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.

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