Greg Lukianoff: The New Yorker is wrong about Free Speech

“It’s because The New Yorker has a history of publishing great articles like Packer’s that I was so disappointed to read Kelefa Sanneh’s article, “The Hell You Say,” in the August 10 edition of the magazine. In the article, Sanneh likens free speech advocates (like me, I assume) to “gun nuts,” claims that campus speech codes have mostly been repealed (which is completely false), then bizarrely questions if people can believe in a diversity of belief. Those of us who are big fans of the concept of pluralism found the latter particularly mystifying.”

Source: A Dozen Things ‘The New Yorker’ Gets Wrong about Free Speech (And Why It Matters) | Greg Lukianoff

Read both Sanneh’s article and Lukianoff’s rebuttal. At the very least, Sanneh makes good points badly.

Defending the Liberal Arts Education is Not the Issue

Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous”
Fareed Zakaria
The Washington Post
March 26, 2015

Out stumping for his new book In Defense of a Liberal Education, public intellectual Fareed Zakaria makes a case in the Washington Post that our national obsession with improving math and science education and de-emphasizing humanities is a dangerous path toward doffing our global competitive advantage. (NB: to clarify, Mr. Zakaria means “liberal” as in “liberal arts,” not “liberal politics.”

As the possessor of a bachelors degree in a liberal arts field, I am loathe to argue with Mr. Zakaria. Nonetheless, if his essay is any indicator of the content of his book I will not be adding it to my shelves anytime soon. There are several reasons.

The Higher Education Cost Bubble

First, no discussion about the nature of a university education can be divorced from its cost. It is too expensive to get a bachelor’s degree in this country, and that is burdening aged parents and turning our college graduates into wage slaves. Until we solve that problem – or make great strides toward it – everything else is so much re-arranging of deck furniture.

Before we go tossing money at the problem, we need to put the pressure on public universities to re-examine what they are doing with their funds. Money that is not going to scholarships, classrooms, labs, teaching staff, libraries, and the basic infrastructure to support students and instructors is being wasted. A half million new administrators have been added to university employment rolls in the US in the past 25 years, growing faster than student bodies. We need to look at what can be done to reduce the administrative burden on universities and reduce the number of administrators. Our target: cut administrators-per-student by 50% in 5 years.  Let’s cut capital spending on gold-plated facilities that turn universities into resorts with classrooms.

What is a BA For, Anyway?

Second, we should not be defending the liberal arts status quo any more than we should be stripping funding of the humanities. What we should be doing instead is conducting a national debate about the purpose of a baccalaureate degree. Is four years enough? Is it too much? How do we make it more affordable? And, most importantly, what should the content be?

Should we not be trying to create young men and women comfortably conversant in the idioms of a broad range of fields rather than laying on a minimal core requirement of box-ticking introductory-level courses? Would we not be better off filling the first two – or even three – years of a bachelor’s degree with rigorous survey courses in the humanities, in the social sciences, in physical sciences, in mathematics, leavened with composition, rhetoric, computer science, and foreign language, all prior to the commencement of the major program of study?

For if we are going to agree that the bachelor’s degree is not a vocational qualification, we should agree on its purpose, and I suggest that the purpose is to create a future filled with people capable of drawing from a range of fields to feed their creativity and our competitiveness. We want Renaissance Men and Women in the 21st Century sense, young people who could write a sonnet or an app, as comfortable at the easel as they are at the keyboard.

Those charged with teaching undergraduates would protest, I am sure, that not everyone could keep up with such requirements. No, probably not. But that brings us to my final point.

College As We Know It is Not For Everyone

We need to start a discussion in this country about whether everyone can – or should – have a bachelor of arts degree in the same way everyone can – or should – have a high school diploma. Each of us knows intelligent, capable 18 year-olds (or former 18 year-olds) for whom four or five years in the quest for a BA would have been a fruitless, frustrating, and wasteful endeavor. Indeed, there are 16-year olds for whom the last two years of high school are a waste of time. It is now time to ask whether we should be placing them on the same treadmill, or whether we should be offering something more valuable: an education designed to make them employable, productive, and, secure.

It is past time for us to begin to frame the future of trade and technical education, not only as an alternative track to a baccalaureate program, but as a means of offering retraining opportunities as job markets train. The decline of trade and technical education over the past four decades means that technical education has only been available through costly for-profit institutions, or offered as a part of an enlistment in the armed forces. Our young people should not have to put on a uniform or go into debt to learn the fundamentals of key trades or technical specialities, particularly those for which there is a constant need: machinists, auto repair, medical paraprofessionals, construction trades, bookkeepers, child care and elder care specialists, and food preparation specialists are just a few of the career areas for which our revived vocational school programs could cater. Many of these could be conducted in cooperation with local industries, expanding programs that already exist to provide a clear path from the classroom to the workplace.

Instead of cranking out millions of young people who will never find adequate employment to offset the costs of their college educations, we will be turning out ranks of readily employable apprentices, unsaddled with debt and ready to go to work. We need to forge a pathway for them to rewarding careers based on essential skills without owing their souls to the University of Phoenix, ITT-Tech, or DeVry.

The system cannot be framed in a handful of paragraphs, but issues like these suggest that Mr. Zakaria may well have done us all a greater service by using his bully pulpit to start a larger discussion about the real problems in American education.

We need to start this discussion to decide not if we are going to do this, but how. It is time for us to tear down our system of education and rebuild it from the bottom up. That is the only way we are going to ensure that our grandkids have a shot at a life even remotely as comfortable as our own.

Fired African-American Professor: Diversity ≠ Fairness

For his part, Mawakana says that making a broken system more diverse won’t make it fair. “It doesn’t matter if the professors are majority white, majority blue, or majority purple: they are achieving a racially discriminatory result.”

via Denied Tenure, Professors Sue Over Discrimination – Bloomberg Business.

Thank you, professor Mawakana. Can we now allow all universities to summarily fire their diversity staffs, and focus instead on enforcing a fair system?

Krugman’s Problem: Naked Partisanship

Knowledge Isn’t Power”
Paul Krugman

NYTimes.com
February 23, 2015

Paul Krugman has written a thoughtful piece about the link between education and inequality in The New York Times. I do not agree with all of it, but his core point – that educational reform is no panacea for the issue of growing inequality – is well taken.

A friend of mine from the Left wondered why his op/ed wasn’t being given more attention. I told her it was simple: Krugman held his audience right up until the end, when he said:

It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal. But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

There is no reason to turn this discussion into a GOP-bash, but Krugman apparently cannot resist. Problem one is that he is wrong: support for corporate tax holidays, corporate welfare, and and a tax-free Wall Street demonstrably extends deep into the ranks of both parties on Capitol Hill – rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

But the larger problem is Krugman’s desire to define the policy discussion in partisan terms. Turning honest debates about policy into opportunities to score partisan points does neither the debate nor the country any service. It forecloses opportunities to build bi-partisan coalitions around policy. And that is important: history has proven that we do not solve problems in America by giving one party or another dominance over government. We solve problems by forging debates and policies that rise above partisanship and engage the nation as a whole.

I have met Paul Krugman, and find him both intelligent and personable. It is a pity he finds it more important to employ his thinking as a means to divide the nation rather than to appeal for a debate about policy that transcends ideological squabbling. By doing so, he has made himself part of the problem, not part of the solution.

On George Will and Scripps College

Late last summer, George Will was invited to speak at a respected public policy forum at the Scripps College in Pomona, California. He was then abruptly disinvited. The reason given for the withdrawal of his invitation was his recent Washington Post column on rape on college campuses. According to a statement by Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga, “after Mr. Will authored a column questioning the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students, we decided not to finalize the speaker agreement.”

The column was awful, but the actions of Scripps College were a travesty.

Good Column Gone Bad

Let’s start with the column. In it, Mr. Will makes an important point that calls for deeper examination: when you celebrate or reward victimhood, victims tend to proliferate. He could have launched into a discussion of perverse incentives that can turn social programs into perpetual entitlements. Instead, he undermines his point by attempting to illustrate it with the worst possible example he could have chosen: the issue of sexual assault on campus.

Progressivism and its baggage have invaded our college campuses, politicizing instruction, fattening administration, and de-legitimizing an entire range of political views. Yet events make clear that those same  campuses do not yet have in place the right kinds of mechanisms to define, prevent, address, adjudicate, and punish sexual assaults. We can argue whether the tonic will cure the disease, but there is truth to the diagnosis. Mr. Will’s column was muddle-headed and embarrassing.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

I applaud the administration and students of Scripps College in their desire to show support to the victims of rape on campus. That said, no matter how you try to spin this, Mr. Will was disinvited because the views he expressed in one editorial out of some four thousand that he has written for the Post in the past 40 years was found objectionable.

To exclude him for that reason is to either demonstrate naked partisanship or to surrender to political correctness. Either is conduct unbecoming an academic institution, the lifeblood of which should be open debate and discussion of all viewpoints, however nauseating or preposterous.

The right thing to do would have been to bring Mr. Will to campus and allow him to speak his piece. If the Scripps students disagreed with Mr. Will, they could demonstrate that they not only possessed the maturity to offer him a forum for his views, but also the intelligence and passion to artfully rip him to shreds in public debate. Sadly, they will be denied that opportunity. That Scripps did not take this course in the name of political orthodoxy reflects no credit on the institution, its faculty, its students, or its alumni.

Debate and the Nation’s Future

When I was an undergraduate at UCSD in 1983, Angela Davis came to speak on campus. My College Republican friends and I raised no furor about it. What is more, I went to hear her speak despite my fundamental objections to her political and economic views, and despite her alleged provision of firearms to an underaged criminal who then used them in a kidnapping. In a mostly Davis-friendly crowd, I challenged her viewpoints and was shouted down, and rightly so: in my passionate disagreement, I had neglected to prepare a question that could be delivered with more logic than raw emotion. Nonetheless, I will treasure that day: nothing is more invigorating, more empowering, than having the chance to face in open debate a public figure whose views you oppose.

I wish only one thing for the students of Scripps and every institution of higher education in our great country: that they have as many opportunities as possible to face up to their political opponents in open debate. For if we do not teach our children to do that, to address their differences in dialogue, even heated dialogue, the only course of action left to them is to disregard or ban those with whom they disagree. Down that path lies a divided nation at best, and at worst, tyranny.

They Dreamed a Dream

“The great irony is that just as Berkeley now officially honors the memory of [the Free Speech Movement], it exercises more thought control over students than the hated ‘multiversity’ that we rose up against a half-century ago.”

Sol Stern, former leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement
via Free Speech Isn’t Free, Even at Berkeley.

Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.