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?

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