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.  


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.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Microcosm of America's Fiscal Problems

This piece perfectly illustrates the dilemma.  Roads in town are in horrible shape.  Many need complete overhaul.  Some might get by on more regular maintenance.  But we are doing neither.  Why?  Because local government can't afford to repair the roads.  The point is there is obvious public investment opportunity but it is being thwarted for financial reasons.  This is eight years after the housing bubble burst but, to emphasize the point, note that the Dems only had control of both Houses of Congress for the first two years.  After that, nada. 

In a world where the Feds shared revenue with the States for capital investment and then the States shared revenue with Local Government for that same idea, maybe the financial constraint could be addressed.  Absent that, the roads in my town will deteriorate over the next ten years.  That local government needs to generate revenues to fund this stuff, when the State is in a horrible situation budget-wise, is implausible if not totally impossible.  The barriers to doing what makes sense are great.  We need leadership to cut through that. 

Consumer confidence is measured as if it comes out of nowhere.  But consumers want to know that someone has their backs. 

We are erring over and over again on this lack of local public investment.  When might we figure this out?