Archive for the 'education' Category


Other People are like Galaxies

I’m reading Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Emile, which is his lengthy text on how to raise someone to be a happy and capable adult. A lot of the advice is interesting. He thinks humans are happiest when their desires are in harmony with their needs so that they can get the things that they want.

Rousseau also thinks that society as we know it is corrupt and invites us to puff up our desires with vanity (Famously, Rousseau, being French, calls vanity “amour propre”) and attention seeking. This distorted form of society makes us get on a treadmill of desire fulfillment that we can never get off of. Permanent unhappiness is the result.

But Rousseau also has the idea that there is something shocking and difficult about “living in society,” i.e., interacting with other people. His proposal is that children should be raised far away from other people so that they have no notion of trying to please others or needing to be pleased by then.

There is something to this idea, though it may not be satisfactory in every dimension. Here is how it might be valuable.

Today I learned the life story of someone I had met before, but only briefly. It was quite incredibly, which is to say, no different than any life story (I find then all incredible). This guy had lived in an extremely violent environment as a young man. He saw his friends shot, random people beat up. Drugs and crimes of every kind. Yet he got out of his neighborhood and became a philosopher. He liked death metal as a boy, and almost couldn’t become a philosopher because of his fear of public speaking and flying. What a life, and so different than mine. And hence the title of this post. Whenever I meet someone new and learn a good deal of their history, I feel the same way that I feel when I look into the night sky. The feeling is one of wonder and awe. When I look at the stars, I think that I am a very small part of a very enormous universe. When I meet someone new, I feel that I am one sliver of the human experience.

This feeling, without the right training, can be daunting. How should one react to others? Tolerance of some type is a virtue, but how are we psychologically prepared for it. It’s not a given that we will be able to appreciate the life of someone else without losing our grip on our life. People who are xenophobic cannot handle the different ways that people things, and so demonize that way of life. This is a common reaction to difference. Others become relativists. After seeing difference, they reach the conclusion that their own way of living is somehow unimportant or not as fully justified as it was before. Others can become jealous (“you did that? How amazing…”) And so we can see that to appreciate difference for its vastness and immensity without losing one’s commitment to “me and my life” requires skill.

Rousseau’s idea is that part of a good upbringing is one that allows a person to remain in touch with his or her own way of life without forcing him or her to simply reject other life paths.


Banality in the NYT

I don’t know this guy, Joe Nocera, who wrote this piece on education. He probably has a lot of good things to say about education, but unfortunately (and apologetically) I want to use his piece to illustrate the point that you will likely come across really unhelpful and garbagey things in the news.

Read that article. It talks a big game. Nocera writes about how this story of a young boy, Saquan, keeps him up at night. And then he writes, in dramatic fashion, that merely improving teachers and institutions won’t work because “it takes a lot more than that [reforming schools]. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.”

Ok so I’m getting primed to hear something pretty new and interesting. But what is his point? That when a child is so deeply screwed by circumstances outside the school, the schooling itself will not be sufficient to create an educated person. NO SHIT.

There are hundreds of necessary conditions for someone to become educated: they must have a pulse, they must be able to use at least some of their perceptual faculties, they must be able to get to school, they must be able to understand English. The sun must not explode the morning they get up for school.

What help does it, in a policy debate context, to note that sometimes our society at large can be so shitty, that even the best schooling cannot help someone? What we’re interested in, I would have thought, in a piece on education reform, is how likely certain reforms can succeed, GIVEN that some reasonable set of necessary conditions is in place.

It’s just kind of laughable to think that this example shows that “school reform” isn’t enough. The case is so extreme that I think it shows that “societal reform” or “comprehensive everything reform” will never quite be enough, because bad things happen to people. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to help these people: of course not. We to open ourselves to the importance of acting WITHOUT institutions, but a point about the cruelty of life hardly helps us understand how to deal with school reform issues.

To be fair, Nocera’s point is that we need to address poverty before we can address school, but again that’s wrong. Why can’t we make strides in the classroom alone? We could do better, undoubtedly, if our society was fundamentally just, but that’s a long term, big picture goal. I mean, at root, almost all problems crop up because society is broken, but in THAT sense, society has always been broken — we have never lived in a utopia.


Easy as A, B, C

Jackson Five of course.

I’m TAing an ethics class for some extension school students and it looks a lot of people are going to drop out after hearing my comments on their first papers. The people who DID finish the process and so submitted a final draft are all pretty good writers and their papers are good.

What this suggests to me is that perhaps grade inflation isn’t really that damaging. Well, let me rephrase. There are two problems with grade inflation.

One is that if grades inflate, then RANKING information is lost as grades get pressed toward the “100” or “A” mark. If everyone is getting an A, then how can we distinguish students. This supposedly penalizes really good students and perhaps allows poorer students to find themselves in classes they can’t handle.

Another criticism of grade inflation is that it’s rewarding laziness and making our generation less education or less prepared for things.

The first criticism is the one that I think is falsified by my recent experience as a TA. What I mean is that it is possible that these days there is a more aggressive selection effect than was in place before. I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that students these days are really good at taking classes not for a grade when they know it will be really hard or dropping it before a really nasty grade gets put on their transcript. The result is that it grades are inflating not due to teachers handing out better grades to everyone, but rather being UNABLE to hand out bad grades to bad students before these kids jump ship or escape the class.

If this were happening, then grades would be a poor indicator of how a student is doing, but it would mean that the same information could be gleaned by looking at WHAT CLASSES a student is taking. So, if I’m looking at a pile of applications and everyone got A’s, then I know that this bunch of students is perhaps savvy in avoiding bad grades. But then I can look to see what classes they took to see what those A’s really mean.

It also might mean that students aren’t getting worse educations, but rather, are just more able to find what things they are good at. This reduces information (O everyone looks good at whatever stuff they did), but it may not indicate students are learning less or are less prepared.


Chinese Mothers and Self-confidence

In this article, a highly successful Chinese mother and yale law school professor argues that raising children with high expectations is the best way to parent, a way she labels as a the “Chinese” way. Though her choice of racial association is likely to draw a lot of criticism (and she does qualify the claim that this is the Chinese way, it’s recognizably Jewish and many other “ways”), I’m not that concerned with it.

But this article does concern me for another reason, which is that it comes very close to espousing something that I think is a deep truth, but it tarnishes that truth with a misunderstood elaboration along with some language that I think is deceptive and sometimes downright crude.

The idea of the article is that parents should feel free to be very demanding and in fact, unrelenting about making their kids achieve. In a sense, I agree with this thesis because I believe that people flourish when they are put under strain and when they face challenges. I also think that aspiring to excellence is one way to respect oneself and others and breeds confidence and happiness. The tricky part about this way of life is that there is always a tension between the state of confidence and competence that characterizes happiness and the difficulty and struggle that is needed to earn that position; in fact, to continually earn it and to sustain it.

In this article though, Amy Chua mistakes hardship and overcoming for arbitrariness and just plain meanness I think. But before getting to a deep philosophical point, I want to just make some ad hominem attacks and point out some passages that rubbed me the wrong way.

Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can’t. Once when I was young—maybe more than once—when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me “garbage” in our native Hokkien dialect. It worked really well. I felt terrible and deeply ashamed of what I had done. But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that. I knew exactly how highly he thought of me. I didn’t actually think I was worthless or feel like a piece of garbage.

Really? Is this the example you want? I mean, maybe it’s unfair of me to challenge her sincerity; maybe she really did not feel abused, but you wonder if maybe this author (now a yale professor) was just hard-nosed in a way that allowed her to profit from that kind of parenting; a type of parenting that I, being a “westerner” in her lexicon, would call abuse.

Then there’s this:

By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

And again, this is amateur psychoanalysis on my part, but I think this paragraph really reveals more about the author than any general trends of parenting. I don’t think many parents with “mediocre” kids really do have regrets about their kids in that way. In other words, most parents are proud of their kids, even when their child is in fact very poorly skilled or very disturbed, or even mean or flawed in a variety of ways. Yet these parents, quite sincerely I think, are proud of what their kids are and do.

For instance, parents of serial killers often proclaim that they still love their kids, and in all of this, maybe that is what’s missing. If you search this post, the word “love” does not appear a SINGLE time, and the above quote makes me think that Ms. Chua is projecting her own interest in her child’s objective success by claiming that western parents obsess about this. Again, things are tricky, because I am sympathetic to the point that parents have to ask for more to get more when it comes to their children, but there are bigger problems.

The main one in my mind is that I think Chua is working with a defective and shallow view of what counts as self-confidence. She gives an example (you really have to read it; it’s eye opening) in which she forces her child to learn a violin (some instrument) piece by threatening all sorts of sanctions. The child eventually gets it and Chua pats herself on the back for having the gumption to keep pushing her child even in the face of resistance. The lesson is that force is met with success, and ultimately — and this is Chua’s big argument — an iron core of self-confidence that can never be taken away. Here are Chua’s words

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

To me this seems to get things exactly wrong. Self confidence and trust in oneself does not come from finding that one can achieve under duress WHEN ANOTHER PERSON forces you to succeed. One only gains confidence if one overcomes hardship BY ONESELF. Having someone push you to succeed merely to have you succeed doesn’t teach confidence or boost self-esteem (except, and this is interesting, indirectly by breaking the child down). What really promotes confidence is when a child encounters a problem and works through it on their own and in the process comes to trust his or her instincts or toughness. Anyone can do extraordinary things when a gun is put to their head, what is much more useful and much more difficult to master is the ability to set a goal and then respond to new situations (setbacks) as they pertain to that goal’s attainment. In Chua’s example, her child was happy to be playing the piece right, but how sustainable is this feeling? What happens when another difficulty comes up? The confident child would replay past successes and think “if I did that, I can do this.” But Chua’s child may have to wonder how to motivate herself or train herself. She will think “I better call my mom to scream at me until I do this.” That’s why sometimes the most “hardcore” type of control is just neglect; forcing the child to rely on his or herself. In my mind, self-confidence is the most exhilarating type of freedom, but on Chua’s analysis it feels very cramped and restricting. It also feels imposed or exported from another person, and freedom that is exported is not freedom.

The trick is, as always, to find the middle ground. Chua seems to think it’s a victory to get a child to play the violin well just to say that the child can play the violin well, and she paints western parents as taking a “do what you want to do attitude” toward everything. Both are wrong. Instead, the trick of parenting is not to hone the child’s skill at any one thing (even school) but rather to hone an attitude or a “way of seeing” — something much more ephemeral and abstract — that lets the human being that the child will become determine her ends for herself and then act on them.

Confidence is autonomy unfolding itself, and I think Chua misunderstands its value by placing it in the hands of an arbitrary parenting strategy. Kids should pursue what they want and the trick is to show them that what they want isn’t necessarily want they want AT THIS MOMENT but rather a process of overcoming or character development. That lesson can’t be learned by giving them a list of accomplishments that they must check off before reaching age 16.


Zen and art of climate science

Here’s a nice post about people who deny global warming.

The point of the article is simple: the forces of public discussion are massively in favor of the long term triumph of understanding of climate issues. According to a recent report (from Yale, woohoo), many Americans want to know more about climate science and they trust scientists to give them this information. The real issue is getting the message out in a robust and controlled manner. The report also notes that extreme skeptics about climate change are a rarity and not the norm.

A lot of people spend time getting worked up about people who deny that global warming is real, but everyone should just chill out. I say this so much on this blog, but I’ll say it again. America has serious problems to deal with, and the sooner everyone can stop whining and playing back-biting garbage games about small potatoes, the better we’ll all be.

Of course, global warming IS a real issue, and people should be trying to change policy on this issue, but as I’ve also said a billion times before, sometimes the right response is a zen-like take-the-high-road attitude. And what I mean is that persuasion is  science. If you want large groups of society to come around to a certain position, then you better not be so naive as to think that SIMPLY BEING RIGHT on the factual matters at play is enough to come out ahead.

So you think to yourself, kind of dramatically, “the truth is not enough, there has to be aggressive campaigns to get those doubters to see the light.” Well not really. Sometimes the best way for one view to ascend in acceptance and popularity is to remain above the fray and to be serene and imperturbable rather than angry and reactionary.

One example is gay marriage. As far as I can tell, history is on the side of gays becoming substantially better off in the medium to long term. People who don’t like rights for gays are getting old, or are just plain dying. It’s important to work on behalf of gay rights, but people who get really angry about homosexual haters are really just doing a disservice to everyone by giving more grist to those who WANT politics to be about anger. Every extreme leftist that lets slip inflammatory (but often true) statements about military, spending, homosexuality, or welfare just further alienates even open-minded conservatives. In other words, society works on trust and not just on arguments, and for that very reason, the best policy is to ONLY TALK in terms of argument. The side of an issue that speaks in terms of facts, projects their moderation, their reasonability, and above all, CONFIDENCE.

Nothing settles arguments better than confidence, and the best way to project it in the case of climate science is just to keep stating the arguments and putting them forward in the best light possible. They may even be wrong. The final analysis will tell (after all science was Newtonian before it realized it should be Einsteinian), but the point is that to convince as many people as possible, one should be zen-like. In control of oneself and in control of the arguments.

As with rights for homosexuality, I believe that history is on the side of climate change, and the sooner we calmly acknowledge that fact and non-condescendingly (that’s a huge piece of advice that many liberals just can’t seem to take) spread the message, the sooner we’ll bring the future toward the present.


Are institutions becoming counterproductive?

I think this thought has been kicking around in my brain for a long time, but today things coalesced into this post. You see, I was sitting in a meeting for one of my jobs. I work in a pedagogical role at Tufts (that’s all I’ll say for fear of offending superior or giving the wrong idea to colleagues who I might read this, but I doubt that will happen). Anyway, there was a training meeting where we talked about various issues and what to do going forward.

My main problem is that I think institutions, jobs, organizations, are losing their purpose. As always, I hope to make this vague rhetoric more clear. Take an ordinary institution like a charity in Africa. Presumably the value of this organization is that it promotes some good; it helps people in Africa. This charitable mission is the reason that some people work for the organization full time (of course they work for the money, but most people who work for non-profits care about the mission of the organization to say the least) and why others give money to the organization so that, well, people can be hired to work full time. The organization is a MEANS to accomplishing some goal, and by pooling talent, communication, money, and probably most of all, coordination, the goal of healthy people in Africa can be pursued more effectively than if each Afrophile tried to help on their own.

All this is perfectly intelligible, but I think there is a growing cultural shit to considering institutions valuable IN THEMSELVES so that there is value in merely participating in groups. For one good example, take the interest that college and high school kids have in being part of various clubs and groups that EVERYONE KNOWS don’t actually do anything. Ok too cynical; let me scale that back. Some clubs do great things, but those are the clubs that people join because they want to do the thing that the organization promotes. On the other hand, we have a word for people who join organizations just to be a part of an organization. The word is fake.

And this is kind of what was going on in my meeting today. We had a meeting to talk about issue that either a) any person with commonsense could resolve or b) were irresolvable and should not be legitimized by spending time on them. For example, someone talked about a student that was being difficult and so could not be helped effectively by the service this group that I work for offers. And I’m sitting there thinking WELL THEN WHAT CAN YOU DO? We run an organization that helps people who want help, and of course you can go along we in seeking out people who need help but forget, or are weak-willed, or need a nudge. Fine. But if someone using a voluntary service is just screwing the service up then what more is there to say. And if there is more to say, is it worth saying.

You see, I think the critique can be deepened. An organization is meant to act as a mechanical lever by allowing a group of people to be more effective at something than they would otherwise be trying to fly solo. But remember, flying solo is very effective for many things. We had a bunch of announcements in this meeting in which various individual problems were addressed in front of 20 people. But if only one person has a problem and it’s not contributing to the effectiveness of the other members, than things would be much more effective if the one person with a problem just invested time in finding out the answer on his or her own by talking to the right person or just thinking about the problem for a little bit.

Now of course, there are reasons why its good to air concerns to the group because other people might not have encountered the problems YET, but could benefit if they knew how to react ahead of time. A good point, but there is a real information cost balance between having the organization take time in promulgating information and holding meetings and then having individual members of the organization find stuff out on there own. For some information, it will be easier to disseminate and email, and hold meetings, but other information is best discovered by NOT having the group do anything and letting members come to the information as needed. If the information isn’t widely useful, then you end up wasting the time of people who didn’t need the information to get it to people who do.

Let me back track for one second. I said institutions are only a means to achieving a goal, and that isn’t quite right. There is something uniquely valuable about sharing ideas and decisions with peers toward a common end (for one thing it is a training ground for democracy and a wellspring of mutual respect). However, this value, the value of working in concert, disappears if everyone in the group is working for the group WITH THE GOAL OF GETTING THAT BENEFIT.

For group life to be uniquely valuable, the members have to be part of the group not in order to get the benefits of group life, but to advance the interests of the group. I’ve used this analogy a million times on this site and I hope its starting to creep into people’s lives because its a big difference. Take sports. Sports are uniquely valuable because they teach special lessons. But you can’t get the special lessons of sports by going into each game and practice trying to get those special lessons. The lessons will run away from you and you’ll never find them. You have to train, struggle, and in the end, desire VERY INTENSELY, to win. By doing all this, you will, as a side effect, grasp the specific value of sports.This is not to say that there is not value in “playing for fun.” There is, but it’s not the same type of value that is only available for a certain type of attitude.

The same is true with institutions, and if people forget that they have to join groups and clubs and whatever FOR THE THINGS THOSE CLUBS DO, then we’re going to slowly fall into a kind of self-congratulatory stasis in which everyone does group business all day without there being anything at stake and without the goal itself animating the minds and hearts of the participants.




Soda Welfare

A friend sent me this piece about New York City’s recent attempt to prevent food stamps from being used to buy sweetened drinks like soda on the idea that the public is simply financing health problems for the destitute. The article comes in response to a recent op-ed written by the health commissioners of both New York State and City respectively (see here for a considered economic analysis of fat tax type measures by Richard Posner).

What I find interesting about the policy to prevent food stamps from being used for sugary drinks is that it’s hard to see how the policy is either a) not justified or b) justified on grounds that would warrant its extension to more parts of the populace.

Consider the question of why NYC thinks this policy is worthwhile. Is it better for the actual people receiving food stamps and now use them to buy sugary drinks? Well, the people presumably take some pleasure in these drinks and are currently consume these drinks despite their deleterious affects on health. If we assume the poor are rational consumers, then we are effectively lower their overall welfare (according to a subjective view of welfare). But maybe the poor, like the rest of us, do not make decisions about our health rationally or perhaps we purchase with imperfect information about how damaging these drinks really are, in which case the justification for the policy is the health of the people buying these drinks. But if health is the goal of the policy, to be achieved by taxing a harmful activity, then taxes should be put in place so that the regular populace can also benefit from these measures (and be disincentivized to drink these harmful drinks). I hope the implication is not that only the poor are behaving irrationally with regard to sugar drink consumption.

Another point is that the government should not be spending money to help people continue to do something harmful, but this raises an interesting question of why we give people money at all. Do we give food stamps because we want poor people to have more PLEASUREFUL lives, because if that’s the reason, then we’re contradicting that goal by denying them the sweet release of a sugary soda (again, on the view that pleasure is determined by willingness to pay). Or do we give food stamps to poor people because we want them to live HEALTHIER lives, in which case the sugary drink restriction policy would be justified.

There is also a repeated mention of the money that obesity costs the public. Sugary drinks = obesity = various diseases like diabetes and heart disease = taxpayer dollars. Here too though, if tax dollars are lost to obesity, then we should be using a tax to recoup those lost dollars in ALL segments of society.

Anyway, I’m kind of vaguely dancing around the main question here, which is: why do we give poor people money so that they can eat and how does that goal interact with this soda policy? Are we trying to make the poor as well off as possible, or only ensure they have a certain minimum amount of welfare, or make sure that they can DO certain things, or make sure they are to a certain degree HEALTHY. All of these notions are separate.

These are tough questions, but my answer is this: I think we give money to the poor so that they can participate in society on equal footing with other people, and this means the money must go primarily not toward making poor happier (as if we could just buy a lot of cocaine for them, or some more sophisticated sedative) but toward making them be able to healthily participate in society (and not be obese and not sick), to be able to learn skills (education), impact our government (vote and have their voices heard).

Toward this goal, I think the policy of NYC is justified. The goal of the policy is to make public dollars maximally translate into able-bodied and capable citizens, and that’s why food stamps already don’t go to alcohol. The rest of public money should go to helping poor people purchase the things they need to be active members of society, so housing, healthcare, education, and food are obviously justified. Still, there will be some who are so ineffective at making use of these opportunities and so fall into miserable lives, and the government should not let these people languish in their suffering, but programs designed to address these people will not be based at ability to participate in society but in overall welfare or happiness.