Monday, April 30, 2018

Sensitivity and Social Responsibility - Can They Be Taught?

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln
Last Paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address
I asked myself what quote might be used to support the title of this post, if not to exemplify social responsibility itself then to discuss the necessary feelings that are the precursor to social responsibility.  I thought of the above, though I know that quoting Lincoln is tricky in many ways, especially because it's very hard to live up to his example.

Here's a little backdrop to better make better sense of the quoted paragraph.  America was still engaged in the Civil War at the time of this address, though by then the war was winding down with it evident that the North would prevail, yet the timing and the terms of the peace were still uncertain. The war itself was horribly destructive and in a very real sense there were no winners, since everyone felt devastated.  Certainly, Lincoln felt that way.  The peace would be just as difficult to forge and it was unclear how reconstruction would work.  Lincoln was setting the stage for that, though definitely not preordaining what would happen.

This fantastic essay by Garry Wills does a complete deconstruction of the full speech (which is available at the link above, is not long, and definitely worth the read itself) and I would encourage people to read Wills essay slowly and completely.  The myriad complexity that Lincoln was dealing with coupled with his religiosity, which I was previously not well aware of, that made him see the Civil War as the necessary work of God to punish all for the sin of slavery, both North and South, as well as the the various crimes committed during the war, provided a seemingly impossible situation to remedy.  Yet finding a remedy was the task at hand that Lincoln took on.

One wonders whether in our contemporary lives as we go about our ordinary business if we ever confront situations that parallel what Lincoln had to deal with, even if those situations we confront are not nearly as intensive.  A couple of weeks ago I had jury duty and ended up being empaneled on a jury for a criminal case.  By that time I was already cooking on this post about social responsibility, so I paid more attention than I otherwise might about how the jurors went about their work. While we were not of the same mind regarding guilt or innocence of the defendant, everyone on the jury was earnest, both in arguing for their own held view and in acknowledging the opinions expressed by other jury members. All jurors took the responsibility seriously and gave it their all.  It is just this sort of behavior that exemplifies social responsibility for me.

It is tempting to apply Lincoln's address to our current national politics, but I won't do so here because I don't think I'm skillful enough to pull it off and because my own perch is not lofty enough; too much of the politics I tend to see from one side only.  But I will make one observation on that front before moving onto the topic I do want to discuss.  There is a tendency to talk about particular policy prescriptions first, and then the policy prescriptions themselves become the issue - for or against.  In other words, a solution is proposed and then that serves to draw a line in the sand. The presumption behind this approach is that the problem description has already happened.  I think, however, that the problems are typically under specified, because they are seen from the perspective of some of the populace but not of all, and because they are seen in isolation from other issues that surely are related.   So this approach is problematic for those reasons.   In any event, I might write about our national politics again in the not too distant future, but here my focus is on undergraduate education.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called A Vision of College Education with a Strong Historical Basis, which was based on a talk given on campus by Harry Boyte.  He emphasized an education steeped in good citizenship (his term) and his talk resonated with me in several ways.  In my recent teaching, I have experienced what I'd term a failure of good citizenship in the classroom, from poor attendance to dysfunctional group project teams.  So I am returning to the same themes here, though calling it social responsibility (my term) instead as it makes clear that should go well beyond voting, paying taxes, serving on a jury, etc. and include all aspects of social interaction.

In Boyte's talk he used the metaphor of educating the head, the heart, and the hand.  I'm going to exclude educating the hand here, as I don't have anything to say about it.  Most courses that I am aware of at the university have a 100% focus on educating the head.  Certainly until recently, I would have said that is my focus in teaching economics.  I want to consider how instruction would change if the scope broadened, to include both the head and the heart.  With that I want to restrict attention to college students on residential campuses who are in the traditional age category (usually described as 18-22 year olds) because that falls within the realm of experience where I have some familiarity.

We should first consider the education that students get about social responsibility before they enter college.  Obviously, that will vary from student to student as much of this education will take place outside of school.  It is conceivable that students learn social responsibility from their religious training.   In my post about Harry Boyte's talk I mentioned this essay by Albion Small, The Bonds of Nationality, a piece from 1915.  Small argues that social responsibility must indeed be taught and that churches are the right place for doing that.  A more contemporary writer, Nicholas Kristof, has argued that some evangelical Christians show extreme selflessness and social responsibility and that we should be aware of their good example. Nevertheless, I would take this as the exception rather than the rule.  Too many people live in one world on the Sabbath, where they do practice what the religion teaches, but then act entirely differently during the work week, and then in a much less socially responsible manner.  Further, I'm afraid, responsibility within the faith is not sufficient in our society today, yet responsibility outside of the faith is not learned nearly as well.  Indeed, antipathy to others who are unlike ourselves is a major issue, a lesson seemingly taught by some religions.  Education in social responsibility would produce acceptance of others and respect for diversity of background.

There are non-religious activities that teach kids about social responsibility during the grade school years. For example, many kids become boy scouts or girl scouts.  Scouts are taught to do good deeds.  What counts as a good deed?  Will the lesson to do good deeds as a kid stay learned as an adult, well after they stop giving out merit badges?   These are some the questions I want to take up in this piece.  Even if these lessons stay learned, however, I don't think that the good deed view of social responsibility is sufficient, as I will explain below. 

Elsewhere I've remarked that for the last few years as I've been walking on campus, students have been prone to hold the door for me as I enter a building.  I don't remember this happening ten or fifteen years ago, so I attribute this largely to me.  My pace is slow and a bit labored now, and there is evident gray in my beard.  Helping the elderly is surely the polite thing to do.  Perhaps holding the door counts as a good deed.  But I want to get well beyond this sort of example.  There is no need to look carefully in seeing that my walking is slow and labored.   And holding the door for somebody else is just the polite thing to do. 

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.
George Orwell

Over roughly the same time interval where I've observed students holding the door for me, I've become aware of expansions of the vocabulary to include terms such as microaggression and mansplaining.  These terms didn't arise out of nowhere.  They are the product of real social issues, situations where people are hurt by the behavior of others.  One wonders how many former scouts nonetheless engage in this sort of condescending behavior, which I assume is not out of maliciousness but because they are unaware of the consequence of their own actions.  The use of the word sensitivity in the title of the post is there deliberately to indicate that social responsibility demands an awareness of others and some understanding of how what we do is received by them.  If scouting doesn't produce such awareness, then what might do that?  And if Orwell is right that such perception requires substantial effort, what then might encourage the person to persist in making this sort of effort?

Let's next consider students in their first year of college, including the late summer when they may already be on campus but classes have not yet started.  This is the most formative time for students in their college experience.  In particular, even if students don't do this consciously, they may be shopping around for a personal philosophy, one that they embrace for themselves, one that is distinct from the cultural environment they lived in while growing up, which largely reflected the views of their parents. Will social responsibility be a part of this new personal philosophy?  What would encourage that to happen?

There are some obvious issues that need to be confronted before addressing these questions.  For many students who are starting college, this is the first time living away from mom and dad for an extended period of time and the first time the students are responsible for their own supervision.  It's good for the reader to recall back to that time when the reader was in college.  It's quite likely that there was an extended period of overindulgence, which to give it a label we can call - when the cat's away the mice will play.  (In case this is not obvious, here the parents are the cat, while the students are the mice.)

It's not that you want to thwart such playful behavior.  Experimentation of this sort is essential for the student's growth.  It's what lesson the student gets from the experience that matters.  Might that lesson then develop into a personal philosophy centered in hedonism and nihilism, each of which would impede developing a sense of social responsibility?  If, in contrast, the student moves on from this phase, learns to accept pleasure as a small piece of the puzzle rather than as the puzzle itself, it would seem that the student has a far better chance to develop a sense of social responsibility.  We need to ask here, what will tip the balance, one way or the other?

A different issue arises from the comparatively high tuition that students or their families pay.  As I've noted several times before, the full boat in-state tuition and fees at the U of I are substantially higher in real (inflation adjusted) terms than the tuition that my parents paid for me back in the 1970s at elite private institutions (first MIT, then Cornell). The high tuition tends to encourage mercenary tendencies in the students and that itself can block developing a sense of social responsibility.

In a recent piece from the Guardian the author argues that Business Schools bring out these mercenary tendencies in the students and acculturate them into a world view that capitalism is good and essential, irrespective of the social harm it might cause.  While the Business School may do this to a greater extreme than elsewhere on campus, regarding teaching social responsibility the Business School might serve as the canary in the coal mine about how the education itself biases the students in directions that are anti social responsibility.

If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.

There is then the question of whether this might be remediated by a course or two that focuses on social responsibility.  Most Business Schools indeed have such classes.   The author of the Guardian piece is not sanguine about this solution at all. The courses are a token attempt at addressing the issue, nothing more.

The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans – as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.

If we take this critique seriously, it then suggests that teaching social responsibility must be done holistically across the curriculum, not in one course or two.  Perhaps the high enrollment classes should be exempt from this burden, because they will become impossible to teach otherwise.  But the remainder of the courses should not be exempt.  Further, we need to rethink the curriculum insofar as the high enrollment courses are what dominates in the first year.  Teaching social responsibility should happen from the get go. That is not compatible with a program of study that in the first semester has all high enrollment courses.

The last thing I'd like to consider before turning to my very broad strokes recommendations for social responsibility education is what students learn on this front from the "school of hard knocks" while they are in college.  Is that a good teacher of social responsibility or not?  It seems to me that question is worthy of a broad and extensive evaluation in a serious research project that would like to get a handle on the answers.  Lacking the results from such a study, I will content myself with what I've garnered from my recent teaching.

In my class, students do weekly blogging where they write about their experiences, frequently those are experiences while in college.  Some of the more poignant posts are about small acts of betrayal committed by peers and/or by people they previously thought were their friends.  They are actually prompted to come up with such examples, as a fundamental point in the economics of organizations course is to consider "transaction costs" and the "holdup problem" or, in other words, that in economic exchange people behave according to their own advantage, which sometimes implies they behave to the detriment of others.  This is not an uplifting view of human nature.  Moreover, if one hasn't experienced such opportunism previously and first encounters it in a state of naiveté, before having worked through how to lessen the likelihood that others will behave in a socially detrimental manner, it can be quite deflating to witness this sort of behavior first hand.

The most common of these that students write about, by far, is group work done for a class, where one or more of the team members "free rides" on the efforts of the other teammates. It's usually the diligent students in my class who come up with such examples.  If I can juxtapose the students who have taken the wrong lesson from the experience - when the cat's away the mice will play, with those students who learned the right lesson there but then experience these small acts of betrayal, neither group is apt to embrace social responsibility.

Tarzan comes home after a long day at work.
Tarzan:  Jane, bring me a double martini.
Jane dutifully brings Tarzan his drink.  He downs it immediately.
Tarzan:  Jane, bring me another double martini.
Jane:  Tarzan, what is it?
Tarzan:  Jane, it's a jungle out there.

I fear that many of the diligent students I see in my class come to the same conclusion that Tarzan makes.  Of course, everyone experiences some acts of opportunism by others. In my class, students who can't come up with better examples talk about their experiences driving to work during the summer (in the Chicago area) where they have about an hour-long commute each way.  They report the unsurprising result that drivers are rude to each other, exhibiting a variety of selfish behaviors in the process.  Having grown up just a couple of blocks from the Long Island Expressway, that jives with my experience when I learned to drive. But that's not the issue.  The issue is whether the experience generalizes or if instead it only constitutes a specific niche and elsewhere people learn to act in a socially responsible manner.  There is some serious research that shows the rich are less compassionate.  For those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, perhaps the mechanism is different.  But for those among the rich who worked their way up (probably starting from the upper middle class) I suspect their worldview is quite like my diligent students who have experienced these small acts of betrayal. They take it as the norm, something they can't influence by their own behavior.  So they come to disregard others, including many of their peers.

I will conclude this piece with some basic ideas about the education I have in mind.

The Golden Rule as the foundation for social responsibility - Students must come to embrace treating others as they want themselves to be treated.  It should serve as a guiding principle in their own personal philosophy. This embrace must go beyond the purely intellectual (in Boyte's terms educating the head).  It must be emotional as well (touching the heart).  Further, students must develop efficacy in acting on the Golden Rule so they can indeed benefit others via their own actions when they set out to do so.

Experiential learning where social responsibility ends up as a consequence of reciprocity - I've been surprised over the past few years in my course evaluations where some students report that I evidently care.  Why make such an observation?  My conclusion is that this contrasts with their more frequent experience, where the institution and the people in authority with whom they interact don't seem to care much at all.  As I'm making a claim here that this is the norm, it would actually be good to investigate whether that claim is valid.  Here, assuming it is, a big question still to be considered is how instruction must change so that students come to believe that their instructors care about them.  Likewise, how must the rest of the system change so students perceive it is sensitive to their own needs? A big part of providing an answer to the question in my title is whether the system can change in this way or not.

An emphasis on duality with the benefits from both diversity and oneness -  Students need to learn to be inclusive, to respect the differences that exist among us, and to understand that others with different backgrounds can enlighten us by bringing a new perspective to aid our imagination.  Yet students also need to accept that we are essentially the same.  The Golden Rule itself follows from our oneness.  There is no Golden Rule when there is tribalism.

Develop sensitivity awareness by bringing our failures and foibles out into the open rather than by keeping these personal defeats concealed out of shame -   In considering others we are always self-referential.  Empathy, in particular, is learned from our own failures and then reflecting that outward. Many students now have no avenue to discuss their own failures, so do not come to see them as providing valuable life lessons.  Doing this will require a gentle hand from the teacher and a very safe environment so that students become comfortable opening up on these matters.  Another big part in answering the question in the title is whether we are up to meet these safety needs or not.

  • Two specific topics that have been written about recently might provide the focus for this sort of education.  One of those is loneliness in college and what students do to counter it.   The other is about student anxiety and what can be done to manage that.  For example, it may not occur to a diligent student now that a teammate is very anxious and hence appears a shirker for that reason, rather than because the student really wants to goof off.  Getting the diligent student to appreciate that there is more than one possible explanation for the observed shirking behavior will go a long way toward developing the student's sensitivity. 

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This piece took me a long time to draft.  For reasons I still don't fully understand, I was afraid to write it.  So I procrastinated in doing so.  I've rewritten it already several times.  It probably still needs another rewrite or two, but for the time being I think I've gotten these ideas out of my system.  I hope that others begin to discuss these issues.   I'm convinced it's a conversation we need to have.