Tag Archives: education

Close Encounters Of The Irrational Kind

No matter what subject I raise in one of these daily posts, the ensuing discussion is likely to contain a lament about the absence of critical thinking. That really isn’t surprising–as an essay on “America’s Cognitive Crisis” put it:

What is the great lesson of 2020? A pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged economies while people disagreed on basic facts. Conspiracy beliefs ran amok. Unscientific racism surged on social media. Medical quackery enjoyed a boom year. What was the common thread that ran through all of it? What should we have learned from such an extraordinarily eventful year?

The crucial ever-present factor in 2020 was critical thinking. Those who thought well were less likely to tumble into the rabbit holes of thinking QAnon is true, COVID-19 is a hoax, 5G towers help spread the virus, racism is scientific, hydroxychloroquine cures COVID-19, demon sperm is a problem, tracking devices are in vaccines, there is mass election fraud, etc. The ability and willingness to lean toward evidence and logic rather than side with blind trust and emotion was the key metric behind the madness. We may view the current year, 2021, as the test to see if we were paying attention in 2020. So far, it doesn’t look good.

Granted, America has always had plenty of gullible folks–ready, willing and able to purchase the latest snake oil remedy or dunk the recently accused witch. But as the author of the essay notes, it’s no longer necessary to be a charismatic apocalyptic preacher or a well-funded, self-aggrandizing politician to pollute receptive minds. “Today anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account has the potential power to ignite wildfires of public lunacy.”

Unfortunately, it is only likely to get worse. The development and increasing use of deepfakes, which are nearly impossible to identify as false, poses a threat for which we clearly aren’t prepared.

Our present course may be unsustainable. The synergy of increasingly sophisticated deception aimed at unthinking masses promises more crippling confusion, disruption, and chaos, perhaps more than America can endure. Every minute worrying about nefarious microchips in vaccines is time not spent intelligently evaluating risk and assessing evidence. Every day sacrificed at the altar of a conspiracy belief or at the feet of a hollow demagogue is another day lost to possible social and political progress for all.

So–once again– I pose “the” question: what can we–what should we–do?

The author spends considerable time illustrating the extent of mass delusions and rampant disinformation, and concludes that much of it is attributable to the fact that too many American minds are incapable of handling close encounters of the irrational kind.

The key problem is that America is a nation of believers more than a nation of thinkers. Therefore, our primary target should not be the few who sell lies and fantasies but the many who so eagerly buy them.

Easier said than done, of course. The author says the only plausible “fix” is to make education for rational, critical thinking a norm of national curricula, and he includes a helpful explanation of the elements of that pedagogy. As he argues,

There is no quick fix available. But there is a preventive treatment. Most won’t like it because it’s slow and involves a lot of work. But it is a solution, perhaps the only one with a fair chance of success. Playing the long game of critical thinking education is the only way to deny the irrational-belief beast and the steady supply of victims it depends on….

The U.S. government cannot outlaw the inclination to believe nonsense. Regulations won’t purge the internet of every lie. Our brains are not going to suddenly evolve beyond their natural tendencies to lead us astray when it comes to perceiving and calculating reality. The answer lies with us. Teach our children thinking skills so that they can be their own editors and fact checkers. Children who grow up in this century must be their own guardians of truth. But they will fall short unless someone cares enough to teach them how.

I just hope we (1) heed the advice; and (2) last long enough to implement it.

 

Our Non- Industrial Revolution

Not long after the 2016 election, The Atlantic published an article investigating the cultural effects of higher education, or more accurately, how the financial benefits attributable to a college education were contributing to the growing urban/rural cultural divide.

The article began by describing two individuals from Indiana–a small-town resident with a high school education (80% of rural Americans lack a college degree) and an Indianapolis resident with a degree.

The article used the very different lives and prospects of those individuals to illustrate what it termed the  “diverging fates of two parts of America in the past two decades.”

Half a century ago, economic opportunity and upward mobility were available to many white Americans, regardless of where they lived and what kind of education they had. They could graduate from high school and find a job at a local factory and make a good wage, or graduate from college and sit behind a desk and make a slightly better wage. About 90 percent of kids born in the 1940s earned more than their parents did, according to work by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. But beginning in the 1980s, the returns on a college education started growing, and more of the benefits of economic growth started accruing to only those with an education, as those without an education saw their opportunities shrink.

The gulf between those with a degree and those without has led to a politically consequential divergence between Americans who live in cities and those who populate the country’s struggling rural regions.

For a century leading up to 1980, poorer regions were catching up to richer regions of the country in terms of wages, as an oversupply of workers in richer regions drove wages down, while an undersupply in poorer regions drove wages up. But this “convergence,” as economists call it, petered out with the rise of computers.

Ever since the 1980s, computers have made some people more productive and others economically obsolete. The data shows that healthy regions with educated workers began to do better and better. ( Remember Richard Florida’s The Creative Class?) This divergence  had geographic implications: people with college degrees are more likely to move to metropolitan regions, attracted not just by better job opportunities, but by the presence of other people like them.

Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

One of the striking consequences of increasing educational and economic separation is that the winners are becoming more and more different from the losers. One scholar who studies this phenomenon calls it the “Great Divergence.” “

The consequences for small towns and rural regions are dramatic–and dire. Those consequences include high unemployment rates,  skyrocketing numbers of poor mental health days, the Opiod epidemic, increasing numbers of suicides, and shorter life expectancies.

The Industrial revolution–also disruptive–introduced manufacturing jobs that didn’t require advanced training and education. The current “revolution” is focused on innovation and knowledge, rather than on the production of physical goods. As the author notes, companies that produce physical goods today can send those jobs overseas or automate them, a reality that has further depleted job opportunities for high school graduates.

The most pressing problems created by urban/rural economic disparities are political and cultural. The data shows that Trump’s base is largely located in areas where jobs are vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. He  “performed well among voters without a college degree, and in places where full-time employees don’t earn very much.” Democrats, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supported by those who live in urban areas and increasingly by inhabitants of suburbia. Extreme gerrymandering has given rural voters an edge, despite the fact that they are numerically a minority. How long that will last is uncertain.

What isn’t uncertain is the cultural gulf between those two Americas.

Our “bubbles” aren’t all digital. They are also geographic. And I have no idea how to answer the most important question posed by this situation: what should we do to ameliorate it?

Circles Of Belonging

David Brooks is one of those columnists who vacillates between truly thoughtful essays and self-referential, self-important cant. Just when I want to tell him to get over himself, he comes up with a thought-provoking and undeniably accurate assessment.

One of those was a column, some months back, about Scandanavian education. Here’s his lede:

Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.

Brooks attributes the social and economic success of Scandinavian countries to their  successful “folk schools”–deliberately fashioned for the least educated among them, and focused upon making lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

The core difference between the American concept of education, according to Brooks, and “Bildung”–the approach in Scandinavia–is the very definition of “education.”

Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

In other words, the idea of Bildung was to introduce students to connection; to a sense of their place in ever wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and to emphasize the students shared responsibility for each “circle of belonging.” According to Brooks, the results of that emphasis, of that approach to educating the whole person, is largely responsible for the Scandinavian balance between individuality and social responsibility.

That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.

In the U.S., at least before Betsy DeVos and her assault on the very idea of public eduction, fights over education policy have been between those who see schools essentially as providers of consumer goods– skills their children can use in the marketplace–and those who see them as guarantors of democracy, as places where, in addition to those skills, children learn how to learn, how to understand their government, and how to relate to other Americans who may not look or worship as they do.

The public schools are the single most important integrative institution in most countries. Scandinavian countries understand that, and have developed a “whole person” approach to education that has strengthened their societies.

In the U.S., we are still trying to repel the unrelenting attacks of religious fundamentalists, racists and market ideologues on the very concept of public education, let alone education that emphasizes circles of belonging.

 

We Don’t Seem To Be Making Progress…

A couple of days before Elizabeth Warren withdrew from the Presidential race, I came across an article from Vox  by Matt Yglesias that explained my concerns about her electability. Mind you, I had no concerns at all about her capacity to do the job; in my opinion, she and Mayor Pete were the two most intelligent and thoughtful candidates running. My doubts about her electability were based on my own life experience–experience that has led me to conclude that many Americans still aren’t ready to vote for a woman for President.

Especially a smart woman.

Talk about your “implicit bias”–there’s a very telling meme that has been making the rounds on Facebook: a man saying about every woman candidate “I’m definitely willing to vote for a woman. Just not this woman.”

On the other hand, Warren was the preferred choice of my own sons, and significant numbers of men (and women) I know, so I considered the possibility that my concerns were overblown. Vox disabused me.

In an article written before Super Tuesday, Matt Yglesias considered why Warren was fading.

There are specific tactical decisions (by both her campaign and her rivals) that brought her to this point. But a larger context to understand is that if you, like many of my friends, find the situation puzzling, that is probably because you know a lot of people who are demographically similar to yourself. I’m a highly educated white person, and most of my friends and acquaintances are also highly educated white people. Elizabeth Warren is very popular with people like us.

The reality is that there aren’t that many people like us — and there’s a valuable lesson in that, not just about the Warren campaign specifically but about some of the larger dynamics in American politics.

It’s our bubbles again. The article featured a chart that told the story: Even when Warren had fallen to fourth place in national polling, she was first with white college graduates and first with Democrats who have advanced degrees.

The problem is that politics is a numbers game, and we are not in the majority…The overall level of educational attainment in the United States is simply lower than many college graduates seem to realize.

In a way, we might consider this good news: evidently, more education does mean less misogyny, and over time–perhaps–the deeply ingrained bias against women will moderate.

But for those of us who want to believe we’re progressing down the path to equality, a recent Guardian report should disabuse us of that rosy fallacy.That report found that, globally, nine out of ten people exhibit bias against women.

Almost 90% of people are biased against women, according to a new index that highlights the “shocking” extent of the global backlash towards gender equality.

Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women in relation to politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights.

The first gender social norm index analysed data from 75 countries that, collectively, are home to more than 80% of the global population. It found that almost half of people feel men are superior political leaders and more than 40% believe men make better business executives. Almost a third of men and women think it’s acceptable for a man to beat his wife.

This may explain the people who were willing to vote for a man who bragged about his sexual assaults, and who judged women solely on the basis of their looks. It also explains why those same people won’t vote for a woman, no matter how qualified.

According to an index spokesman, the information collected shows that on average, attitudes are “sliding back” – that anti-woman biases, instead of shrinking, are growing back.

“We’ve found that, if the current pace continues, 67 countries – home to 2.1 billion girls and women – will not achieve any of the key gender equality targets we studied by 2030.”

These countries are not just the poorest. If trends over the past two decades continue, the US will be among them.

I’d love to believe that the attitudes I encountered as a woman in law school and in various professional roles weren’t representative, or at least were dwindling. But the evidence says otherwise. We have a long way to go if we want to stop wasting 50% of the planet’s human capital.

I find this very depressing….

Happy International Women’s Day…..

 

Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.