Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ideology delays and exacerbates the day of reckoning

A rather overstretched argument in The Trap of Minority Studies Programs by John Ellis, but with a core truth.

Ellis argues that Universities side-track students, particularly minority students, away from a real education and instead channel them to non-productive, and in fact, destructive degrees which fail the student but serve the grander objectives of the faculty and administration.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large populations of poor immigrants arrived in the U.S.–Irish, Italians, and Jews from Russia and Poland. Their extreme poverty placed them at the bottom of the social ladder, and they were often treated with contempt. Yet just a few generations later they were assimilated, and their rapid upward social mobility had produced mayors, senators, judges, and even Presidents from among their ranks. None of this could have happened without first-rate public education.

To be sure, they worked hard to get ahead, but they were not obstructed by something that afflicts the have-nots of today: as they walked through the school gates they were not met by people intent on luring them into Irish or Italian Studies programs whose purpose was to keep them in a state of permanent resentment over past wrongs at the hands of either Europeans or establishment America. Instead, they could give their full attention to learning. They took courses that informed them about their new land’s folkways and history, which gave them both the ability and the confidence needed to grasp the opportunities it offered them.

When we compare this story with what is happening to minority students today, we see a tragedy. Just as Pinocchio went off to school with high hopes, only to be waylaid by J. Worthington Foulfellow, minority students are met on the way to campus by hard-left radicals who claim to have the interests of the newcomers at heart but in reality prey on them to advance their own selfish interests. Of course, what black students need is the same solid traditional education that had raised Irish, Italians, and Jews to full equality. But that would not serve the campus radicals’ purpose. Disaffected radicals wanted to swell the ranks of the disaffected, not the ranks of the cheerfully upward mobile. Genuine progress for minority students would mean their joining and thus strengthening the mainstream of American society–the mainstream that campus radicals loathe.


As thinkers, campus radicals are poor role models for students. Their ideas are simple and rigid, and they rely heavily on conspiracy thinking that infers far too much from too little. They are powered by emotional commitments that are highly resistant to the lessons of experience. As a result, their cherished ideas are now virtually obsolete, and strike any reasonably well-informed observer as downright silly. The minority students that they attract into their orbit are dragged down to this low intellectual level.

This background is the key to the fury that Naomi Schaefer Riley¹s criticisms of Black Studies dissertations unleashed. Radical leftists have achieved considerable influence on campus in part because they were able to add substantial numbers of incoming minorities to their numbers. They need those students in self-destructive Black Studies courses that keep them resentful and under-educated. But that is only possible if they can maintain the illusion that they help and support black students, rather than exploiting them. Ms Schaefer Riley was a threat to that illusion, and that is why she was attacked so vehemently.
Like I say, a little overdrawn as an argument.

But there is a gem in the mud. I think there are five bad consequences arising from the various Studies programs but the degrees of badness are not the same. I might argue that in ascending order of badness, Studies programs are responsible for 1) Ignorance, 2) Misunderstanding, 3) Anger, 4) Helplessness, and 5) Isolation. I view Isolation as the most egregious consequence.

Ignorance - Time spent studying the detail of out-of-the-mainstream and largely abandoned ideologies of grievance (postcolonialism, postmodernism, poststructuralism) displaces time spent on the broader sweep of history, literature, arts, sciences, etc. This is both bad and sad but not uncommon. The difference is that the displacement yields little in terms of productivity. An electrical engineer, a sciences major, an economics major also have large portfolios of knowledge that they have to acquire which in effect marginalize the amount of time they are able to dedicate to the classical humanities which provide a context for their specialized knowledge. The benefit, though, is that they emerge from university with a degree that is in demand and which allows them to be productive in a fashion that then allows them later to acquire the broader range of knowledge which they missed out on.

Misunderstanding - Everyone is to some degree ignorant, no one is omniscient. But some fields of knowledge cultivate an inquiring mind, critical thinking and a habit of openness combined with skepticism. In all the sciences and to some degree the harder humanities (such as economics) there is both a portfolio of knowledge to be acquired but there are also laws to be mastered. It is not enough to know that X is true but you have to be able to show why and under what conditions X is true. It is not enough to know that supply and demand determine price. You have to master the conditions under which that is true, why there are occasional exceptions, and the mechanisms by which supply and demand move the price. In contrast, many or most of the fields of grievance studies depend to a far greater degree on rhetoric and conviction than on skeptical enquiry and empirical evidence. It is enough to parrot the right words arising from belief without having to prove anything. Not only does the student lose by failing to acquire useful knowledge but more importantly the student also loses from failing to cultivate habits of critical thinking, inquiry, and skepticism. Even when provided evidence that contradict their beliefs, they are unable to process that information, thereby failing to adapt to a real world that does not match the abstract theoretical world in which they have been shaped.

Anger - This is a two sided outcome. Grievance studies are intended to convince their students of the legitimacy of their grievances and more than that to be sufficiently stirred to take action on those beliefs. It is broadly true that it is insufficient to have knowledge and to be skilled in alacritous thinking. Those are a great foundation but ultimately, there is only value if you deploy that knowledge and that skilled thinking to useful purpose. You have to be stirred to action. It is broadly better when the motif force is love or conscientiousness or respect or some other noble sentiment. But anger will do in a pinch. The problem for the students in grievance studies is that their motif force is almost always negative: envy or anger or jealousy or resentment. The negative motive is then compounded by being directed in a false or non-productive direction (arising from ignorance and misunderstanding).

Helplessness - Oddly in combination with the incitement to anger. In virtually all these grievance programs, there is a strong element that current status is a function solely of external conditions and malevolent actions of others and not at all a consequence of individual chosen actions and behaviors. In a world where everything is a consequence of impersonal forces and where the individual has no traction, there is a tendency towards fatalism and defeatism. Why bother when all is preordained? Of course that is not the reality at all. Individuals do make a difference, individual choices do have consequences. To the extent that you accept the doctrine of helplessness, your life circumstances will not improve at all and are likely to decline.

Isolation - I think this is the most egregious and difficult to overcome consequence of the grievance studies programs. Like a cult, you are lured in and then isolated from anything that contradicts the received wisdom. Not only do you lose knowledge, understanding and positive motivation but you lose the capacity to acquire those things as long as you remain hostage in epistemological isolation. Openness, transparency, skepticism, inquiry, agency, consequentiality, engagement all combined create a turbulent but ultimately self-correcting process for knowledge acquisition and refinement. Isolation and protection accomplish the reverse.

As an example of the counterproductiveness of this isolation, see the responses quoted in Ferguson Report Puts ‘Hands Up’ to Reality Test by Jack Healy, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Vivian Yee.
Others rejected the Justice Department’s conclusions entirely, and said they still believed Mr. Brown was trying to surrender when he was killed.

They said they did not trust an earlier state grand jury process that had cleared Mr. Wilson, who left the Ferguson police force late last year, of state criminal charges in November, and had no faith in the federal investigation or the high bar set to find a law enforcement officer responsible for civil rights violations.

African-American congressmen and congressional staff members on the steps of the Capitol in December. Credit Gary Cameron/Reuters
“To me, he had his hands up,” said Michael T. McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition in St. Louis. “It doesn’t change it for me.”
In this world of grievance, it doesn't matter what the facts are, belief trumps everything, particularly belief in victimhood. This belief system blinds the angry advocates both from recognition of the real problem and real solutions that might dramatically improve everyone's circumstances. Ferguson is not a product of racism but of dysfunctional governance with a predatory system of funding through the legal system which disproportionately disadvantages the poor (who are disproportionately black).

Accepting the grievance studies program's interpretation that this is all a function of overt and covert racism on the part of the city council and the police department, all you have to do is replace white leaders and officers with black leaders and officers. We have more than enough empirical evidence to demonstrate that this will not solve the problem but will make it worse (lesser transparency and capacity to criticize.)

A classical liberal with an open, skeptical, inquiring mind not hampered by the victim lenses, would look at the Ferguson situation and identify changes in governance structure (likely mergers with comparable entities to achieve critical mass) and changes in government funding as the means to improve the quality of life of the residents. Ferguson is the product of long postponed fundamental changes made necessary by changing demographics, economy, technology, etc. What worked in the past clearly is not working today. No one will like higher property taxes but that has to be the first necessary step to move away from a predatory judicial system. The fact that no one wants higher property taxes likely means that the residents of Ferguson will have to choose either lower services or will have to merge with another municipality to achieve critical mass for service provision. That might not be the choice people want, but that is what they face and no amount of diversity training, affirmative action hires, gerrymandering or other nonproductive strategies will change that. It will just postpone the day of reckoning with reality.

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