the set of admitted students, but if you correct for the fact that the proper comparison includes the students who were not admitted but nonetheless went to college elsewhere (or were admitted but chose other schools) the correlations improve.  This is a point that I've made before and with quantitative detail.  Moreover, students with weaker preparation often choose different majors than students with stronger preparation, so their grades might not be comparable.  But the authors include data showing that when you look at a wider pool and control for common college curricula and also high school GPA, the correlation between SAT score and college grades improves considerably, reaching 0.8 (versus 0.35 in poorly-controlled studies).

2) Tests do not predict anything beyond grades: The authors show data indicating that students with higher test scores take more advanced college classes than those with lower scores, and enter majors that reflect their higher test scores (e.g. verbal versus math).

3) Alternatives to testing are superior:  The authors reference work on various alternative measures, and show that often the sample sizes are small and correlations are weak.  Moreover, even if there are superior sources of data for admissions decisions, I'm not sure why one would ONLY use one source of information.  Why not build a multi-variate model?  And since tests are not as vulnerable to the subjective biases of raters (e.g. interviewers, letter writers, essay readers) the claim of superiority over tests seems to be an extraordinary one, requiring extraordinary evidence.  (Or, at a minimum, a very careful articulation of what could count as "superiority"--is lack of bias not one of the desiderata?)

4) Tests do not measure anything relevant to life after college:  Here the authors cite correlations between test scores and quality of graduate work as evaluated by faculty (i.e. evaluations of the quality and quantity of research output) as well as work performance after graduate study.  However, this is a weak point, because it is focused on the Miller Analogies Test as an admissions test for students preparing to work as counselors, rather than more widely-used tests for undergraduate admissions (e.g. SAT, ACT) or graduate admissions (the GRE is the main game in town here).

Still, the authors are psychologists, so counseling programs would seem to be near to their hearts.  I'll give them one fumble here.

5) Beyond a threshold tests have little predictive power:  In other words, this is an argument that above a threshold you can't use tests to distinguish decent from great performance.  And, of course, it is true that tests can't do that with perfect predictive power. However, the authors cite evidence from large studies (6656 students in one study, 15,040 in another, and 150,000 in the third) that tests have non-trivial predictive power even at the upper end of the talent pool.  Intuitively this makes sense:  If test scores only had threshold predictive power then the correlations under point 1 would probably not be as large.

6) Tests only measure socioeconomic status:  This one was an eye-opener. They show mean SAT score varying from 1300 (on a 2400 scale) for the lowest income bracket (<$20,000/year household income) to 1700 for the highest bracket (more than $200,000/year household income).  That variation isn't trivial, but it is also hardly enough to generate the correlations seen earlier, especially when you take into account the wide variation within brackets.  More importantly, even when controlling for family income, the predictive power of SAT scores remains quite strong.

7) Test are biased:  Here the authors are careful to unpack what "bias" means.  If a test is biased against group X and favorable to group Y, then if we take a bunch of students with the same test score and look at their college performance, the X students should do better than the Y students.  In other words, such an outcome would tell us that X students are doing better than their score would predict while Y students are doing worse, so admitting based on the test gives X students a disadvantage (they're being treated the same as weaker Y students).  However, SAT scores slightly over-predict college grades for minority students. The over-prediction makes sense to me, since disadvantage is multi-faceted, and there are aspects of it that cannot be fully captured by family income.  If disadvantage matters and is related to ethnicity then I would expect minority students with a given family income and same academic preparation to fare slightly worse (on average) because they face burdens that otherwise-similar white students do not face.

8) Coaching produces large gains:  The authors show data suggesting that gains from test prep and coaching are over-stated.  This makes sense to me on a few levels.  First, the students who avail themselves of test prep include a substantial pool of students who did poorly on their first try, and regression to the mean is surely a factor here.  Second, this pool includes kids who did not make the minimal effort to familiarize themselves with the test beforehand. A bit of effort to get familiar with the task at hand is a modest task, one that does not require expensive tutors, but expensive tutors will nonetheless be happy to collect a fee for helping one with that modest task.  There are no doubt gains from minimal due diligence, and gains from re-testing after some coaching may in part reflect that modest due diligence.  The open question is whether those gains reflect much beyond that, i.e. reflect things that a kid couldn't do without substantial resources.

Besides, if shilling is a concern, then taking claims about the value of coaching at face value amounts to trusting marketing materials from Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.  That's a dubious thing.

Now, that said, all of the points made here are worthy of follow-up. The subsequent chapters have more in-depth analysis that we need to examine.  The first chapter is suggestive motivation but hardly conclusive evidence.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Galileo! Galileo! Hypotheses non fingo!

OK, I'm finally reading Galileo's Two New Sciences, and while I don't have much time now to blog about it, I want to note that on pages 158-159 of the Stillman Drake translation (apparently page 202 of the original), Salviati says:
The present does not seem to me to be an opportune time to enter into the investigation of the cause of the acceleration of natural motion, concerning which various philosophers have produced various opinions, some of them reducing this to approach to the center; others to the presence of successively less parts of the medium remaining to be divided; and others to a certain extrusion by the surrounding medium which, in rejoining itself behind the moveable, goes pressing and continually pushing it out.  Such fantasies, and others like them, would have to be examined and resolved, with little gain.
This sounds remarkably similar to Newton's famous "Hypotheses non fingo" ("I feign no hypotheses"), said in regard to the causes of gravitational attraction.  He offered no hypotheses on the deeper nature of gravity, and his decision to be very focused was part of why he was so successful.  Similar things can be said of Galileo's analysis of free fall.