Thursday, April 30, 2015

The problem with education is America’s contempt for teachers

Yesterday I had an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, Troy Earl Camplin: The problem with education is America’s contempt for teachers. The response has been phenomenal. Almost thirty emails from around the country. Sixty comments online. Can't want to see if there are any letters to the editor.

The vast majority of responses have been positive. Many people thanking me for saying what they were thinking, what was a sort of vague notion, or were afraid to say. Of course, this attitude arose for a variety of reasons, and the problems with education are more varied than this one thing, but I think this is a major component, and it's something nobody else has brought up. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Those Who Defend the Rules

The vast majority of human activities can be understood as games. Games have rules and they have fields of play (game boards, etc.). This is why game theory is useful in understanding social interactions, including economics. Still, much work needs to be done on how actual rules result in actual actions in actual social situations, including how different combinations of rules give rise to different outcomes.

Different rules give rise to different games. Chess and checkers are both played on the same board, meaning there is a degree of rule similarity between the two games. However, different pieces and different rules create considerably different games, with chess being an unsolvable game, while checkers has already been solved. It is possible to change the rules of chess to make is solvable, but that would simplify the game and make it a less interesting game.

I have made the argument that chess is a "better" game than checkers precisely because the former is more complex and unsolvable. Yet, I have had checkers players insist checkers is better. Of course, in a certain sense chess is hardly better than checkers, since we are really comparing two different games with different rules. Both are good games, as demonstrated by the popularity of each.

The insistence of checkers players who don't know how to play chess that checkers is a better game points to a fact about human nature. People who have mastered a game will defend that game. They will defend that game against any kind of rule change that might "improve" the game.

Given this fact, we should never expect politicians to favor political reforms that affect how they play the game -- unless they think the rule changes will benefit themselves, of course. Currently elected politicians are good at playing the game as it stands -- they have proven themselves effective at getting elected and at getting things done. Along these lines, we shouldn't expect those who run large businesses to favor rules changes that much affect how their game is played. They will favor whatever game keeps them playing, and they will favor rule changes that improve the game for them.

We can take this to pretty much any social game. Take our universities. Those who are successful at playing the game of getting tenured or tenure-track positions will defend the system they have proven to be successful at playing. I have actually seen people who challenge the economic and political rules because of the injustices created by those rules turn around and defend equally unjust university rules. Their insights into human nature and the problems with institutions when it comes to political economy suddenly dissolve when making the same analysis for the university system in which they have been successful.

One can only conclude that they are defending the system in which they have succeeded because that is simply what all people who play a particular game tend to do. We defend the rules of whatever game at which we find ourselves successful. We cannot expect reform to come from such people. Reforms must always come from outside.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Some Thoughts on Injustice

My daughter likes to say that "It's not fair!" when we tell her to do something and we don't make the same demand on the 5 and 3 year old. Like many people, she equates "fair" with "equal" in the absolute sense. She fails to recognize (being 8, she has an excuse) that different abilities results in different expectations. She can do more than the other two, so we expect more from her. And when each of the boys are 8, we will expect them to do what we expected her to do at 8. Of course, she'll be 11 when Daniel is 8, and 13 when Dylan is 8, so we'll expect yet more from her than we will her 8 year old brothers.

Of course, since it is her mother and I who are the dispensers of duties and, thus, dispensers of justice, there is at least some sense in her seeking justice from us in our distribution of those duties. It makes less sense for me to complain about the injustice of my own situation, since there is not anyone in particular treating me unjustly.

I have little doubt that many would consider it "unjust" that I spent so much time and money getting a Ph.D., and I have been unable to get a full time job with it -- longer than the 1 year lecturer position I had at UNT-Dallas (where there may have been injustices committed against me, given that particular people were doing particular things against me). It is not unjust that I haven't been able to get a full time position. No one is actively preventing me from getting a full time position, so there is no justice nor injustice involved.

The same is true of others who cannot get jobs or who cannot get the jobs they want. There is no "economic injustice" in someone not being able to get a good job. One has neither a right to a particular job nor a right to any job at all. Thus, an injustice cannot be committed against you if a given job is not offered to you.

Why then do I sometimes feel like my situation is "unjust"? I know intellectually that there is no way that it can be considered unjust, but sometimes I just feel like it is. I feel like I have a great deal to offer, and that I'm being underutilized by society. But of course, society cannot utilize, as it cannot act nor make decisions. Those are the actions of individuals. But those individuals make decisions based on knowledge and understanding they gained socially. Generally held attitudes about people with Ph.D.'s, people with degrees in the humanities, people who unconsciously behave as I do, etc. affect my ability to get a job. The fact I didn't graduate from a top 10 university affects whether or not I even get considered for the handful of academic positions out there -- which is one reason why I abandoned even trying to get an academic position. Is it just that people blindly accept the superiority of those who graduated from Harvard and Yale? It is a cognitive bias, no doubt, but I'm not sure I would go so far as to call it "unjust" -- even if it is short-sighted, narrow, prejudiced, and homogenizing to our universities.

We need to reserve the term "injustice" for actions individuals perpetuate against individuals. And those actions should involve the violation of a person's right not to be directly harmed. Let's face it, any job will be given to one person and not to many, many others. That doesn't mean that vast majority have been treated unjustly, since what happened to them was incidental to the fact that only one person can get the job. And there are always criteria for getting a job, so one cannot have been treated unjustly if one doesn't meet those criteria (stated and unstated). You cannot but end up in an absurd situation otherwise.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Should and Ought

Any time someone says, "You should...", you should always ask "if?" Every "should" implies an "if." For example, if it is raining out, and you want to go outside, and I say "You should take an umbrella," there is an implied "if you don't want to get wet from the rain." Naturally, if you do want to get wet from the rain, then you should not take an umbrella.

We too often forget that every "should" implies an "if." You should be nice to people. If what? The federal government should (not) raise the minimum wage. If...? What is your goal? Can you meet that goal by doing the "should"? The shoulds of morality always imply a goal one is trying to reach, and one should always know what that goal is and the best way to reach that goal if you are sincere about reaching the goal and not just about looking good to the right people.

Equally, every "ought" implies that you owe someone something. If you "ought" to do X, that implies that you owe someone something for which doing X will pay the debt. You ought to be nice to grandma. Why? What do you owe her? Life, for one. And probably that sweater she gave you for Christmas. Whether you like that sweater or not, she got it for you, and you owe her at least thanks and being nice and gracious to her for thinking of you and trying to get you something nice.

That is a "simple" ought, but it gets to what underlies all oughts. You ought not lie. To whom do you owe not lying? Many of these are social rules, cultural rules. To what do you owe civil society? To what do you owe your culture? The oughts of our cultures and civil societies are what we owe them for the lives and beliefs we have.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

What Is My Self?

The continuity of my personality is an illusion created by the interpretations of my memories, which are re-membered in the context of who I am now, by who I am now. The present self is thus always informed by that past self, which is transformed by the present self. This complex feedback loop creates the conditions for the emergence of an integrated personality from the fragments of my past and current selves. All of this is of course built upon genetic tendencies, the relative strength or weakness of memory, the relative and periodic recall of those memories, and one's social context. Different environments can call forth different selves -- as husband, father to each of three children, teacher, friend, employee, etc., I am a different person. A different person, but not unrelated to the others -- what differs is emphasis and the memory resources on which one draws, recalled in the appropriate contexts.

Given that we are the stories we tell ourselves to ourselves, meaning we are always in a position of interpreting and editing our stories about ourselves, it may be appropriate to view our selves as hermeneutic selves. The remembrance of things past is always fragmented and interpreted. How we interpret ourselves to ourselves (and thus present ourselves to others) can either be habitual (they way we have typically done it, which is familiar and comfortable, even if it may not be the best interpretation possible) or consciously chosen. If I tell a story to myself of myself as a loser, I'll act in ways that will fulfill that interpretation. But if I tell a story to myself of myself as someone on the pathway to success, I'll act in ways that will fulfill that interpretation. Confidence matters.

It is unlikely that successful people think or thought of themselves in negative terms. Without a supreme sense of self-confidence, you cannot be successful. Self-confidence is a story you tell yourself about yourself. So, too, is arrogance, self-loathing, depression, courageousness, etc. Each of these are interpretive stances one takes regarding one's self, tying all of the fragments, past and present, together into a whole. We inform our inform selves into a coherent form that flows from moment to moment, context to context, with occasional discontinuities if we have to jump into an atypical situation. Feelings of confusion emerge at such times, when you don't know what situation you are in, or if you are getting contradictory information about how to act or react.

So in a sense the sense that we are a unified self is an illusion, but in another sense, we are a unified sense, because we interpret ourselves into a coherent self. Our interacting fragments give rise to a coherent self in the same way interacting biomolecules give rise to a coherent, living cell. Both are maintained through constant change and through constant interactions with the environments in which they find themselves. We are and are not coherent selves; we are interpreted selves, which brings coherence to the incoherent. Just because something is an illusion -- or, better, virtual -- that hardly means it isn't real.