Saturday, September 21, 2013

friday night drunk decline of civilization

This was a wonderful day.  The person referred to as "Bubbsy" by a worrisomely significant other sat proudly on his horse in line behind a hundred other people outside an Apple Store and bagged the elephant.  He now is supersaturated with bourbon.  Probably 117% or so.  iOS7 knocked him off his rocker, so to speak.  It was "an experience," as one of his fellow travelers would say.

And then, in his drunken stage-7 stupor, he reads the Wall Street Journal on his kitchen table and photographs part of it for the Friday night CM friends.  There are slight moments of insight and clarity, he thinks, although he knows that he is quite drunk.  The world is whirling around.  What a goddamned kick in the pants it all is.

He worries--as he floats around in his drunkenness--about the world and education and all that.  If the future leaders are not smart, then who will feed and care for his four-legged friend after... you know....


As Education Declines, So Does Civic Culture
by Jonathan Jacobs
from the Wall Street Journal

Even as the cost of higher education skyrockets, its benefits are increasingly being called into doubt. We're familiar with laments from graduates who emerge from college burdened with student loans and wondering if their studies have prepared them for jobs and careers. A less familiar but even more troubling problem is that their education did not prepare them for responsible civic life. The decline in education means a decline in the ability of individuals—and ultimately the nation as a whole—to address political, social and moral matters in effective, considered ways.

The trouble begins before college. Large numbers of high-school students have faced so few challenges and demands that they are badly underprepared for college courses. Many who go on to four-year colleges seem to need two years of college even to begin to understand what it is to study, read carefully and take oneself seriously as a student. For many students, high-school-level preparation for college is a matter of having high self-esteem and high expectations but little else.

Even after three or four years of undergraduate education, many students still cannot recognize reasoning when they encounter it. They have little grasp of the difference between merely "saying something" and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument. This is often reinforced by college instructors who urge students to regard all theories, intellectual perspectives and views as ideology—without acknowledging the differences between theories, beliefs, hypotheses, interpretations and other categories of thought.

This impedes students from acquiring habits of intellectual responsibility. Far too often, teachers and texts insist upon a "verdictive" approach, a politicized view of issues. Whatever your stance regarding the "culture wars" and the politics of higher education, it is undeniable that a great many graduating students have little idea of what genuine intellectual exploration involves. Too often, learning to think is replaced by ideological scorekeeping, and the use of adjectives replaces the use of arguments.

Such blinkered thinking has serious implications for civic culture and political discourse. It discourages finding out what the facts are, revising one's beliefs on the basis of those facts and being willing to engage with people who don't already agree with you. What does that leave us with? A brittle, litmus-test version of politics. It is one thing if people move too quickly from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference.

There has been so much grade inflation in high school and college, so much pressure to move students along regardless of their academic accomplishment, that it is unsurprising to find large numbers of graduates lacking the skills required for available jobs. They may also lack the patience and discipline to learn those skills: If you haven't been required to meet demands in order to receive good grades, then patience and discipline are less likely to be among your habits. For graduates who do find work, the reality of employers' expectations may come as a shock.

Many employers can attest, as college instructors will too if they're being frank, that many college graduates can barely construct a coherent paragraph and many have precious little knowledge of the world—the natural world, the social world, the historical world, or the cultural world. That is a tragedy for the graduates, but also for society: Civic life suffers when people have severely limited knowledge of the world to bring to political or moral discussions.

To see the effect of these trends, simply ask a few 15-year-olds, 19-year-olds or 22-year-olds some basic, non-tricky questions from non-esoteric knowledge categories (history, biology, current events, literature, geography, mathematics, grammar). See what the responses are. Ask these young people to describe the basic institutions of American government, or how a case makes its way to the Supreme Court or what "habeas corpus" means. The point isn't to embarrass them, but to wake up the rest of us to how little students have been expected to know even about the political and legal order in which they live.

The primary concern shouldn't be how American students rank in international science and math scores (though that is certainly relevant). It is whether the United States can be a prosperous, pluralistic democracy if higher education fails to require students to think, inquire and explain. A liberal democracy requires a certain kind of civic culture, one in which citizens understand its distinctive principles and strive to preserve them by addressing issues and one another in a responsible manner. That is essential to the mutual respect at the core of liberal democracy.

The U.S. faces serious challenges; education should be serious and challenging. The cost to America of failing to reverse the trend toward trivializing education will be more than just economic. It will be reflected in social friction, coarsened politics, failed and foolish policies, and a steady decline in the concern to do anything to reverse the rot.


  1. I hope Cal is awake and sober and cleans up this mess, to whatever extent necessary.

  2. Bubba, you are too drunk already; go home and sleep it off. By following the link, I can read even less of the article than you've posted, without having to subscribe to the WSJ, which I will never do because they insist that climate change isn't real science, when it clearly is.

    1. jesus h, the goddamned paywall. I forgot. Time for nonviolent protest. Maybe one of the nice librarians will provide a good link.

  3. A moderator has attempted to remedy the situation.

  4. Thanks for the fair use; that's much better now. (Also, newly-caffeinated is better than red wine-lazy for this.) On the other hand...this reads like a competent high school essay: a survey of well-known complaints, with no new ideas and no sharp edges.

    And yes, it is an American problem.

    There must be a kind of Second Law of political economics. Left to themselves, societies devolve naturally into more power and leisure for the wealthy, and servitude and fear for everyone else. "Left to themselves" is not a bad description of the American citizenry these days: Jeder fuer sich, und GOP gegen allen , like Kasper Hauser .

    Education is agency: people acquiring the tools to develop their own goals, and then spend their lives working towards them. Having citizens who can think for themselves, evaluate all the bullshit thrown at them; having a leisure class of people who have the time to think, and write, and propagate their ideas, caring shit about "business values": who needs that? No, we need half-educated, entertainment-crazed, compliant and fearful workers. American education is not devolving randomly, but according to the needs of the masters of American politics, in very deliberate ways. (Even a WSJ staff writer should be able to see that.)

    Societies that don't have this problem developed (and maintain) their educational systems at a high financial cost, and this is possible since their citizens live by different values, and make sure their politics more or less reflect those values. It takes toil (also from the young), a lot of cash, and political awareness (education) to fight the Second Law, and people in those countries know exactly why they do it (they have the example of the alternative looking at them and pseudo-wondering helplessly "what are we doing wrong"?).

  5. Oh, Bubba. I'm with you in some ways, but the bit about "ideology" is foolish and dated. I'm a far lefty and so are most of my friend-colleagues nationally, and we are all out there just trying to get students to summarize accurately, close read ANYTHING, construct arguments based on what is right there in front of them, and write subject-verb-object sentences. There is no "culture war" in my discipline anymore because basic academic preparation is in such a shambles. You can't think politically if you can't think at all. I could give a rat's derriere if a text is "hegemonic" or "complicit" or any of those 80s buzzwords -- just tell me, please, what the author is saying and why the way he/she says it matters. We are all in this together now.

    1. @F&T: Last night, I had posted a limited amount of the "letters to the editor" responding to the above op-ed in the WSJ. I was more intrigued by those letters than by the op-ed itself.

      I almost always assume the RGMs know what is best when it comes to appropriately modifying a post. They have a greater responsibility (e.g., to make the graphics as beautiful/ugly as possible, or to adhere to fair-use laws). Even in my most sober mind, I do not wish to contemplate the numerous decisions Fab must make.

    2. The photo is archived here. And it seems fair-use friendly, but I'm still sobering up and not fully operational.

    3. I'll take the blame. I didn't know the photo showed letters to the editor. I thought it was merely text of the article. I will get it back online soon. Apologies.

    4. No, no, it's not necessary to do anything else. And no one is to blame. Perhaps it would be best to blame bourbon. But that doesn't seem right, either, does it?

      The folks down in this neck of the woods would say, "If something happened, then it must be because it was meant to happen. The Man Upstairs knows what he's up to."

      FWIW, I have found a link to these particular "letters to the editor"--although perhaps they are blocked by a paywall, too.

    5. So confused. Not sure if I saw something different or misread what I saw. Bourbon for everyone.

  6. Peter K. hit it on the nose, both about the problem and the editorial's quality, but I'll chime in and point out that the writer's complaint about students' ignorance isn't a new complaint. I quote William Penn, writing in 1682:

    The World is certainly a great and stately Volume of natural Things; and may be not improperly styled the Hieroglyphicks of a better: But, alas how very few Leaves of it do we seriously turn over! This ought to be the Subject of the Education of our Youth, who, at Twenty, when they should be fit for Business, know little or nothing of it.

    1. Yes, but in 1682, we were mainly an agricultural economy. Now, we're a service economy, with dreams of becoming a knowledge and information economy. Knowledge matters a whole lot more now.

      And if anyone points out that old fogeys since ancient Greek times have been complaining about how little the young 'uns know, I'll point out that Ancient Greece was conquered by the Romans, and then became extinct after the fall of Rome.

  7. Sorry, Bubba, but now that I've read the whole article, I think that the WSJ is in a poor position to complain about teachers and texts insisting "upon a 'verdictive' approach, a politicized view of issues" or "ideological scorekeeping." Is it not the WSJ that is leading the disinformation campaign on climate science? Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled, since Newton was one of his primary inspirations. This was because Newton's main idea was that nature follows laws that just anyone, not just royalty, could come to know.

    Also, as F&T points out, we've sunk lower than to be much concerned with higher-order thinking anymore. After over a decade of NCLB, our students grapple with basic literacy. About 2/3 of the incoming freshpersons here at Middlin' State need writing remediation, yet the first-year retention rate is 86%. This isn't because we do a great job at remedial education: I'd estimate that about half our graduates cannot write at 9th-grade level. And as far as doing math goes, HA! I'd estimate that about half our students struggle with fractions and decimals. A generation ago, this was 4th- and 5th-grade math.

    I suppose the WSJ is now becoming concerned, since the obedient workers they want are no longer competent. I say too bad, WSJ. I hate to counter cliched thinking with a cliche, but have you ever heard the expression, "The mother eagle has come home to roost"?

    1. I'm sorry to say, Frod, that your comment is an example of what the editorial is talking about.

      "The WSJ" is not leading anything. It's a newspaper. It hires columnists to write what they think, and they don't all agree with each other, or the editors, or the shareholders, each of whom is a human being with his or her own opinions--just so at the New Yorker or the New York Times. It also pays for one-off pieces from people who don't work there--kind of like how Vladimir Putin can write an editorial for the New York Times. Some of those pieces that are one offs, and some of their columnists, don't accept climate science, true enough. Many of them do, however, accept open-borders immigration policies and paths to citizenship for illegals already here, which is not a stance that appeals widely to the Right.

      None of that applies to this editorial, which stands or falls on its own merits. But you've decided it's not worth considering because WSJ editorials on unrelated topics have failed your litmus test. If you want to be the mirror image of the wingnuts who insist that PBS, NPR, and the New York Times are all part of a conspiracy and so everything they say can be rejected, you can, but it falls a bit flat when responding to an editorial that criticizes that very behavior.

    2. Incidentally, and totally off-topic: I've made a study of the climate "skeptic" movement. The intellectual heavy-hitters in that movement, the ones who write columns in venues like the Wall Street Journal, actually do not disagree in any significant way with the reality or mechanism of climate change--and though you have to press them hard to get them to say so, but they're not the equivalent of young-earth creationists. For example, here is Steven Hayward conceding virtually every point.

      What they do is a sort of magnificent bastardry. They emphasize disagreements, doubts and uncertainties to an audience that IS the equivalent of young-earth creationists. They never take their audience to task for what they get wrong--rather they take the scientific community to task for what is right but uncertain. They cheerfully conflate scientists with environmental activists and journalists who uncritically report on climate science. And they are careful to keep their own views separate, and hidden, from those of their audience. This serves two purposes: the audience assumes that the "skeptics" agree with them, and the "skeptic" can complain that his views are being caricatured or conflated with others when you accuse him of say, denying that the Earth has warmed or that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. The "skeptic", you see, accepts virtually all of what is known about climate science, he just gives the impression to his audience that he does not.

      The touchstone of the true climate "skeptic" is that he follows mainstream climate science avidly, in the hopes of publicizing uncertainties and mistakes, but does no climate science himself. It is a fine line that they walk.

    3. Then a "a 'verdictive' approach, a politicized view of issues" is what we can use more of. Otherwise will cost our grandchildren plenty, something to be kept in mind by any conservative complaining about how universities have lost their moral bearings.

      I agree that the WSJ is a newspaper. It isn't some blank slate: its editors make conscious decisions about what gets published. I find they lack veracity, to the extent that everything published in the WSJ to be suspect.

      And who said anything about the New York Times? Their science coverage is terrible too. The bit about Pluto and Eris alone have cost me no end of aggravation!

    4. So when the WSJ prints that the sun rises in the east, or editorials supporting mainstream climate science as they do from time to time, does your head asplode? A true thing is true even if the WSJ says it, and it's dismaying to see another scientist forget everything he knows about fallacies once politics is involved--and even more dismaying to see him double down on the ad hominem once it is explicitly brought to his attention.

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