Friday, April 22, 2016

The vast majority of voters don't vote in the primaries and we don't know what they are thinking.

The following is from the latest column by Timothy Egan.

Almost two-thirds of voters — Democratic and Republican majorities — agreed with the statement that “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change,” when asked in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. This is not a frustrated fringe.

I like Egan and enjoy reading his pieces.   But he is making an error here.  And I believe it is an error that is propagated over and over again, election after election, though it matters more so here because of the sort of inference that Egan makes. The error is based on WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) a cognitive bias we as humans are inclined to make, as discussed in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

In this case the issue is whether people who respond to being polled, as a group, are similar to those who would not respond even if they were polled.  WYSIATI then encourages us to look at poll results and make inferences about the entire population, including those who would never respond to a poll.  This is okay when the two populations are essentially the same in their preferences.  It produces a biased conclusion, however, when the two populations are quite different.

Under 35% of the electorate in New York participated in the recent primary.  This is especially noteworthy because it was reported that participation was high.  (The measure is relative to participation rates in previous primaries.)   Presidential elections have been running at somewhere between 50% and 60% in voter participation.   Are those who don't vote in the primaries but do in the general election different from those who do?  One might guess that the former group has many more independents.  Does that matter?

Another issue is how preferences are elicited in a survey.  What are the alternative possible responses?  Do those alternatives allow us to discern voter preference well?   Here let's observe that what Egan presented is a conjunction of two distinct thoughts: (1) the old way of doing things is not working, and (2) we need radical change to fix the problem.  Were people asked about the possible alternative conjunction where (2) is replaced by: (2') I don't know how to fix the problem and I'm frightened that others will try things in an attempt to fix the problem but actually make things worse.
Again I'm guessing here without data, but my supposition is that the voters, even those who wouldn't participate in the poll, would agree with (1) in great numbers.  As to how they'd split between (2) and (2') if offered those alternatives, let me just say here that it is this question where I suspect being an independent matters, a lot.  My supposition is that among the independents there are a lot who'd agree with (2').  But I'm quite willing to admit that is just a guess.

Let me conclude with a brief consideration of the upwards of 40% of the electorate that won't even participate in the election this November.  Do their preferences matter and, if so, how should they be accounted for?  It is necessary to include this group to make the title of my post accurate, if for no other reason. 

Elections in our country have turned into very nasty affairs of smear and disinformation.  I watched this panel on the Charlie Rose show discussing the election.  One of the panelists was Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant, and he predicted that the coming campaign is likely to be much worse on this score than anything we've seen previously.  Nobody else on then panel challenged Rollins on this point.  Such a dirty campaign is a turnoff to many.  Yet it seems to be the old way of doing things, now on steroids.  And it seems to be inevitable.  Even the race for the nomination within the Democratic party, which started out in a fairly collegial manner - Americans are sick of hearing about Hillary Clinton's damn emails - has gotten much nastier as of late.  What economists would call a revealed preference argument as applied to the campaign itself, suggests there might be some creativity in how one candidate can be nasty to opponents, but on using the campaign to actually educate the public there is no change at all.

The non-participants aren't seeing anything that would change their minds on that score.  And, frankly, neither are the rest of us. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Getting passed the laundry list of issues approach to candidate debates

I confess to having watched not more than a few minutes of all the debates, in total.  Watching the little bit that my still sense of social obligation imposes on me, I readily get uncomfortable and feel the awkwardness of the situation getting the better of me.  I want to run away.  So I do.  I do spend more time reading the post mortems as seen by various pundits, but even there I find the discussion not very enlightening - the same point gets made over and over again - and lacking the perception that I wish were there.  Here is Amy Davidson writing in the New Yorker yesterday, perhaps one of the the better pieces that I've read, but still guided by this issue by issue approach to the debate. And here is a New York Times commentary on the front page, not the opinion section, which again has this issue by issue structure in breaking down the debate.

As a hypothetical, let me suggest an alternative structure.  In considering this it might help to envision yourself as moderator.   But here consider talking with one candidate first and then the other candidate entirely separately.  Indeed, consider the discussion akin to a job interview, which in some sense is what the debates are a proxy for.   I've had a fair amount of experience over the years with job interviews and what I say below is based in part on that.  Another part is based on what we know of the Presidency since President Obama assumed office.  How candidates view the recent past might be quite informative of what they will actually do if they were to attain the Presidency, much more so than simply arguing through an issues lists.  So consider the following.

In a piece from a few days ago entitled By Opposing Obama, the Republicans Created Trump, Steven Rattner does us a service by listing the many pieces of legislation that the Obama administration put forward and that would have benefited the White blue collar types who support Donald Trump (and the nation as a whole) but were blocked by Congress.  It's a good piece to read just to have in mind all this possible legislation.  Now let's juxtapose this with the observation that the President faced Republican obstruction from the get go, but that this obstruction got worse over time.  In 2009, the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress.  In 2011, the House was controlled by the Republicans, many of whom were Tea Party candidates.  Then in 2015, both houses of Congress had Republican majorities.

If you assume that those majorities could not be influenced by a sitting President, then you might ask whether (a) the most important legislation got passed in those first two years when the Democrats had a majority in both houses or if some of the legislation that is mentioned by Rattner should have taken a priority over legislation that did make it  through, or (b) whether that Congress might have gotten even more throughput than it actually did in those 2 years.  I, for one, bemoan the fact that we still don't have a National Infrastructure Bank.   I want to note that infrastructure is on each candidate's list of issues, but where on the list does it appear?  It is the prioritization of the issue that is more important then exactly where the candidate stands on it.  But we learn nothing about prioritization from the debates.

Another question is whether it is possible to maintain control of Congress by doing an effective job when one does have the majority.  If so, might that imperative impact priorities on the issues?  How does one serve the American people and attempt to remain popular with the public at the same time?  FDR clearly did that.  What would it take to do that same thing now?

A next set of questions would entail what seems now the likely structure for the next Congress, with the Republicans still in control of the House but the Democrats taking back the Senate, though lacking a filibuster-proof majority (60 or more).   Would the candidate forecast gridlock as the primary outcome, so the President would need to rely on Executive Orders?  Or would the candidate participate in an effective sausage-being-made exercise, where legislation got through but with bits and pieces that both parties wanted?  This is a different sort of prioritization exercise, but it's not just about what the candidate prefers.  It is also about what the candidate can and cannot stomach that is currently being advanced by the other party.  And then there is whether this sort of thing should be made public in advance or if the candidate needs to hold their cards tightly on this until the situation arises.    So it would be good to inquire about how the candidate sees this possibility, without necessarily getting into specifics.

Here is a third set of questions.  It regards the relative importance of symbolic issues versus substantive actions (legislation and executive orders) and how the candidates view those two roles.   The current tone among the electorate seems one of anger fed by grievance.  In turn, the candidates themselves have embraced this tone.  (On the Republican side, clearly Trump and Cruz both have fanned the flames, while on the Democratic side, it seems the candidates have taken on this tone only as of late and then because the electorate wants them to do that and because the campaign is too long and brutal so the candidates are grouchy.)

So much for first campaigning in poetry and then governing in prose.  But if the campaign itself is now some juvenile form of prose, what about the tone when governing?  During the 2008 campaign before he became President, Barack Obama made his famous speech on race, a very mature talk that elevated the discussion on the issues.  But since he assumed office there haven't been further addresses of that type and he has taken a notably low key approach on the symbolic front.    There are obviously quite a few hot button issues now.  What philosophy will inform how the candidate would go about addressing those?

Every job interview that I have participated in has had a few minutes at the end where the candidate gets to ask questions about the job.  That probably doesn't make sense here, but an alternative might.  The alternative would be for readers to put themselves now in the role of the candidates and ask how they'd like the candidates to answer these questions. 

Most of the people I know who post about the election already have a preferred candidate.  Given that, perhaps they wouldn't want to think through these matters.  But if they could imagine going back in time perhaps 6 months or a year, before they had made up their minds, wouldn't they then agree that the sort of questions brought up here would be more useful to know than merely where candidates stand on the issues?

Let me make one more point and then close.  It regards how campaign promises influence what the new President does once in office.  As we all know, the situation is fluid and events can shape where the President focuses attention, as much or even more than prior disposition.  President Obama assumed office during a full crisis.   The first stimulus package that was passed was far from perfect legislation.  Nevertheless, it was necessary that some large package be put together quickly.   The American economy didn't suffer nearly as badly as the European economy as a consequence.   This legislation plus TARP (which happened under Bush II) created an enormous backlash, some of which was apparent immediately.   If something similar were to happen for the next President, it would then be human nature, after seeming to attend to the crisis, to return to planned legislation that had been promoted during the campaign.  The issue is whether further crisis management actually is warranted and indeed if that should have a higher priority than the previously planned legislation, in spite of mounting criticism.  How does the candidate determine that?

These are the sort of questions we should be asking.  Alas, these aren't the questions that we are getting.  The laundry list of issues approach falls far short of what we need to understand how the candidates would behave in office. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Measurement Without A Cause

One of the arts in social science modeling is to distinguish endogenous variables, the values of which are determined by the model, from the exogenous parameters that get set outside the model.  Typically we write the variables on the left hand side of the equation with the parameters on the right hand side.  Causality runs from right to left, at least when the model is well specified.  So, for example, with a model that was popular at around the time I left graduate school, sunspots cause the business cycle (perhaps) but the business cycle does not cause sunspots (definitely true).  As I said, this distinction between endogenous and exogenous is something of an art and depends on the nature of the study at hand.  In a model of consumer expenditure, income is often treated as exogenous, which is what we do when we teach intermediate microeconomics.  On the other hand, the model can be readily extended to make income endogenous, via decisions about labor supply, how much to save, and how to hold one's financial portfolio.

Increasingly we seem to have social science analysis performed by pundits who write Op-Ed columns and in the case of the New York Times this happens more when the columnist is a known Conservative than otherwise.  My conjecture on why this happens follows.  Most of the Times readership is Liberal.  It is a challenge to write for an audience of doubters.  One way to address that challenge is to wrapper the argument in a layer of social science analysis, presumably objective and therefore not itself subject to reasonable critique.  The Liberal columnists don't need to provide such a wrapper to get the readership to accept the arguments, so quite often they don't.

But there are are some occupational hazards with this approach.  One stems from a desire to moralize in these pieces, to correct the readers in their misguided views and set them on the straight and narrow path.  Why else would a tried and true Conservative agree to write such a column on a regular basis?   However, it is a mistake for this motivation to find its way into the columns.  As a reader, I don't want to be moralized to.  I'm okay on reading opinion that runs contrary to my own, but please, spare me the moralizing. Several years ago I wrote a post, Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks, with that as the reason.  I went cold turkey on his columns for quite a long time.  Now I will look at them and decide on a case by case basis whether to read through a piece or not.

A second hazard is to argue one side only and not bring up counterarguments.  Liberal columnists might do likewise, but then they have a different writing task in persuading their readers about their arguments.  Without bringing up counterarguments, the reader can't tell whether the Conservative columnist is aware of them or not and even if they are aware whether they've thought them through.

A third hazard is cherry picking - both on the published research used to support the argument and on the model the author comes up with to make the case.  And here let me return to the exogenous/endogenous issue.  That really needs to be reconsidered when making a persuasive argument to people of a different political persuasion.  Treating what might sensibly be taken as endogenous as if it were exogenous will raise the hackles of readers like me with a reasonably strong social science background.  It looks too much like the author is trying to pull a fast one.  If there is a hidden agenda and that ultimately comes out, the author is doomed.  At that point the audience is permanently lost.  So a better approach is to lay one's cards on the table and then make the best hand from that in clear view of the reader.  If the hand is weak, saying otherwise is not helpful.  Credibility is found by telling it like it is.

With this as background, let's consider the piece by Arthur C. Brooks from the Week in Review called Bipartisanship Isn't For Wimps, After All.  Brooks begins this piece talking about polarization, that it is worse now than it was 20 years ago, and this is happening both at the individual level and the political party level.  For Brooks polarization has inexorably intensified in that time period and he is quite comfortable treating polarization as his exogenous parameter, itself not requiring any explanation.  One consequence of this approach is to argue symmetrically about both the hard right and the hard left, not entertaining at all that it is quite possible for polarization to increase with one endpoint remaining entirely fixed as along as the other endpoint moves further in its own direction.

There actually seems to be a cottage industry of books on this score.  I was previously aware of Mann and Ornstein's It Is Even Worse Than It Looks, having seen Ornstein on the NewsHour discussing some of its findings.  (Maybe that was on Charlie Rose, I don't really remember.)  It now seems that every time I Google a book title and look it up at Amazon.com, that title or something similar shows up in my Facebook feed.  (I wonder how that happens - smirk, smirk.)  In this case I got a promo for a book called The Party Is Over by Mike Lofgren, which is notable to me mainly because Lofgren was a Republican insider, yet his conclusions seem largely the same as those of Mann and Ornstein.  It is one thing for E.J. Dionne to make these sort of arguments.  It is quite different to hear it from other authors who are not of the Liberal persuasion.  The upshot is that the right has moved a lot more to the right.  One might ask why, but Brooks doesn't do that.

I am willing to accept that there are multiple causes for this rightward shift beyond the Reagan Revolution.  One clear cause is the Koch Brothers, whom I first became aware of in this piece from summer 2010, Covert Operations.   While the focus of that piece is how the Koch brothers laid the foundation for the Tea Party, it makes clear that they have been funding substantial think tank operations that favor their anti-government Libertarian views and have been doing so for the preceding 20 years or more.   Fox News is probably a separate distinct cause.  Rush Limbaugh is still another.  Somebody else who pays attention to right wing media can probably supply quite a few more members to this list, if they care to do so.

Instead, let me ask a different sort of question.  Just because the media offers inflammatory stuff, that doesn't mean I will change my point of view.  Indeed, and in spite of what Brooks argues, while I'm Moderate to Liberal I don't think I've drifted leftward much at all.  So if that is not happening, what is actually going on, because even if polarization is endogenous and somewhat one-sided, surely it is happening.  That much of what Brooks reports is real.

Let me offer two different hypotheses that can explain the polarization.  The first I'll call politics-makes-me-nauseated, which is how I feel, increasingly often, when I watch the news.   Why get upset if you don't have to?  This is a recipe for tuning out, which it seems an increasing fraction of the electorate is doing.  If centrists tune out more than those at the extremes, you get polarization of those who are likely to continue to participate.  This particular hypothesis favors a symmetric view of the polarization.

They other hypothesis I'll call politics-as-sports-substitute, which it seems to me is the style of the overheated version of reporting and analysis that is now fairly common today but simply didn't exist when I was a kid and we only had TV via over the air networks.  The networks have figured out that tone matters, as does content.  More viewers would prefer gossipy stuff to real news; the latter is often boring and detailed, while the former appeals to the more prurient interests.  Sex and violence sells, at least for some potential viewers.  This one correlates inversely with education, and is therefore not symmetric with respect to audience.  Fox News has a much larger audience than MSNBC.

From polarization Brooks moves onto contempt.  Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink will recall that contempt is discussed in the very first chapter, where the work of the psychologist John Gottman is taken up and his ability to predict from quick observation of a couple whether their marriage is in trouble or not. The telltale sign occurs when one of them rolls their eyeballs.  It is a sure giveaway that the relationship is doomed.  Once a level of contempt has been reached, there is no coming back from the dead.  So on the one hand, I think Brooks is right here that if bipartisanship is ever to be restored that there needs to be tolerance for alternative views.  Indeed, if you take a look at my recent post, Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?, which was about getting rid of the Hastert rule and restoring a bipartisan majority in the House, with collegiality restored as the mode of discourse to support that, I am certainly on the side of promoting tolerance as a search to finding where the center is.

Now we are getting closer to the real issue, which is exemplified by the Republican leadership in the Senate and their refusal to hold hearings on the Merrick Garland nomination.  I am a fairly regular reader of Jeffrey Toobin's writing in the New Yorker, and he is clearly contemptuous for how this nomination is being filibustered.  So am I.  I have read The Prince and I believe I can adequately apply Game Theory to analyze a strategic situation.   If there were some clear strategic advantage to be applied from blocking this nomination, I might grudgingly respect the decisions of Messrs.  McConnell and Grassley, even if I otherwise didn't agree with it.  As it is now, none of that is evident.  This seems to be about ego only, nothing more.  McConnell is filibustering because he can.  There is no other reason.

Does McConnell's behavior regarding the Garland nomination deserve contempt as a response?  If so, then Brooks' argument clearly needs some modification.  There may be some behaviors by Conservatives that merit contempt from Liberals, while other behaviors merit a collegial response.   Let's say for now that is true.  How then should a Liberal respond to a Conservative, who is himself not contemptuous of other Conservatives in their behavior that is sufficiently offensive to warrant that sort of response?  For example, while there is now a burgeoning 'Stop Trump' movement among Conservatives, there doesn't seem to be anything analogous regarding a 'Stop McConnell' movement.

Yet I am aware of one Conservative who has expressed his disgust at the McConnell filibuster.  See this open letter to Senators Hatch and Lee written by Jon Mott.  (Mott lives in Utah so it is appropriate that he express his views to his own Senators.)  Mott is a learning technologist, as I was before I retired.  I learned of this piece via my people network from then that remains partially intact in Facebook.  And I knew Mott a little bit back then.  He had an essay from spring 2010 in Educause Review that cites and quotes from a column I had written.  I saw him present on this piece at the Educause Learning Initiative conference around that time and had a brief face to face conversation with him as I was chatting with Gardner Campbell there.  I then had a subsequent email thread with him about an online grade book.  That ultimately went nowhere, but that's because we didn't have our act together on the Illinois end.

Mott was perfectly collegial in all of those interactions.  Indeed, he is a model of the behavior that Brooks would actually like to see.  Yet Mott was able to forcefully critique members of his own party.  Where is Brooks on that?  Nowhere, as far as I can tell.  Instead, he quotes the Dalai Lama.  Under other circumstances, that sort of argument might work.  But in the present circumstance, the obstruction of Congress either must become an object for Conservative pundits to critique or they have lost their Liberal potential audience.

How could it be otherwise?  Do they really expect the following argument to work.  Readers, you and I know that Congress is being unreasonable, but I will lose standing within my own party if I say so, so I'm asking you to be tolerant on this score so that progress might eventually be made when things do settle down, without directly taking on the current leadership now.  Don't ask don't tell was the policy in the military for quite some time, until we were ready for a more realistic approach.  That's where we are now on bipartisanship.  Please see it that way.

Brooks, in fact, doesn't even make this argument.  It is an argument that requires a lot of patience.  But at the moment the electorate seems to be taking its mantra from Marat/Sade - We want our revolution...now.  So Arthur C. Brooks, if you feel lonely as a Conservative columnist at the NY Times, this explains why.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Deer In The Headlights Look

I suspect that most of my friends who are involved in learning technology are not big golf fans.  So they probably missed The Masters golf tournament that was completed yesterday and especially the complete meltdown of Jordan Spieth, who had a one stroke lead going into the play on Sunday, built that lead up to 5 strokes with 4 consecutive birdies on the front nine, and then completely blew it after that, though he tried to rebound and partly made up the lost ground.

There are several things about this incident that are noteworthy for us in learning technology.  First, Spieth is 22 years old, the age of many college seniors, the bulk of whom are on the job market now.  When you learn about Spieth's meltdown, think of them.  Might something similar happen to some of them?  Second, he really is incredibly talented, especially with the putter, and he knows how good he is.  Third, he has become something of a marketing machine.  They kept running one commercial with him, his team, his family, Tony Romo of the Cowboys and a delivery guy who mispronounced Spieth.  So it's not been just the golf with him.

Then there was that his recent performance going into the Masters may not have been up to the high standards he had previously set for himself, so some doubt must have been creeping into his mind.  This showed up on Saturday with some errant play on the last two holes.  The final part of this is that he seemed completely oblivious to the possibility of a full meltdown ahead of time, so he likely inadvertently put added pressure on himself by doing all these TV interviews rather than protect himself by limiting the scope of activities during the tournament.

We don't talk enough about how to manage performance anxiety and what to do after the fact when we have failed, very badly, in a highly visible way.  My view of the latter is to treat it like a traumatic event we have been involved with, whether we were the cause of the trauma or not. When such trauma happens in a military setting, we have language to consider what happens and talk about PTSD.  We don't have analogous language to talk about trauma in other settings.  We need that.   Ten years ago this September I had a horrendous fall.  I recovered from that but there were psychological issues that followed.  The following March I wrote a post called The Damage That Scars Do to talk about post trauma consequences.  Healing takes quite a while.   In the process other issues that seem unrelated to the trauma tend to emerge.  The balance found after the healing has happened likely will be different in a substantial way from the purported balance ahead of time, which may have been out of whack in significant ways, but where the imbalance wasn't reckoned with ahead of time.

Trying to bring this discussion from the Jordan Spieth level back down to the ordinary college student circumstance, I believe the "right lesson" is in making small failures an integral part of learning and then letting experience serve as a teacher to make things better the next time around.  Our current system, with the heavy emphasis on grades, really doesn't do this and I believe makes the students more brittle, unwilling to take even small risks.  We seem to either get self-protection from all eventualities or cluelessness about real possible trauma risks.  Neither extreme is good.  How the sensible middle might be found is what we should be talking about. 

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

What of the mindset of a college kid today who has been sharply influenced by the current Presidential campaign?

When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, which I last taught in spring 2011, I really didn't care at all about where students were in their politics - conservative or liberal or what not.  It didn't matter for understanding the subject which begins with economic rationality, an abstract concept, then mainly focuses on price theory from the perspective of the consumer and the firm, and has a bit about markets, mostly idealized perfect competition, then pure monopoly, and a touch of game theory for handling the oligopoly case.  Prior political disposition might ultimately matter for considering which of these models best fits a given real world situation, but we don't do that in the course.  The models themselves are pretty cut and dry.  Being comfortable with algebra and analytic geometry surely helps, so engineering students tend to do better than business students for that reason.  But political orientation matters not.

I now teach an upper level course on the economics of organizations.  It is inherently interdisciplinary.  Sociology matters in organizations.  So does psychology.  For example, those disciplines inform how one considers the relationship between peers in the workplace as well as the relationship between those peers and their supervisor.  Students have attitudes about these things before taking my class.  Those attitudes, in turn, are influenced by the prior political disposition of the students.

Many of the students whom I've had in this class over the last 4 or 5 years come from the northern and western suburbs of Chicago.  For the most part, they are from upper middle class families.   In my own personal stereotype, I'd call them country club Republicans.  Twenty plus years ago when I played a fair amount of golf, I shared some of their values, though even then my attitude about country clubs was heavily informed by the famous Goucho Marx quip.

While my brother-in-law who lives in Kansas City and his adult children seem to embrace these values, at a minimum my brother-in-law has questioned the conservative orthodoxy on the economics front since 2008, at least in conversations with me, even though he's a banker.  I really don't know how much my students question the beliefs their parents and extended family gave them.  My sense is that they are quite accepting of those and their own circumstances.

Recalling that I had blogged about conservative beliefs some time ago, but not immediately finding my post with the appropriate reference, I did a Google search on "conservative view that people end up with what they deserve" (but without the quotes).   The first hit is to a piece on the Bill Boyers Web site.   It is a very interesting read.  The piece argues that conservatives have a need for certainty and an intolerance for ambiguity.  The piece cites research by John Hibbing on the issue.  Hibbing initially received quite a bit of flak for his work from mainline conservatives, but eventually his views won out.  In a response to Hibbing by John Jost, written about ten years later and published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, there is essential agreement with Hibbing's core hypothesis.  The following is an excerpt from Jost's piece:

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. [Italics added]

For reasons about myself that I don't completely understand, reading this essay on the Bill Moyers site helped me to find the post I had written on my blog on the subject.  My post is called Pluck* or Luck (*pluck -  definition 12. noun. courage or resolution in the face of difficulties).  Liberals are more inclined to attribute social outcomes to luck whereas conservatives will attribute good outcomes to pluck and bad outcomes to The Just World Theory, meaning the person got what the person deserved.

* * * * *

My guess is that many of the conservative students that I will be teaching this fall will be experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance that their predecessors never had to go through.   For those who won't yet be 22, the majority of them in all likelihood, this will be their first Presidential election where they are eligible to vote.  On the simple question - whom should they vote for? - they may be facing a choice that is too difficult for them to manage well.

And regarding the Donald Trump candidacy, particularly regarding his main constituency - those many White working class voters who are supporting him, having previously rejected both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, these students will find an immediate repudiation to their pluck/just world view of social outcomes.   What does a person do when confronted with massive evidence that their closely held beliefs are simply lacking?  One possibility is complete denial.  Another is angst.  Country club Republicans with angst --- that's a new one, at least to me.

The college years are a good time for a person to do an examination of self, to try to understand what one wants, what makes one tick, what to believe in.   But until now I've always thought that it should be the students who find these issues urgent and thus who seek to find answers on their own.  Here we have something else.  Students who for the most part are very accepting of the world order that has been handed to them must now question that world order because it seems to be crumbling around them.  I wonder if there will be many of these type of  students on campus in the fall.  (Or who are already here now, but since I don't teach in the spring they are currently invisible to me.)

In my class where I have the students write weekly blog posts (supposedly with a 600 word minimum though some students don't deliver on that) and where the students are supposed to tie their personal experiences to course themes in these posts, there is a gradual building of trust between the students and me.  It takes about a month.  At first they are reluctant and suspicious about doing this, mainly because they are very self-conscious.  When they start to relax they find the experience rewarding.  And I give them something which they probably are not getting elsewhere - rather intensive feedback on their own thinking.  In advance they can't know they want that, because they haven't experienced it previously as college students.  If they come to like it there is then a sense that they can be somewhat open with their thinking where they probably were more guarded before.  If in this situation there are some students who also are in the country-club-Republicans-with-angst category some might ask me on the side about how they should modify their world view to reconcile it with current realities.

I'd be extremely reluctant to be prescriptive as to some alternative.  I don't think that is my job as a teacher nor do I have a real basis for making such a recommendation, particularly if there needs to be a focus not just on the final destination for that world view, but on the path to get from where they are to that endpoint.  I don't know a good path for them.  That needs to be admitted up front.  But my course is steeped in inquiry methods and I am comfortable in posing questions even as I am reluctant to provide answers for the students that would, of necessity, be based on my experiences, not theirs.  Here is a little sketch of how that  inquiry might go. 

At first there are needs to be some opening question to drive the examination.  In this case there is the obvious one.  If the pluck/just world view isn't right - some things happen by serendipity and circumstance - why does that matter to the student?  Of what consequence would this alternative belief have on the student?

Then I would give some guidelines about the inquiry itself.  Do not rush to judgment.  Expect that while the inquiry is going on there is a feeling that might be a bit unsettling, because things are not resolved.  So there is a need to be somewhat gentle with oneself to allow the inquiry to continue in spite of those feelings.  Also, anticipate that other questions will emerge in the process of answering the initial questions.

Here are some fairly obvious follow up questions.  The campus has much diversity with students from all sorts of backgrounds.  What do you know about students who are unlike yourself?  And how do you know this?  Do you tend to hang around people you already knew from high school or people who are similarly situated as you?  What might be done to change that some?

These questions will, in turn, generate yet other questions.  If you are in a group with students unlike you do people remain more arm's length in conversation?  What can be done in that setting so people are more open and less guarded?  Can you trust what you here from somebody else when they you know they are being guarded?

This can continue further, obviously, but I hope the general process is clear.  Then, apart from the questioning per se, we'd take some things specifically from the class.  The inquiry must be tied to experience so part of the issue is to how to generate experiences that inform the inquiry.  This itself produces a bunch of different questions. 

Such a student might not trust himself in thinking all of this through.  So I would offer my services as friend/mentor to listen and comment, much in the same way as I commented on their blog posts for my class.  Indeed,  I might encourage them to keep writing as a way to sustain the inquiry, though unlike in my class I might suggest that the posts be kept private, for fairly obvious reasons.

I have mostly juniors and seniors in my class.  They are looking for internships and jobs.  This sort of inquiry might lessen their enthusiasm for the life-after-school process.  Should they therefore avoid the inquiry because of the possible pernicious consequences?  This question will be present at the outset and it needs to be dealt with in some way.  Let me offer a few thoughts about that and then close.

I would begin here by asking whether the student has tried to repress the angst and proceed as if it never had appeared in the first place.   My anticipation would be that the student had already tried to repress these feelings but couldn't get past the sense of being bothered, which is why the student contacted me to discuss these matters.   Nonetheless, I could ask the student to try this one more time, just to confirm that denial won't offer a satisfactory solution.   This would be slower than simply proceeding with the inquiry, but is consistent with making each step happen with student opt in.   And maybe, if the kid had some entertaining diversion and a good night's sleep, the world won't seem quite as unmanageable as it had previously appeared and the student really can get back to the old approach.

If that doesn't happen, I'd point out that while this kid's type of angst really hasn't yet been written about, there is actually a fair amount out there about the angst of over achiever students, and while it is not exactly the same thing, maybe there are some lessons to be learned by reading about that stuff. At this point I'd provide some references so the kid could read them and then let that influence the inquiry.   I might also talk a little about what I went through in high school, not the details so much, but that there is some upside to having a depression.  It can be liberating to not have to face what were previously felt imperatives and instead to be one's own boss.  So that much commiseration I think I can offer.

Whether in total this suffices I really don't know.  And I will have to point out before too long that if this becomes a matter of mental health then the student should see a counselor on campus.  I will be out of my depths there.  Nonetheless, I don't think this concern about possible adverse mental health should deter the type of conversation I've sketched above.  And maybe it will help the kid be part of constructing something better, as perceived by both the student and me.  Ultimately, that has to be the goal.  But a bit of understanding needs to come first.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Out of Character

A piece from this weekend, Don't Grade Schools on Grit, caught my attention.  I've been mulling it over for a while.  It begins with a quote from Martin Luther King:

“Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

I can embrace that.  Indeed, in a piece I wrote some time ago, The Purpose of General Education, I argued the fundamentals are a triad - reading comprehension, sitzfleisch, and human warmth.  In my way of thinking, reading comprehension aligns pretty well with intelligence.  Likewise, sitzfleisch and human warmth in combination aligns pretty well with character.  What got me puzzling is how we go from there to the title of the piece, where character seems to have been transmogrified into grit, sitzfleisch but without the human warmth.  How did that happen?

I can't say that I anticipated the coming of Donald Trump, but in another post from a while ago, Ingredients for Fascism, I lamented the pit bull in human form.  My example there was Joel Klein, who came to fame during the Microsoft Antitrust Case, became the Chancellor or the NYC Public Schools when Michael Bloomberg became Mayor, and at the time of writing the post had become the confidant of Rupert Murdoch.  Is Klein an exemplar of character or of something else, character gone awry?

I wonder if we can agree on what character means.  I suspect not.  Can an embrace of The Virtue of Selfishness nonetheless be consistent with good character?   If much of the Republican Party leadership partakes in such an embrace, with Paul Ryan the current exemplar, how does human warmth enter into the equation?  Or does it enter at all?  One would hope that if we can agree on what character means then that definition would cut across party affiliation.

I believe there is a way to include human warmth as part of character without an appeal to politics.  This comes from noting departures from rational decision making that are intrinsic to human nature.  One example provided by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow is WYSIATI (What you see is all there is) where we ignore possible information that others might have but is not at hand for us at present.  We therefore have a tendency to make decisions based on our gut feelings and our limited view of the world, though those decisions are likely to be flawed.  Human warmth is an acknowledgment of our own limitations and demands perceptiveness about the human condition of others.  Surely it is not a perfect antidote to WYSIATI, but it does serves as a counterweight to it.

There is a different way that we think of character, embedded in the notion "character actor" and in the phrase "he is quite a character."  On the comedic side, Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor come to mind.  Dramatically, I thought about Casablanca.  Virtually every role in that movie is iconic.  In this case character refers to a distinctive personality with strong idiosyncratic features.  One might ask whether this is a different notion, fully orthogonal to the way Martin Luther King used the term in the quote above, or if there is overlap between the two.  In considering this, almost immediately I thought of my parents, my dad especially.  In my mind, his personality and his sense of morality are inseparable.   Can a totally bland person have strong character in the way King intended for the word to be used?  Perhaps, yes that's possible, but my guess is that being shy is what is really going on and the person just appears bland because the person is so reticent to express himself openly.

Thinking about the movies and the depiction of the leading roles therein might help us consider what we mean by character, as it gives us a common reference point to argue from.  Focusing specifically on Rick, the Humphrey Bogart character in Casablanca, there is first this general notion of the anti-hero - I'm in it for me and me alone - that contrasts with a more noble nature also found in the same person (and that comes to the fore near the end of the movie).  When people otherwise discuss character they tend to talk about responsibility only, not about the dialectic between the anti-hero and the hero living within the same skin, but it may be that this more nuanced view is better and healthier, for discretion is always there as to which part of the persona emerges, and we all need to learn to live with our demons rather than simply assume we can always summon our angels.

Who then can judge another as to whether a reasonable balance has been attained?  And might it be that this back and forth is not just over time, but also from one domain to another?  Is someone who has struggled with their weight over their lifetime, as I have, doomed to be considered lacking in character, irrespective of accomplishments in other areas?  I suppose some people will come to that conclusion.  But maybe part of character is an ability to forgive people some of their weaknesses and help to bring out their strengths in a way for the benefit of all.

Let me add yet one more dimension to my sense of what character is about, especially important now, as we live in a world where everyone is in a rush to judgment and where social networking provides a a near immediate feedback loop, thus encouraging the pronouncement of that judgment and validating the correctness of the held view.  If character is to counter this tendency, then it must champion thinking gray, as Steve Sample does in The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership.  In defining thinking gray, Sample makes reference to this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

This is a very high bar, one which most of us do not sail over or, if we do, then that is done in a limited domain only.   Elsewhere people tend to be very one-sided, our national politics providing one prominent example.  This sort of one-sidedness we expect of fans who root for their favorite team and in that domain it might by an endearing part of one's personality.   It is less endearing, at least to me, to see people demean a rival candidate within the same party which, by my non-scientific observations, now seems like a regular occurrence.   (I'm mainly referring to posts in Facebook by my friends, as they link to pieces which support their views.  Those who do post on politics are either for Bernie or for Hillary and most of these people are very highly educated.  Education does not seem sufficient to get them to think gray in this area.)

The one notable exception here is Thomas Edsall.  Each of his columns brings in opposing views as he describes the tension between them.  This makes him interesting to read.  His pieces, such as this latest one,  give the reader a sense of what thinking gray requires while allowing the reader to come down on one side or the other if the reader so desires.

* * * * *

How does one develop one's own character?  What is the role that school should play in this development?  What about parents?  Siblings?  Friends?  Religious training?  Participation in volunteer organizations?  Work?  What potential providers of character development have I left out?

The author of Don't Grade Schools on Grit, Angela Duckworth, argues that schools should not be used to assess character development, especially in a high stakes way, as that will do more harm than good.   Duckworth's piece, in fact, is an argument against a certain interpretation of recent Federal legislation that seems to encourage this sort of assessment.

While I agree with Duckworth's position, the sort of argument she makes also applies to academic assessments that we routinely make.  In that domain kids will, in a quite matter of fact manner, make comparisons with their peers.  What happens when they come up short?   What will their reaction be?  Might they very well be scarred and permanently damaged as a consequence.

The following story is all too common at Illinois.   Call it - the tribulations of the big fish in the small pond.  Kids who have have done quite well in high school with apparently little in the way of effort come to campus thinking they are well prepared.  They are then not ready for the first round of midterms, which begin somewhere between the end of September and the start of October.  They get slammed when they get their grades back.  They are terrified and must take some action so the situation doesn't repeat itself 5 weeks later when the next midterms come around.  At this juncture, the possibility for Mindful Learning a la Ellen Langer gets permanently shelved.  Instead, to steal shamelessly from the 1960s hit song Love Potion No. 9, these students start to memorize everything in sight. And then they cling to this approach for the rest of their time in college.

The memorizing approach will get the kid through on most exams.  And getting through the test is the goal, or so it seems.  But it is an entirely instrumental approach lacking in intellectual nurture to sustain it.  And, indeed, many of these students end up as essential nihilists and then embrace hedonism as the main point of college.  Recent evidence on this score, to the amusement of the students and to the horror of campus administrators and faculty, came last summer when Illinois was named the #1 party school by Princeton Review.   We had been in the top 5 for several years before that.  One might ask why.   (There actually is a puzzle here.  Why aren't we just like our Big Ten brethren in this regard, and indeed just like other big public research universities, at least the ones located in college towns like Champaign-Urbana?  While I have thoughts on that, I'll leave it as a puzzle for the reader, as explaining this would take me too far afield now.)

So if Duckworth's argument about not assessing character development held sway, shouldn't we also apply it to not assessing academic development, or at least to go to a more qualitative form of assessment with written evaluations and pass/fail grades only, to provide the students with feedback certainly but then try to end the senseless race for a good GPA?  If wishing made it so.

Let me return to character assessment and note that we already are doing it in terms of proxies, at least the assessment of student commitment.  Consider the role that extracurricular activities now play in college admissions and in preparing that resume for an internship or a job. Students, of course, game the system, which ends in the high achievers horribly over programming themselves. Many have written about this, notably William Deresiewicz and Hanna Rosin.  Ironically, this sort of gaming doesn't produce what we understand to be character.  The main consequence is neurosis.

Here is one explanation why.  It is comparatively easy to measure grit, as the results from it will be evident.   In contrast, with human warmth, while the recipient clearly understands that a gesture of kindness has been bestowed unto him, this act likely will be entirely invisible to a third party.  Within a small circle, a family or a group of close friends, a person can reasonably develop a reputation as warm and caring.  But there will only be memories to back up that reputation, not lines on a resume.  Somebody who games the system will then bias their efforts in favor of grit and away from human warmth.  In other words, this is the standard way in which bean counting distorts the agency problem.  This offers another reason not to have further high stakes assessment of grit specifically.  That would only make an already distorted environment even more perverse.

That said, there is a different thing that might be done which could be helpful.  That is to carefully study and identify that segment of students who appear to be under achievers.  I mean the ones who don't come to class regularly, the ones who miss turning in assignments, the ones who are getting low course grades as consequence of this lack of commitment.  I can observe this behavior among my own students, in an upper level undergraduate economics course with comparatively low enrollment and a teacher who does try to make the course interesting.  I find it demoralizing to have such students in my class.  But I also wonder - is there some way to reach them?  What would do that?   Stressing individual accountability via a high stakes assessment would not answer these questions.  It would only produce more alienation.  (This is something the clickers do now, especially when they are deployed in a rather unimaginative way.)  Might we make much more progress by assessing these students as a group?  Or are we too afraid of what we might learn?

* * * * *

Let me close with some conjectures about character development.  One learns about human warmth first by being a recipient and then by liking it when it happens.  Monkey see monkey does.  If human warmth is absent and the person is otherwise not under a terrible amount of stress one might guess that the person didn't experience it sufficiently to place a value on it.

Persistence, of the type where we overcome our deficiencies, is learned in a different way, by struggling and eventually improving as a consequence.  A struggle that goes for naught, which it seems to me is possible and we should admit that, although that might be confounded with ending the struggle prematurely, might produce the opposite reaction.  Somebody for whom everything comes easily, think of the Hubbell Gardner character in The Way We Were, will never have experienced the need to struggle.   But even in the presence of a need, people may look for shortcuts first, or look for shortcuts later.  All the doping in professional sports is an indicator, and this happens among athletes who have already put in a massive amount of practice time.   The development of persistence then also depends on the perception of what everyone else is doing.

We live in a world where the exceptional claim disproportionate rewards.  Alas, that in itself encourages the cheating.  If we really want to see character develop fully in everyone we need balance, in what we think of as character and in the rewards that go to vigorous participation in the system.  Right now it seems balance is lacking.   Who will champion its restoration, not just in terms of income but also in how we live our lives?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Doing it in your head or with pencil and paper?

One activity that my wife and I share, but not at the same time, is doing the Daily Jumble from the local newspaper.  Here's one from yesterday that I got stuck on for a while.  I'll give the answer at the end of this post, in case you haven't gotten it by then.  

GEPTIL

My wife likes to try out various combinations by writing them out.  I prefer to do it in my head.  If she reads the letters aloud to me, I can then pace around for a bit and usually come up with the word in less than 30 seconds, though once in a while I do get stuck.   That I can "see" through to the answer better without having text in front of me I attribute to how I learned arithmetic back in grade school.  I developed something of a penchant for mental calculations.  You find patterns of one sort or another and that helps to visualize the answer in your head.  When calculators first came out, then later when personal computers made their appearance, the issue arose whether students should learn arithmetic the way I did or if, instead, they simply come to trust their devices and therefore can devote their attention to other things.  I'm really not sure of the answer to that one, but my bias is that learning arithmetic the way I did develops habits of mind that have value elsewhere, so we should still do it the old way and encourage "mental arithmetic" where we can.

On the Jumble questions, consider only words where all the letters are different.  For a 5-letter word there are 120 possible orderings of the letters.  (5! = 120.)  For a 6-letter word, like the one given above, there are 720 possible orderings.   Pure brute force would produce all the orderings and then do a lookup of each in the dictionary, to ultimately identify the one ordering that is listed.  We definitely don't think like that.  Many of the orderings are nonsense.  Having all the consonants come consecutively won't happen.  That observation gives the basis for finding patterns that are plausible.  Perhaps our thinking is like a search through the plausible patterns.  Sometimes, however, you just see the answer immediately.  How you do that is still a bit of a mystery to me, but that it happens once in a while I have no doubt.

The Jumble is done so there are 4 different words that need to be unscrambled.  Each word then supplies two or three letters for the bonus phrase or word, which is the answer to some pun.  That there is a pun is an enormous clue as to the right bonus phrase.  Searching among possible puns (there really aren't too many that might fit) seems like a different sort of thinking.  The harder part is merely to come up with a possibility.

Being able to do the Jumble is rewarding for my wife and me.  (We used to do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  She still does, but I've given that up long ago. )  That it is a reward, not a punishment, is also a bit of a puzzle.   I wish I could make my course stuff more like the Jumble and/or make my students in doing the homework more like me in solving the Jumble.  School would be much better for all if that were the case.

Have you unscrambled the word above?  If not, here's a hint.  It's one of Winnie the Pooh's good friends.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Might it be possible to restore majority rule in Congress?

The last few days I've been wondering whether our very odd national politics that has been coming to the fore in this Presidential campaign might have interesting derivative consequences that people seem not yet to be considering.  Or to put it more concretely, does the Trump candidacy and the now Block Trump reaction, a situation that many deem as 'impossible' such as this piece yesterday by David Brooks, ultimately create certain possibilities that don't currently exist? 

Armed with that thought I began to look for what possibilities might emerge.  I didn't get to the majority rule idea straight away.  I first considered the Establishment Republicans and their wealthy benefactors regarding their attitudes about the rank and file of the party.  If the Trump supporters themselves speak of betrayal, which they certainly seem to be doing, and if they have legitimate reasons for holding those beliefs, what is the source of that?  As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday, many of the Republican leaders and benefactors champion Ayn Rand and therefore infer that if somebody is doing poorly income-wise that person must lack the enterprising spirit and doesn't put in sufficient effort in the workplace.   The leadership, in effect, has contempt for members of their own party.  Or, since I have a fondness for the pithy pun, you might surmise the leadership view by:

The rank and file are
Rank and vile.

One might hope that the leadership would question their own core beliefs now, seeing how the Trump candidacy seems an indirect consequence.  Perhaps that will eventually happen in the goodness of time.  But there is no obvious champion to replace Ayn Rand and, even if there were, the experience about learners witnessing an experiment that cuts against their core beliefs suggests that it is very difficult for them to readily change their beliefs.  A much more likely behavior is to reject the experimental evidence.  And here I'm talking about stuff having nothing to do with national politics.  As I wrote about in a post called Back to Basics, now almost 10 years ago:

The core questions for each of us are: how do I come to know what I know and how do I come to believe what I believe? Ken Bain of NYU, who was the speaker at our annual Active Learning Retreat, tells the story of students studying Freshmen Physics, but armed with an Aristotelian conception of space and motion, rather than a Newtonian one, who when confronted with experimental evidence produced by their instructors that would seemingly refute the Aristotelian view and force them to adopt a different mental model, instead rejected the evidence as exceptional and therefore not relevant. This story is indicative of the core issue.  

So, being aware of this issue in getting minds to embrace new beliefs and discarding old ones, I wondered what possibilities might realistically open up and which others will remain wishful thinking only.  I puzzled over that for a while.  A trigger for me in that thinking was reading Timothy Egan's piece, Crackpot Party Crackup.   It is a well argued piece.  Nonetheless, I was troubled by the conclusion he offered up:

The choice for honorable Republicans — should I stay or should I go? — is obvious, though not easy. Leave this summer, or forever live with the consequences.

Egan's piece is written in a way to preclude a third possibility - work hard from within to change things so that the party comes back from going over the deep end.  After all, the Republicans are the party of Lincoln and Lincoln's singular achievement was to preserve the Union.  How does leaving the party honor the memory of Lincoln?  Further, if Lincoln's spirit could somehow be maintained by forming a new Party, how would it work if the masses stayed where they are but the money moved to this new entity?  Surely that would blow things up rather than give genesis to a neo-Lincoln movement.

Then I started to wonder, quite apart from the challenge the Trump candidacy provides, whether many in Congress from both parties who do consider themselves pragmatic, not true believers, are burning out doing their jobs and would therefore want to leave to resolve their own burnout, with Egan's argument offering cover for that.  They would then leave Congressional politics altogether.  If the ship is sinking, a pragmatic person looks for a lifeboat.

On this score I recalled reading an Op-Ed by Evan Bayh written after he announced he'd be leaving the Senate.  What is striking about this piece, apart from his emotional embrace of the earlier time when his father, Birch Bayh, held that office, is that the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House then, and it was written almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, so the consequences of that decision had not yet played out.  The burnout that Bayh displays in this piece is evident nonetheless.  That burnout is largely attributable to a lack of civility and collegiality in the Senate.  One might surmise that the climate has only gotten worse since.  The current era has been characterized as the politics of hostage taking.  My thought is that those who fit Egan's description as honorable Republicans in Congress might proceed posthaste to walk back from the politics of hostage taking and attempt to reestablish the politics of collegiality.

There would be political risks in doing so, no doubt.  As Michael Tomasky argues, this sort of behavior would expose the Republican politician to an attack from his right flank.  Heretofore, those threats from the right flank have enforced Party unity.  This is where the Trump candidacy comes in.  There are huge risks for an honorable member of Congress, to proceed as they have been doing, setting themselves up to do Trump's bidding in the event he becomes President.  Instead, they'd want to push back.  Embracing collegiality would be a way of doing so.

Further, there is the clear evidence in the unpopularity of Congress that the gridlock, which the politics of hostage taking produces, has been damaging the country in a way that is evident to these honorable Republicans.  Moving toward collegiality would then represent an honest effort to make things better.

So far I feel on terra firma in making this argument.  Now the Fantasy Island part begins.  Who will lead the honorable Republicans in Congress in this new direction?   My sense is that honorable behavior (and really I mean reasonable more than honorable for the following reason) is displayed more in private conversations that occur outside public view than in public pronouncements.  (The necessity of private expression of the pragmatic view probably shouldn't be questioned in the current environment, but I wouldn't term this behavior honorable.)   If that is right and since I'm not privy to those private expressions, I really don't know which members of Congress are candidates for moving to a more collegial approach and who among this group would be the likely leaders.  So I'm going to do something here that I know is flawed, admit that, and then proceed in spite of this limitation.  I'd like to personify this movement to collegiality.  To do so I will rely on the public perception of these members of Congress - really my sense of that.

In my scenario, Speaker Ryan does the statesmanlike thing and abandons the Hastert Rule.  Even though the right flank of his own party dethroned his predecessor, former Speaker Boehner, and surely the right flank would be angered by such a move, it really would represent an action that is in the spirit of Lincoln.  And, with Ryan only recently assuming the role of Speaker, is there really a risk of another revolt from the right that might jeopardize his hold on the position?  Further, if done in a timely fashion, might it not also influence the Senate as to whether they take up President Obama's Supreme Court nominee?

I believe it is Common Knowledge that if the Senate did take up the Merrick Garland nomination then Garland would be confirmed.  Given that, I also believe that a majority of the Senate thinks they should commence in the Advise and Consent process now.   Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Grassley and a few other leaders who have spoken out on the matter, say they want to wait till the next President has assumed office.  They clearly don't want to hand a victory to President Obama.  They want to thwart the President wherever they can.  This is putting partisan interest above national interest.  (Incidentally, I believe that Harry Reid is just as much a pitbull as McConnell, so I don't want to absolve the Democrats of a similar sort of obstruction in the past, with the notable difference that some of the current obstruction to Obama is based on the fact that he is proposing the idea rather than on the idea itself.)   Mark Kirk, who is up for reelection in Illinois and facing a tough race, and Susan Collins of Maine have publicly said that the Senate should start hearings on the Garland nomination.  How many other reasonable Republican Senators think the same thing, but don't say this publicly due to the political risks in doing so?

Further, there is the rather simple political analysis to be done by taking a game theoretic look at the situation.  What would the outcome be if the Senate does not take up the Garland nomination?  It is likely now that the next President will be a Democrat.  The Not Trump vote might be making it likely that the Democrats will take back the Senate as well.  Opinions can vary on that joint event happening, but if there is a reasonable likelihood of that as outcome and if in that instance the next President would nominate someone less moderate than Garland, Republicans would then end up losing.  So, how does it make sense to block the Garland nomination now?  Add to this the possibility that holding up on the Advise and Consent process may itself have adverse electoral consequences for the Republicans, McConnell's pronouncement to the contrary notwithstanding.

So in my scenario, Ryan's public announcement of abandoning the Hastert Rule, coupled with some behind-closed-door negotiations with the Majority Leader, has the consequence of McConnell polling the full Senate on whether they should take up the Advise and Consent process, with his agreeing in advance to respect the will of the majority, however that turns out.  This would mark the end of the politics as hostage taking era and the beginning of a new era of collegiality.

Let me close on the humorous front.  The following cartoon was quite popular when I was an assistant professor back in the early 1980s.  I'm invoking it here.  I realize my step two also needs more work.  Sometimes you announce the theorem first, as Fermat famously did, and let the proof come later.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Long Arc

This recent Charlie Rose interview with Jeffrey Goldberg is well worth watching.  Goldberg was there to discuss the substance in his recent piece, The Obama Doctrine.

I found this especially interesting because for the last week or two I've been wondering how America's history would have been different if we never got entangled in Vietnam.  It is my view of things, that people of my political ilk should go back to that as first cause, rather than treating the Reagan Presidency that way, as is now common in such discussions.  That war created so many reactions not immediately attributable to it.  Here are just a few:

  • Younger Liberal Americans, came to distrust government. They preceded Republicans on that score.  Even if they still voted for the party of FDR, they didn't have the same faith in government that their parents had.  Indeed, my generation was much more cynical than the generations that preceded it.  Those earlier generations were far more trusting.
  • Nixon became President in 1968.  Absent Vietnam, LBJ would have been a popular President.  There were other issues to be sure, Civil Rights would have been even more prominent and there were certainly tensions there, but we would have handled that much better than we did.  Nixon likely would still have been a candidate, but he would have failed.  Either LBJ would have run for reelection and won or Humphrey, absent the legacy of Vietnam, wouldn't have faced the challenges from Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.  So Humphrey would have been President.  If Nixon had pursued the "Southern Strategy" and lost with it, that puppy would have been put to bed.  
  • The inflation of the early 1970s, before OPEC hit us with the first oil price shock, would not have manifest because there wouldn't have been these huge deficits in the Federal budget at a time when the economy was already at full employment.  So the economy would have been more robust when OPEC started to play its game.

I will stop there, but it is pretty easy to make a case that the Liberal agenda was irreparably harmed by the Vietnam War.  And we're still suffering the consequences from that.

Getting back to Obama, Roger Cohen has been pretty hard on him for his low key approach to Syria, though this recent column echoes the themes in the Goldberg piece.  It is the refugee crisis and the ultimate fate of these displaced people which will ultimately determine whether the policy was a shrewd judgement about the lesser of evils or if it was an abdication of responsibility.   In any event, that these sorts of decisions have very long term consequences is something that should enter our discourse.  It means we need to stop shooting from the hip when talking about foreign policy and get much more sophisticated in considering the implications of what we do. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Vision of a College Education Today with a Strong Historical Basis

I attended a lecture last Thursday given by Harry Boyte.  It was the fourth in a series of talks under the mantle Prioritizing Undergraduate Education.  I missed the third talk, not sure why now.  Among the other two that I did see, which were also visions of what students should experience in college, I liked Boyte's talk the most.  In what follows I will explain why, follow that with my understanding of Boyte's message, then segue into potential challenges of the ideas, and finally make some remarks about connecting this sort of education to what students do after they graduate.

One thing I've done in retirement that is a bit unusual is to pursue the undergraduate education in political science (and sociology and psychology) that ended after I left Cornell to go to Northwestern for graduate school in economics.  For people who might read this essay but are otherwise not regular readers of my blog, I transferred to Cornell from MIT in the middle of my sophomore year.  I left MIT because I was unhappy there, but once at Cornell I began to pursue this political science interest that had been unmet until then, though I remained a math major since I was so far along with that already.  I started taking upper level courses in political science without taking the pre-requisites, the first of these a course on Women and Politics taught by Werner Dannhauser.  And since I graduated after 3 and a half years of college, I got an incomplete view of political science at the time.  I also had insufficient background to understand some of the ideas I was exposed to, particularly on the conflicts within Christianity (I was raised in a very reform Jewish household) and how those conflicts played out in our national politics.

There is also that in the early to mid 1970s, when I was in college, the ethos of the time didn't seem to require anyone I knew to challenge their political views as they developed a sense of themselves.  This changed dramatically after Reagan became President, by which time I had become a faculty member at Illinois.  Since then I've mainly taught economics when teaching undergraduate classes.  As things are situated at Illinois a majority of the Econ majors have little intrinsic interest in the subject.  They are Business School wannabes, for the most part with lower standardized test scores and insufficient GPA to transfer into the College of Business.  Over time I've come to ask, how can college education be more meaningful for these students?  Some of my current political science interest stems from trying to answer that question.  Many of the posts in this blog bear elements of trying to provide answers.  And many of the things I read that form a basis for the posts are read from that vantage.

I will focus on two here.  The first is this essay by Albion Small, The Bonds of Nationality.  Boyte argued that one pillar of his vision was an abiding patriotism, a concern for society as a whole and the welfare of others entailed with that.  Small's essay, a fantastic read, explains what that really means and how people get educated to make patriotism a deeply held view.  Ironically, he considers churches rather than schools as the primary provider of this education, but that part of the argument may be time contingent in the writing of the piece (before America's entry into WW I).   I came to read Small's essay by first reading Eldon Eisenach's book, The Lost Promise of Progressivism.  I took a course on American Political Thought from Eisenach as a junior at Cornell.  It was a thrill for me to find his book in our Library at Illinois.  After reading it, I wrote a post called A New Progressivism?  In my heart, it is something I'd like to see.   It seemed to me that Boyte was arguing for exactly that.

The other work is Mary Parker Follett's Creative Experience, which gives a vision of the type of education Boyte talked about with that vision crafted when the original Progressivism was still a living memory.  (Eisenach argues that the Progressive era ended with Woodrow Wilson as President.)  I came to this work of Follett's in a very indirect manner.  Again as a junior at Cornell, I took a seminar on radical political groups.  (My term paper was on SNCC and I wonder to this day why Stokely Carmichael, in particular, is essentially ignored as a historical figure.)   One of the books the class as a whole read was Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  So I was familiar with Hoffer's name.  Thirty plus years later I started to look for other things he had written.

Ultimately, I got a copy of Between the Devil and the Dragon from the Library, a collection of his essays and aphorisms.  He made frequent reference to Marion Milner's book, On Not Being Able to Paint, so I read that next, though it took me a while to feel ready to do so.  (Painting lies outside my preferred forms of recreation.)   In turn, Milner made lots of references to Follett.  Ultimately, I wrote about this in a post called Interweaving, an expression that Follett uses repeatedly in her book.  Follett argues that competing social views need to be argued out, over time, but the result is not the the triumph of one view over the other.  Rather it is something fundamentally new, with some bits and pieces of the earlier views from each side that are brought together into a coherent whole.  Our current national politics seem a far cry from Follett's view and it poses one sort of challenge about whether her view is tenable now.   The New York Times has a feature called The Conversation, that tries for what Follett wants, but does so in a tongue and cheek way only.  This underscores the challenge that Follett presents to us.  We may not be up to it.

I have belabored presenting my background coming into Boyte's talk to show that I was predisposed to be interested in his message and welcome it.  It makes me wonder about how other faculty who have strong interest in undergraduate education but who lack this sort of background would react to the talk.  What of such faculty in STEM disciplines or in the Humanities?  Boyte argued that science as it used to be done was consistent with the Progressivist view and indeed that science existed to advance social ends, but we have since moved to a world where scientists are experts and profess from a platform of expertise that the rest of the population lacks.  So there is a question of whether the genie can be put back in the bottle and whether that would be perceived by others as desirable.   It is a question that deserves substantive discussion.

* * * * *

Boyte argues that college education should be primarily about making students good citizens.  Such citizenship is exercised mainly not at the ballot box but rather at the place of work.  Good citizens do whatever is necessary to make the workplace highly functional and socially responsible.  Good citizens have agency, an expression Boyte used over and over again.  This means they can size up the situation to see what is required to make matters better.  Then they can act in a way that does improve things.

Boyte argued that education for good citizenship must train the head, the heart, and the hand.  Presumably this is done in a holistic way, for example in what is now called a service-learning course, which features both a classroom component and a practicum component and where the students interact with members of the community in the latter, so there is a triangle between teacher, student, and community member and feedback loops to make each vertex of the triangle a part of the whole.   At present, as I understand the way the campus works, comparatively few students get this sort of coursework, though they may get some experience working with the community by being part of a registered student organization (RSO) or as part of some faculty member's research project.   Further, service-learning, where it does happen, is often a capstone experience.  Boyte seemed to be arguing that we need much more of this sort of thing, when we have it then it must be quite intensive, and some of it needs to happen far earlier in the student's time on campus.

Boyte used a fair amount of terminology in his talk without giving precise definitions of the terms.  I don't mean that as a criticism of the presentation itself.  He had about an hour and used that time judiciously.  But afterward I started to scratch my head about some of these.  Here I will focus on agency, as when one tries to put one's fingers around the concept grains of it tend to slip through.  Even Boyte reported that his experiences entailed many failures.  Is there agency when ultimately there isn't success?

I want to start with some examples here, so I will consider my blogging and my teaching.  Blogger tells me I have well over 1300 posts, many of which are longish ones like this one.  Evidently I don't have difficulty in generating prose and enjoy doing so in my spare time.  (I've written elsewhere that if I had enough friends to argue with over coffee, then I wouldn't feel a need to write this blog.  But most people I know are too busy for that type of conversation.)  So my blogging would seem to be an example of agency.  But there are times where there is writer's block.   And there are other times of pure malaise, where I simply want to veg out.  I want to distinguish those times of malaise from yet a third time of needed diversion, because nobody can always be on and there is a need to recharge one's batteries.  The malaise periods feel like a lack of agency.  The writer's block, like getting stuck when try to solve a hard math problem, may reflect impatience more than a lack of agency.  Overcoming the blockage, when that does happen, not always but sometimes, may indicate that agency was present all along, though it was in a dormant form. The diversion time is just having fun doing something else.  This leads one to ask.  Is it that even those who do have agency only express it occasionally, for whatever reasons?

Teaching is different in this respect because the students have a say as to whether my teaching efforts matter.  I now teach one course each fall and have had that pattern since 2012.  Last fall I took a step or two back, though that was not my intent ahead of time.  I try for Socratic dialog in class but last fall it was a real struggle for me to generate discussion and attendance was down from what it had been the previous couple of years.  (Indeed I've opted for the fall only because senioritis seems too strong in the spring and dealing with that I've found is demoralizing.)  Also, even for those who do come it is difficult for me to gauge whether I'm getting through to them at all or not.  And I have more feedback from them than most instructors because I do have them write weekly blog posts and read all of them (that come before or if afterward then reasonably close to the deadline) while writing extensive comments on these posts as well.

My sense is that what I do matters in a significant way to a handful of students in the class, but not much at all to the rest.  (Incidentally, I had this same sense back in the early 1990s before I got involved with learning technology, but then I was teaching mainly intermediate microeconomics, which is required of Business students and which they are disposed to dislike.  In that respect it is like how pre-med students view organic chemistry.)  Now most of my students are Econ majors.  The challenge has been how to make the course matter to the majority of the class.  In that, I've largely failed, though I continue to modify my approach over time to better tailor the class to the feedback from the students that I do get.  Is this agency or not?  I'm not really sure.

I am also somewhat fearful of how Boyte's ideas might be cherry picked by politically Conservative students and faculty, embracing some pieces while rejecting others, with that resulting in something quite different from what Boyte has in mind.  For example, ask yourself whether Tea Party members of Congress have agency.  Their goal is to shrink the federal government.  Their tactics are to render that government non-functional.  They clearly don't embrace Follett's idea of interweaving.  Indeed they won't negotiate even with more moderate forces within the Republican Party.  They seem to be on a crusade.  Is that agency or misguided closed mindedness?  Who gets to determine the answer to that question? 

Let me close this section by noting an obvious impediment to Boyte's ideas will come from such Conservative students and faculty, if they perceive that what Boyte is advocating for is trying to convert them into Liberals.  In the current climate of national politics, I don't see how this particular obstacle can be transcended.  If and when our national politics calms down and the rhetoric becomes less inflamed, it will be necessary to discuss how Boyte's vision can be both effective yet non-threatening to Conservatives and whether that is actually possible or not.

* * * * *

Here I want to take on other potential obstacles to Boyte's ideas - whether students will embrace these ideas, the role of private non-profit universities, and whether students have the right skills coming in to take advantage of such education.  I don't mean that taken together these are mutually exhaustive of the possible impediments Boyte's ideal would face if there were attempts to implement it broadly.  Rather, I mean them simply as gateways into a larger discussion about these particular issues.

Let us begin with the rampant credentialism that now plagues Higher Education and indeed begins much earlier, with the excessive and destructive competition to get into one of the top colleges.  In the abstract, it might be possible to get some agreement that education has been invaded by a species that neither nurtures the student nor invigorates the student for the sake of learning itself.  Instead, school  is perceived as all instrumental for what should come after college.  One might think, then, that an alternative approach would be welcomed by the students themselves (and their families, especially if the parents are paying the tuition).  But that should be thought through rather than simply assumed. 

Among the students I see these days the population is bi-modal.  There is a smaller group of over achievers who spend much of their waking time at the Library when not in class.  For these kids, they are engaged in an act of juggling.  The goal is to have as many balls in the air as possible.  Breadth is the way to get a killer résumé.  Depth in learning is sacrificed, even if that is not perceived by the students themselves.  GPA rules.  This is triumph of the Spence model view of college.  Further, there is a cognitive bias that puts excessive focus on the getting the first job after graduation, rather than considering how the education might impact their employment, say 10 years out. 

In my class on the Economics of Organizations, I teach students that eventually co-workers and supervisors learn about the productivity of an individual, so human capital does matter down the road.  It matters for promotion decisions.  It matters for the reputation the person develops in the market.  (Non-economist readers might prefer the expression learning-to-learn skills to the economics jargon, human capital.  The argument is essentially the same, regardless of what you call it.)   Nonetheless, the focus is on grades, because that is what signals when applying for that first job.

The other mode, which is larger in my class and may be larger for the campus as a whole, after all Princeton Review named Illinois the #1 party school last year, applies to many of those kids who are part of the Greek System - they live in a fraternity or a sorority - as well as those kids who live in apartments and then frequent the bars, not just on Friday and Saturday evenings, but earlier in the week as well.  I begrudge nobody in having a good time, with the caveat: moderation in all things.  But I am frightened about the underlying world view that drives this behavior in our students.   I believe that world view can be encapsulated as follows.  Since school itself is non-nurturing and since once they enter the world of work they will have to bust their chops, college is the time to partay.   There is excessive hedonism in this as well as a pessimism that there is no such thing as a reward from doing good works for itself.

It is easy enough for the faculty to be paternalistic and argue that the students at both modes need to change.  But would the students themselves agree?  I have some evidence about students at the first mode, from extensive discussions with a few of them.  In spite of some recognition of the issues, they expressed contentment with the path they are currently on and a great reluctance to depart from that.  And as for students at the other mode, one might consider their behavior the triumph of procrastination.  Defeating it will not be easy.

There is a different way to get at this issue, which looks at the students more from an emotional perspective.  I believe it helpful to consider this alternative as well.  Hoffer is very good on the following point.  In any endeavor, past success is no guarantee.  Failure is always possible.  The fear of failure is great.  So students will go to lengths to avoid experiencing it.  Indeed, all of us do this sometimes, though I hope that part of growing up is taking on that next endeavor squarely much of the time.   The good citizenship that Boyte champions requires strong soft skills.  But soft skills are hard to develop and perhaps harder to measure.  Many students prefer technical skill acquisition, precisely because it is far more transparent that one is in possession of such skills.

Further, there is an important difference in how students display their soft skills depending on whether they are outspoken or very quiet.  The outspoken ones are apt to put on an act.  They don't show their inner selves as they go through their spiel.  They can readily perform in front of others and are not self-conscious that way.  But they are nonetheless guarded.  They may give the appearance of agency, but that is confounding agency with salesmanship.

The quiet students are quite different here.  In the last decade, or so, there seem to be many more of them.  I'm not sure why.  The quiet students are noticeably shy, for the most part and they are aware of their own reluctance to speak in public.  Part of this may be an ethical makeup that refuses them to put on an act.  Another part may be a lack of confidence in being able to negotiate through on matters that they do care about.  I've had multiple experiences with this sort of student, for example consider this one from a couple of years ago (note that the students blog under an alias to protect their privacy).  Shyness can be overcome.  And some education may be useful in expediting the process.  But ultimately the pace will need to be controlled by the individual student and it may be many years after college has ended before the student feels comfortable with the public speaking part of good citizenship.

Large campuses like Illinois may exacerbate the problem because in many classes students feel anonymous rather than part of a community.  Some years ago the then Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education advocated strongly for Living and Learning Communities as a solution.  Perhaps that works well for the members, though I'd argue that there is selection bias in who joins them, so it is hard to know whether it would work nearly as well for the quiet students I'm talking about here.  But it is clear that the solution doesn't scale particularly well.  We need a solution that does.

Let me push on and turn to private universities, which Boyte didn't mention in his talk, though he did say that we know a big public university like Illinois can't address all the issues by itself.  There are too many interconnections with the outside world that need to be accounted for.  If the land grant colleges are to take on Boyte's recommendation and embrace good citizenship as the organizing theme around an undergraduate education, but the private colleges and universities do not, what then?  I really don't know, so I will content myself here with making some rather obvious points.

First, most faculty have their primary loyalty to the discipline, not to the university where they are presently employed.  Disciplinary mores will dictate their views about how undergraduate instruction should take place.  Second, their own experiences as students, both as undergraduates and particularly as graduate students, will go a long way to shape their views about what good instruction should be like.  If as I did, they got their college education at a private university, that will matter.  Third, many of the current faculty will view the possibility of working at a private university in the future as a realistic possible alternative.  Their current teaching experience at a public university must then prepare them for that possibility.

Then, from the student perspective,  there is of course the matter of paying tuition/incurring debt and wanting to recover that expenditure thereafter.  While there is a substantial amount of price discrimination at private universities, given both merit aid and need-based aid, full boat costs these days run roughly a quarter million dollars for four years of college.  That magnitude tends to concentrate one's attention.  While 20 years ago one could reasonably argue that the biggest real cost of attending college was the opportunity cost of the student's time (measured by the earnings foregone as a result of being a full-time student) nowadays the direct financial costs dominate.   And while full boat in state tuition at a public university is far less than its private school counterpart, in real terms it is higher than the tuition my parents paid when I went to Cornell.  So unless we move to some alternative funding regime where some third party bears the bulk of the financial costs of college, this linking to the consequence on future earnings seems unavoidable.  I don't know that in itself that will doom the good citizenship approach, but clearly it is a factor that the good citizenship approach must contend with. 

All of this is to say that while each campus might have a bit of idiosyncrasy in how it goes about undergraduate education, departures from the norm can't be too large and the underlying model for undergraduate education can't be that different throughout all the R1s, public or private, which in turn sets the tone for undergraduate education throughout the rest of Higher Education.

To finish up this section, let me consider just one component of students' prior preparation, what I'll call schmoozing skills, or lack thereof.  Good citizenship is more than being a good schmoozer, but the latter is clearly necessary for the former.  Yet there is reason to doubt that students have basic competency here and the situation has been getting worse over time.  One notable voice on this point is Sherry Turkle.  Consider her recent pieces:  Stop Googling.  Let's Talk., from the New York Times, and How to Teach in an Age of Distraction, from the Chronicle of Higher Education (which requires a subscription for full access).  Turkle argues convincingly that we learn empathy and how to listen by having lots of face to face conversations.  Students who spend much of their time online never learn how to really connect with other students.  Rather, they constantly are focused on their own needs and wants.  This is a very poor basis on which to build a strong approach to good citizenship.

I want to add something here about the informal learning that students should have by being in proximity with other students at their place of residence.  (There seems to be some agreement on the importance of student learning outside the classroom.)  For me at Cornell, this sort of informal learning was really more important than the classes I took.  It served me quite well 20 years later, when I became a campus administrator.  Much of it happened without any prior design and was just a fortuitous consequence of living with a diverse set of people, some graduate students others undergrads, none of whom were studying the same thing.  So our discussions were on subjects where nobody was expert, but where there was mutual interest.  We argued, though in a friendly and respectful way.  (Nixon resigned before the start of my Junior year and people were quite interested in politics then, with that interest more that just who would be the next President.)  We also intermingled those conversations with pure entertainment, going to hear live music, for example.

In my course I have one session about conflict in organizations and spend some time going through Argyris and Schon Models 1 and 2.   Model 2 can readily be interpreted as providing the elements for good citizenship.  (I tell the students that real conflict, once it occurs, is very hard to undo.  Model 2 is not about conflict resolution but rather about how disagreements and differences of opinion can be resolved in a collegial manner so that real conflict does not arise.)   If students are to really embrace that, they must feel a need to do so based on their own prior experiences.  I had those sort of experiences at Cornell.  What if most of the students who spend so much time online never get that type of background on their own?  Can we teach students to transcend themselves in this case?

* * * * *

One place where I thought that Boyte pulled a fast one on us was where he talked about his experience in South Africa, talking with students there, all of whom were black and who intended to go back to the townships where they were from after they graduated from college, to work on bettering their own communities.  These students reported that they wanted just the sort of education that Boyte had in mind, but they weren't getting it.  They were angry for this reason.

Here in the U.S., it would not be surprising at all for somebody who wants to be a social worker, or a community organizer, or even a teacher to favor Boyte's approach to instruction.  But that is not sufficient to make the argument universal.  What about somebody who wants to become an accountant, or a heart surgeon, or a software engineer?  Does the good citizenship approach to undergraduate instruction make sense for these students as well?

In other words, like it or not, we in Higher Education need to have a view of the labor market that our students will enter after they graduate.  And we need to make the case that the college education plays a complementary role.  For, if not, then for many potential students it will be an extravagance and a waste.   This complementary role, indeed, requires emphasis.  So if we are to make a case for the good citizenship approach to college education, we also need a view of the labor market that is compatible with that.

Such a view can be found in Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.  Gift exchange operationalizes the notion of collegiality to an economic context.   I teach this model in the Econ of Organizations class and I've written up an explanation of that model for the lay person in a post called The Liberal View of Capitalism.   In that post I also contrast Akerlof's model with the more Conservative, pay for performance approach.

Interestingly, there's been some attention to these ideas recently in the popular press.  Last week's New York Times Magazine featured its Work Issue.  Many of the pieces argued that empathy is the key ingredient for making individuals productive in a collaborative workplace.  For example, consider this piece on effective teams at Google.  It is just this sort of evidence that explains why a good citizenship approach to undergraduate education make sense.

That is, with one proviso.  If good citizenship is to be the focus of undergraduate education, then we must deliver on that promise.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  Sometimes I get carried away.  This post might be an example.  The Blogger editor, where I compose my posts, mercifully does not give a word count.  I've just done that.  The piece is approaching 5,000 words.  Surely I'm trying the reader's patience with a post this long.  Let me apologize for that.   But let me also note by way of explanation that I believe it necessary to consider the various component sections of this essay as part of a whole in order to really get at the big picture.

Boyte gave us a vision of undergraduate education, one that we really might embrace, but we need to argue that.  A lot of things would need to be put in place to make that vision a reality.  Maybe it's too hard for us to do that.  And maybe there's a lot of disagreement about the desirability of the vision itself.  But let's not take any shortcuts in coming to that determination.  Let's work all the issues through to their logical conclusion.