Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gilbert and Sullivan Are Rolling Their Eyes

My object not sublime
I shall achieve a rhyme
And punish the reader much of the time
The reader much of the time.

And done without consent
Unwittingly I do vent
A rather unbalanced temperament
An unbalanced temperament.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Gentle Conversations

In my experience, conversations where the participants are relaxed and open with one another are both quite informative and pleasurable to participate in.  Yet such conversations don't just happen.  They require cultivation ahead of time.  The participants must share some common previous experiences.  From those, they must develop a sense that the others in the discussion will listen to them and come to trust that as a normal occurrence.  In turn, they must reciprocate by listening to the others and demonstrating that in a way that communicates they understand what the others are saying.  Listening in this way requires effort, but when the activity is enjoyable the effort may not be noticeable to the participant.  Listening also requires a degree of flexibility in one's own point of view, to modify that when the situation requires doing so.

People who are rigid and doctrinaire lack this ability and thus put the others in conversation on guard and make them tense.  Then the discussion becomes a form of intellectual combat.  In the courtroom, this is good and appropriate. The law, by design, is an adversarial process. Similarly, it makes sense in politics, where candidates debate one another.  Voters must choose among the candidates.  The debate informs that choice. But in private conversation, the rigidity of a participant is not helpful.  Indeed, it is hurtful.  If we must engage in discussions with such people on a repeated basis, we learn to dread those conversations in the offing.

Often the learning in gentle conversations is about our own prior thinking.  We've experienced something and started to reflect on it, but haven't worked it all the way through.  Or we've gone a bit further and drawn some tentative conclusions, but might change our opinion if somebody else would convince us to do so, perhaps by presenting some other evidence that sheds light on the situation, or by framing the issue in a different way that helps us to make progress in thinking about it.   This is one of the primary ways adults learn.  It differs from classroom learning in that the discussions are voluntary and there is no performance measure given, neither individually nor as a group.  The only external verification that the conversation 'works' is that the participants willingly engage in future such conversations.

I base the above primarily on my time as an administrator on campus, where I had many such conversations with colleagues on campus as well as with peers in educational technology at other institutions. Quite a few of these conversations happened at the coffee shop or over lunch.  That location, as distinct from having the discussion at the office of one of the participants, conveys that there is a social aspect to the discussion.  This blending of work related business with the social is something to be desired.  People on campus intuitively understand that.  It is comfortable to be around others who are likewise engaged in their own conversations.  And a bit of food or a beverage add to the relaxed nature of the discussion.

There is one point, however, where all of this prior experience fails to illuminate.  This regards the previous common experiences that help to form a bond among the participants.  With my colleagues on campus and within the ed tech profession, much of that experience happened by serendipity.  We capitalized on our good fortune, but we didn't contemplate a methodology to generate such experiences that would bring others into the group in a way where these others felt comfortable and participated fully.  Two points I can make on this are first, that if you introduce a colleague to somebody else, a connection the colleague wouldn't have made on her own, then reciprocation is the norm and you can benefit from your colleague bringing in new people into the discussion.  I've had some experience where my own sphere expanded in this way with discussions about information technology on campus.  The other point is that elders in the profession have some responsibility to make their junior colleagues comfortable and engage with them fully.  In the CIC Learning Technology Group (the CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance), where I served for about 11 years, I found myself in the role of elder about midway through and I did this with several junior colleagues thereafter.  I found it quite enjoyable and would occasionally be pleasantly surprised upon receiving a note of appreciation from one of them.  My hope is that they will do likewise when it is their turn.

Nevertheless, my experience as administrator doesn't indicate how much common experience is needed to make a bond nor how long it takes to do so.  One needs some answer on this question if one is to orchestrate such experiences explicitly to produce gentle conversations.  I do have some indicators on this from teaching as well as from hearing about the teaching practices of other instructors who aim for this goal.  For example, consider this post from many years ago, Akeelah and Adult Precocity, where I am writing about Barbara Ganley and her approach then to teaching.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

I have since embraced another of Barbara's ideas in my own class, teaching with blogs.  The first time I did so was in a course for students in the campus honors program taught in a seminar format.  I made some beginner's mistakes that first time and have since modified the approach accordingly.  Now I use this approach with regular students in a (small) lecture class.  It is harder to get peer-to-peer bonding in that setting, but not infrequently a bond forms between the student and me.  The students make one post a week, about 600 words per post.  I give rather extensive comments on the posts and do so without giving a letter grade.  (See my post Feedback Rather Than Assessment.)  Students find this unusual.  They don't see this practice in their other classes in economics.  They are uncomfortable with this at first.   It takes between four and six substantive posts with my commentary for them to relax.  Eventually, many come to enjoy this aspect of the course.  But, initially, none of the students enjoy it.

I should note that in their early posts the students behave like students often do - jumping through hoops that the instructor presents to them, without wondering why they've been tasked to do so.  In these early posts they are writing to please me.  Ironically, they don't achieve that goal, quite the contrary.  Once they relax, however, they are more willing to be themselves, offer their own opinions, and be somewhat exploratory in their posts.  This is much better and I appreciate the change in style.  (This is not to say that the students couldn't use a lot more practice as writers. They could.  My goal is not to make them great writers, as laudable as that goal might be.  Rather, it is to get them to open up in their thinking about the economics, to tie the economics to their own experiences, and to use the blogging for that purpose.)

The teacher-student relationship has a certain power structure to it, one that may influence how long it takes for the bond to form.  I don't know, but I conjecture that sort of thing matters, with it easier to form bonds in horizontal relationships and harder in vertical relationships.  The other thing that surely matters is how frequent and intensive the early interactions are.  I wish I could provide benchmarks for effective planned early interactions that happen in a non-instructional setting, but I don't have those.  My inclination, however, is to assume that it take longer than you might originally expect.  We know oil and water don't mix and never will.  With people who have different backgrounds, as long as they are self-conscious of that their interactions will be stilted.  For bonding to occur, they need to get past that and see each other as individuals.   You can know it has happened when looking back on the experience, having crossed the threshold some time ago.  In prospect, however, I'm afraid it may be hard to predict when it is likely to happen, or if it ever will.

* * * * *

I now want to switch gears, taking what I know from my own experience and using that in a speculative manner to apply to our national politics.  My question, its been the one I've been asking for some time, is how do we heal as a nation?

There were a couple of pieces over the weekend that provided fodder for my post.  The first is, No One Cares About Russia in the World Breitbart Made.  I puzzled about this one for a while, not the conclusion that Trump supporters largely don't care about Russian interference in the election, something I was aware of that the polls have confirmed.  The puzzle for me is why this is true.  If you are in a team athletic contest that has a referee or an umpire and there is a bad call that favors your team, after which your team subsequently wins the contest, how do you react to the call once the game is over?  Do you own up to the error or ignore it?

If you would ignore it in this comparatively benign environment, why should you be surprised about Trump supporters not caring about Russian interference in the election?  It would just seem to be human nature.  Of course, you might react differently to the bad call.  You might have guilt feelings about the victory.  Indeed, many years ago you might have seen That Championship Season.  (I saw it on the stage in New York sometime in my early 20s.)  Then you might rue your initial reluctance to ignore the bad call.  In this case, you need a different explanation.  The linked article offers one.  Trump supporters have been brainwashed by Fox News, which, in turn, has been infiltrated by Breitbart.  

I should observe here that Fox News as an alternative reality is not a new hypothesis, which itself followed after many years of Conservative criticism about Liberal bias in the media.  How else can one explain the then popularity of Sarah Palin or a bit later of Michele Bachman?  But that is Fox News as the voice of the Tea Party.  The Breitbart connection is more recent and far more insidious.

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical about brainwashing in this manner.  On a personal note, I have extreme fatigue about the news.  I read the newspaper less and less, scanning some headlines but lacking the energy to read through many of the pieces.  And more nights than not I don't watch any news on TV, though when I do watch it is the NewsHour on PBS.  (My wife, however, is a junkie for MSNBC and watches that each night after work.  Though I am not with her in the room with the TV, I can't help but hear some of the programming while in my office.)  I am guessing that many others are feeling news fatigue, regardless of political inclination.  If so, there is then no mechanism for the brainwashing to happen.  And even for those who continue to regularly watch Fox News, might they still maintain some independence in their own thinking?  We should recognize that there is some elitism in maintaining that regular MSNBC viewers can retain independent judgment, while regular Fox viewers cannot.  Further, and quite ironically, it is just that elitism that seems to fuel the resentment by the Trump supporters.

The other piece I want to mention is a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, The New Climate of Treason.  It puts all the hypotheses by Liberals about a vast right wing conspiracy driving this disregard of a Russian threat together in one package.  Fox News plays a critical role in that story.  If you think of far right elites (puppeteers) manipulating the masses (puppets), then Fox News offers a connection between them (the strings).  My initial reaction to the Krugman piece was to accept what he had to say and look for some remedy by considering whether Trump supporters might find some other viewing more compelling than Fox News, with that other viewing not intentionally manipulative.  For example, The NewsHour offers this sort of programming.  Yet it doesn't seem to be considered as entertaining by regular Fox viewers, judged by what they do choose to watch.   It remains a mystery to me what would be highly engaging programming yet without manipulating the audience, programming that could compete favorably with Fox News. 

This seemingly intractable problem led  met to think that something else might be the answer.  So I started to consider gentle conversations where both Conservatives and Liberals participate, either one-on-one or in small groups.  When I was an assistant professor, students would come to my office hours in groups.  There is strength in numbers.  Students are reluctant to attend office hours individually, because they don't want to look stupid in front of the professor.  I reckoned that something similar might work in this instance, with a single Liberal participant who goes on site to meet the Trump supporters.  Follow up meetings might then happen individually or in small groups, depending on the inclinations of the participants. In other words, once the initial conversation has taken place a participant may feel comfortable enough to not need to be part of a group to participate further and indeed may prefer discussion to be one-on-one to better direct the conversation.

Within a day or two of thinking this way I read, How Trump Is Transforming Rural America, an article from The New Yorker.  I am always amused when I see my own formative thinking mirrored in some well-placed publication.  It offers me some confirmation that my thinking is not too far off base.  In this case the reporter, Peter Hessler, spent a significant amount of time in Grand Junction Colorado, a bastion of Trump support near the western edge of the state. Hessler had repeated conversations with some of those who did vote for Trump, a publisher from a local newspaper that maintained neutrality during the election, and a few Colorado state politicians.  It makes for an interesting read because the people are far from cookie cutter, particularly in their prior experiences.  This paragraph, not quite at the end of the piece, amounts to a conclusion of sorts.   

In Grand Junction, it was often dispiriting to see such enthusiasm for a figure who could become the ultimate political boom-and-bust. There was idealism, too, and so many pro-Trump opinions were the fruit of powerful and legitimate life experiences. “We just assume that if someone voted for Trump that they’re racist and uneducated,” Jeriel Brammeier, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the local Democratic Party, told me. “We can’t think about it like that.” People have reasons for the things that they believe, and the intensity of their experiences can’t be taken for granted; it’s not simply a matter of having Fox News on in the background. But perhaps this is a way to distinguish between the President and his supporters. Almost everybody I met in Grand Junction seemed more complex, more interesting, and more decent than the man who inspires them.

I was disposed to accept Hessler's message, having read similar conclusions elsewhere, for example, this column by Nicholas Kristof, My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Kind to Trump Voters.  Nevertheless, I had a lot of questions about Hessler's methodology that aren't answered by the piece itself.  Many of those questions follow from this basic one.  Why would people in Grand Junction talk openly with Hessler?   When I was a campus administrator, I was occasionally interviewed by the student newspaper.  I was a 'willing participant' in these interviews because it was part of my job, meaning I really didn't have a choice.  For those who appeared in the story and did have a choice, what explains the choice that they made?  Were they paid for their participation or did they give it freely?  Were there others who Hessler asked to interview but who declined the offer?  If so, are these people different in a way that matters for the story, so we are getting a biased picture of the full situation? Likewise, were there still others who were interviewed but who didn't make it into the story?  If so, why?  Does this introduce a different sort of bias? 

I also wonder whether that is it regarding these conversations, given the publication of the article, or if Hessler will continue in ongoing threads with some of them.  If you try to connect the first half of my piece to this second section, the participants have far greater reason to engage in an open and honest way when the conversation is ongoing.  Otherwise, it is quite possible that the discussion gets end-gamed. If they were end-gamed the participants would offer up what they know Hessler wants to hear, whether that is the whole truth or not.  What, if anything, prevents the end-gaming in this case?  This is an issue with all magazine exposé pieces, not just Hessler's article.  Journalists get well educated that sources may have ulterior motives, which is one reason why they try to triangulate every bit of information the journalist uncovers.  Here, however, the piece is more about attitudes than about juicy nuggets of insider information. Does triangulation suffice in this case or not?

These questions into Hessler's methodology notwithstanding, I started to imagine something similar happening a thousand-fold over, in many different locations around the country.  I asked myself whether it was necessary for the person making the site visit to be a trained journalist.  Maybe it would be better for the person to be an ethnographer or perhaps a political scientist.  Or perhaps somebody like me would be good at this, meaning somebody with a lot of experience in gentle conversation, but whose expertise comes from an area not closely related to the topics under discussion.  Getting participation might be harder in this case, but it would make the conversations more symmetric, which matters for what I say next.

After bonding has occurred I'd want the participants to take a page from Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience and see if on some issues the participants can produce a synthesis of their views that represents something fundamentally new, where each participant has contributed something to the synthesis.  Follett calls this process interweaving.  What might this look like?  Can the participants actually get past the agree-to-disagree stage and onto something else that is more tenable?  How does that work?

Now I want to speculate.  Trump supporters are known to be strongly suspicious of government and will claim that the government works for special interests only but ignores the general public.  The government, therefore, is not to be trusted.  But then I need to confront my own experience, both when I was growing up and during my working life.  I came of age during the Vietnam War.  It seemed that everyone my age learned to distrust the government in talking about the War.  I didn't see this duplicity as benefiting the special interests, though at some point in my teen years I must have become aware of Ike's warning regarding the military-industrial complex.  Instead, I felt that fear of communism was overwrought and that The Domino Theory was pretty much nonsense, used for domestic propaganda rather than to make a sound argument for war, since there wasn't such a sound argument.  So I clearly distrusted government with respect to Vietnam.  Yet at the same time I attended a NYC public school and did so from first grade through graduating high school.  I thought my education pretty good for the most part and strongly endorse the idea of public schools, even now. In the case of public schools, government seems like a good and necessary thing to me.

How can government be be not trustworthy, on the one hand, and yet deserving of trust, on the other?  I have never worked through that question fully in my own thinking, let alone try to reconcile those contradictions with others.  (The Federal government was responsible for the Vietnam War while NYC government was responsible for the public education I received, so one simplistic argument  might be to not trust the Federal government but to trust local government.  Of course, it is easy enough to come up with examples that cut the other way.  Consider that the Internet emerged from research at ARPA, with the ARPANET dating back to the early 1960s.  Also consider that urban public schools are often criticized for large class size, inadequate teacher pay, and dilapidated facilities.)  A subtle argument that is not doctrinaire but rather address these experiences is what is needed.

To this I want to add my work experience.  I was an employee of the University of Illinois from fall 1980 to summer 2010, after which I retired.  I have taught one course a year under contract to the university since 2013.  (In 2011 taught two course in the spring.  In 2012, I taught one course in the spring and taught it again in the fall.)    The U of I is a public university.  If government is not to be trusted are the employees of government agencies not to be trusted?  Am I, therefore, not to be trusted?  This line of thinking gives a different dimension to the same issue.

Let me add still another dimension.  The last time I taught intermediate microeconomics, spring 2011, I had many students in my class who were business majors.  Many of them were quite conservative.  A few articulated a strong anti-government stance.  Just about all of these students were from within Illinois, paying in-state tuition at a public university and getting a benefit from the subsidy they were receiving (or their parents were receiving if their parents were the ones paying the tuition). None of these students saw a contradiction here.  I am not sure why.  Perhaps they didn't understand that the taxpayers in the state were bearing some of the cost of their education.  If they did come to learn this, would their attitude about government spending change?  Could they come to a principled view about when government spending is justified, one that goes beyond it being justified when they are the beneficiaries but not otherwise?   I don't know if might be possible or not.  I am quite sure that is can't happen quickly (because I tried to convince my students of this in my class and failed miserably at it then).

Were we to have a thousand or so such gentle conversations throughout the U.S., we might get a sense of whether they can be effective and what factors would make that more likely.  Yet even a thousand conversations would represent only a small sample of what's needed for us to heal as a nation.  There are millions of voters nationally.  How can the approach with gentle conversations scale?  Even if it does work some of the time when replicating what Hessler did and then extending that to Follett's Creative Experience, as suggested above, does the effectiveness survive the approach to scaling?

* * * * *

In this last section I want to go from speculation to pipe dream.  In this fantasy, some of the gentle conversations that have gotten past the bonding threshold get video recorded.  Clips, or sometimes full discussions, get published online for general viewing.  A central coordinator, like a TV show host, does interviews with participants in these gentle conversations.  Indeed, this is offered as programming on some commercial network.  The tone of the coordinator is meant to stay in sync with the tone of the gentle conversations.  I have Jeffrey Brown of The NewsHour in mind as someone who is subdued and welcoming in this manner. His style contrasts with the style of hosts of Fox News or MSNBC, who are more combative in their demeanor.  Nevertheless, one of those networks might consider offering up this alternative programming as part of their lineup, done as an experiment to see if it can generate an audience, a way to diversify their offerings.

Undoubtedly, audiences that are used to the bombastic style on their favorite news network will be disappointed when viewing the gentle conversations, as well as when viewing the interviews between the central coordinator and the participants in those gentle conversations.  There just won't be enough fireworks to suit audience tastes.  And it may seem as if everything is playing out in slow motion.  The audience might very well find that boring and then tune out.

There's one factor that should cut the other way.  My pipe dream is based entirely on this other factor winning out.  It is that the participants in the gentle conversations are ordinary people, just like the viewers.  They will be believable because of that.  If their discussion has produced something substantial from interweaving, the audience is then apt to take that conclusion seriously because the audience should be able to imgaine producing the same outcome themselves.

This is how the approach might scale.  Now, who is willing to give it a try?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Derby Smash - Lyrics

The Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett Vocals
The Monster Mash - Lyrics


The Derby Smash (Sung to the tune of The Monster Mash)

I was watching the TV on Monday night
An All-Star reverie that was quite a sight
When an Aaron Judge home run began to rise
And suddenly before my eyes

He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash
He hit the smash
It was a baseball bash
He hit the smash
Left the field in a flash
He hit the smash
He hit the derby smash

MLB ballplayers from the West and East
ESPN announcers claimed the ball had yeast
All of them reaching circuit overloads
Watching his bat how the ball explodes

They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash
They watched the smash
It was a baseball bash
They watched the smash
Left the field in a flash
They watched the smash
They watched the derby smash

The fandom were having fun
Cheering another home run
Measure distance in the plan
Speed with the radar gun.

The scene was rocking, all were digging the sounds
Many of the shots would have left the grounds
The glass wall past the outfield blocked each drive
Their staggering length caused giving high fives.

Another smash
Another derby smash
Another smash
It was a baseball bash
Another smash
Left the field in a flash
Another smash
Another derby smash

Out of the booth Buster's voice did sing
Seems he was troubled by just one thing
Asking the slugger he couldn't resist
He said, "You must defend your title cause the fans will insist"

It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash
It's now the smash
It was a baseball bash
It's now the smash
Left the field in a flash
It's now the smash
It's now the derby smash

Now everything's cool, though beyond what was planned
And the derby smash made the All-Star break grand
For you, the fandom, the smash was meant too
When you get to the ballpark, tell them Betances sent you

Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash
Then you can smash
It was a baseball bash
Then you can smash
Left the field in a flash
Then you can smash
Then you can derby smash

Monday, July 10, 2017

High Standards and Low Expectations

I have some core underlying beliefs that drive much of thinking and writing.  One of those is on the necessity of producing a coherent narrative that explains both how things currently are and where we'd like to see things go BEFORE recommending potential solutions that might be implemented.  My strength is in doing an analysis so having this particular bias is playing to my strength.  I will note that others looking at the same situation may very well come up with a different analysis, one that contradicts mine in some fundamental ways.  Very good.  Then we can argue about those.  Such an argument should bring out hidden assumptions, which ultimately must be what explains the difference in the analyses, assuming that logical error has been ruled out as an explanation.

I want to illustrate with two examples.  One is about our national politics.  The other is about undergraduate education.  These are two of my passions at present.  I will note that my economics training makes me produce a narrative in a certain way.   Others might not frame things in the same manner.  On the one hand, this give some novelty to my perspective and may make it interesting for others to consider.  On the other hand, if that perspective is too alien others won't readily embrace it.  It is far easier to stick with the familiar.

* * * * * 

Let's consider national politics.  It is said that many voters have lost faith in the system, which doesn't work for them, and which is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  You read about this over and over again. Taking that as a starting point, one might proceed by making a list of requirements for a system that did work.  Getting that far others might do as well, but usually this is done piecemeal rather than taking all the requirements together as a whole.  The next step would occur to economists but likely not others.  We need to ask, re the requirements as a whole feasible, meaning they can all be satisfied by a functional system, or are they infeasible, meaning taken together it is not possible to satisfy them all?

As I said, we often don't ask this question.  If we did and we found that the answer is that the system is infeasible, the next step in the process entails going back to the requirements and looking for candidates that can be deleted from the list, while still maintaining that the remainder are sufficient for making the system work.  With fewer requirements, it is easier to get feasibility.  One can then envision an iterative process that looks for the best possible feasible solution.  Let me illustrate with what I hope is a simple example.

Whether Democrat or Republican, people would agree that one important goal is for anyone willing and able to work is that they can find a decent paying job.  The Democrats argue for raising the minimum wage as part of the solution.  A substantial minimum wage ensures that the pay is adequate for the work done.  If the person can find work at the minimum wage, then clearly it will be effective in providing a decent job.  But what if the person can't find work?  One possible retort, one I have never heard anyone argue for but on one level makes sense, is to have the minimum wage indexed to the unemployment rate - a low unemployment rate means a high minimum wage and vice versa.   Another possible retort, and again I have never heard anyone argue for this, is that the minimum wage stays fixed but wage subsidies are available to employers and those subsidies are indexed by the unemployment rate, so the taxpayer pays some of the wage when the labor market is soft, but not otherwise.  The way the argument normally goes, the minimum wage looks like a free lunch.  It raises worker incomes and doesn't cost the taxpayer a dime.  Once you realize that the free lunch is often not feasible, you are probably willing to entertain other policies that ask for taxpayer assistance to make the economy work better, such as a major increase in public works.  But if you do that, do you still need to raise the minimum wage?

I don't want to argue for the preferred alternative here.  My point is that we almost never have a discussion of this sort.  Instead, we're off to the races with our solution and spend essentially no time in considering whether it is a solution and, if so, why that is the case.

I want to raise a different point here. As a rhetorical matter, it is much harder for Democrats to produce a coherent narrative than for Republicans, especially those Republicans who are fundamentally libertarian in their views.  For these Republicans, the best government is no government, with the exception of an agreed upon need to provide for the national defense. Beyond that, cutting government spending and cutting taxes are all they need talk about.  Even if their argument is wrong, because it would produce pernicious results if enacted, it still is easy for them to make the case.

I bring this up because if the Republicans only need soundbites to get their point across, Democrats may be stuck with bullet points that have a list of policies, rather than a coherent narrative, just so they don't try the patience of undecided voters.  A coherent narrative is slower to articulate and demands that the listener pays attention.   There is some upside to this.  The narrative, if it get through the voter's information filters, has the potential to educate the voter.  But if it doesn't get through, of course it does no good.

A coherent narrative is difficult to construct.  It requires bringing assumptions out into the open so they can be examined.  Consider the use of tax dollars to shore up the labor market, as mentioned above.  At present, nobody is talking about this.  Attention is elsewhere, on healthcare.  Evidently that takes additional tax dollars as well.  Many don't worry about this at all, because it is about taxing the wealthy.   But, as I have argued elsewhere, we really should look at all the policies that need new taxes to support them and consider the demand for new tax revenues in aggregate, when these are taken together.  Coherence in the narrative requires doing that.  Otherwise, it is possible to spend the same tax dollar more than once, to achieve the requisite spending via a sleight of hand, or go to the well too often, even when taxing the rich.  At a minimum, there needs to be an articulation of how much tax the rich should bear and the philosophy that informs that view.

Our discourse almost never does this.  It focuses on the beneficiaries of the policy only.  That may be human nature.  But by doing so, it fails to address whether the program is actually feasible or not.  The matter of feasibility needs to be brought out into the open. We are nowhere near doing this.

In Illinois, where the legislature has overridden the Governor's veto, so we have the first state budget in three years, there will be an income tax increase.  The state income tax is based on tax income reported on the IRS 1040 form, and then adjusted (for example, my pension is not subject to Illinois tax, but it is subject to Federal income tax).  Once the adjustments have been made, a flat rate is applied to the taxable income.  The flat rate had been 3.75%.  It is being raised to 4.95%.   So, one might think this is a 1.2% increase.   But for those who were against this tax increase, they are saying it is a 32% increase (divide 1.2 by 3.75).  In other words, they are in attack ad mode.  Attack ads don't help with understanding coherent narratives.  They prevent us from ever producing such an understanding.

I'm afraid in Illinois, we haven't gotten much beyond this.  There is a near term/immediate problem that requires attention. The state has a backlog of unpaid bills from not having budgets the previous two years. Unless those get paid, and soon, the state will get a credit rating of junk bond status.  That would be devastating as the state needs to borrow to do business, and those rates would be usurious if the credit rating is downgraded in this way.  At present it is unclear, at least to me, whether the bills will get paid in a timely fashion and the credit rating downgrade will be avoided.  But it is a sure thing that the bills would not be paid and the credit rating downgrade would happen if we didn't have a budget.  So in that sense, passing this budget is an improvement.

There is a larger, long term structural problem.  That state carries much debt, primarily owing to pension obligations.  What would a feasible solution to this structural problem look like?  The state needs to be running substantial budget surpluses that can be used to retire the debt.  Two pretty obvious ways of getting this are: (1) having even higher income taxes than described above and (2) reducing pension benefits so the estimated obligation comes down.  On (2) there is the further issues that this can only happen by amending the state Constitution.  So it would be arduous to do this.  But that is not impossible.  However, it would requires political goodwill that simply doesn't exist now.

For instance, there could be a threshold pension amount, say $40,000, below which it is not subject to Illinois tax, but all pension income in excess of the threshold should be treated as ordinary income subject to tax.  And the COLA (cost of living adjustment) that applies to the pension, currently 3%, could instead be determined by the increase in the CPI.  Inflation has been running under 3% since I retired.  As a result, my real pension income has risen.  That sort of windfall is nice for me, but it makes no sense as public policy.

Likewise on (1) there probably should be some progressivity in the tax rates.  If that is not possible politically, then that marginal rate, now 4.95%, should be higher.  It was set, artfully, to be less than 5%, which was the temporary rate under our previous governor.  If we're serious about addressing the long term problem, what alternative is there?  Yet it is political suicide to propose this sensible solution.  So we get a budget, but as near as I can tell little if anything done to address the long term problem.  And we have recrimination from all quarters.

The same sort of thing is happening at the national level.  The entire discussion on healthcare is unreal.  Population growth, which can be forecast, is not accounted for in the discussion.  Likewise, future increases in health care costs are not factored in.   So total spending on Medicaid will not drop, as the Republicans claim, but real per capita spending on Medicaid will drop substantially.   Feasibility is critical in this discussion.  But feasibility gets a back seat to wild or irrelevant claims that seemingly allows the politicians to talk straight to the interviewer while not illuminating the issues for the audience at all.

I originally started to write this piece wondering about the following questions.  Are our problems really so intractable now? Or is it just that our leadership is mediocre to poor?  Or is it that the the leadership is good at some things but bad at others.  For example, Republicans evidently have a good capacity for obtaining a majority, but seem far less functional as the governing party.  My presumption is that the system was once functional, even if it had flaws, and that it became dysfunctional over time.  So I wondered, even if we could somehow make the system functional in the here and now, would it nonetheless drift back to dysfunction after that, in the not too far off future?  To steal a line from the movie, A Beautiful Mind, we need to understand the underlying dynamics. These days who thinks about things this way?

With that in mind, here's a list of factors that one should consider.

1.  Private sector unions are on life support.  A once powerful force in society, one that defended the interests of labor, is now too anemic to do much if anything, politically or economically.  For example, are the drivers for the United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and the U.S. Post Office part of some union?  I'm guessing the answer to that is no, they aren't.  What would happen if they all became part of a latter day version of teamsters?  Undoubtedly that would raise shipping costs to the workplace and to residences with a significant impact to online shopping, which has just about destroyed face-to-face retail.   Now trace through the indirect consequences of that increase in cost for the entire economy.  Might those be good for the economy overall?

2.  September 11 did a number on the national psyche.  We've never overcome that and never thought it through collectively.  When candidate Obama was in the throes of the campaign in 2008, he gave an adult speech on race.  It was what many of us wanted and needed.  I, for one, wish he had done more in this domain while in office.  For example, here are some remarks he gave at a press conference the week after the verdict on George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.  Reading those remarks just now, they seem balanced yet not inspiring to me.  And they were kind of overwhelmed by subsequent events that led to Black Lives Matter.  So it seems to be that one telling on such an important issue is not nearly enough.  But on September 11,  we didn't even have that one great speech, to frame how we should think about the issues.  Instead, we had WMD and getting rid of Saddam.  I wonder if after all this time it might still be possible to have a great speech that looks at September 11 in historical perspective and considers what an adult view of the issues looks like.  There is so much phobia and hyperbole here.  It will be very hard to counter that.  But counter it is what we need.

3.  The Great Recession was worse than you think and we still haven't recovered fully.  Part of this was about predatory finance, which continues to be a feature of the economy and for which big powerful people were not punished.  This you read about on occasion.  The system was brought to its knees, many of the little guys took it in the shorts as a consequence, but none of wizards of Wall Street went to trial.  This particular outcome contributes the most to the view that the system is rigged.  But it is something else that we should really think more about and that has gotten far less attention.  In the 1980s, the miracle economy was Japan.  It was going gangbusters.  The Japanese auto industry was cleaning the clock of American car companies.  Japan was also the world leader in electronics, where Sony was The Company.  Fast forward to a decade later and the world is entirely different.  Japan is in slow growth mode and being overtaken by other Asian miracle countries, first South Korea, then China.  Fast forward again to the present.  Now the entire planet of first world countries is in slow growth mode.   Look at the interest rates that the national banks are charging.  We don't do monetary and fiscal policy in a coordinated way across these countries.  But what is clear is that fiscal policy has been weak.  (And think of all the rhetoric about government spending being bad, which encourages that.)  Let me note, in addition, that in a high growth environment finance will look for profitable investments, but in a low growth environment, predatory finance might be the profitable play, so more of it will likely happen.   This is a lead weight on the overall economy, dragging it down.

Now two items that are directly about politics.

4.  Voter participation rates are very low.  Extreme voters turn out in high number while there is low overall participation, particularly during the primaries.  The primary system is producing non-optimal outcomes as a consequence.  This is playing out more on the Republican side than the Democratic side, but consider the furor about Super Delegates, who favored Hillary Clinton.  The Economic Theory of Democracy that I was taught in college in the mid 1970s, from a right leaning professor - University of Chicago PhD - produces outcomes in the middle, where the middle is determined by voter preferences.  This is called the median voter model.   The middle of the Republicans surely doesn't coincide with the middle of the Democrats, so in actual governing there is still room for negotiation.  That's the way the system is supposed to work.  Instead what we have now is that the majority party tries to do it alone.  There is very little bipartisan cooperation.  Given the low voter turnout, if legislation can get through this is tyranny of a plurality over the rest of the country.  Mainly we've seen something else, gridlock.  The extremism encourages that.

5.  There is too much money in politics.  The winning candidate is usually the one with the bigger war chest.  Most of the money comes from a small set of donors, who act like puppeteers.  The candidates are the puppets.  This is a particular form of regulatory capture.  the special interests are winning the day.  Much has been made of Citizen's United.  It was a bad decision.  Money is not speech.  Nevertheless, we're kidding ourselves if we think the problem didn't exist before Citizen's United or if we think that writing a law that limits campaign contributions will solve things by itself.  An alternative is needed, a low cost way to get out the vote on a consistent basis, and a low cost way to counter negative attack ads.  One might envision in this era of social networking that there are realistic possibilities to this effect.  But retail politics is traditionally door-to-door and that is needed here.  Keeping it low cost means much of it would be volunteer work.  The issue is whether that can be organized at scale in a way that produces meaningful results.

One could easily make this list longer, but it suffices for describing the situation.  We need an approach that addresses all of these points simultaneously.

Now I want to turn to the title of my piece.  The high standards part is recognition of this need.  The low expectations part is that we don't seem to have political leaders who will step up on this.   Instead there is a piecemeal approach.  Viewed from the perspective of the Democrats, this isn't so much about centrist versus left policies.  It's about obtaining coherence in a way that many people would support.  Potential voters won't support left or centrist approaches if they feel that the promises are empty and can't be delivered.  They won't vote, a rational choice under the circumstances.  At present, those expectations are self-fulfilling.  Changing those views requires a coherent game plan that is then adhered to.

* * * * *

This piece is very long already, so I will try to keep this section on higher education brief.   Last week I was chatting with a friend, a former Dean on campus.  We were talking about the state of funding for Higher Ed in Illinois.  He raised some questions about whether institutions like Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University should be publicly supported, because they have mediocre placement rates.  I didn't want to admit during the conversation that I didn't know what a placement rate is but I gather it somehow measures whether graduates get a job after graduation.  (What sort of job, how long after graduation, and whether the student already had the job before graduation or if that matters are a few of things I didn't know.)  I did note to him in a subsequent email that the U of I almost surely has students who have greater qualifications upon entry to college as measured by: (a) standardized test scores and (b) parental income.  That more qualified students have higher placement rates is not surprising.  Education is supposed to be the great leveler.  But it seems to be serving, instead, as a way to let the rich get richer.

There is also the matter whether landing a job is the right measure of college.  What about how much students learn?  Even as there is some movement on this front, via application of well examined rubrics for the evaluation of student work, there surely is subjectivity at play here as the instructor must apply the rubrics to the assignment and to the work that the student does in completing the assignment. And we are nowhere close to universal acceptance of this sort of evaluation by rubric.  The upshot is that course grades are still the best indicator of learning that we have and we know those frequently depend on, for example, whether the instructor teaches to the test or not.  Research tells us that he right measure of learning is whether students can transfer the ideas being taught into novel contexts.  If students can't transfer in this way, but can spit back the instructor's lecture verbatim, it is possible for there to be high grades but very little learning.  The opposite is also possible, though I believe that occurs with much less frequency. 

I have written on these matters many times before, most recently in a piece entitled, What should we be teaching? What can we be teaching?  It argues that we are falling far short of what we should be doing.  One reasons is that the students are far too instrumental about their education.  They care a great deal about their grades but seemingly care not much at all about whether they are learning in a deep way or not.  Another reason is that many of the instructors depend on creating student satisfaction to ensure they keep their jobs.  Taken together they provide the underlying conditions that encourage a teach-to-the-test approach.  The tough economic times we find ourselves in only exacerbate the issues.

* * * * *

In both our national politics and in higher education, the challenges are formidable, though I don't believe they are insurmountable.  However, the challenges rarely get fully identified, so we end up not facing the challenges squarely.  In the small we might do things that offer promise and make it seem we can do better.  For example, recently the Newshour has been airing segments about successful projects in poor urban areas.  These include this segment about nutrition in Chicago's South Side, this segment on policing in Camden New Jersey, and this one on a housing project in Denver aimed to foster health.   Can such approaches scale up?  Can we do likewise for our national politics and for higher education?

I don't know.  I hope we can.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Unintentionally Making Others Feel Stupid

This is an odd subject to write about, so I want to begin by taking a couple of steps backward to explain why it has captured my attention.  At a personal level, I've had a few different threads in Facebook recently with some of my friends from high school.  I was a math nerd then and still have some of that in me now.  In order to show my bona fides, I posted a scan of some scribbling I had done a while back to provide a geometric derivation for the formula that gives the sine of the sum of two angles. After that, there were several witty comments by my friends that ensued.  Then one posted - "I have no idea what you are talking about."  This was from a very bright woman, who also is quite direct in what she posts.  I didn't think a mea culpa was the right response from me there, though it might have been, so instead I posted a link to an animated version of Tom Lehrer's New Math.  It has the tag line - "it's so easy, so very simple, that only a child can do it." 

I have also been devoting considerable thought to the question, how can we repair things nationally, after we get past the current moment?  Until the last few weeks I thought the answer was for everyone to embrace a sense of social responsibility, as the way to make the system work again.  This had two parts for me.  One was to treat people unlike ourselves with respect and to refrain from the recrimination and vitriol that seems to have invaded our discourse.  The other, particularly directed at upscale voters, was to pay substantially more in taxes, in other words, to embrace the need for government programs directed at working-class people and for the upscale voters to have the willingness to forego the myopic benefit from having higher after-tax incomes in order to enable this broader social justice as outcome. I have written several posts that argue these things.  Yet while I still feel they are necessary, I've come to realize they are insufficient.  We need something else as well.

That something else is to repair ourselves emotionally.  People feel hurt, angry, and frustrated.  They act based on these feelings rather than based on a cool and collected rationality.  There have been many pieces written in the last several weeks that explain these things.  In a nutshell, Liberals are smug or perceived of as such.  Trump voters are bothered by the smugness, so much so that they are willing to support Trump, even if that means voting against their narrow economic interest.  Supporting Trump is a way to metaphorically give the finger to the smug Liberals.  The visceral satisfaction from giving the finger trumps (pun intended) a more rational calculus. If we are to repair ourselves nationally, we need to find a way to get past this.

In the above paragraph, I deliberately tried to distinguish actuality from a different possibility, this in reference to Liberal smugness.  The other possibility emerges as some of the media repeatedly depict Liberals in this light, regardless of the true situation, so the perception takes hold for this reason.  Having taken hold, it will then be very hard to change the perception.  I want to recognize that here but otherwise not address it in this post.  At the very end I will write a few sentences about my wishful thinking with regard to the media.  If only wishing would make it so.   My mental model in this post is to envision direct conversation between Trump voters and Liberals, conversation that is unmediated.  Could such conversation end where the parties are at peace with one another?  What would it take to achieve that outcome?

My plan for the rest of this piece is to first look at some lines from popular movies that talk about emotional hurt. The movies themselves were popular because they touched us in some ways, and they are safer to talk about than real experience.  Further, we can then look at emotional hurt outside of the political context, more as a one off, and ask what should be done about it in each situation.  At the least, this exercise is meant to raise our awareness.  Then I will return to some of my experiences.  I have been the stupid one on occasion.  In other situations, I have been able to make a contentious point without seemingly rattling anyone's cage.  What does it take to do that?  Can we move in that direction?

I also want to take up the question of whether we should feel responsible for somebody else's emotional hurt when we were somehow causal in that response but where we had no intent ahead of time to create such a response.  This is a tough question and I don't think it has an easy answer.  I will use one of my movie quotes that provides an answer in a specific context.  How much that context generalizes, I will leave to the reader.

But I also want to connect this to something else.  If we could look at ourselves from a distance, in some cases our behavior would be readily seen as demeaning to others.  We don't have this perspective, so don't see it.  We are therefore unable to parse the truly inadvertent cause that we can't do anything about from the demeaning behavior that we should rightly rein in.  This too is meant as something of an awareness raising exercise.

* * * * *

The first scene is from Rocky.   The title character is a tough guy.  On the side he works as a "leg breaker" for a loan shark.  But his main job is boxer.  He's a heavyweight.  He has taken a lot of punches in the ring.  He's able to throw a good punch too, "he can really swat."  The toughness notwithstanding, Rocky has his sensitive side.

Rocky: Hey... you know how I said that stuff on TV didn't bother me none?

Adrian: Yeah? 

Rocky: It did.

This next scene is from Good Will Hunting.  The title character is a genius at math, a latter day Ramanujan.  Yet he also suffered as a child from living in a broken home,  he experienced child abuse, and he spent much of his childhood growing up in an orphanage. He had many scars, some physical, others emotional.

Sean: [sitting on a bench in in front of a pond in park] Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me... fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me? 

Will: No. 

Sean: You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about. 

Will: Why thank you. 

Sean: It's all right. You've never been out of Boston. 

Will: Nope. 

Sean: So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You're an orphan right?
[Will nods

Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some fuckin' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

On the one hand, these stories are wildly different.  Rocky is not intellectual at all and doesn't display the type of intelligence valued in schools.  Will is off the charts.  But they both have experienced emotional hurt and they are both deeply reluctant to expose themselves to situations where that hurt might come out again.  As a result, they are slow to trust other people.  They don't open up much at all.  And the people they are prone to trust need to demonstrate some evident vulnerability ahead of time as a way to earn that trust.  Somebody with a hard veneer that seems impenetrable, that person needs to be shattered rather than be trusted.

These two movies are dramas.  The third movie is a comedy; light farce with a highly implausible story that nonetheless works and amuses at the same time.  It is Eddie, about a female limo driver in New York who is a diehard Knicks fan.  She comes out of the stands to become the head coach of the team.  The Knicks have been floundering.  Eddie doesn't know what to do about it.  After she flails a while as coach she has a heart to heart talk with Nate, a veteran big man with bad knees.  Nate explains that each of the players is also a human being and each has personal issues that are limiting the player's performance.  Eddie begins to address several of the players' issues outside the basketball arena.  By doing so she turns the Knicks into a cohesive unit.

One of those players who is struggling is Terry.  He is having troubles with his wife over marital infidelity.  Eddie counsels Terry to apologize.  Then apologize again.  She tells him to keep on apologizing.  (Sorry, I couldn't find the text quote of this scene online.)  Eventually, Terry reconciles with his wife and there is a very funny scene in a hotel room where Eddie is hiding under the bed and Terry and his wife are in romantic embrace on top of the bed, only to discover Eddie's presence from below.  Even though Eddie shouldn't have been there as this was an invasion of privacy, she indirectly demonstrated that she cared about Terry.  She cared very much.  That ultimately carried the day.

The scene makes you wonder.   What does repeated apology actually accomplish.  Why isn't a single confession of guilt sufficient?  Can people move on from that or not?

* * * * *

I want to recount a few of my own experiences, where I got the short end of the stick about feeling stupid.  The first of these is at sleep away camp, when I was twelve.  I was in bunk 18 in the group called Seniors, which had bunks 18 - 21.  So I was one of the youngest kids in the group.  I was also the biggest and in basketball would play center.  The group was divided into three teams for must of the summer.  These teams would compete with each other in sports.  Softball and basketball were the two primary sports.  We also played volleyball and football on occasion.

One of the other teams had a kid, Bobby, who had a mean streak in him.  He guarded me in basketball.  His strategy was to provoke me.  With the counselors seemingly not looking at us - because the ball was elsewhere - Bobby would through an elbow.  Then he would run down court. I got angered by this.  But Bobby was faster than I was so I wasn't able to retaliate, even though I tried and wanted to do so.  Either that or when I did catch up to Bobby, then the counselors saw my getting back at him and blamed me.  It was terribly unfair.  I think there is a kind of prejudice against big kids, to the effect that they should be able to take care of themselves, so don't require adult intervention.  As a result, in the situation with Bobby, I felt trapped.

This next one is more academic and represents the first time I can recall being in a situation with kids my own age where some of the other kids were much smarter than I was.  That happened at an NSF sponsored summer program for kids good in math that I attended after my junior year in high school, 1971.  It was held at Hampshire college.  The program continues to this day, though I believe now without the NSF sponsorship.  Back in 2010 I got a solicitation from the program director, who was interested in learning about the impact the program had on my further development.  I wrote a very long letter in response.  This is the most relevant paragraph.

My take aways from that at this point are first some factoids - a linkage between Mersenne Primes and Perfect Numbers, though I'd have to look it up to recall the exact relation - 945 is the smallest odd abundant number - and some stuff about Cosets. The larger lessons were two. There were students who were much brighter than I was or much further along than I was at approximately the same age, a very useful thing to discover early on in life. In addition to Paul, Marcia and Henry were in this category. One day I recall Henry doing a proof of his own result in the front of the room. I had no clue what he was talking about. (Along with the intelligence there was the ego part of this and Hampshire was my first experience of ego battles by bright students showing off.) The other lesson was that things could get hard and that I needed some mechanism of ratcheting up my own thinking to manage that. I didn't have it at Hampshire. I developed something of that sort as a junior in College, but not completely then. More of that happened in grad school. In Marty's group I believe the first two weeks or so went reasonably well for me but then I sort of hit a wall and I didn't know what to do about it. I floundered in his group after that.

I experienced the same sort of floundering during the first semester of the sophomore year at MIT, after which I transferred to Cornell.  The floundering was coupled with a depression that was familiar to me because I had similar feelings during 10th grade in high school.  This second episode of depression triggered with me an urgent need that I recognized from going through the prior experience.  I had to get out of that setting and into a different environment that wouldn't pull me down.  The causes for those feelings were many and varied.  But one of those was taking two hard math classes, abstract algebra and analysis, and not knowing how to penetrate those courses then (I was able to do that later) while other students seemed capable of making those leaps of imagination at the time.

From these experiences I draw the following conclusions.  Feeling stupid only in the moment is no big deal.  We all go through that.  We get over it.  Each of us has some resiliency to overcome the temporary setback.  Feeling stupid as an ongoing situation is debilitating.  It breaks the resiliency.  You feel helpless and want the situation to end but don't have the sense of agency about how to resolve the situation by yourself.  It is the helplessness which we should reckon with.  But then what, exactly, should we do about it?

School is full of experiences that for some stroke the ego while for others brutalize it.  The vast majority of my experiences were of the first sort.  In seventh grade, for the first time I became aware that I made some of my classmates uncomfortable, simply by raising my hand and answering the question that the teacher posed.  One my classmates told me as much by writing that in my autograph book.  Should I have not raised my hand so much so she wouldn't have felt so uncomfortable?

I was unnerved by this but did not adjust my behavior in the classroom.  By high school I found a partial accommodation by having different types of friends to hang out with, playing basketball with one group, going to the movies with others, and then hanging out with still others based on academic affinity.

I think others made different adjustments.  My high school had many academically talented kids.  Among the boys there was a group of nerds who hung out together and that enabled their mutual self-expression.  It was definitely harder for the girls then because admitting to be a nerd was socially stigmatizing for a girl.  It may still be that way now.  Putting it crassly, a girl who wanted to have a good social life but who was academically inclined had to repress some of the latter to achieve the former.  I believe the same thing is true for academically gifted minority students, although I have less direct experience with this.  They suppress their academic talents, at least in settings with their peers, as a way to gain social acceptance.  A question is whether this type of suppression of the personality is necessary when seguing from school into adulthood and thereafter, or if there are other things that can be done that are more balanced and make the situation manageable.

Here's what I have in mind.  There is an academic form of bullying of the type that Henry practiced when I was at Hampshire College, which is a kind of showing off academically, aimed at establishing self-importance by intimidating others.  When it is nerds doing this to other nerds, it can be a form of play, young bucks butting heads if you will.  While I only watched this show for a few episodes at the beginning of the series, The Big Bang Theory features this sort of behavior as the basis for much of the humor in the show, even if otherwise the show is much like many other sitcoms.   When it is nerds conversing with others who are not nerds, however, the showing off part needs to be tabled.  It has no useful purpose.

But conversation can continue if the tone is right and the method of discussion is proper.  Learning to have the right tone is a critical life skill.  Too many people embrace - I'm right and you're not, take it or leave it.  That tone doesn't work.  It raises the hackles in others.  A better tone is more inquiring.  It considers possibility instead of arguing for the one right answer.  Then it provides reasons for why that possibility might be true, so raising such reasons is not itself off putting.  But this must be accompanied by a willingness to admit that the possibility still might not be true.  This tone is far more collegial and far less imperial.  It gives space to the others in the conversation, so they can offer up their own opinion.  By doing that it encourages them to be open.  The discussion is more engaging and far less threatening.  It takes a longer time for the discussion to reach a conclusion, if it ever does.  It may be there are too many opposing factors to reconcile them all into one neat conclusion.  Then the discussion gets to the point of agreeing to disagree and goes no farther. Even that, however, may be progress.

From time to time in such a discussion one of the participants might feel that a line has been crossed and that the comment offered up was hostile or demeaning.  What happens then?  If this occurs very early in the conversation, I'm afraid that's it.  No goodwill has been built up to offset this bad outcome.  This is one reason to start of gingerly and get a little more ambitious as the conversation proceeds.  If, however, this occurs after there has been substantial goodwill already established, my belief is to follow the advice offered by Eddie.  Apologize and keep apologizing.  We tend to think of an apology as an admission of guilt.  Sometimes it is.  At other times, however, it is more of a demonstration that the one giving the apology shows he recognizes the perspective of the other who is receiving the apology.  In these cases, caring about the other is more important than establishing guilt or innocence.  One needs a way to demonstrate that.

I now want to redirect this discussion back to the smug Liberals and the Trump supporters.  Much of this divide is apparently urban versus rural sensibilities.  Those differ in many ways.  I am going to focus on just one dimension of this divide.  The last few years I've become a fan of the singer Eilen Jewell.  This is a verse from her song That's Where I'm Going.

All of the people in the city
Wish they could take it slow
Time stands still in the country
That’s where I’m going

The funny thing is, taking it slow really isn't just a country thing.  It's about getting our heads out of our portable devices and instead schmoozing with friends face to face.  Sherry Turkle has been arguing for this for some time.  So, to counter the smugness we need to go for a cup of coffee and chat, the type of talk that lasts a while.  Even us city kids, at least the ones who are my age, grew up watching The Beverly Hillbillies.

Hillbilly that is, sit a spell, take your shoes off.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

This is not a new idea at all.  Sometimes we should take lessons from what we used to know as kids.

* * * * *

Here's my little bit about the media and then I will close.  Roger Ailes, who ultimately was taken down at Fox News, developed a wildly successful formula for attracting viewers to their programming.  Bombast works.  The more reserved type of news reporting that was the mainstay when the anchors were Walter Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), and Howard K. Smith (ABC), simply is not entertaining enough to attract viewers now.  The news networks do have an obligation to report the news faithfully.  But they are businesses first and foremost.  They either attract viewers or they go under.  That tension has always been there but when TV was only over the air, it resolved  by having few networks with the franchise.  More recently there are many additional players in the news broadcasting space.  This has tilted the news shows toward the bombast end of the spectrum.

I gather that the MSNBC style is not quite the same as the FOX style.  MSNBC is more like the  HBO series The Newsroom.  Hosts are cast as prosecutors.  Democratic guests may be given some leeway.  Republicans, in contrast, may be treated like hostile witnesses.   In so doing, the hosts may seem to embody the Liberal smugness for which the Trump supporters have such disdain.

The pipe dream is that MSNBC will begin to dial it down in its programming, perhaps at risk of alienating some current diehard viewers, who really aren't concerned with Trump supporters.  The powers that be at the network would do this because while they want to present their perspective on the news, they don't want to be responsible for sewing division in the country.  They explain this to their viewership, letting the star hosts present the argument.  Lo and behold, the viewership stays loyal to them.  Then a funny thing happens.  A good chunk of Trump supporters take notice of this and come to appreciate the gesture.  The healing has begun.

This is fantasy.  To make it close to reality, many other things have to happen first.  Step one is being aware that you have a problem.   I hope that this post helps with progress on step one.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications

I don't write often about religion but I did in a post from 7.5 years ago called Theism - "Pan," "Mono," and "A", where judging from some comments I received it was among my better pieces.  It had two disparate sources of stimulation.  One was a column by Ross Douthat about the movie Avatar and the religious implications of the pantheism in the story. I thought he was making much ado about nothing, so I wanted to say something in response to that effect.  The other was from my own classroom teaching.  I was in my 30th year at Illinois and this was the first time that religion had found its way into the classroom.  I hadn't invited that, at least not directly, but it was there nevertheless.  I found it awkward, but I also thought my situation relevant to others, at least those of us who teach or who have taught a class.  So I wanted to write something about those experiences.

In this piece I'm reacting to another column by Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem.  In the Harry Potter stories, which have been celebrating a twentieth anniversary, Muggles are people who can't do magic, ordinary folks if you will.  In Rowling's telling of these stories Muggles are occasionally seen but hardly ever heard.  Douthat then makes the analogy - wizards are to liberal elites as Muggles are to Trump voters.  Armed with that off he goes.  I thought his argument was over baked.  I want to take that on in this piece.

I will eventually get to my refutation, but I have a different purpose as well.  I want to give my view of kid fiction, my ideal of what it should accomplish, and how it played out in my family with my kids, quite far from that ideal.  Indeed, I have some issues with the Harry Potter stories, but those issues are unlike anything that Douthat writes about.  In order to understand the role of these stories, it is useful to consider the full trajectory of stories the kids were exposed to when they were young.

When the  kids were too young for school they went to daycare during the school day. Then, in elementary school, the pattern when they got home was similar.  There would be play, perhaps outside on the structure in the backyard or inside with Legos.  While inside there surely would be some TV viewing.  Favorite programs included Barney, Thomas The Tank Engine, and Pokemon.  Then at night we would often watch an animated video on VHS tape.  Disney made a variety of these that we viewed repeatedly.  (I still like to watch Balto and Mulan on occasion.)  And there was also the Land Before Time series that the kids liked very much.  The kids developed two intense interests from this viewing.  One was trains.  There are train tracks that go north-south in Champaign (among the trains that ride those tracks is The City of New Orleans) and every time we'd drive near the train tracks and hear the train whistle, we'd have to pull over and watch as the train passed.  The other was dinosaurs.  (On a visit to Chicago we'd go to the museum to see the skeletons.)

After the evening movie the kids would get ready for bed and we'd read to them a story.  I can't remember whether I would read to one kid and my wife to the other (they boys had separate bedrooms) or if we got them together and one of us would do all the reading.  For quite a while Goodnight Moon was the book of choice.  In addition, I know I developed fondness for books by Sandra Boynton and some others.  Going to the bookstore to select new titles for the bedtime reading was among my favorite things to do.

A different form of media also found its way into the daily routine.  The kids got into playing video games, first Super Mario Bros., then a variety of other games.  I became the household champ at Diddy Kong Racing, after which I went cold turkey on the genre.  I was killing my thumb, pressing too hard on the joystick, and the images on the screen got implanted in my head in a way I didn't think was good for me.  Plus, I could see that before too long the kids would easily be my superior at game playing, given how much time I could devote to it, and my ego couldn't take the beating.  I don't believe they missed having me as a competitor after that.

This charming educational environment of childhood, idyllic as it seems in retrospect, must gradually be abandoned for the kids to develop further.  The stories must begin to be about people rather than about animals or inanimate objects that come to life.  Cartoons and anime must give way to more realistic video with human beings.  And the kids need to begin to read for themselves.  It is not obvious on how to get from here to there.  We did not get to Harry Potter straight away, as the way to make this leap. But other alternatives weren't the answer.

Before Harry Potter we tried adventure stories.  In the movies there was The Last of the Mohicans and a made for TV version of Kidnapped.  The boys and I watched those several times.  I also read aloud Treasure Island to them.  They enjoyed it all.  But there was a problem.  My wife was not interested in this stuff.  If you recall early fiction when we were kids, the girls had Nancy Drew while the boys had The Hardy Boys.  The separation of entertainment for girls and boys still happens, but it happened more then.  The upshot is that if we we were to find entertainment for the whole family, we'd need to do it with something other than adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper.

There was also a great deal of anxiety among parents at that time about getting their kids to read.  That wasn't a new thing.  The original copyright on Why Johnny Can't Read dates from 1955.  But given the rise of the personal computer, in addition to the other developments I sketched above, it was evident that my kids had a much more media rich environment than my wife and I had when we were kids.  Reading had to compete with that as a source of entertainment.  The issue then was whether reading could do that.

Into this setting steps J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter stories.  At first it seemed something of a godsend.  It offered the path from here to there.  My wife discovered the first book well before I became aware of it.  We'd read it aloud to the kids each night, ten to twenty pages at a time.  My first time at the reading we were already in the middle of the book.  After that, my wife and I took turns with the reading. So I never got the full story, nor did my wife.  But the kids did.

When I was a kid we had individualized reading.  Somebody might give me a book to read or a suggested title.  I'd read that.  Then I'd read several other books, either by the same author or by different authors but in the same genre.  But then that would get exhausted and I'd move onto a different author in a different genre.  For example I remember as a kid I got The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt as a present.  After that I read other books by Walter Farley about the Black Stallion.  Either when the supply of those or my interest in them diminished, I read other things.  Somewhat later I know I read a bunch of baseball fiction by Duane Decker.  Rebel in Right Field was perhaps the first of these that I read.

This pattern continued as long as I read books intended for kids.  Eventually I turned to fiction for adults.  I'm not sure when that happened, but I'm pretty sure I read The Grapes of Wrath during the summer after 7th grade.  The novels for adults were longer and more challenging to read.  It took a while to get through them.  Though I did go on a jag and read many books by Sinclair Lewis, often it would be only one book per author and then onto something else on a different subject.  Titles I remember reading either in junior high or high school that were not assigned to us in English class include, Of Human Bondage, Crime and Punishment, The Fixer, Catch-22, A Farewell to Arms, and The Chosen.  Also, I eventually became a regular reader of The New Republic, Scientific American, and The New York Times.  The point here is that there was substantial variety on topic and authorship, so the exposure was broad and I developed an interest to keep it that way.

Things were different when Harry Potter came onto the scene.  It seemed that all the kids were reading the same books.  The movie versions followed soon after the books appeared and the kids watched those too.  Indeed there seemed to be some feedback loop between the movie versions and the next book in the series.  And while I don't know this for a fact, it seems to me both the book publisher and the film studio wanted to get the kids really hooked on Harry Potter.  Publishing has become a blockbuster business as has film making.  Getting the kids hooked was a way to make not just one blockbuster, but an entire series of them.

The Harry Potter movies were soon followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This renewed an interest in reading Tolkein, something I confess I never did when I was a kid.  But my older son definitely got into it.  He followed that up with reading Artemis Fowl books, which occupied him for quite a while.  Eventually, he moved onto reading Michael Crichton fiction.  I believe that lasted through high school, at the least.  In other words, he remained in the world of fantasy fiction during those formative teen years.

I did strongly encourage/force him to read The Grapes of Wrath and eventually he did that, but it had no derivative consequence on his further reading that I could ascertain.  I believe he also read Holes, perhaps when he was in Middle School, and maybe after he had seen the movie.  But that too was a one off, with no apparent impact on other reading.

The younger one was less of a reader of fiction and less of a reader overall.  He became quite a history buff.  Part of that was playing Age of Empires on the computer.  Another part was watching certain shows on the The History Channel.  He became the master of arcane detail about certain historical events.  He could extract those from the computer and the TV in a way that he probably couldn't by reading.  And he could do that extraction relatively quickly.  Reading is slower, no doubt.  It takes patience.

My ideal for how a kid should grow up with reading is much closer to my experience as a teen than to the experience of my children.  In a recent post entitled Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide I wrote:

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

In other words, reading broadly is a way to combat the inevitable limits of our own experience, which are situated in a certain place and a certain time.  By reading broadly, we can overcome those limitations, at least to some degree.  The fixation on fantasy fiction, something that the Harry Potter books encouraged, has had the unintended consequence of narrowing the kids, because the fantasy is not steeped in the reality of anyone's experiences.  It is fantasy only.  It shares features with other fantasy stories.  But it doesn't open the reader's eyes to the situation real people experience who are unlike the reader.

Now let me turn to criticism of Douthat.  He takes on the Harry Potter books as an entity unto itself.   Apart from the other fantasy fiction works I mentioned above, he might have also considered Star Wars and its renaissance, now a property of Disney, nor does he consider The Game of Thrones (my older son did read the George R.R. Martin novels first), or the various Marvel comics brought to the big screen.  All of these works are mythology, perhaps updated to current times, but mythology nonetheless.  It matters not whether you call the main characters gods or superheroes.  They are more than normal human beings in their capacities.  And they play a featured role in all these stories.

It's true that in the original Superman stories the people who worked at the Daily Planet - Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White - were normal human beings but featured nevertheless.  But they were featured because they were in repeated contact with Superman, or with each other.  And likewise for Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars.  Otherwise, the Star Wars stories were about the Jedi and their battle with the dark side of the force. All mythology focuses on the gods.  Sometimes the gods are in contact with humans and then those characters become part of the story.  Other times the gods just do battle with themselves and their are no ordinary human beings in sight.

The Harry Potter stories are not exceptional this way.  Why Douthat thinks otherwise, I don't know.  But he is making too big a case of it.

Rowling was clever, casting the wizards in training as kids at a boarding school.  While most of the readers of the Harry Potter books lived at home with their parents, at least through high school, the boarding school concept was not so alien from their own experience that they could readily identify with the situation in the story.  Bringing fantasy into a familiar setting was a good way to generate a broad audience for the books. 

But in the process of doing this a kind of mass addiction developed.  Some mythology in our entertainment is probably fine.  However, the balance between such works and other dramatic works seems quite tipped in favor of the former.  Reading in general is on the downs.   The bias is therefore impacting movies and TV, and surely it also can be found in computer games and video games, though I am ignorant of current offerings in that space.

This I believe to be the harmful legacy in the Harry Potter stories, although it may have been inevitable even if Rowling never wrote those books.  Too many other factors were pushing us in this direction.

Let me close with a different observation, one about the benefits of reading a book as compared to watching a movie or a TV show.  The reader does more work to complete the story.  The movie or TV viewer is more passive this way.  More than a decade ago there was a piece Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  So there is a counterargument on this point.  But I wonder how many people actually buy the counterargument.  One of the damning criticisms of President Trump that has been offered up repeatedly is that he doesn't read and prefers to watch TV.  It is said this is evidence that he is not curious about things.   Reading encourages thoughtfulness in a way that viewing a TV or a movie does not, especially for a person who doesn't read much at all.

The Harry Potter craze is behind us now.  Maybe that offers an opportunity to make reading more important to today's kids and in a way where the kids read a much greater variety of written work.  I sure hope so.