RETRO APPEAL

Posted in Rants on January 31st, 2011 by Ed

Samuel Doe was the kind of person who would never have risen to or maintained political power without the Cold War. Doe, who ruled Liberia from 1980 to 1990, was the typical Third World dictator of that era: corrupt, brutally repressive, and propped up by one of the two superpowers. In Doe's case that was the United States. He was one of many American "allies" throughout the Cold War who understood exactly how to keep the flow of money, weapons, and food aid coming from Washington by spouting virulent anti-communist rhetoric and cracking down on leftist parties in domestic politics. We had a standing policy for the better part of 50 years to prop up any crackpot tyrant willing to line up on our side, turning a blind eye to the catalog of human rights abuses perpetrated under his rule.

As the Cold War wound to a close in the late 1980s, Doe and many others like him around the world found that they were no longer useful to the U.S. – or alternatively that their Soviet patrons were about to give up the ghost. Once Doe's role in the Battle against Communism became a moot point there was little reason for Congress and the Pentagon to support him. We abandoned him to his fate and in fact encouraged people who were trying to overthrow him, perhaps attempting to score a few brownie points by condemning his dismal human rights record we had long been happy to ignore. Liberian rebels, to shorten a long story, deposed Doe in a 1989-1990 coup; he was last seen having his ears sliced off (Reservoir Dogs style) before being executed by drunken rebels in a snuff film that still sells briskly on the black market in Africa (very NSFW).

Of course we were soon to discover that Charles Taylor, the leader of the rebels who overthrew Doe, would prove to be even more of a brutal killer than his predecessor. Turns out those rebels we had cheered were not terribly interested in democracy or anything else that Americans imagine to be the goal of revolutions worldwide. It was merely the exchange of one brutal thug for another, the only difference being the degree to which Doe was superior in sucking up to Washington's interests.

Fast forward to 2011 and hopefully it is clear why this tale comes to mind as we watch the events in Egypt and the rest of North Africa unfold. In the post-Cold War world America's counterproductive policy of propping up dictators has continued with only cosmetic changes, notably replacing "Communism" with "terrorists / Islamic fundamentalists." While Americans and especially American right wingers instinctively fawn all over protest movements by imagining them as a validation of the George W. Bush worldview ("Freedom is on the march!"), a little caution might be prudent here.

If Mubarak is toppled – and it appears likely if not necessarily imminent – what replaces him? Does a popular democratic movement sweep Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei into power or does the anti-American, pro-extremist Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most popular opposition parties, come out on top? While there is no justification for keeping Mubarak's corrupt ass in power any longer, it's fair to recognize the possibility that the replacement might be worse.

If Mubarak is toppled, who fills Egypt's role as an intermediary between Israel and the larger Arab world? Does Egypt become a state friendly to terrorism, a la Syria? Do human rights abuses get even worse?

Let me stress again that in no way do I think Mubarak should stay (or be kept) in power; he is little different than any of the cheap thugs who served as Allies of Convenience during the Cold War. His situation does raise two issues, though. First, by repeating the failed foreign policy of the Cold War era and calling any jackass who will promise to help us kill terrorists a Valued Ally – and turning a blind eye to human and political rights abuses – we are bound to repeat its consequences. There will be more anti-American sentiment and more instability in already unstable areas of the world. Second, if America does the right thing and declines to interfere in these nations' process of determining their own political future there is an excellent chance that the resulting governments will be less friendly to the U.S. and possibly even hostile. Their memories of what we did to support the dictator who repressed them for 30 years will be long and unpleasant.

In other words, let's hold off on the knee-jerk cheering until we understand the long term consequences of current events. I hope the people of Egypt rid themselves of their self appointed President for Life. The U.S. has to brace for the possibility that the consequences of that eventuality might not be pleasant for either the Egyptians themselves or the world at large. I guess repeating the same foreign policy mistakes of the 1950s is the price we pay for convincing ourselves as a nation that the same policies somehow ended (and "won") the Cold War.

NPF: THE GREAT BEYOND

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 28th, 2011 by Ed

Because "no politics" doesn't always mean that Fridays will be full of funny.

Frontline has been knocking it out of the park this season and I just got around to watching "Facing Death", a highly recommended look at patients and families in intensive care units making decisions about using advanced technology to prolong the lives of patients with no hope of recovery. We see respirators in comatose stroke victims, cancer patients in their final days, and $250,000 bone marrow transplants that buy terminal patients a week or so (at best) of poor quality life.

It is easy for the home viewer to watch these patients and think "Give it up, man." The doctors in this hospital are remarkably frank, as I imagine most doctors in those situations prefer to be. They let patients know in no uncertain terms that additional, intensive, and often expensive treatments are not likely to prolong life and offer no hope of recovery. At best, it buys a small amount of time that might be spent heavily sedated, comatose, or in agonizing pain. The family members who refuse to take their 90 year old mother off the respirator seem delusional to us. We would all like to think that we would be more rational in the same circumstances. Call me skeptical.

Is any of this worth it? Do doctors need to do an even better job of telling people "Look, this half-million dollar liver transplant is going to buy you a week or two and then you are going to die anyway" or are they already too eager to talk patients they consider terminal or hopeless out of treatment? When doctors do advise radical procedures to terminal patients, are they doing it to "practice"/experiment or do they actually think that it will offer meaningful benefits? This must be a very hard line for health care providers to toe. I can imagine cold, emotionless doctors who write off patients with terminal diseases at the drop of a hat, potentially denying treatments that might provide legitimate benefits. I can also imagine doctors who are unrealistically optimistic, insisting on throwing the kitchen sink at every patient no matter how hopeless. There is no easy way to balance those concerns.

People die in hospitals much more often today than ever before. We see this as progress, a sign of the broadening of access to advanced medical care. It is fair to question, though, what is accomplished by spending limited resources and obscene amounts of money to treat people who are barely alive and aren't going to get better. Shouldn't the patients tell the doctor "No more"? Shouldn't the next of kin face reality and take Mom off the heart-lung-dialysis machine after months without improvement? From a moral or practical standpoint it is a slam dunk. Resources are better spent on patients who might actually improve with treatment, and literal billions of dollars are spent on mechanical life extending interventions that serve no real purpose. I have reservations nonetheless.

My opinion stems not from a religious or moral principle but from a sense of caution. Until we are in that position ourselves, none of us can say definitively how we will react and what we would want – for ourselves or our kin. Who really knows what happens when we reach the end? Anyone who still has meaningful levels of brain activity has some kind of quality of life. Maybe the last day is when we have the vision / dream that explains the meaning of life. Maybe one more day with the family, even if unable to move or speak, is worth any amount of money. Maybe the small amount of extra time is enough for people to figure things out and make peace with what is happening to them.

Before you grab the pitchforks, let me reiterate that I do recognize practicality as an issue. People who are brain dead should not be sustained. Bone marrow and organs should be directed toward younger, healthier patients who might actually recover. Doctors and patients do need to do a better job of saying "There is no hope for improvement. Further treatment beyond making you comfortable is futile." Some people can't let go and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars and man-hours seeking a miracle recovery up to the very last minute. Nonetheless, never having been in that position (directly or as the family member making decisions on a dying person's behalf – I've been pretty damn lucky so far) I am hesitant to argue too strongly against end-of-life medical expenses. Sure, the 30% of all healthcare costs spent in the last year of life could be seen as "waste". Maybe it is. Maybe doctors should tell terminal patients to do what humans have been doing for thousands of years – go home, go to bed, and wait for the end. But at the same time, we have to recognize that we are making some mighty big assumptions based on how little we collectively know about what happens at the end and what value, if any, is derived from buying small increments of additional time at great cost.

INEPTITUDE

Posted in Quick Hits on January 27th, 2011 by Ed

I'm going to keep it brief today – I like Wednesday's post enough to keep it going for another day rather than bury it.

I strongly recommend that you find 20 minutes to read Jason Zengerle's "The Idealist" from the February New Republic. It is impeccably written and unfolds across seven pages like a good movie. The story concerns Jeff Smith, a young Missouri politician brought to some degree of fame as the subject of the documentary film Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Spoilers coming.

I absolutely love the Keystone Kops aspect of the relatively minor offense that led to the double indictment (although note that as is often the case, the attempt to cover up the crime was worse than the crime). Idealistic and book-smart people are just so bad at crime. Note the planning, which is reminiscent of the scene in Office Space in which the three nerds try to figure out how to launder money by looking it up in the dictionary. Later they base their efforts to avoid investigators on an episode of The Wire.

As Matt Taibbi's profile of John Boehner emphasizes, some people are cut out for Washington politics. Those people are almost universally scumbags. They lack any discernible positives as politicians or as human beings excepting the ability to raise money from lobbyists and get reelected. Idealistic people who enter this system – and I'm not attempting to portray Jeff Smith as an angel, but he is obviously a neophyte and somewhat naive – are skinned alive, picked over by the scavengers, and dumped on the trash heap.

Politics are much like any other form of crime. Poor people shoot each other and go to prison because they can't afford lawyers. The affluent, well connected elite hire a professional who is good enough to avoid detection to commit their crimes, and on the rare occasions that they are prosecuted their $100,000 retainer legal teams have them home by dinnertime.

THE CANARD

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2011 by Ed

Playing off of the main theme of the State of the Union address, Very Serious Reasonable Centrist David Gergen asks a very basic question in his latest CNN piece: Can the U.S. still compete?

The question: Will the United States renew its capacity to compete in global markets so that we create quality jobs for our people here at home? If we do, America's best days are still ahead; if we fail, they will soon be far behind. It's about that simple.

For more than a century, we didn't have to worry much about our greatness as a people. But times have changed. We may be the nation that astonished the world by building a transcontinental railroad. But today, as the president pointed out last month in a visit to North Carolina, we find that Shanghai in China has built more high-speed rail in a year than we have built in the past 30 years.

For most of the 20th century, we were No. 1 in the world in education; today, we are ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees, 18th in high school graduation rates among industrialized nations and 27th in the proportion of science and engineering degrees. China now graduates more English-trained engineers than the U.S. and has become the world's No. 1 exporter in high technology.

As others have become more competitive and we have slowed, American jobs have been disappearing…Can we turn things around? No one is certain, but the competitiveness commission — representing some of the best minds in the country — believes we still have a chance. In the 2010 report, its top four recommendations, in descending order of importance, were:

1. Upgrade U.S. K-12 education in science and math to a leading position by global standards.

2. Double real federal investment in basic research in math, the physical sciences and engineering over the next seven years, while maintaining the recent doubling in bioscience research.

3. Encourage more U.S. citizens to pursue careers in math, science and engineering.

The seductiveness of this argument and people like Gergen in general is that it is impossible to disagree with his point. We do suck at math and science. We are shedding jobs. We are a shell of what we used to be in terms of competitiveness. Although he doesn't say so explicitly, he is tapdancing around the fact that we're not really good at anything anymore except engaging in high-tech warfare for low-tech purposes, i.e. bombing the living shit out of some country that is already difficult to distinguish from rubble.

The problem is that this line of reasoning misses the point entirely. None of these problems that he identifies, as real as they are, will be solved by having more young people doing better in math and science. We could start churning out Stephen Hawking-caliber minds by the hundreds and it would not change the fundamental fact that we cannot compete with China and the "developing world." Everything "engineers" and scientists can do can and will be done more cheaply there. And we did this to ourselves when we decided that having cheaper consumer goods for the top 10% of income earners was more important than having a middle class making decent money and driving the economy with (non debt-supported) purchasing.

When the upper- and middle classes decided 30 years ago that it would be a good idea to phase out the working class in favor of cheap foreign labor it appears obvious in hindsight that they were opening floodgates that would eventually result in white collar and highly skilled jobs going overseas as well. But something – subconscious racism, American exceptionalism, or perhaps good ol' fashioned cockiness – convinced everyone in the suburbs and penthouses that this could never happen. Chinamen using computers? An Indian getting an MBA? Be serious! The unwashed masses of the Third World will never be able to do our jobs, said the comfortable elite. They will be useful for helping us break unions, but their skills are and ever shall be limited to menial physical labor.

First they came for the autoworkers, and I did not speak up. Then they came for the steel mills, and I did not speak up. Then they came for the white collars, and there was no one left to speak up for them.

It doesn't matter how many math PhDs and computer scientists and engineers we produce. What's the point? Within the next 15 to 20 years, every single one of those jobs will be done in Southeast Asia.** The jobs are not coming back because there is not a single incentive, economic, legal, or political, for companies to hire American workers, be it for menial or highly skilled work. As Christina Freeland pointed out in a recent (and excellent) Atlantic Monthly piece, globalization has put you and I in the position of competing with someone who will do our job for 1/10th the compensation:

The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. "His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade," the CEO recalled.

I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. "We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world," he told me. "So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut."

Leave aside for a moment the ridiculous notion that we can start educating innovators and engineers while we're slashing funding for education, laying siege to those Greedy Teachers and their Unions, and making a push in some of our biggest states to start teaching kids that people rode dinosaurs (Think of how many great bioengineers and geneticists a nice, creationist education will produce!). America cannot compete, not because we are dumb, though we are, but because we have set ourselves against people willing to work for much, much less that us.

We cannot compete with a China that keeps manufacturing workers in quasi-prisons, working 12 hour shifts making iPods for pennies per hour.

We cannot compete with a China, India, or Mexico in which industry pollutes without the slightest hesitation on a scale that would embarrass an 1890s American steel mill.

We cannot compete when imported goods compete with domestic goods on even terms in the U.S. retail market.

We cannot compete when your college friend from India gets the same degree as you do, returns home, and does the same job for 1/4 the salary.

We can't compete until you're willing to take that paycut our socioeconomic betters now demand, because our most glaringly obvious problem is that you currently make too much money.

We can't compete because we have spent the last 30 years seeing to it that we cannot, and will not, compete.

How unfair it is that so many of the people responsible for our current state of competitiveness will have the luxury of dying before its consequences fully unfold.

** Including yours. Yes, yours. I know everyone in these fields has rationalized a reason that they will never be Outsourced, but recent history has given the lie to any theories of exceptionalism.

IT'S QUITE A PUZZLE

Posted in Rants on January 25th, 2011 by Ed

Heather Wilson bemoans the failings of the pool of Rhodes Scholar applicants in Sunday's Washington Post:

Unlike many graduate fellowships, the Rhodes seeks leaders who will "fight the world’s fight." They must be more than mere bookworms. We are looking for students who wonder, students who are reading widely, students of passion who are driven to make a difference in the lives of those around them and in the broader world through enlightened and effective leadership. The undergraduate education they are receiving seems less and less suited to that purpose.

An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.

I think Cecil Rhodes himself would be impressed with the extent to which the foundation that bears his name appears to be stuck in the Cold War. I was not previously aware that today's young people were big on nuclear disarmament and the dilemma of "nuclear deterrence."

The real core of Heather's lament – it only gets dumber beyond this excerpt – is a simple question in every sense of the term: Why aren't any of the smart kids wingnuts? Can't we get more kids with outstanding grades who think Bill Kristol is right about everything? Why don't today's high achieving students conform to our bizarre, quasi-anachronistic conception of "leadership", a nebulous concept traditionally relied upon to favor the boarding-schools-and-Ivy-league crowd with their trained and perfected manners over the intelligent ruffians of the public school set?

It's quite a mystery, H-Dawg. Quite a mystery. I wonder if every Rhodes scholar applicant is a straw man of what the Ivory Tower Libruls are doing to today's kids – Buzzwords! Touchy-feely cultural studies! Can you believe Latin is no longer required in most colleges!?! – or if the ones she used as examples in this column just happened to fit that profile.

THE OLD GUARD

Posted in Rants on January 24th, 2011 by Ed

A hypothetical scenario for a college professor.

Bob is a graduate student. One semester he gets seriously depressed and misses several weeks of class. For reasons beyond anyone's comprehension, I, the professor, cannot simply talk to Bob and come to an agreement about how to handle the work he missed and his grade. The obvious choice would be to give him a grade of Incomplete and require him to make up the work later, but I determine that the course is just too important and he has fallen irredeemably behind his cohort – which means he should be withdrawn from the class and required to take it again. Instead I decide to email the entire cohort of graduate students to poll them on what should be done with Bob. I say, "One of your classmates has depression and missed a bunch of class. Should I give him an A, B, or C? Should he get the grade he had at the time he stopped attending? Should he be given zeroes for his missed grades and given a final grade accordingly? Help me out here!"

Look at that story. It's like a game: circle all of the things that are illegal, against university policy, or just plain inappropriate. I revealed personal information about one of the students to his classmates, information that is likely to embarrass him. Of course they all know who has been absent, so efforts to "anonymize" the situation are silly at best. I decided to poll students about a grading decision that I should make based on established university policy – after all, it is not likely that this is the first time as student has ever missed classes for personal reasons.

The only thing that could make this more inappropriate – with the potential exception of the phrase "One of your classmates has a burning chancre on his penis" – would be for the professor to discuss the details of this situation with the whole grad cohort in class. With Bob in the room.

While this is not the most realistic hypothetical, if you replace "depression" with "pregnant" and "Bob" with a female this is essentially what happened in a graduate program at UC-Davis. A pregnant female student had her personal situation and grade opened up for discussion by a male professor who, despite being fully tenured and with many years of experience, has apparently never had a pregnant woman in his class. Or perhaps even met one.

There are several problems here, not the least of which is an ancient, tenured asshole who probably longs for the days when a male professor could tell female students "This is a man's field. Go study anthropology" without consequences and with the unanimous approval of his colleagues. The bigger problem is the extent to which academics (and other people in highly competitive fields in the non-academic world) are not-so-subtly dissuaded from having any sort of life outside of academia. While I'm sure that many departments are good about the issue, female graduate students are usually informed in indirect but certain terms that having a baby in grad school – heck, any time before tenure! – is not a good idea. It is an inconvenience during grad school and a burden on the job market. After all, who wants to hire a woman who will constantly be taking breaks to breastfeed and leaving at 5:00 to spend time with her children? That's valuable research time! (Male academics who have children, on the other hand, are simply expected to ignore them. Mommy can take care of them. You can stay in the office.)

Academia expects us to have no life whatsoever outside of the campus, although professions like teaching, law, medicine, and nursing (to name a few) are similarly difficult on people during the typical marriage-and-kids years of one's life. That the professor's actions here were inappropriate and probably illegal goes without saying. That graduate programs and attitudes toward young faculty try to shame and punish people who dare to, you know, have a child before it's biologically too late is more disturbing. The message is clear: your job is the most important thing in your life and everything is secondary to the demands of your employer. You know this is wrong and that you should prioritize your family and life over your job. That said, the fact that employees in this country have no power whatsoever (especially in a lousy job market) has a strange tendency to subsume any holistic sense of self-interest and promote one that is defined solely as the need to do whatever is necessary to keep one's job.

Sure, universities could push back against these pressures in our society…but given that the upper tiers of the profession are composed of people who were educated in the 1960s Old Boys' Clubs there is little interest in doing so. Have fun working at Borders after we deny your tenure, Missy. Hope those kids were worth it!

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NPF: SCIENCE!

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 21st, 2011 by Ed

Isn't science great? It's out there every day finding ways to cure diseases, feed the hungry, help the environment, and make the inconveniences of modern life a little less inconvenient. Without the scientific advances of the last century our average lifespan would be 25 years shorter and mankind would still be spending the vast majority of its human capital trying not to starve to death every winter. Every day the billions of dollars funneled into scientific research and development yield new rewards to humanity.

New Mexico State University's chili breeding program has created a new "extra large, medium hot jalapeno pepper precisely optimized for jalapeno poppers." The NuMex Jalmundo will change the menus at bowling alleys forever.

The peppers, created at NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute, are a hybrid of bell pepper and jalapeno. The bell pepper provided a larger interior cavity, perfect for stuffing with cheese and then frying. The Jalmundo has a heat level of 17,000 Scoville Heat Units, about double the average jalapeno pepper, but still well below the 1,359,000 of the Naga Viper.

As for the name, Paul Bosland — the co-founder of the nonprofit Chile Pepper Institute — explained…the name Jalmundo is a contraction of jalapeno and the Spanish word for world (mundo), implying that it is as big as the world.

Well, now that we've settled that…

LIKE AN AMWAY SNUFF FILM

Posted in Rants on January 20th, 2011 by Ed

It will not surprise you to learn that I don't watch a lot of Fox News, although it's fair to point out that I don't watch TV news in general these days. For a while I watched a decent amount of it, almost entirely for the comedy value. Then around 2002 it stopped being funny and started to resemble propaganda that sounded better in the original German. Now I see it every month or two for about 15 minutes in the waiting room at my doctor's office (he is also the last person on Earth whose "These Colors Don't Run" bumper sticker is not ironic).

Look, there's nothing more trite than pointing out that Fox News is stupid and resembles "news" only inasmuch as one considers a turn-of-the-century Hearst newspaper to be news. It has evolved, however, from bad, comically slanted news into an entire alternate universe of news and news consumption. Its guests and "experts" appear only on Fox. Its hosts spend half of their time interviewing other personalities on the Fox payroll. Roger Ailes sends out daily memos reminding his on-air "talent" to reiterate the RNC talking points. It is to the media what Amway is to consumer goods – a cult-like organization of true believers who promise to fulfill all of your needs but insist that you sever ties to anyone outside The Family. What's that? We can't find any experts to appear on-air to promise that tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs? So what! We'll just make our own experts!

Watching highly paid Fox News Personality Sarah Palin being interviewed (in a sense, at least) by highly paid Fox News Personality Sean Hannity, one cannot avoid the question of who on Earth could possibly watch this willingly…and perhaps even take it seriously. Watch 60 seconds of that if you can stomach it. It has the production quality of a snuff film produced by a poorly equipped high school A/V club – the clip art graphics, the "a hostage is about to be beheaded" lighting, the cheap, echo-y sound reminiscent of something recorded in an empty garage with a single, poorly placed boom mic…it all appears to have been thrown together with great haste and absolutely no concern for whether or not the audience would think critically about any of it. And that hasn't even touched on how stupid the words coming out of their mouths sound. Watching Hannity lob softball after softball at this idiot and seeing her swing and miss every time isn't just painful, it's the very definition of a farce.

Conservatives enthusiastically argue that all news networks are equally biased and therefore any one is as good as the others. This is of course nothing but a defense mechanism, and an understandable one at that. We all watch what flatters our own ideological predispositions, but surely any sentient person watching Fox knows, on a very deep and basic level, that he is watching not actual news but performance artists doing their impression of news. Right? I mean, throw me a bone here. Tell me that people who watch this are self aware enough to realize that it's essentially entertainment programming. They don't actually watch this network and think "I'm watchin' the news! I'm learnin' important stuff!" do they?

Do they?

Then again, I suppose that in a world in which print and online media routinely run unedited press releases as news items and Pam Geller has a six-figure readership I should not be shocked that people can watch this pile of shit and convince themselves that it is Shinola.

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INMATES RUNNING ASYLUMS

Posted in Rants on January 19th, 2011 by Ed

This item made its way around the interwebs on Tuesday, revealing the shocking assertion that American college students aren't learning much during their four to seven years of undergraduate binge drinking. A new book entitled Academically Adrift asserts that college students in their sample (approximately 2000) show little to no improvement in knowledge and critical thinking skills after two and four years. As these brief news items do not say much about the methodology of this study I can't say how seriously these findings should be taken. Nonetheless this conclusion seems like it has been common knowledge for quite some time now – especially among those of us on the Inside – and we may be safe assuming that there is some kernel of truth to it.

Look, this is not a revelation. We know that American universities are plagued with grade inflation, pitifully low standards, rampant senses of entitlement among the students, and a general lack of interest in scholarly activity on campus. We know that students want to do as little work as possible and whine for higher grades. We know that some meaningful portion of academics give out high grades and demand almost nothing of students in pursuit of higher student evaluations and teaching awards. We know that demands from parents, state legislators, and taxpayers play a role as well. We know that a lot of people in college right now are nowhere near ready to do college-level work. We know that the economic state of higher education means that less experienced, lower paid people are doing the majority of the teaching in many places. None of this is news and to discuss it here would be to repeat ourselves at great length to no effect.

Of the many news sites that carried this story on Tuesday, the Gawker link ended up being the most interesting to me. Not because the hack of a writer did a good job summarizing the book (he didn't) but because of the comment thread. While it is lengthy, it is interesting to thumb through. As usual when the state of academia is opened up for debate, current or recent undergraduates gravitate toward institutional factors as sources of blame, e.g.:

My Genetics degree was tough to get but I didn't have the time to fuck around and not study. But I also recall the first two years of my college being mostly fluff courses that we were required to take in order to make us 'well rounded'. Stuff like fulfilling certain multicultural, western, eastern, foreign language and history courses, regardless of major.

As an instructor of a giant, state legislatively mandated Intro to American Government course in which students generally have not one shred of interest, I encounter this attitude often. I am only here because the state is forcing me to be here. I do not want to take (math / English / foreign languages / history / politics / etc). I only want to take the courses in my major (which is inevitably journalism, business, or something equally full of people who think they know everything). Because why would a journalist or someone in "business" need to know anything about how American government works?

What it reveals, I believe, is the disturbing trend of treating students as customers in universities run like businesses, and we know that the customer is always right. They come into college with the attitude that they will tell us what they want to be taught, not the other way around. Despite the fact that colleges already offer students a substantial amount of discretion in choosing their course of study, they are increasingly vocal in their anger toward the minimal trappings of a well rounded, liberal arts education that most states have in place.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is not how the system is intended to work. You do not walk into college, 18 years old and brimming with all the worldly knowledge concomitant with that age, and tell us what we should be teaching you. If the students already know what knowledge and skills they need, then why are they in college? Ah. At last we reach the heart of the matter – they fundamentally believe that the educational aspect of college is little more than a tedious requirement. We are just gatekeepers standing between them and the fabulous, high-paying careers that await them on the other side. "I don't give a crap about Literature or history or the rules of grammar; just give me my B so I can start making $500,000 per year in advertising or writing Golden Globes fashion articles for Vogue."

You see, college isn't about learning anything. It's merely a multiyear party with a bunch of hoops to jump through, a set of obstacles between each Special Snowflake and the Good Life. And the more they whine about states' efforts to impose some semblance of a well-rounded education, the more we change things to accommodate them. The customer is always right. I am not the world's strongest proponent of "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" education, but the idea that students aren't learning because we're boring them by subjecting them to math, English, history, foreign languages, and political science is beyond the pale. If anything, a far stronger argument could be made that students learn so little in college because their curricula are composed so heavily of narrow elective courses lacking in breadth and of dubious educational value. We know you want to spend all of your time taking elective crap and "business" classes, kids. But here's the thing: you can't. Our job, at least for now, is to develop your critical thinking skills and expose you to a broad range of ideas and intellectual traditions. But fear not; over time I'm sure that state legislatures will turn college into the four year drunken vocational school our customers so desperately want.

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PERVERSE INCENTIVES

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2011 by Ed

Bob and Mary live in rural northern California. Neither graduated college and they struggle to make ends meet in the economic wasteland that prevailed after the logging and manufacturing industries pulled up stakes in the 1980s. But a new industry swept in to take their place – the California Department of Corrections threw up a lot of prisons in which to house the bounty of Orange County's war on the state's underclass, and state governments know from experience that the best places to build a Big House are A) far away from the suburbs and B) in areas so desperate economically that they'll accept state dollars in any form with open arms.

Being a prison guard pays more than anything a person with limited skills and education can find in rural areas, so Bob is happy to have the job. But it's brutally difficult work. Violence, paranoia, and the constant threat of more violence tend to wear down even the most mentally stable people. Bob isn't well equipped to handle it. He starts to drink quite a bit in his off hours. He becomes more violent and difficult to deal with; a few times he even slaps his wife around.

Everyone understands that there is a problem here. Bob knows he drinks too much and needs help. Mary knows that she should call the cops on her abusive husband. The problem is that if Bob is named in a domestic violence call, he'll lose his job. And she knows how much both of them need his paycheck. Alternatively, if he tells the CDC that he is an alcoholic who needs help with anger and violence, he goes on suspension and the possibility of future advancement disappears. So a system designed to help people – there state funded resources available for domestic violence victims and employees like Bob who have psychological problems – ends up driving them away. The incentive to get mental help is never going to be stronger than the incentive to remain employed.

This is not an isolated example. Just this past summer the FAA finally changed a longstanding policy of barring commercial pilots on antidepressants from the cockpit. The primary effect of the regulation was to prevent pilots who thought about getting psychological help from getting it. This is a lesson the FAA should have learned from its earlier experience with the issue of alcoholism, wherein a ban served mostly to make pilots really good at hiding their heavy drinking.

Now that we have predictably concluded that having 200,000,000 firearms circulating in our society is not a contributing factor to firearm-related violence, 2nd Amendment Patriots have succeeded in re-framing the argument to focus on mental illness. Are we really Doing Enough to ensure that a few Bad Apples like the Tucson shooter don't end up with guns they shouldn't have? Obviously we collectively accept that a mentally disturbed person shouldn't be able to walk into a gun shop and buy whatever he wants. Nonetheless, the focus on the shooter's apparent craziness fits the NRA gameplan to a tee. Aside from the likelihood that "tougher" restrictions on guns for people with diagnosed mental disorders will just encourage a larger number of people to deny that they need help, the NRA knows that:

1. Any discussion of the mental illness issue reduces the focus on guns themselves
2. A crackdown on mental health issues feeds directly into the paranoia that is popular among the hardcore NRA crowd ("Some librul judge and some Jew psychiatrist is gonna decide that yer crazy, and then the FBI and the Army and the Police and the surviving members of the Warren Commission are gonna come and a-take yer guns!")
3. We already know that laws banning individuals from owning guns are terribly effective
4. In the end everyone will talk in circles for a week or two and nothing at all will happen, and the status quo is always their preferred outcome

Good times. At best we'd end up with an easily circumvented system after a lengthy witch hunt against the mentally ill. More realistically we'll just get a whole lot more of the same.