Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Revealed academic preferences and gender via AP tests

Fascinating. What Do AP Subject Exams Tell Us About Differences in Academic Interest By Gender? by Mark J. Perry.
1. Of the 35 AP subjects, female high students were over-represented in 20 subjects, male students were over-represented in 14 subjects and one subject (Latin) was perfectly balanced by gender.

2. In the science area, female students showed a greater interest in biology (59%) and environmental science (56%) than males, and males showed a greater interest in chemistry (47%)[sic should be 53%] and physics (65%).

3. For mathematics subjects, female high school students were slightly over-represented in statistics (52%) and males were slightly over-represented in calculus (51%). For advanced calculus, male students were over-represented at 59%.

4. For all languages except German, more female students took language AP exams than males, and for French, female students outnumbered male students by more than 2-to-1.

5. Male high school students were significantly over-represented in all three physics exams, and both computer science exams.
Not completely unexpected to see differences by gender at these early ages (basically 15-18) but still striking just how sizeable those differences are at so early an age. Can it only be social norms that lead to these differences? I was struck also by the French and German AP results. I learned both French and German and took to German much more happily than to French and learned more in less time. Just me or some genetic orientation?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

God moves in a mysterious way

I wonder how many poems there are where people can give a one line quotation but have never, ever seen the original.
God Moves in Mysterious Ways
by William Cowper

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

Every disruption begins with an n of 1

From The Patient of the Future by Jon Cohen
A couple of striking quotes.
. . . he has an extraordinary ability to fish signal from noise in complex data sets.
[snip]
When I first meet Smarr and he gives me a tour of his institute, commonly known as Calit2, I tell him that I find it difficult to separate promise from hype, noting that his endeavor has all the pitfalls of any "n = 1" experiment—a test in which only one person is the subject. "Every disruption begins with an n of 1," he replies.

Monday, February 27, 2012

We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, page 145.
There is scarcely an occurrence in nature which, happening at a certain time, is not looked upon by some persons as a prognosticator either of good or evil. The latter are in the greatest number, so much more ingenious are we in tormenting ourselves than in discovering reasons for enjoyment in the things that surround us. We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable; the cup of life is not bitter enough to our palate, and we distil superfluous poison to put into it, or conjure up hideous things to frighten ourselves at, which would never exist if we did not make them. "We suffer," says Addison,[63] "as much from trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a star spoil a night's rest, and have seen a man in love grow pale and lose his appetite upon the plucking of a merrythought. A screech-owl at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the voice of a cricket has struck more terror than the roaring of a lion. There is nothing so inconsiderable which may not appear dreadful to an imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail or a crooked pin shoot up into prodigies."

We must know what is right

Charlemagne; Karoli Magni Regis Constitutio de Scholis per singula Episcopia et Monasteria instituendis," addressed to the Abbot of Fulda. Baluzius, Capitularia Regum Francorum, T. i., p. 202.
Quamvis enim melius sit benefacere quam nosse, prius tamen est nosse quam facere.

- Right action is better than knowledge, but in order to do what is right we must know what is right.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hindus may believe in an infinity of lifetimes, but we maximize our welfare in this one, just like everyone else

From The Brain-Drain Panic Returns by Jagdish Bhagwati.
In India in the 1950’s and 1960’s – a time when many professionals were emigrating – working conditions were deplorable. Bureaucrats decided whether we could go abroad for conferences. Heads of departments carried inordinate power. So, no surprise, many of us left. We Hindus may believe in an infinity of lifetimes, but we maximize our welfare in this one, just like everyone else.

Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect

From Thomas Sowell in Intellectuals and Society
Brilliance–even genius–is no guarantee that consequential factors have not been left out or misconceived. Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect. Wisdom is the rarest quality of all–the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding…Wisdom requires self-discipline and an understanding of the realities of the world, including the limitations of one’s own experience and of reason itself. The opposite of high intellect is dullness or slowness, but the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is far more dangerous.

'Metaphors we live by

From Hearing metaphors activates brain regions involved in sensory experience from e! Science News.

The brain seems to simulate the physical experience of a metaphor.
When a friend tells you she had a rough day, do you feel sandpaper under your fingers? The brain may be replaying sensory experiences to help understand common metaphors, new research suggests. Linguists and psychologists have debated how much the parts of the brain that mediate direct sensory experience are involved in understanding metaphors. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their landmark work 'Metaphors we live by', pointed out that our daily language is full of metaphors, some of which are so familiar (like "rough day") that they may not seem especially novel or striking. They argued that metaphor comprehension is grounded in our sensory and motor experiences.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

But that’s what they did: Crash and rebuild.

From Heroes for My Son by Brad Meltzer.
From there, I started looking for more heroes. I wanted to hear their stories—the ones no one knew. It made sense to me—especially since, as a parent, I know that the only lesson we ever teach is the one that comes from example.

One of the first stories I heard was about the Wright brothers. A friend told me that every day when Orville and Wilbur Wright went out to fly their plane, they would bring enough materials for multiple crashes. That way, when they crashed, they could rebuild the plane and try again. Think about it a moment: every time they went out—every time—they knew they were going to fail. But that’s what they did: Crash and rebuild. Crash and rebuild. And that’s why they finally took off.

I loved that story. I still love that story. And that’s the kind of story I wanted my son to hear: a story that wouldn’t lecture to him, but would show him that if he was determined ... if he wasn’t afraid to fail ... if he had persistence (and a side order of stubbornness) ... the impossible becomes possible.

Friday, February 24, 2012

By age 55, it dips to 37 percent

From Aging of Eyes Is Blamed for Range of Health Woes by Laurie Tarkan
But blue light also is the part of the spectrum filtered by the eye’s aging lens. In a study published in The British Journal of Ophthalmology, Dr. Mainster and Dr. Turner estimated that by age 45, the photoreceptors of the average adult receive just 50 percent of the light needed to fully stimulate the circadian system. By age 55, it dips to 37 percent, and by age 75, to a mere 17 percent.

You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery

From Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and saver of hundreds of millions of lives.
You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.

Skepticism regarding the long-term impact of cash transfers may be warranted

The Ticket to Easy Street? The Financial Consequences of Winning the Lottery by Scott Hankins, et al
Abstract

This paper examines whether giving large cash transfers to financially distressed people causes them to avoid bankruptcy. A comparison of Florida Lottery winners who randomly received $50,000 to $150,000 to small winners indicates that such transfers only postpone bankruptcy rather than prevent it, a result inconsistent with the negative shock model of bankruptcy. Furthermore, the large winners who subsequently filed for bankruptcy had similar net assets and unsecured debt as small winners. Thus, our findings suggest that skepticism regarding the long-term impact of cash transfers may be warranted.
Veiled but basically consistent with what we have seen in economic development - giving capital to countries to develop themselves is a waste of money unless they have the cultural and institutional structures that will allow them to use that money well. This study suggests the same is true at the personal level. Transferring wealth to individuals not otherwise endowed with the human capital to use it well will end up being wasted.

All of which is ultimately just an affirmation of the old adage - A fool and his money are soon parted.

It was the same story every time. Just four sentences long.

From Heroes for My Son by Brad Meltzer.
So I started thinking about my own life: Where did I learn kindness? Who taught me about the benefits of patience? I didn’t have to look far. Sure, my mom and dad had laid the foundation. But when I thought of my first real hero, the person who came to mind was my grandfather, Ben Rubin.

When I was little, my grandfather knew I loved hearing Batman stories, so he’d always tell me this one story that went like this: “Batman and Robin were in the Bat-mobile. And they were riding along the edge of a curving cliff. And up ahead of them was a white van, which held the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. And as they drove along this cliff, Batman and Robin caught them.”

That’s when I’d look him right in the eyes and whisper, “Tell it again.”

He’d smile at me and say, “Batman and Robin were in the Bat-mobile. And they were riding along the edge of a curving cliff....”

And when it was done, I’d say, “Tell it again.”

And he would.

It was the same story every time. Just four sentences long. Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile.... But he told me this story over and over simply because he knew I loved hearing it.

That’s a hero to me.

There are two ways to slide easily through life

Alfred Korzybski:
There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.
Also
The map is not the territory.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

He thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature

From Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II by George Bernard Shaw.
Britannus (shocked):
Caesar, this is not proper.

Theodotus (outraged):
How?

Caesar (recovering his self-possession):
Pardon him Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

At most 10% of the estimated marriage premium is due to selection

Well this is interesting. In the past couple of years I have dug up the data to support something my father told me years ago; your chance of being in poverty is miniscule if you do just three things - graduate high school, get married, get a job, any job. I don't know where he came across this information but I have been able to validate it and in fact, if you have these three characteristics, you have a less than 2% chance of being in poverty.

All along though, it has been obvious that these are just markers for something else going on. Just the existential fact of being married isn't causative of income. Clearly, some of the human capital skills, or non-cognitive skills as they are sometimes called (empathy, self-control, tolerance, etc.) are at play - being empathetic probably increases both the probability of your being a good spouse and an effective employee. But is there an operational component as well? Is there something about the institution of marriage that also contributes to greater employment effectiveness? This study, Is the male marriage premium due to selection? The effect of shotgun weddings on the return to marriage by Donna K. Ginther and Madeline Zavodny answers in the affirmative.
In standard cross-sectional wage regressions, married men appear to earn 10 to 20% more than comparable never married men. One proposed explanation for this male marriage premium is that men may be selected into marriage on the basis of characteristics valued by employers as well as by spouses or because they earn high wages. This paper examines the selection hypothesis by focusing on shotgun weddings, which may make marital status uncorrelated with earnings ability. We compare the estimated marriage premium between white men whose first marriages are soon followed by a birth and other married white men in the United States. The return to marriage differs little for married men with a premarital conception and other married men, and the results suggest that at most 10% of the estimated marriage premium is due to selection.
So indeed, being a good spouse means you have some of the same attributes that make you desirable as an employee (selection) but there is some larger effect of being married that also makes you a more effective employee.

45% of daily decisions are the result of unconscious habits

From How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg.
As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist. One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day

Three Laws of Regulation

Alan Meltzer’s Three Laws of Regulation from his book Why Capitalism? . h/t Ira Stoll's book review, Why Capitalism Isn't Going Anywhere.
1. Lawyers and bureaucrats regulate, but markets circumvent regulation.

2. Regulations are static. Markets are dynamic.

3. Regulation is most effective when it changes the incentives of the regulated.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yet the science does tell us how not to raise children

From Stress Impacts Good Parenting: The behavioral economists perspective by Sendhil Mullainathan.
There is no formula for how to raise children well, and likely there never will be. Yet the science does tell us how not to raise children. Don’t be inattentive. Don’t be inconsistent. Don’t be disengaged. Don’t place them in intellectually pallid environments.

The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents

While there is agreement on the behavior, there is little agreement on why. Why are low-income parents not giving their children as much attention, help and encouragement as they need? Different ends of the political spectrum point in different directions. The left tends to see a lack of parenting skills. They look for solutions that emphasize improving these skills. The right tends to see more personal failures. They look for solutions that emphasize getting parents to take more responsibility.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills. Families are major producers of those skills.

From The American Family in Black and White: A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality by James J. Heckman. I think he has the right diagnosis, the challenge is in the treatment. That said, most people are still making the wrong diagnosis.
In contemporary America, racial gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills. Skill gaps emerge early before children enter school. Families are major producers of those skills. Inequality in performance in school is strongly linked to inequality in family environments. Schools do little to reduce or enlarge the gaps in skills that are present when children enter school. Parenting matters, and the true measure of child advantage and disadvantage is the quality of parenting received. A growing fraction of American children across all race and ethnic groups is being raised in dysfunctional families. Investment in the early lives of children in disadvantaged families will help close achievement gaps. America currently relies too much on schools and adolescent remediation strategies to solve problems that start in the preschool years. Policy should prevent rather than remediate. Voluntary, culturally sensitive support for parenting is a politically and economically palatable strategy that addresses problems common to all racial and ethnic groups.

Take nobody's word for it

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (The Royal Society). Their motto is:
Nullius in verba (Take nobody's word for it)

A recollection of what each had meant to me came back

I posted about the opening line of The Go Between by L.P. Hartley the other day.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there
Famous as this is, the next paragraph is wonderfully evocative and curious in that perhaps you have to be of a certain age to truly relate to it as a real experience.
When I came upon the diary, it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard collar-box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets' power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went between us; the almost mystical thrill of early ownership - feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Taxes, corruption and costly justice

From Priscus at the Court of Attila. Priscus was an emissary to the court of Atilla the Hun, leaving one of the few first person accounts. What caught my eye below was the classic and age-old lament: the government exacts high taxes, corruption is rampant and justice is expensive.
As I waited and walked up and down in front of the enclosure which surrounded the house, a man, whom from his Scythian dress I took for a barbarian, came up and addressed me in Greek, with the word Xaire, "Hail!" I was surprised at a Scythian speaking Greek. For the subjects of the Huns, swept together from various lands, speak, besides their own barbarous tongues, either Hunnic or Gothic, or--as many as have commercial dealings with the western Romans--Latin; but none of them easily speak Greek, except captives from the Thracian or Illyrian sea-coast; and these last are easily known to any stranger by their torn garments and the squalor of their heads, as men who have met with a reverse. This man, on the contrary, resembled a well-to-do Scythian, being well dressed, and having his hair cut in a circle after Scythian fashion. Having returned his salutation, I asked him who he was and whence he had come into a foreign land and adopted Scythian life. When he asked me why I wanted to know, I told him that his Hellenic speech had prompted my curiosity. Then he smiled and said that he was born a Greek and had gone as a merchant to Viminacium, on the Danube, where he had stayed a long time, and married a very rich wife. But the city fell a prey to the barbarians, and he was stript of his prosperity, and on account of his riches was allotted to Onegesius in the division of the spoil, as it was the custom among the Scythians for the chiefs to reserve for themselves the rich prisoners. Having fought bravely against the Romans and the Acatiri, he had paid the spoils he won to his master, and so obtained freedom. He then married a barbarian wife and had children, and had the privilege of eating at the table of Onegesius.

He considered his new life among the Scythians better than his old life among the Romans, and the reasons he gave were as follows: "After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have got, and not at all, or very little, harassed. The Romans, on the other hand, are in the first place very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes. A transgressor who belongs to the wealthy classes is not punished for his injustice, while a poor man, who does not understand business, undergoes the legal penalty, that is if he does not depart this life before the trial, so long is the course of lawsuits protracted, and so much money is expended on them. The climax of the misery is to have to pay in order to obtain justice. For no one will give a court to the injured man unless he pay a sum of money to the judge and the judge's clerks."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I don't know whether that is good or bad but it seems significant

From The Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors by Maria Popova. The article is technically a book review of J. Peder Zane's The Top Ten. She explains the methodology:
The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers — including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates — “to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time– novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list — so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.
While the results appear to be interesting in the context of the individual writers; what influenced them, what intrigued them, what I find fascinating are the results in aggregate across the 125 authors. In many respects, the list is a relatively uncontroversial selection.
TOP TEN WORKS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
1.Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
2.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3.In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
4.Ulysses* by James Joyce
5.Dubliners* by James Joyce
6.One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
7.The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
8.To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
9.The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
10.Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

TOP TEN WORKS OF THE 19th CENTURY
1.Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
2.Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
3.War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
5.The stories of Anton Chekhov
6.Middlemarch* by George Eliot
7.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
8.Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
9.Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
10.Emma* by Jane Austen

TOP TEN AUTHORS BY NUMBER OF BOOKS SELECTED
1.William Shakespeare — 11
2.William Faulkner — 6
3.Henry James — 6
4.Jane Austen — 5
5.Charles Dickens — 5
6.Fyodor Dostoevsky — 5
7.Ernest Hemingway — 5
8.Franz Kafka — 5
9.(tie) James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf — 4

TOP TEN AUTHORS BY POINTS EARNED
1.Leo Tolstoy — 327
2.William Shakespeare — 293
3.James Joyce — 194
4.Vladimir Nabokov — 190
5.Fyodor Dostoevsky — 177
6.William Faulkner — 173
7.Charles Dickens — 168
8.Anton Checkhov — 165
9.Gustave Flaubert — 163
10.Jane Austen — 161
On the other hand, I recently read a quiz, How Thick Is Your Bubble? by Charles Murray which seems to have a resonance with the lists above. Murray is concerned about the growing separation and isolation of some commercial/cognitive/political elite who live lives remote and separate from the 99%. These people living in self-constructed isolation aren't necessarily "The Rich", they are people that occupy the nexus of power, money, knowledge and communication.

The authors sampled for this list would presumably make the cut for this new isolated elite and their responses seem to support Murray's contention. Granted, the editor stacked the deck by limiting their responses to fiction (novels, plays, poems). Still, it is striking to me when you look at the different lists - Can you picture anyone outside of the elite actually reading or enjoying much of this? Twain and Dickens (happy birthday by the way) most likely. Faulkner, possibly. Maybe Hemingway but I seem to find fewer and fewer people that have actually read any of his books outside of school. I want to say Shakespeare but am pretty certain I am not justified in doing so.

Could you claim to be occupying and experiencing the same world as most other people if your favorite books are Lolita, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, Dubliners, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. That just doesn't feel credible. I don't know whether that is good or bad but it seems significant.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saved by the book

I had forgotten about this. In old English law, you could escape capital punishment by proving oneself literate. From Ben Jonson, Britain’s first literary celebrity? by Brian Vickers.
In his turbulent career Jonson had many scrapes with the law, including prosecution for manslaughter, having killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel in Hoxton Fields. Jonson escaped the gallows thanks to the old law excusing those who could read the so-called “neck-verse” from Psalm 51 as a test of literacy. In several plays, Jonson echoes his own experience with allusions to characters being “saved by the book”.

Who spends himself in a worthy cause

Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910. Titled Citizenship in a Republic, it is more commonly known as the Man in The Arena speech owing to a particular passage. It is interesting to read in its entirity though.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Common Sense still relevant and uncommon

An interesting article, Happy Birthday, Common Sense by Chris Weigant marking the publication of Thomas Paine's classic. Common Sense was one of history's all-time publishing phenomenon. Even though, under the laws of the land at that time, it was treasonous, Common Sense sold in the hundreds of thousands, initially in the American Colonies and then internationally. As Weigant notes, "To proportionally match this today, a book would have to sell something like 60 million copies in this country alone - an almost impossible feat."

Weignat ascribes the success of Common Sense to the preparedness of the Americans for its message and to the directness of Paine's writing. It is striking to read such common sense and clarity in a document that is nearly a quarter of a millineum old:
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect in a country without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.
In some cases his words, while directed to the circumstances of his time, reflect issues with which we wrestle today.
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an Ass for a Lion.
We don't often these days think of the historical repudiation of divine right of monarchy and inheritance taxes at the same time and yet, as Paine's observations indicate, there is an underlying linkage.

In the following passage there is a profound observation that rings down the ages.
If there is any true cause of fear respecting independance, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Men do not see their way out -- Wherefore, as an opening into that business, I offer the following hints; at the same time modestly affirming, that I have no other opinion of them myself, than that they may be the means of giving rise to something better. Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.
Paine is, in passing, describing one of the most consequential divides and discomforts that exist today and which animates the heated political discussions that swirl about. There are those that desire and seek the power to direct every sequential action and believe that they can have and need the detailed plan that takes them from A to Z ("If there is any true cause of fear respecting independance, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Men do not see their way out.") Such individuals are driven by both fear of incipient chaos which has to be mastered, and by hubris as reflected in the belief that any human effort to master chaotic, complex, loosely coupled non-linear systems can ever yield the outcomes anticipated and desired.

Then there are those that have a conviction in a more abstract set of principles, freedom, specialization, democracy, pluralism, individualism, etc. which these people believe will, by their own nature and interaction, lead to a desired outcome but by pathways both unpredictable and unanticipatable ("Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.")

Paine writes in the context of Monarchs and rebellious Americans but his underlying issue is still with us - those that would centralize power and those that seek to diffuse it.

It behooves us to go back and recapture some of that wisdom and insight from yesteryear even though our neophiliac culture tends to discount the value of ideas by their age.

UPDATE: Came across this contemporaneous quotation from Adam Smith that seemed relevant vis-a-vis the first type of person, the centralizers of power.
The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A teetotaler by conviction

George Bernard Shaw apparently described his father as:
a teetotaler by conviction and a drunkard in practice.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Think like Plato,--he did not exhaust all thought

Business
Sam Walter Foss

"How is business?" asks the young man of the Spirit of the Years;
"Tell me of the modern output from the factories of fate,
And what jobs are waiting for me, waiting for me and my peers.
What's the outlook? What's the prospect? Are the wages small or great?"
"Business growing, more men needed," says the Spirit of the Years,
"Jobs are waiting for right workmen,--and I hope you are the men,--
Grand hard work and ample wages, work piled up in great arrears--
'Don't see any job particular?' Listen, and I'll tell you then.

"There are commonwealths to govern, there are senates to be swayed,
There are new states still undreamed of to be founded,
New empires in far oceans to be moulded--who's afraid?--
And a couple polar oceans to be sounded.
Come on, ye jolly empire-builders, here is work for you to do,
And we don't propose to get along without it.
Here's the little job of building this old planet over new,
And it's time to do the business. Get about it.

"Get to work, ye world-repairers. Steel the age and guide the years,
Shame the antique men with bigness of your own;
Grow ye larger men than Plutarch's and the old long-whiskered seers;
Show the world a million kings without a throne.
'What's your business?' Empire-building, founding hierarchies for the soul,
Principalities and powers for the mind,
Bringing ever-narrowing chaos under cosmical control,
Building highways through its marsh-lands for mankind.

"Sow the lonely plains with cities; thread the flowerless land with streams;
Go to thinking thoughts unthought-of, following where your genius leads,
Seeing visions, hearing voices, following stars, and dreaming dreams,
And then bid your dreams and visions bloom and flower into deeds.
'What's your business?' Shaping eras, making epochs, building States,
Wakening slumbering rebellions in the soul,
Leading men and founding systems, grappling with the elder fates
Till the younger fates shall greaten and assume the old control.

"'Business rushing?' Fairly lively. There's a world to clean and sweep,
Cluttered up with wars and armies; 'tis your work to brush 'em out;
Bid the fierce clinch-fisted nations clasp their hands across the deep;
Wipe the tired world of armies; 'tis a fair day's work no doubt.
'Business rushing?' Something doing. You've a contract on your hands
To wipe out the world's distinctions,--country, color, caste, and birth,--
And to make one human family of a thousand alien lands,
Nourishing a billion brothers with no foreigner on earth.

"Have you learned yet," says the Zeitgeist, "the old secret of the soul?
Make the sleepy sphinx give answer, for her riddle's long unguessed.
Tell the riddle; clear the mystery; bid the midnight dark uproll;
Let the thought with which the ages long have travailed be expressd.
Go and find the Northwest Passage through the far seas of the mind,--
There, where man and God are mingled in the darkness, go and learn.
Sail forth on that bournless ocean, shrouded, chartless, undefined:
Pluck its mystery from that darkness; pluck its mystery and return.

"'What's your business?' Finding out things that no other man could find,--
Things concealed by jealous Nature under locks, behind the bars;
Building paved and guttered highways for the onward march of mind
Through the spaces 'twixt the planets to the secrets of the stars.
'What's your business?' Think like Plato,--he did not exhaust all thought;
Preach like Savonarola; rule like Alfred; do not shirk;
Paint like Raphael and Titian; build like Angelo--why not?
Sing like Shakespeare. 'How is business?' Rather lively. Get to work!"

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

State interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good

The Common Law (1881), p. 88-96 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
State interference is an evil, where it cannot be shown to be a good.

Then there would be little hope for advance

From Heroes For My Son by Brad Meltzer
If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.
—Orville Wright

Monday, February 13, 2012

From 10 Tips on Writing Well from David Ogilvy by Maria Popova. His advice:
The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.

2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.

3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.

5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.

6. Check your quotations.

7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.

8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.

10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

Westerners and Easterners continue to employ their different face processing strategies in animals

You always have to be careful with these studies because when you start diggign you find that there were only 48 subjects involved or some other such element that substantially reduces the confidence one can have in the results. Noone-the-less, an interesting insight to the full gamut of communication and just how many ways we can go wrong.

From East views the world differently to West from e! Science News.
For example, while most British people look at a person's eyes when they are talking to them, Chinese people are much less likely to make eye contact. "This can leave the British person feeling uncomfortable and distrustful," Dr Kelly points out. "On the other hand, the Chinese person would consider eye contact to be potentially disrespectful and impolite."

Research now suggests that this particular cultural contrast is underpinned by the different ways Westerners (British) and Easterners (Chinese) 'process' visual information. While adults from Western cultures process information analytically by focusing on key features, adults from the East process information in a more holistic style, which also takes context and situation into account.

In terms of eye contact for example, this means that when a Westerner processes a person's face they will typically fixate on the key feature of the face, usually the eyes. An Easterner, in contrast, will largely avoid the eyes (hence the lack of eye contact) and take in information from a wider area below the eyes and around the nose. Interestingly, the studies also show that when asked to recognise other unfamiliar stimuli, such as sheep faces, Westerners and Easterners continue to employ their different face processing strategies in animals.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.

From an Interview with Jennifer Egan. She has two observations.
What was Cambridge like?

I am really glad I went there because when I was in college at Penn it was that moment of great fixation on literary theory— this was the early to mid-eighties— and I read way too much theory and way too little literature. I read about reading instead of reading. It was ridiculous! I would read about books I hadn’t read and feel no compulsion to read the books. It was just insane. Though, I have to say that some of that has stayed with me— the excitement about the meta.

Anyway, I actually read a lot of books at Cambridge, which was great.
And
Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The war on friction is one of humanity’s oldest challenges

From Beyond Blue Part Three: The Power of Infostructure by Walter Russell Mead. He observes one of the key phenomenon of the world since the cultural earthquake of the Enlightenment, a phenomenon rarely acknowledged.
The English-speaking world has been at the heart of the process of modernization with all the upheaval and uncertainty this process brings in train, but through it all these countries have somehow remained more stable and reliable than others. We change faster than others do in response to new opportunities and new technological possibilities — but we don’t lose our balance in the process.

[snip]

This angel in the whirlwind quality means more now than ever before. The 21st century is shaping up to be an age of upheaval; change is coming at us from so many directions and at such a pace that cultures and countries around the world are being shaken to their foundations. Those who can keep their calm and balance in the midst of the whirlwind have a serious advantage — and they should use it for all it is worth.

America is good at change. We absorb immigrants better than most. We like new things and like to try them out. We have an optimistic streak in our nature; we believe that change is basically good and that being open to new things will make us happier and better off. Our religious sensibility is future-oriented and believes that God is working through the chaos and uncertainties of life. Our national religious tradition is profoundly influenced by the dynamic vision of a God who calls humanity into an unknown future. While the religious cultures of some parts of the world look back to a real or imagined utopia in the far distant past, or instruct the faithful to resist change and cling to the ancient ways, American religion tends to see the hand of God behind the winds of change. We pursue God into the future, rather than hunting for him in the far-distant past.

America’s critical comparative advantage in the 21st century will be its ability to respond quickly to change: to recognize and exploit new opportunities faster than others, to retool its core institutions and practices to fit the emerging shape of the new world, and to do all that while retaining its political and social equipoise: to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm. We were the first to build the blue social model and we can be the first to get to the next stage and reap the enormous rewards that come from reaching a more productive and efficient form of social organization before the competition.

[snip]

The war on friction is one of humanity’s oldest challenges, and it inevitably becomes more important as society becomes more complicated and more interdependent.

The predicament of the modern

From Anything goes a review by Harold James. An interesting turn of phrase.
the predicament of the modern, the material curse of poverty and the mental afflictions of prosperity.
It captures the predicament of the West where the various strands of philosophy, religion, government, culture and technology of the past five centuries have delivered such incredible prosperity that even the poorest are wealthy in absolute terms compared to the rest of the world and to history and yet everywhere people appear to suffer the mental afflictions of propserity. The material curse of poverty has virtually disappeared in the West yet its disappearance is marked by rising anxiety about the present and future. These mental afflictions appear in various guises including a disposition not to have children (fear of the future perhaps), to indulge in narrative and emotional arguments rather than data and logic, self-accuse oneself of sins committed by others elsewhere or in the past and over which one has not control and little influence, and finally an insisistence on focusing on the tactical, picayune or marginal and ignoring the strategic, substantial, and critical. There is something systemic here which, if we wish to succeed materially, we need to understand and address.

Other points:
Again and again, Gregory insists that Christianity is fundamentally a message about living in community: deus caritas est, or as Jesus put it: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
[snip]
The outcome of this plurality, which led to such horrifying violence, was to shift attention away from behaviour to an internalised and individualised belief. People believed all kinds of different and incompatible doctrines but who cared as long as they all could associate peacefully together? They disagreed. Anything goes. Whatever.
[snip]
Gregory gives a modern, and much more sophisticated, update of the Weber thesis. For him, the shift that really mattered was the movement to a belief in individual motivation. What was lost was any demonstration of how love works in a genuine community, based on shared responsibilities. By being concerned with individual salvation, the Reformation opened the way to an obsession with individual enrichment – at the expense of communities, friends and families. So the world was left with the accumulation of ... stuff.

In Gregory’s scrupulous account, the Netherlands invented modernity. That meant not only religious toleration but also its flipside – material accumulation and vulnerability to speculative manias such as the financially driven Amsterdam tulip craze.

The Dutch model was then taken up during the American Revolution by figures as politically and intellectually different as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The result, as Gregory puts it, led straight to “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose”.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Calm and serene he drives the furious blast

The Campaign by Joseph Addison. In some ways, this strikes the modern ear as nauseatingly sycophantic. But another way to look at this kind of poem is as a direct heir of Homer. There is much news and information captured and relayed to an audience in a fashion guaranteed to hold their attention and engage their interest. Beyond the facts, there are all sorts of soto voce cultural tropes and advisements such as this paeon to reflective self-control and engagement.
The dreadful burst of cannon rend the skies,
And all the thunder of the battle rise.
`Twas then great Marlborough`s mighty soul was prov`d,
That, in the shock of charging hosts unmov`d,

Amidst confusion, horror, and despair,
Examin`d all the dreadful scenes of war:
In peaceful thought the field of death survey`d,
To fainting squadrons sent the timely aid,
Inspir`d repuls`d battalions to engage,
And taught the doubtful battle where to rage.
So when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shaks a guilty land,
Such as of late o`er pale Britannia past,

Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleas`d th` Almighty`s orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm.

Who kept a large cat in a pew

Author unknown. h/t Daily Lit.
There was a kind curate of Kew,
Who kept a large cat in a pew;
There he taught it each week
A new letter of Greek,
But it never got further than "Mu."

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

The opening line of The Go Between by L.P. Hartley
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What all the wise men promised has not happened

Lord Melbourne in Damned Fools in Utopia, page 19.
What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Compliance for thee but not for me

From Over 279,000 Federal Workers Owe $3.4 Billion in Back Taxes from Paul L. Caron.

The report looks at the different divisions and departments of the federal government, whose employees have outstanding amounts in back taxes that they owe. Curiously, of the seventeen departments referenced with the poorest compliance with taxes owed was the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, 6.49% of whose employees owe taxes. Thankfully, as an example, the Treasury department has the lowest incidence of non-compliant employees, 0.96%.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

There are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies

From Darwinian Liberalism by Larry Arnhart. An intriguing proposition.
Perhaps their thought is more clearly stated by Will Wilkinson in his essay on “Capitalism and Human Nature”
We cannot expect to draw any straightforward positive political lessons from evolutionary psychology. It can tell us something about the kind of society that will tend not to work, and why. But it cannot tell us which of the feasible forms of society we ought to aspire to. We cannot, it turns out, infer the naturalness of capitalism from the manifest failure of communism to accommodate human nature. Nor should we be tempted to infer that natural is better. Foraging half-naked for nuts and berries is natural, while the New York Stock Exchange and open-heart surgery would boggle our ancestors’ minds.
Wilkinson argues that while our evolved human nature constrains the possibilities of social order, the historical move to liberal capitalism — the transition from personal to impersonal exchange — was a “great cultural leap,” as Friedrich Hayek emphasized. Within the limits set by evolved human nature, the emergence of liberal capitalism depends on cultural evolution. “We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom.”
[snip]
Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want.
[snip]
In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.

Monday, February 6, 2012

In the 2000 census, 92 percent of Americans lived in zip codes in which the majority of adults ages 25 and older did not have college degrees

How Thick is Your Bubble Quiz by Charles Murray.

A fascinating exercise in measuring one's social isolation. He is targeting the upper middle class as the group he thinks is most self-insulated from the rest of America. One could quibble about each of the twenty-five questions and can fuss about the weighting of the responses. The value, however, is not so much in the calibration of the details but that the questions serve as a catalyst for reflection. Some of the facts behind why he asked the question or why he weighted it as he did are fascinating. Example:
Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?

Seven points maximum. Score 4 points if you answered “yes” plus a bonus point for every five years you have lived in such a place up to fifteen years. In the 2000 census, 92 percent of Americans lived in zip codes in which the majority of adults ages 25 and older did not have college degrees. Seventy-seven percent lived in zip codes where fewer than a third of those adults had degrees. You should make your judgment with regard to your neighborhood, not your zipcode. Zero points if you are thinking of a gentrifying neighborhood in which you were one of the Gentrifiers.
I scored a 53, on the far end of the scale for the proper category "A second-generation (or more) upper middle-class person who has made a point of getting out a lot. Range: 0–43. Typical: 9." I managed to pick up extra points for having graduated university at the height of 1982 recession necessitating both greyhound bus travel (around the country interviewing) and working the graveyard shift at Little Tavern, at the end of which most things hurt; from having been in management consulting which has taken me to a lot of factory floors and working with union members, and being involved in Boy Scouts (fishing among other things).

But really a quite interesting quiz. Here's another piece that I find fascinating:
Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college?

Seven points maximum. Score 5points if you answered “yes,” 6 points if the place was under 25,000, and 7 points if you lived in a town of fewer than 10,000 people or in a rural area. The percentage of Americans fitting the description in the question was 58 percent in the 1960 census and 48 percent in the 2000 census. You may find it surprising, as I did, that 21 percent of Americans still lived in rural areas as of the 2000 census and another 10 percent lived in towns of fewer than 10,000 people — in total, almost a third of the population. That figure is not completely cleansed of bedroom communities, but it’s close.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kids with access to junk food at school were no heavier than those without

From Why School Junk Food Isn't Making Kids Fat by Benjamin Radford.
The study followed nearly 20,000 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade in 1,000 public and private schools. The researchers examined the children's weight and found that in the eighth grade, 35.5 percent of kids in schools with junk food were overweight while 34.8 percent of those in schools without it were overweight -- a statistically insignificant increase.

In other words, kids with access to junk food at school were no heavier than those without.

It's not that middle schoolers aren't eating junk food; indeed they are, just like most Americans. It's that most of the junk food they're eating is not coming through the schools. "Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment," said Jennifer Van Hook, a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study.
This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, it takes an established common assumption (schools with junk food will have heavier children) which is logical and then tests the assumption by collecting empirical data. The data says that the easy assumption is not correct - access to junk food at school has no meaningful impact on obesity.

Second, the finding reinforces the emerging but always understated recognition of the importance of the home and family culture. School can have an impact, positive and negative, oon a child, but usually, the greatest impact on the child is what they encounter at home, whether we are talking about manners, reading habits, or food consumption.

As long as we are mentally lazy and always look to the school to solve every problem that comes down the pike, we will avoid addressing the real root issues which are usually in the home.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Things were laboriously slow

From Rethinking "Out of Africa" by Christopher Stringer.

Recollecting his early field research, forty years ago, at most a generation and a half but many informational generations ago.
There have been some remarkable advances in the time that I've been researching human evolution, which is 40-odd years now. When I began my PhD in 1970 and went on my doctoral research trip in 1971, the technology was very primitive. Basically, I went around Europe with a suitcase full of measuring instruments: calipers, tapes, protractors. I applied these to the fossil skulls of Neanderthals and modern humans that I was studying, spending four months doing that. It took half a day to study a single skull and collect that data, all put down by hand onto a paper sheet that couldn’t be backed up. There were not even any photocopy machines around so I could have lost all of my data quite easily. There were no pocket calculators, there were no photocopy machines—it was entirely non-digital recording.

When I got back to Bristol, I had to laboriously transcribe all of those measurements by hand onto punch cards, which were then fed into the massive mainframe computer for the whole of Bristol University. It was probably about four times the size of this room, but with less processing power than the digital watch that I'm wearing now. A day later I would come back and get the results of that particular analysis. Or if it didn't work because of some minor error in one of cards, I'd have to put them all in again, which happened often.

Things were laboriously slow. It took me four months on that trip to gather the data. It took me another 18 months to analyze those data, to get the results for my PhD.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Markets, productivity, meritocracy, fairness and efficiency

From Who Killed Horatio Alger? by Luigi Zingales.
The fundamental role of an economic system, even an extremely primitive one, is to assign responsibility and reward. In animal packs, the responsibility of leadership and the reward of mating opportunities are generally assigned to the strongest. In human societies, responsibility tends to take the form of employment, and the rewards are money and prestige. . . . Most modern societies, by contrast, try to select and reward according to merit. Indeed, surveys show that in the abstract, most people in developed countries agree with the idea that merit should be rewarded.

[snip]

. . . a system of measuring merit should be efficient and difficult to manipulate, and above all, it should be deemed fair—or at least not too unfair—by most of the people subject to it. We can now begin to understand why support for meritocracy translates so neatly into support for the market system. Markets are far harder to manipulate than, say, a list of tenure requirements that an academic committee has created, or—to take a broader example—the decisions of statist regimes determining which lucky citizens get which consumer products. The market system has the reputation, too, of producing efficient results. And it doesn’t violate the prevailing notion of fairness too much.

[snip]

Naturally, not everyone embraces the market system. Probably the reason that intellectuals tend to reject it is that it doesn’t reward what they think is meritorious: Lady Gaga makes a lot more money than Nobel laureates do. But in America, people largely accept the system—not merely because they think that it will deliver a reasonably efficient outcome, but also because they consider it mostly fair.

[snip]

But this rosy picture obscures a hard fact: meritocracy is a difficult principle to sustain in a democracy. Any system that allocates rewards on the basis of merit inevitably gives higher compensation to the few, leaving the majority potentially envious. In a democracy, the majority generally rules. Why should that majority agree to grant a minority disproportionate power and rewards?
[snip]
However, two factors help sustain a meritocratic system in the face of this challenge: a culture that considers it legitimate to reward effort with higher compensation; and benefits large enough, and spread widely enough through the system, to counter popular discontent with inequality.

[snip]

But it isn’t necessary to support big business to support free markets. Indeed, the two positions are often at odds, which is why so many Americans who love competition and freedom of choice nevertheless distrust the power that big business is gaining in our society. What we need is something that we might call a pro-market, not pro-business, agenda, one that defends the market system that has served America so well without supporting the businesses, whether they’re banks or car companies, that have grown, as the phrase has it, “too big to fail.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Competition for the most enjoyable and least difficult four-year experience, culminating in a credential that is mostly a signifier of existing class positions

From A Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education, Part I by Thomas H. Benton.

A compendium of the challenges that university professors face in educating the current crop of students. While it sounds like an exerciese in excuse making, I think he is actually putting a useful lassoe around some common root causes of indifferent student engagement.
But that raises the question: What good does it do to increase the number of students in college if the ones who are already there are not learning much? Would it not make more sense to improve the quality of education before we increase the quantity of students?

Arum and Roksa point out that students in math, science, humanities, and social sciences—rather than those in more directly career-oriented fields—tend to show the most growth in the areas measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the primary tool used in their study. Also, students learn more from professors with high expectations who interact with them outside of the classroom. If you do more reading, writing, and thinking, you tend to get better at those things, particularly if you have a lot of support from your teachers.
My emphasis added. Sometimes it takes measuring things, as Arum and Roksa attempted to do in Academically Adrift, to make the self-apparent obvious - You get better at the things you spend more time practising. It would be rude to say "Well, duh" but the legions of excuse makers for students that don't achieve much seems to testify that the obvious isn't obvious to everyone - "They didn't try hard" takes a back seat to any number of improbable alternate explanations for poor performance.

Benton lists a number of the challenges which professors confront. With one in college and two on the way, I can see several of these as being well-founded issues. Benton dicusses each issue but I have included his commentary only on those that I suspect are the biggest factors.

Lack of student preparation. Increasingly, undergraduates are not prepared adequately in any academic area but often arrive with strong convictions about their abilities. So college professors routinely encounter students who have never written anything more than short answers on exams, who do not read much at all, who lack foundational skills in math and science, yet are completely convinced of their abilities and resist any criticism of their work, to the point of tears and tantrums: "But I earned nothing but A's in high school," and "Your demands are unreasonable." Such a combination makes some students nearly unteachable.

Grade inflation. It has become difficult to give students honest feedback. The slightest criticisms have to be cushioned by a warm blanket of praise and encouragement to avoid provoking oppositional defiance or complete breakdowns. As a result, student progress is slowed, sharply. Rubric-driven approaches give the appearance of objectivity but make grading seem like a matter of checklists, which, if completed, must ensure an A. Increasingly, time-pressured college teachers ask themselves, "What grade will ensure no complaint from the student, or worse, a quasi-legal battle over whether the instructions for an assignment were clear enough?" So, the number of A-range grades keeps going up, and the motivation for students to excel keeps going down.

Student retention

Student evaluations of teachers

Enrollment minimums

Lack of uniform expectations. It is impossible to maintain high expectations for long unless everyone holds the line in all comparable courses—and we face strong incentives not to do that. A course in which the professor assigns a 20-page paper and 200 pages of reading every week cannot compete with one that fills the same requirement with half of those assignments. Faculty members cannot raise expectations by themselves, nor can departments, since they, too, are competing with one another for enrollments.

Contingent teaching

Time constraints

Curricular chaos. Many colleges are now so packed with transient teachers, and multitasking faculty-administrators, that it is impossible to maintain some kind of logical development in the sequencing of courses. Add to that a lack of consensus about what constitutes a given scholarly field and a lack of permanent faculty members to provide coverage of a discipline. As a result, some majors have become an almost incoherent grab bag of marketable topics combined with required courses that have no uniform standards. Students are now able to create a path through majors that allows them to avoid obtaining what were once considered essential skills and disciplinary knowledge.

Demoralized faculty members

Benton concludes:
If they are right about that—and I hope they are not—it means that our "failing" system of higher education actually is working the way it is supposed to, according to the dictates of the market. The patterns of selection and resource allocation—and the rising costs of college education—are not driven by educational needs so much as they are the result of competition for the most enjoyable and least difficult four-year experience, culminating in a credential that is mostly a signifier of existing class positions.

Ouch

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Events over cultural icons

From The self-epublishing bubble by Ewan Morrison.

There's an interesting thought.
The internet is full of ironies. I, for one, could never have guessed that writing about the end of books would generate more income for me than actually publishing the damn things. I've been on an End of Books reading tour since August and it turns out that what the internet gurus say about consumers being more willing to pay for events, speeches and gigs, rather than buying cultural objects, is now becoming true.

He snatched the lightning from heaven

Anne Marie Turgot describing Benjamin Franklin.
Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis.

He snatched the lightning from heaven and the sceptre from tyrants.