Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You sure you guys are smart?

A very interesting juxtaposition of articles. In January, there was Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60 by Upshot.

In March there was Illiberal arts colleges: Pay more, get less (free speech) by Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias

And now in April, combining the two ideas, there is Colleges with rich students see more protests against speakers from The Economist.
YALE UNIVERSITY is perhaps the epicentre of the campus activism so voguish today. Two professors stepped down from pastoral roles last year after a controversy about whether students should police their own offensive Halloween costumes, rather than letting the university do it for them, provoking protests from hundreds of students. Yale is currently debating whether to discontinue using the word “freshman” in favour of the more gender-neutral term “first-year”.

That Yale is also one of America’s most prestigious universities is not coincidental. Across the country, colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited (see chart). Recent flare-ups at Middlebury College, which tried to prevent Charles Murray, a conservative writer, from speaking and left the professor interviewing him with a concussion, and at the University of California, Berkeley which had to cancel a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, an over-exposed provocateur, are but the tip of a larger pile.

Following the work of Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution, The Economist analysed data on student attempts to disinvite speakers since 2013 collected by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group. Matching those numbers with information on SAT scores and wealth, measured as the fraction of students with one-percenter parents, shows statistically significant correlations. Even among selective universities, those with better-credentialed and wealthier students were likelier to mount protests. They were also likelier to mount successful attempts to block speakers.

The Economist posits that perhaps rich universities invite more controversial speakers. Reeves, in his article above, advances a different thesis.
The upper middle class is separating dangerously from the rest of society. This is driven in part by unfair “opportunity hoarding” mechanisms, including regressive tax expenditures, corrupt internships, and unfair zoning laws. But perhaps the greatest symbol of upper middle class separation is the elite university itself. Colleges like Middlebury—buoyed by such practices as legacy preferences in admissions—not only reflect but reinforce the continued growth of inequality.

The quintessentially liberal commitment to free and open dialogue is indispensable for building mutual understanding and respect in a diverse society. Cultural separation fueled by economic inequality, however, undermines that dialogue and respect. The spectacle of rich, “progressive” protestors refusing to hear a lecture on the roots of their own privilege; well, it tells you how much work there is to do. The class gap in American today is economic, educational and residential. Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is cultural, too. Mutual distrust across class lines is one of the causes of our current toxic politics. Greater understanding, shared learning and self-reflection are all needed now more than ever. And you don’t learn anything by shouting others down.
Elsewhere Reeves goes further, observing that at these disinviting universities “certain left-of-centre tenets, largely around identity politics, take on the weight of an orthodoxy.”

I'd go somewhat further, still. Even at the disinviting universities it is almost always a tiny minority of students who are acting out their outrage. I have seen the number 5% bandied about but do not know whether there is any empirical backing to it. Very small though. There is other evidence suggesting that most these outrage protesters are from a handful of programs such as ethnic studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology and the like.

I suspect the dynamic is that these wealthy prestigious universities are admitting some small portion of identity-politics practicing students, usually with relaxed standards, who then congregate in these reinforcing Gramscian programs of grievance and then use their privileged platform to draw attention to themselves and their self-perceived victimhood.

Which is all well and fine if these 5 percent grievance mongers (who are also 1 percenters in income) weren't, by their actions, harming and bringing down the other 95% of students. See University of Missouri with their continuing declines in enrollment since their campus protests to silence speakers in 2015.

As Jonathan Haidt has argued (my paraphrase), these universities have to decide whether they are on the side of the 95% who are seeking to acquire/spread knowledge and understanding or whether they are going to be theological schools for the 5% who want ideological purity above knowledge.

It would seem a straightforward choice but apparently many are struggling with it. Reminds me of a scene from The Big Bang, The Fermentation Bifurcation.
Howard: You could put it in a satellite or a rocket, and it'll run forever.
Zack: Cool. Could it be used for missiles and war stuff?
Howard: Yeah, but we didn't create it for weapons.
Leonard: And I doubt the military would be interested in our little guidance system.
Zack: Is it better than the one they use now?
Howard: A lot.
Leonard: Way better.
Zack: Huh. You sure you guys are smart?

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