Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fact Or Faith

"I have become more and more concerned over the last 10 years by the extent to which even intelligent, even college-educated people can end up being sucked into these little black holes of absurdity." Stephen Law

Those of us of a skeptical disposition are often derided at the first opportunity. So and so saw a ghost in her bedroom, such and such felt a “presence” in their basement. This is quickly followed by the usual self begging question: “How do you explain it?” For them, a personal anecdote is all the evidence they require, and the inability to instantly explain away the tale of someone you've never met, in a place you've never been, in a situation that cannot be repeated without the advent of time travel, is in its self an absolute law. If such were the evidential minimum required of our legal system, many an innocent man would long since have hanged.

This is not to say strange things don't happen, only, what one might find inexplicable, and therefore supernatural, is more often perfectly explicable and very natural with the right skills and the knowledge of what to look for. For instance, we often find our friend the baker assuring us that the red spot on our neck is skin cancer, only to have a dermatologist diagnose a rash.

Human beings cannot bear to be without explanation, and so they grab the quickest one to hand when all others seem to fail in magnitude to the response. Certainly emotion plays its role in the rush to judgment, and those already predisposed to believe a certain way will more quickly interpret any unusual experience through that very personal lens. It is for this reason Mexican Catholics see the Virgin Mary in tortillas but not the Buddha.

Lack of objectivity is the problem but critical thinking can in large part be a solution. To examine any experience properly, or belief for that matter, we must always be willing to play devil's advocate and consider its opposite. Most people believe they are fair, but when it comes to giving the benefit of the doubt, that same majority are all too quick to hand in their verdict. We know these people, may even love one or two of them, and for that same reason hope, not to change their minds, but give them the means to change them for themselves.

To the believer belief is enough. Disagreements are matters of opinion, an argument is a string of obscenities, and the mindset of the believer is such that they “feel” they are incapable of being deceived. Basic critical thinking skills are so rare that they can be forgiven an ignorance of logic, but to not concede that one can be mistaken is to turn Papal Infallibility into a commonplace. Have they never seen a magic act?

Yet, the fact that this is a faith belief is not the crux of the matter. Faith is beyond proof, if it were not so it would not be faith. And, though the skeptic may grow irritated by the use of this intellectual dodge most of us are willing, in a person to person context at least, to lower our sword's and play nice.

However, this is not enough, the believer must have it both ways, both faith and fact, and in the attempt to have it so they unknowingly break all the basic rules of argument. What makes for even more frustration is that you cannot bring them to see that there are any rules at all. They cannot be fooled, and in believing so break the first rule of the examination of any argument: they can't be wrong.

It is the skeptic who is immediately accused of arrogance and closed-mindedness, but if the believer can never be wrong who is being truly arrogant?

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Meat Grinder

In the past few years a number of books have appeared attempting to account for the astonishing fact that most college graduates appear to be leaving school with as little knowledge as they went in with. The most impressive of these, and the only study apparently ever conducted to specifically determine what students learn, is Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.i It's authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, studied 2,300 students at a diverse number of four-year colleges only to find the majority graduating with no significant improvement in learning gains. But, most important was the poor performance in the core skills of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.ii

These are skills not secondary to one's degree, but are regarded as the principle qualities every student should show some improvement upon. They are the crucial stepping-stones to personal enrichment, individual thinking, and the fundamental distinguishing characteristics between one who has had limited to no education, and one who is said to be “educated”.

Traditionally it is the humanities which held this task in trust, although the sciences now play their part as well. However, it is those very same disciplines in the humanities which are now under threat as funding for their departments and faculty disintegrate. The last result of the increasing corporitization of higher education.

No longer do we go to college to seek enrichment and personal growth, it has become much too expensive for that. Rather, we go now for a course of “training”. This is of course a necessity in a capitalist society. Businesses, if they are to be run effectively must, like the government, require bureaucrats. The more esoteric practices of the humanities, and many of the more speculative sciences are too abstract to be of any immediately perceived value. In other words, they make no money.iii

A direct consequence of this corporatization of universities has been the expansion of them throughout the country like fast food franchises. From cause to affect, the need to keep up with demand requires a steady supply of PhDs to in turn manage these training stations. And thus, in very little time the importance of quantity over quality becomes paramount.

As with all abstract concepts, a little illustration is useful. There are many professors now (and they know who they are) who, being the products of similar institutions, are as poorly equipped with the skills described above as their student's will be when released into the world. They are often easy to distinguish. They have the reputation for being the “easy” teacher, and have published little or nothing by the way of genuine research through peer review. Having landed the perfect position they can gratify their ego's with the title of professor on their door, without putting in the effort the duties such a title have come to imply.

Their “research”, as it is so called, is often research in name only. Usually related to some aspect of popular culture such as vampires or conspiracy theories, these studies can be useful when used in conjunction with other disciplines, or serving to elucidate a small part of a larger thesis, but more often are intellectually inbred, remaining within their own tiny spheres of meaningless minutia that, viewed without the prism of a doctorate to lend them some form of legitimacy and seriousness, are exposed as the pedantic concerns of, for lack of a better term, nerds.

While many of these “scholars” will plead that teaching, and not publishing and research are their main motivation for a life in academe, this would merely be a slap in the face to their colleagues throughout the world who are required to publish to improve their pay and secure their increasingly endangered position's. Ambition too is a motivation, a useful virtue which aids progress by striving for excellence. Likewise, it should be remembered that not every soul can be content with mediocrity, nor lucky enough to find an employer who cannot tell the difference.

These pseudo-scholars don't submit their idea's to their peers because they simply have none, and are blessed with a captive audience of credulous, ill prepared students who lack the critical thinking skills to call them out on it. Thus, like the worm that evades the hook they survive un-baited, and can bask in the undeserved praise of students and witless small town citizens, while continuing to bulk up and rarefy with pretension their little hobbies at the expense of parents and the state.

Arum and Roksa cite studies which point to a lack of rigor, or the feeling of being challenged in most students, who find to their surprise that college is far simpler than they had at first imagined. It is suggested that students generally prefer to be challenged, however, when given the choice of the easy course over the more difficult one, the majority almost always take the former over the latter as a matter of human nature. I imagine it is much the same in the pseudo-academic examples given above. Why engage with truly demanding concepts when one can listen to what amounts to repeats of the History Channel in a more pretentious setting, and delude one's self with the belief one is still doing meaningful research.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. As colleges are now businesses, their only concern, without government intervention, is to acquire all the consumers of its “product” that they can with all the rhetorical enticements that they may. If the product they offer can be delivered on the cheap, all the better for their profit margins. Their concern is merely to fill seats, not provide the quality attention and instruction to keep you there.

Finally, as a purely business enterprise, most colleges have no incentive to improve the condition of current primary education, and likewise, public education sees preparing students for higher education as secondary to their goal of scoring their own badly needed government funds. This institutionalized system of self-interest may also help explain the increase of the assembly line PhD if they too began their educations in our sub-par public school system. Nevertheless, public schools have much to answer for in their apparent failure to properly prepare students for education beyond High School, the inevitable outcome of a government whose priority is to make bombs and not books.

Academically Adrift has helped to reveal that students, like their teacher's, have become uncritical products with a shiny gloss giving the appearance of knowledge on the packaging, only to find the contents of small value to justify the advertising. Much like the sausage business, you only get the quality to come out that you put in.

iRichard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University Of Chicago Press, 2011).
iiKevin Carey, “‘Trust Us’ Won’t Cut It Anymore,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2011, sec. Commentary,
iiiFrank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, 3rd ed. (Fordham University Press, 2008).