Thursday, February 27, 2014

Newton's Third Law Applies to Politics

By coincidence, I watched the second half of 42 last night; it was on HBO and I caught an earlier showing.  For whatever reason, it seemed oddly applicable to to the situation in Arizona, this part, in particular.

At the time Robinson broke into the majors, Philadelphia was managed by Ben Chapman, who had a reputation as a racist.  In a very poignant scene in the movie, the Dodgers are playing the Phillies and Chapman is shouting every possible invective against Robinson, in an attempt to rattle him, knowing full well that Robinson was under marching orders from Branch Rickey not to retaliate.  The players in the Dodgers dugout can hear this invective and for a while they sit idly by, not knowing what to do about it.  Eventually, Eddie Stanky can't take it any more and goes face to face with Chapman, calling him gutless (in so many words). 

In a later seen in Branch Rickey's office, one of his employees is complaining to Rickey about Chapman.  Rickey smiles and says Chapman has done them an enormous favor.  By being so outlandish with his vitriol, Chapman created a backlash - sympathy on behalf of Robinson.  There was an either-or choice and if you couldn't be for Chapman, which no reasonable person could, then you had to be for Robinson.  Editorials in the press that railed against the racism in major league baseball helped, of course.  But it was the overt and highly visible nature of Chapman's barbs that did the trick.

Consider this when reading the Gail Collins piece linked below and from which the following paragraph has been excerpted. 

What do you think this whole scene means? True, Arizona is a rather strange state. But you don’t generally see a Legislature go out of its way to tick off its own moneyed power structure. And you hardly ever see a business establishment howling this loud about something that doesn’t involve tax hikes.
The State of Arizona

There remains the question whether the religious homophobes behind the legislation that Governor Brewer vetoed will ever change their point of view.  In the movie 42, Chapman is ultimately ordered by management to take a picture with Robinson, to demonstrate that there are no hard feelings.  Robinson says in response to being asked to take this picture that Chapman hasn't changed at all.  Indeed he hadn't.  He was simply swallowing some crow to keep his job.

But if you go to the link above to the piece in The Atlantic about Chapman, it appears that he really did soften in his later years and was genuinely conciliatory.  Might some homophobe religious types who are not themselves politicians do likewise, not because it is popular, but because it's time and because, in a phrase I wouldn't otherwise use, we are all God's children?

It is a relief that the Arizona bill wasn't passed.  But that fact shouldn't be treated as a victory, as Collins seems to do at the end of her piece (though probably that was tongue in cheek).  Real victory will happen only when some of the Ben Chapman types experience a personal awakening and a change of heart. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Negative Real Interest Rates

Let me begin with a brief warning to my readers.  I woke up in the middle of the night coughing my head off and it took quite a while to get that calmed down.  So I am sleep deprived and crabby as a result, the perfect time to write about the dismal science.

I was taught in grad school that the real interest rate was determined by the difference between the nominal interest rate and the rate of inflation.  So, for example, on my current mortgage, which has a fixed rate of 3.125%, if the inflation rate is now 1.6% then the real rate 1.525%.  So the folks lending me the funds are getting a positive return, though not a very big one.  In contrast, on my so-called interest bearing checking account, where the nominal rate is something like .0025%  (I made that figure up but I saw the real figure in the fall and this is the right order of magnitude), the real rate is negative.  Put a different way, the typical term structure curve has interest rates increasing with the term.  Nowadays, short rates are negative while long rates are still positive.

I needed to get that textbook stuff out of the way first, so I can talk about what this post is really about.  A different way to reckon the real interest rate is that it should move directly with the growth rate of the economy.  I want to argue that in a sensible way of thinking about things, the economy is shrinking.  Published statistics about GDP growth say it has been growing, albeit slowly.  Again you have to net out the inflation rate, and if you do that, then the growth has been minimal, but the published statistics wouldn't support a hypothesis of shrinkage, in and of themselves. 

To get to where I'm headed we need to talk about imputations.  Back in grad school, we talked about imputations mainly due to non-market activity that was productive but not counted in GDP. This was primarily child care and housework, but really any non-market work fits here.  There are also capital gains and losses on non-market traded assets, such as public roads, public infrastructure, and public lands.  I'll get back to this one in a bit. 

At the time we didn't talk about imputations for market transactions for security, or maintenance of private capital, or the investment of public capital that itself doesn't produce economic benefits, each of which arises because the society is getting less healthy.  Before I get to examples, the argument is that if these expenditures grow no faster than the economy overall then it is no big deal, but if they grow faster than GDP, then the rest of GDP, which is what provides a benefit, is growing slower than the measured statistics indicate. 

Now for the examples.  On the security front, consider that most every college campus around the country now has an early warning security system, the purchase of which was triggered by the horrible shooting at Virgina Tech some years ago.  There may have been other reasons to get such a system which is productive, accidents do happen and warning people when there are accidents that create a public hazard is a productive thing to do.  But these systems were not procured for that reason.  They were obtained to reduce the consequence if and when gun violence hits a campus.  They make sense as a purchase if there is a rational perception that gun violence is possible and/or that it is on the rise.  Gun violence is clearly a big negative.   Economic activity aimed at reducing its consequence, while rational, clearly doesn't make us any better off as compared to the case where there is no gun violence to begin with.  In this sense, the possibility of gun violence is an economic shrinking factor. 

The next example, regarding the maintenance of private capital, has to do with my current fixation - potholes.  It doesn't take a genius to forecast that there will be many more wheel alignments performed this spring as cars are brought in for regular maintenance and the car service guys inform the car owners that their vehicles would benefit from wheel alignment work as well.  From a GDP measurement point of view, this additional service work for wheel alignment will boost measured GDP, but of course there is no increase in welfare as compared to the case where the roads are in decent repair so no wheel alignment work is necessary.  Potholes are in this sense an economic shrinking factor.  But now there is a second effect - the roads themselves are capital assets, held by the public, and there has been a substantial capital loss.  That adds to the shrinking. 

Let me get to the last example.  I had originally thought about border security investments to deter illegal immigration, but that one is politically charged, so I thought I'd make the point on something far less polarizing - public investments to prevent flood control, such as the new levee system in New Orleans, and whatever public investments emerge in the NYC-New Jersey shore area in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to lessen the impact of flooding from future storms.  The perceived greater likelihood of future storms is a shrinking factor. 

If you are a Keynesian, as I am, you might argue that in our current macro economy where aggregate demand remains weak, what I've referred to here as shrinking factors actual serve as fiscal stimulus, because they do generate current economic activity.  To me the issue of stimulus or shrinking factor gets resolved by understanding how they are financed.  If they are financed by current savers, who continue to spend as before but save less as a consequence, the fiscal stimulus argument would be right.  If they are financed by those who save little, then they crowd out other spending on consumption, ergo shrinking. 

I leave it to the reader to figure out which of these makes the most sense as interpretation.  My opinion is that the average Joe is being made worse off.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

I don't have a NGLC grant from the Gates Foundation.  I probably never will.  My poor luck.  But it does afford one advantage.  It is far easier to be critical of what they are doing. 

Here is a case in point.  I have started to read the book, Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2, edited by Picciano, Dziuban, and Graham.  My purpose is to see if I can identify interesting points from this book to use for Blended Learning research at the Business School at Illinois.  But I'm readily distracted as I was not part of the data collection effort and still haven't seen the data to which this earlier research might speak.   

I am on chapter 3, written by Patsy Moskal and Thomas Cavanagh.  It is about a large scale project to take the blended learning approach pioneered at University of Central Florida and transfer it to other AACSU member institutions that are participating in the project.  In concept this seems like both a sensible thing to do and an interesting thing to evaluate.

Moskal and Cavanagh do a reasonable job at creating a profile for typical students at such institutions.  Most are non-traditional - they have a family, are working, and are older.  Many are low income.  Many are the first in their families to attend college.  Moskal and Cavanagh also provide some data about the completion rate to degree.  It is low. These students face enormous challenges.

So far so good, but now the problem that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.  Near the beginning of the chapter the authors provide some information about the economic benefits from having a college degree.  They quote directly from a Gates Foundation document (page three top of the middle column):

In 2008, the average wage for adults 25 and older with a four-year degree was $60,954, compared to $33,618 for those with only a high school diploma and $24,686 for those with no high school diploma. 

The problem with this, a big one in my view, is that the quote pertains to the entire U.S. population, not just the population of students profiled by Moskal and Cavanagh. It likely substantially overstates the gains to a degree for the profiled students. 

In today's New York Times there is an editorial Making College Pay.  Whether you agree with it's conclusions or not, it is far better in talking about the data, for example by making a clear distinction between the average sort of statistics, reported above, and the picture for recent grads, where the employment situation is far grimmer. 

So the question emerges while reading Moskal and Cavanagh, are there data about the employment of grads from AACSU member institutions?  If so, why isn't that reported in lieu of the Gates stuff or in addition to it?

And if no good data of this sort exists, why include the quote from the Gates Foundation materials?  I can guess at the answer to that question, but not in a way to come to a benign conclusion.   Someone needs to tell the Gates Foundation and participants alike that including quotes like that tends to discredit the results. 

Is it really necessary to do this to get such projects going? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

College without Grades

Most doctoral students at or around the time they are working on their dissertations will come to an odd reckoning.  Where grades had mattered a lot for much of their careers as students until that point, once having crossed this threshold grades mattered no longer.  What counted thereafter was the quality of the dissertation itself, the letters that would support the student in the job search, and the student's ability to discuss various issues in the field, whether those issues were related to the dissertation or not.  Grades certainly mattered in getting to that point.  But, having arrived at the dissertation stage, prior grades gave no additional information that anyone else cared about.  The shock of this is like having a pile of currency only to see it go through a massive devaluation.  For me it helped confirm a prior held view - grades were never that important in the first place. 

Alas, it was not the view I started with.  I first became aware of grades sixteen years earlier, fall of 1963, when I was in fourth grade.  The experience was quite painful.  We got report cards in second and third grade too, but they just didn't matter to me then, which is as it should be.  (In first grade I was in a different school and don't have a report card from that in the family memorabilia.)  Report cards from P.S. 203 had a specific format.  There were three marking periods.  There were a variety of categories for which grades were assigned - linguistic ability, oral expression, etc.  The grading scale within each category was excellent, good, fair, and unsatisfactory.  There was also space for the teacher to write a sentence or two to complement the information in the assigned grade.  The student was supposed to show the report card to his parents and get it signed and dated by one of them, as means of confirmation that they had read it.  The clear intent of the process was as a means of communication from teacher to the student and the student's family.

Clear intent or not, the benefit from such communication can get subverted when it is used for other purposes.  In this case I was walking home from school with a classmate.  I should add that I thought I was the better student.  For some reason that I don't recall, it occurred to us to look at our report cards while on the way home and compare our results.  This was for the first marking period.  My report card had all goods.  His had a mixture of goods and excellents.  I must have shed a tear or two then and there, though I'd have wanted to hide those feelings from him.  When I got home and was by myself I was really sobbing, feeling a horrible injustice had been done.  My parents must have made this particular pain go away, but the memory remains strong all these years later.

With a lot of hindsight and observing some similarities between me and my own kids when they were in school, I can tell a different sort of story.  I was young to be a fourth grader, perhaps a half year or so younger than most of my classmates, which is a pretty big difference percentage-wise at that age.  I was also sloppy, particularly about penmanship, and showed a lack of care in my reading, often jumping to unwarranted conclusions.  Some of these shortcomings I simply didn't notice, while with others I was aware of the issue but discounted its importance.  The teacher almost surely gave a correct and unbiased evaluation of my performance, but I saw it otherwise.  Yet I don't think I would have been bothered at all by what was in the report card itself had I remained ignorant of the grades my classmates received.

Each student and his family need feedback from the teacher about how the student is doing, that can be helpful if there needs to be modifications in going about how homework is done or in regard to what outside reading the student is doing.  Learning, however, is not fundamentally a competition.  Comparisons with other students do more harm by creating stigma than good by creating a spur toward high level performance.  Kids at the fourth grade level (really any level) should want to learn for itself.  Neither the pace of that learning nor the current proficiency matter as much as that consistent progress is being made.  That's what the feedback should address.

I am fortunate in that I didn't have too many experiences of grades as stigma thereafter - I did have a temporary slump in grades in tenth grade when I had some serious emotional problems.  Otherwise, my grades were exceptionally high.  As a consequence I avoided the stigmatization, though I experienced some embarrassing moments when those grades got publicized.

One of those was the sports award banquet when I was a senior in high school.  Krafty and I played first doubles on the tennis team that year and we were a pretty good team, with a winning record, 5-3, if I recall correctly.  And it should have been 6-2, but we "lost" to Newtown High School because one player on their team made a bunch of bad calls, all in his own favor. If memory serves, his teammate was embarrassed about this.  We complained but were told that students needed to resolve these issues themselves.   Getting back to the banquet, Krafty and I both earned varsity letters that year.  But I was also awarded the Wingate Medal, in essence a second athlete-scholar award, because in addition to tennis I had this very high GPA.  When Mr. Rosenbaum, one of the gym teachers and the coach of the tennis team, read off my name as the Wingate award winner, for which I needed to go to the front of the room to receive the award, he also asked me to tell the audience what my GPA was.  This was completely unnecessary.  And as a fundamentally shy kid I didn't want to show the crowd that I was an outlier.  But there was no real alternative so I duly reported my GPA, 95.6.  (We were graded on a 100-point scale rather than the 4-point or 5-point scales that seem to be be popular now.) 

Note that I still recall my GPA, as I do many other factoids about grades that were drilled into me at the time.  For example, my class rank was 5, in a graduating class of more than 1150.  And I knew the ranks of the four students who were above me, though not the ranks of the students who were behind me.  The same sort of peer comparisons that I made in fourth grade were still with me - reinforced to a great extent by the information that the school provided - even if these things were pretty much nonsense.  There were a bunch of intelligent, creative, and accomplished kids in my high school class.  How they were ranked matter not a wit once they left the nest, but it buttressed quite a bit of stereotypical thinking while they were still there.

* * * * *

A grade, letter or number, is a rather coarse instrument of evaluation.  It's primary redeeming feature is that it is readily communicated.  Some people will claim the benefits exceed that, particularly that grades can be averaged across courses.  But most people who make such a claim are likely ignorant of the Index Number Problem and the strict conditions needed to be satisfied to produce a suitable index number as specified by the Composite Commodity Theorem.  GPA, used as a way to ordinally rank students is really not up to the task, even when those students have taken the same classes from the same instructors and offered at the same times, conditions that almost never hold.  Yet it has become a totem to which which the vast majority of undergraduates bow.  This is a problem.

One could move much closer to the system I remarked about for doctoral education at the undergraduate level.  Written evaluation of coursework could be used instead of grades.  These would be far more nuanced and not so readily converted into rankings across students.  Senior projects could become mandatory and serve as the primary credential for  the job market.

Of course, that it is possible doesn't mean it is desirable.  Generating more nuanced evaluation would be time consuming for instructors, no doubt.  And having people in the market evaluate student projects would place similar such demands on the evaluators.  So I don't want to deny that there would be a cost in doing so.  But I believe there would be a substantial benefit as well.

I started college at MIT before transferring to Cornell in the middle of my sophomore year.  As a freshman, MIT didn't have grades, but instead had the sort of written evaluations I mentioned above, which were delivered both at mid semester and end of term, with the student also providing written response to the mid semester evaluation.  It was a more humane approach.

MIT didn't go to this approach simply as an act of kindness.  It had a serious problem - a high suicide rate among students.  The no grades for freshman policy was part of the institution's response to that problem.  Further, it was said that MIT students were sufficiently motivated to not need grades during that first year.

I can't really speak to the motivation issue across the student populace.  I know in my cohort we played an awful lot of cards - either hearts or bridge - so I certainly wouldn't classify us as workaholics at the time.  But it is also true that in high school I was never that challenged and could do the work very quickly.  While I did begin to be challenged in somc of the classes at MIT that first year, it was not till I was a sophomore that I found myself in the deep water and perhaps in over my head, without knowing how to put in sufficient time to figure things out on my own - I only learned to do that as a junior while at Cornell.  But when I struggled as a sophomore, we had grades.

I see these issues now from a different vantage.  The Illinois Econ majors, the majority of of the students I teach are in this category, are as a group probably not as capable as the students I knew at MIT, but many report being under enormous pressure about grades, much more so than when my generation were college students.  Does that pressure have any positive benefit?  From where I sit, the answer is no.  It increases the students' mercenary tendencies and thereby diminishes their learning.  And while some stress is healthy, for many of the students it appears the anxiety is very great indeed.  This is precisely the situation for which MIT decided to eliminate freshman grades.  Why ignore the problem just because the suicide rate isn't what it was like at MIT then?  Aren't there enough other indicators to know this is a serious issue?

One big difference between now and then is that then regular faculty taught freshmen and if not that then they taught upper level undergraduate courses. That is considerably rarer now.  And surely any change in grade policy would have to be debated, voted on, and approved by the faculty.  But out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind.  And as we have already installed expensive early warning systems to alert the campus community of an upset student on a rampage, maybe we should also consider making the academic environment more humane to students.  Getting rid of grades should be part of the discussion. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Penser à haute voix

What is current thinking about IQ measurement?  Does it make sense conceptually?  In my primitive conception, each of us is the product of nature and nurture, perhaps via some complex form of mixing of the two.  IQ tries to parse out the nature piece.  But, of course, it does more than that.  It then tries to rank the nature piece, along a single dimension.  Howard Gardner's stuff allows for multi-dimensionality of the nature piece, but still seems to believe that it can be parsed from the nurture component.  What if no such parsing makes sense?

The work of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues casts doubt on parsing intelligence, finding instead that seemingly very bright people had the right sort of prior deliberate practice and it is this practice, nurture if you will, that best explains their superior performance on the various intelligence tests.  Nature then fits into this story in two possible ways.  The first regards motivation.  Not everybody will take the training required for high performance.  It may be boring, or painful, or personally demeaning.  Liking the training may be something that is not teachable.  It may be inherent (or absent).   The other way is in the productivity of the training, particularly early on.  Seeing good results from the deliberate practice can create a positive feedback loop.  Someone who can observe personal growth based on their own efforts is more willing to make personal growth a goal.  In contrast, if at first it is tough sledding, then the lack of reward can become discouraging.

There are late bloomers.  Understanding how they catch on would be very helpful.    Reading the post at the link, one gets the impression that a genetic explanation works, at least in part.  Our various expressions of intelligence are a consequence of multiple genes working in concert to produce the desired effect.  Many of these genes take time to develop, in themselves and in their interactions with other genes.  The timing of gene development varies from individual to individual.

But what of the other part?  Suppose a person has been deliberately practicing with an approach that in fact does not promote personal growth, at least after a fashion.  Then the person will have plateaued and yet been habituated to this non nurturing form of practice.  I believe memorization to be in this category - it works well in elementary school and is necessary then ("i" before "e" except after "c"....).  It become less and less effective thereafter, yet many students cling to it nevertheless. 

It seems to me that THE QUESTION is for people who have engaged in a non nurturing form of deliberate practice for an extended period of time, what can be done to get them to embrace more nurturing forms thereafter?  In one shape or another this seems to be the core issue about undergraduate education, at least at universities like Illinois.  Who else is framing the issue this way?

The scary part of this is that since the students 18 or older are treated as adults, the responsibility on making this sort of change rests with primarily with themselves.  Yet, in my observation, most don't see the necessity in doing so.  And the "grades culture" is so intensive and provides a lot of reinforcement of the view that things are fine as long as the GPA is okay.  So methods that might encourage a different form of deliberate practice either need to shock students into an awareness that things are not okay or must move entirely outside the grade culture so that sort of feedback is not part of what encourages other approaches. 

The current fascination with MOOCs does neither of these things, as near as I can determine.  That fascination is there because of the cost issue.  I'm not saying the cost issue is unimportant.  But it seems to me it is secondary and should not block efforts at finding answers to THE QUESTION.  Unfortunately,  that's exactly what seems to be happening. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The end of the tunnel

My wife had previously given me a warning.
The countertop guys would come this morning.

While there near eight instead of nine,
Having been so alerted it was totally fine.

And the decorator confirmed we were on the brink
Of getting installed our new kitchen sink.

So tonight among my various wishes
Let it be me who does the dinner dishes.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Creativity in a Jiff

I've mostly steered clear of the education of my own children, but in one area I made a concerted effort.  I encouraged them to pun.  If other parents try this, know it means tolerating a lot of groaners, for years on end, perhaps a decade or more. Now both boys are in college and they are able to produce some decent ones, in context and on the fly.

A few weeks ago after the third or fourth day of our house being renovated, feeling like a total prisoner because big plastic sheets blocked entrance to the kitchen area, I poured myself a stiff martini, only to spill half of it as I tried to make my way through the blockade.  I started cursing pretty loudly.  My younger son asked me what's wrong.  I told him what happened.  He replied, "I guess that drink's on the house."  Voilà.  

So while I believe that creativity can be taught, or at least strongly encouraged, I am suspicious that it can be learned quickly, say in one semester.  Take the deceptively simple looking suggestion from the paragraph below, rephrase a problem as a question.  What's not in the paragraph, nor elsewhere in the piece, is how much time must be spent prior to the reframing activity, simply to get familiar with what is going on.  Most students don't know to do that.  It's extraordinarily time consuming, but also extraordinarily valuable because in that early investigation the person will learn what is at issue, while beforehand the person has at best a vague idea. 

It's well and good to talk about failure.  But people don't seem to talk about playing with something as a way to get familiar with it.  Absent that, I'm skeptical that any good can come from formal education aimed to advance creativity. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The over programmed honors student

If you talk to experienced professionals at the university, as I do on occasion, and ask them, "how are you doing?" you'll almost certainly get the response, "very busy."  If they are also good friends, they will then lament, "It's overwhelming; I have no time for myself."  Unfortunately, this seems to be the new normal.  In accord with bringing current activities in line with revenues, the university reduced its staffing by about 10% to adjust to the new budget realities.  When I ask my friends whether they've reduced activities accordingly, they answer emphatically, "No!"

I have no direct way of determining whether this is true regarding professional work outside of Higher Ed, but I surmise it to be the case.  It gives one explanation for the high unemployment rate.  Why should a company hire more people when it can work its existing staff to the bone?

An argument can be made, one I don't like but one I should acknowledge, that if a college education has as its main purposes to prepare students for the world of work, then students should learn to keep a lot of balls in the air while juggling (metaphorically), as doing so is a necessary readying activity for the next stage in their lives.

The main argument against, both in work and in learning while in college, is a mismeasurement of productivity, where breadth counts for all and depth counts for naught.  This is not the way to maximize the product of the two.  It may seem that way however, when overt measures of breadth are readily apparent while such measures of depth are lacking.  Then it is easy enough to get caught up in what can be counted - lines on a résumé, if you will. I like to give a bastardized version of Shakespeare to describe the situation.

Learning, learning everywhere
But not a pause to think.  

The issue is exacerbated by grade inflation, which causes what statisticians refer to as a "right censoring" problem.  In other words, if a student performed so well in a class that a grade of A++++ should be earned, but the maximal grade possible to record is only an A, then there is no extrinsic incentive in place to reward such exceptional performance.  A time constrained student will then modulate her own effort down to the performance standard, so as to juggle more balls where the student can then do likewise.

The above is a non-issue for average students or below average students.  For them the incentives to get the right (for them) balance between depth and breadth are in place.  But for very good students, honors students in particular, the right censoring issue can have a profound effect.

The question then is why doesn't intrinsic motivation right the ship?  Of course, sometimes it does.  But quite often it does not.  I really don't know the answer to that but I'm going to indulge some speculation on this score below.

First and foremost, all of us develop our wants and desires from prior experience that we enjoyed greatly.  We would like to replicate that sense of enjoyment and look to those activities that seem to have a reasonable chance of producing such a consequence as a place to invest our efforts.  Under this view, the intrinsically motivated student acts because, fortunately for her, she had formative experiences that opened her eyes to taking a more explorative and creative way to direct her own learning.  Such a student then gets to reap the rewards from her early success.  The ball jugglers in the crowd, in contrast, are absent such a foundation and pursue the résumé in lieu of that. 

Second, many of the high achievers have what I think of pejoratively as Amy Chua parenting.  In the parents' conception, school and achievement are about deferred gratification and it is the parents' obligation to push the child hard toward high achievement.  The child, out of respect for the parents and a desire to honor their wishes, conforms her behavior to that standard and represses intellectual desires toward self-expression that fall outside of the parents' conception of what school should be about.  The problem here may be mainly that the nature of the parenting is defined exclusively by the culture and not at all by the aptitudes and personality of the child.  In particular, the parenting is essentially the same for a student who is only average or slightly above as compared to the very good student, who is confronting the right censoring problem.  For the latter, the parenting blithely ignores the need for the student to learn to direct her own creative efforts, because the near-term consequence from doing that are very hard to measure.  So those early formative experiences, mentioned in the previous paragraph, are less likely to happen.  The parenting actually blocks them.

Third, the student has no good role model, whether parent, or teacher, or classmate, or friend outside of school, who places value in what I've elsewhere called Encouraging the mind to putter.  Such a role model would not push back explicitly on the over programming.  The role model would simply provide much positive reinforcement for an alternative way for the student to spend her time, in a kind of intellectual play that leads to exploration, done just for the heck of it.  With the role model the student can engage in the most elemental form of learning - imitation.  Absent the role model, the student has to invent the intellectual play on her own.  Many are unable to do so.

Ultimately, even if it is hard to measure near term, what honors students should want from college is to grow as much as they can.   A deep experience produces growth.  If an individual shallow experience does not, why should one believe that many shallow experiences will do otherwise?  We are getting this wrong, far too often in my view. 

I know this is at best wishful thinking, but maybe if we woke up about this in Higher Ed, employers might do likewise in how they are tasking their better employees.

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Last night on TCM I watched Fonda on Fonda, a recollection of Henry Fonda from family and friends who loved him.  Jane is the narrator and seems a bit wooden in that role.  I know from other interviews she has done that she had enormous psychological issues about the relationship with her dad.  All of that was put in a bottle for this retrospective.  She keeps her distance in this piece and refers to him throughout as Henry.

From those interviews I knew that Henry Fonda was a reserved man in private.  But I didn't understand fully until Fonda on Fonda that this was a consequence of shyness and that in his non-acting life he often didn't express what he was thinking or feeling.  Somehow, in spite of the shyness, he found he liked acting, particularly acting on stage.  It is a terrible thing to generalize from only one observation, but one has a sense that for Fonda the shyness acted as a spur toward excellence in performance.  The general proposition is that many shy people know they have excellence within and are only waiting to find some means for the excellence to be expressed.  It is an interesting hypothesis to entertain.

I would have preferred a greater discussion of his films, and particularly about the relationship with John Ford.  Some of the personal stuff seemed trivial, except for how the family itself thought about it, and didn't help me as a viewer understand the man as a performing artist.  But there was little bit of trivia I found fascinating.  Fonda grew up in Nebraska and it was Marlon Brando's mother who got Fonda started on the stage.  That made this acting business seem a very small circle.  But it also meant that to be excellent as an actor one had to be rooted in the norms of ordinary life, as Fonda was. Nebraska was a better incubator for that than New York City.

I saw Fonda perform in the theater playing the Stage Manager in Our Town.  The notes at the link say that production happened in 1969.  I was fourteen then.  In the movies at the time there was a change underway in how a star actor appeared, with Dustin Hoffman emblematic of the new model, the character actor in the lead role. The Graduate had come out a couple of years earlier and surely I saw that. (But at the time?)  Midnight Cowboy was more or less contemporaneous with that production of Our Town. I knew about it through the Academy Awards.  I don't think I saw it till around the time I was entering college.  Nevertheless, I was slow to embrace the new model, I suppose because I wanted star actors to be my heroes.  Fonda fit that notion to a tee.  Growing up, I thought of him as America's best actor.   Jimmy Stewart was more likeable, but sometimes he seemed overly sentimental.  Fonda's characters were always spot on but more reserved.

Many of Fonda's best pictures have a strong ethical component to them - our entertainment should provide our moral education as well.  I suppose that many people want their entertainment to be escapism, pure and simple.  Leave the ethical education to religious training or family upbringing.  I, for one, loved Fonda's approach, as it made the ethical issues more real.  The Oxbow Incident is one of my favorite pictures.  I think it holds up well even now.  So does Twelve Angry Men and, of course, The Grapes of Wrath.  Twelve Angry Men is particularly relevant now because it shows reason based on evidence engaged with deeply held conviction based on prejudice.  Ed Begley, who also starred with Fonda on stage in Our Town, and particularly Lee J. Cobb are masterful in depicting the latter.  If only our current "debates" showed this sort of engagement rather than each side preferring to preach to the choir.

A few nights ago I started to watch Young Mr. Lincoln, which is also in this mold, though on whether it still holds up for general audiences I'm less sure.  I will watch pretty much anything with Lincoln in the title, unless Vampire is also in the title.  Unfortunately, the DVR was set to record  a different show right about the middle of the movie and at the time I didn't know how to keep watching what I wanted to watch without stopping the recording. (In theory, this is possible. In practice, you have to learn how to do this before it happens in real time.  That particular training still lies ahead of me.) But I was able to get as far to see the scene where Lincoln, a lawyer on his very first case, talks down a mob that aims to lynch his two clients because the mob is sure these young men are guilty of murder.  So the same themes appear in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Oxbow Incident, and Twelve Angry Men, though those themes are set in very different contexts.  A point worth making well is worth making more than once.

There are some Fonda movies that are not in the mold described above.  One of those that gets a mention in Fonda on Fonda is Once Upon a Time in the West, a Spaghetti Western.  Growing up, my favorite was Advise and Consent, with Fonda playing Robert A. Leffingwell, an egghead with a hidden past as a former Lefty (member of the Communist Party) and current nominee to become the next Secretary of State. It is a story full of political intrigue, where hardball politics is depicted as amoral, or worse.  I loved this story too, though I was more attracted to the Walter Pidgeon character.  He plays Senator Robert Munson from Michigan, the Majority Leader, confidant of the President, a true statesman and team player.  Fonda's character may have had a noble side regarding the policies he espoused, but by hiding his past he showed more concern for winning the game he was playing than for doing the right thing. 

Fonda continued acting till very near the end of his life.  On Golden Pond is in some sense a tribute to the rest of his career.  It is also a clearing of the air between Henry and Jane.  At some point past slights need to be forgiven.  It is a lesson all of us should learn about our parents.  As talented as they might have been, they were not perfect and they may have made serious mistakes regarding our welfare.  Those mistakes should not be confounded with a view that they didn't love us.  They did.

For some extroverts, those who are unable to see the world as others with personalities unlike their own do, shyness is taken as a type of criminal behavior, a willful lack of engagement with their fellow humans, where the social obligation dictates otherwise.  Fonda on Fonda shows a different view is better.  Let's give the shy person space to be themselves, even if at times that means he is asocial.  Let the shy person chose the domain for self-expression.  Henry Fonda's life exemplifies the virtues in this more enlightened view. His character is something we, who also have our shy ways, should try to emulate.