Category Archives: Education

Questionable Free Speech at Drexel University

Associate Professor George Ciccariello-Maher is now gone from his position at Drexel University. A year ago, I blogged a brief contingent defense of his controversial “white genocide” tweet. (Contingent because it only applies if he meant what I guessed he meant.) Drexel condemned his tweet at the time, but took no further action against him. It would have been nice if they had explicitly supported his right to free speech, but their actions were in keeping with the principles of free speech: They didn’t stop him from speaking, but they didn’t refrain from using their own free speech to criticize him. 

However, after several other controversial tweets — one criticizing the way our society honors the soldiers who carry out American foreign policy, another blaming the Las Vegas shooter on Trumpism and white entitlement — Drexel placed him on administrative leave in what sounds like a classic case of the “heckler’s veto”:

The university says the issue is safety, but not everyone is buying that explanation.

Drexel’s statement is as follows: “The safety of Drexel’s students, faculty, professional staff and police officers are of paramount concern to Drexel. Due to a growing number of threats directed at Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, and increased concerns about both his safety and the safety of Drexel’s community, after careful consideration the university has decided to place Professor Ciccariello-Maher on administrative leave. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure the safety of our campus.”

Sometimes, giving in to the “heckler’s veto” is unavoidable when the forces of oppression vastly outmatch those defending free speech. If the protests against Ciccariello-Maher overwhelmed Drexel’s campus security and budget to the point where they couldn’t protect the Drexel community from the danger, then shutting down the controversial professor may have been their only way out. Some fights just can’t be won.

That said, here’s how Ciccariello-Maher describes the problems that led to his resignation:

This is not a decision I take lightly; however, after nearly a year of harassment by right-wing, white supremacist media outlets and internet mobs, after death threats and threats of violence directed against me and my family, my situation has become unsustainable.

Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the level of danger that would justify giving in to the hecklers. I haven’t seen the specific threats (and the specifics certainly could matter) but as a general rule, anonymous threats against public figures are garbage, and they certainly shouldn’t occupy campus security very much. I’m not aware of any actual violence committed against Ciccariello-Maher, and it’s not as if they had thousands of protesters show up to wreak havoc.

Furthermore, all the threats appear to have been against Ciccariello-Maher and his family, not the Drexel community at large, so if Ciccariello-Maher felt unsafe, he could at any time have placed himself on leave. That he chose not to do so may have increased the risk for him, but there’s no reason to believe it endangered anyone else at Drexel.

I’m not sure what to make of his resignation. On the one hand, he did that to himself, which is not Drexel’s problem. On the other hand, this smells a lot like constructive termination. That’s when an employer doesn’t technically terminate an employee, but it makes the employee’s situation so bad — taking away responsibilities, badmouthing them to the public, assigning them all the worst tasks — that they quit on their own. Constructive terminations are common when dealing with employees who are protected from at will termination by law or contract — civil service employees, union employees, and tenured faculty. So it sounds a lot like Drexel found a way to fire a tenured professor for the words that he said.

As a private organization, Drexel has no First Amendment duty to protect Ciccariello-Maher’s speech. However, as FIRE points out in their coverage, Drexel had publicly announced that they supported his freedom of speech only to carry out a private investigation about which they have shown little transparency. Professor Ciccariello-Maher may very well be a rabble rouser, an anti-American jerk, and a colossal bore, but Drexel has not shown itself to be a friend of free speech and academic freedom.

Say No To (Too Much) Shakespeare

In the Washington Post, high school English teacher Dana Dusbiber explains why she doesn’t want to teach Shakespeare any more:

I am not supposed to dislike Shakespeare. But I do. And not only do I dislike Shakespeare because of my own personal disinterest in reading stories written in an early form of the English language that I cannot always easily navigate, but also because there is a WORLD of really exciting literature out there that better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.

The language issues alone are enough to convince me, along with the basic problem that Shakespeare’s plays are plays: You’re not supposed to read them, you’re supposed to watch actors perform them. When I was studying Shakespeare in high school, I had to read whole stretches of the plays out loud to myself to get a sense of what was going on. The writing is just not that accessible these days.

Naturally, Dusbiber’s argument brought a response from another high school English teacher, Matthew Truesdale:

Ms. Dusbiber is frustrated by the narrowness of the Western canon and by the expectation that high school students read Shakespeare.  But that expectation is not a new one.  Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet have been staples of any high school English curriculum for years upon years.

As Dusbiber pointed out, “We’ve always done it that way” is a pretty bad argument.

I prefer Othello, so I teach that.  But I don’t do it because I feel beholden to any set of expectations or standards–I do it because I want my students to have the experience of reading it…that’s it, and that’s all.

Okay…but why so much? I don’t know how much Shakespeare students have to study these days, but back when I went through high school it was ridiculous. That I can remember, we covered Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Ceasar, and I think Richard II. That’s an awful lot of time and effort just to have “the experience of reading it.”

I often tell my students that one of the main reasons to read a Shakespeare play is simply for the privilege of telling others you’ve read a Shakespeare play. In certain arenas, being able to carry on even a brief conversation about a plot point from King Lear is important and can give one credibility.

I could say the same of Star Wars or Spiderman or Firefly. An appropriate Mal Reynolds quote goes a lot further in my social circles than anything Hamlet said.

I also think it’s a neat little thing to see something in a movie, another book, or even (gasp!) real life, and think, “Hey—this reminds me of that scene in Hamlet when…”

I could say the same of pretty much any long-running television show, from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Seinfeld, and those are a lot more accessible to modern students than Shakespeare’s plays.

(Speaking of which, is it crazy that Truesdale’s argument reminds me of the Tamarian language’s use of metaphor in the “Darmok” episode of ST:TNG?)

It’s usually at this point that someone brings up the fact that all these popular works include Shakespeare references, and that we’ll appreciate them more if we understand the references. I get that, but better television appreciation is a weak justification for setting a high school curriculum. Besides, nowadays we call these kinds of references “memes” and the kids can look them up online if they want to figure them out.

Eventually, Truesdale gets around to his main argument:

But my complaint Dusbiber’s post is this:  She argues that her students shouldn’t have to read Shakespeare because other literature “better speaks to the needs of my very ethnically-diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.”  She then goes on to write that it might be “appropriate to acknowledge him as a chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

So what Shakespeare wrote 450 years ago is not applicable to her teaching today? Ethnically diverse students don’t foolishly fall in love and over-dramatize every facet of that experience? Or feel jealousy or rage? Or fall victim to discrimination? Or act desperately out of passion?

The idea that students should read Shakespeare to learn relevant lessons about the human condition is bonkers. Shakespeare may have been a very smart guy, but he lived in a relatively isolated and primitive civilization compared to the students that are supposed to learn from him. Shakespeare wrote his plays before Newton’s physics, Darwin’s evolution, Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He wrote before the whole freakin’ Age of Enlightenment.

Truesdale anticipates this argument and responds:

To dismiss Shakespeare on the grounds that life 450 years ago has no relation to life today is to dismiss every religious text, every piece of ancient mythology (Greek, African, Native American, etc.), and for that matter, everything that wasn’t written in whatever time defined as “NOW.”

I’m pretty much okay with that. Here in the modern world, we should use modern knowledge. That’s why I think Dusbiber’s alternative to Shakespeare is even worse:

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world?

If 400-year-old European texts have little to say to the modern student, stories from pre-literate cultures have even less. Although Dusbiber does have a point, one which Truesdale misses:

And yes– Shakespeare was in fact a white male. But look at the characters of Othello and Emila (among others), and you’ll see a humane, progressive, and even diverse portrayal of the complexities of race and gender.

I don’t recall the portrayal of Othello and Emilia, but somehow I doubt that Shakespeare’s depiction was as illuminating as, say, actual accounts of actual Africans. If we want students to learn about the lives of the Moors, they would probably find more accurate portrayals created by the Moors themselves.

Look, if we want students to learn about Shakespeare — to study his writing, characterization, dialogue, and story construction — then reading Shakespeare is an excellent idea. But to argue that Shakespeare is a great way to learn about the human condition is ludicrous. We already have stories by the thousands that are accessible to modern audiences in the form of novels, films, and television shows. And if we want something deeper than popular entertainment, the human condition is also the subject of actual fields of study about which we have real knowledge — psychology, anthropology, economics, criminology, law, linguistics, literature, neuroscience, and all their subdivisions and branches.

Of course, Shakespeare is a part of that. And I’m not saying that Shakespeare has nothing to teach us. But all of his good ideas have already been incorporated in everybody else’s ideas for hundreds of years. So while I don’t have a problem with teaching some Shakespeare, let’s keep it to a reasonable amount.

On the other hand, it is my firmly held opinion that nobody should ever force students to read Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Thirty years later, and I’m still bitter.

What To Learn About Next?

I’m planning to do some serious heavy reading, but I’m torn between several choices of what to study next.

After reading Radley Balko’s article using a police shooting video to illustrate the faulty nature of human memory, and stumbling across Nathaniel Burney’s comic book explanation of the neuroscience behind faulty memory, and seeing a Reason interview about evolutionary psychology, I’d like to learn more about the science of cognition. I’ve read a few popular books on the subject over the years, and I think I’m ready for something more serious, like a college textbook. I’m not sure whether I want to focus on cognitive psychology, which explores what our minds do, or cognitive neuroscience which explores the underlying neurological mechanisms. Textbooks are expensive, so I need to clarify that before buying anything.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to take my amateur economic studies in the direction of public choice theory, and toward that end I’ve been meaning to read Ronald Coase’s The Firm, the Market, and the Law. Coase was incredibly influential, and changed the way economists think about transactional and social costs. Normally I don’t try to read the great works in a field because great thinkers aren’t necessarily great explainers — nobody learns physics from Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or evolution from Darwin’s Origin of Species. However, I’ve heard that The Firm, the Market, and the Law is quite readable for someone with a little basic knowledge of microeconomics.

On the other hand, I think I’d like to learn more about behavioral economics. The traditional microeconomic model of human decision making assumes that people are rational utility maximizers, meaning that they want to be happy, and that they work toward that goal as efficiently as possible in the face of scarce resources and uncertain outcomes. This absurdly simple model (a.k.a. homo economicus) is the economists’ equivalent of the physicist’s assumption that everything is spherical and frictionless — it’s not true, but it still gets you pretty far. Recently, economists have started trying to predict economic decision making using more sophisticated behavioral models that assume people make systematic errors that deviate from rational utility maximization. It’s an obvious point, but one that is hard to analyze rigorously. Again, I’m looking for some textbook-level reading in this area. I think there are a couple of books that might work.

Finally, I think I’d like to do some reading about attempts to use economic thinking on the subject of crime and punishment. Economists are pretty good at explaining some types of criminal activity — markets in illegal goods and services work a lot like any other markets — but not so good at addressing issues like the deterrent effects of punishment. Economists are pretty certain that criminals must respond to incentives like everyone else, but a lot of people who work with criminals are equally certain that punishment is rarely a deterrent. Some of the new behavioral economic models may resolve the discrepancy, and so I’d like to learn more about what the scientific literature says. The is not a well-defined field, however,  which probably means I’d have to read a lot of primary sources, and I’m not sure I want to get into it that much.

I’ll figure something out. The world is a fascinating place.

Of Experts and Explainers

The Volokh Conspiracy blog has finally made the move behind the Washington Post paywall, and that led to an interesting comment on Twitter by conspirator Orin Kerr about the change in audience from being an independent blog to being part of a major media outlet:

I think we’ve gained some and lost some. I’m worried we lost the law nerds and gained general interest readers.

As Roger Ford adds,

Skimming down the site now, it sort of reads like “Eugene Volokh explains the legal news for lay readers.”

The original Volokh Conspiracy site had long been a source of intelligent discussions about legal theory, but with its new larger and more varied readership, it has apparently become less focused. Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice explained the change in more detail:

Forgive me for digressing, but my thoughts are best expressed with some context. While VC historically highlighted legal scholarship from a somewhat conservative libertarian perspective, it did so with a touch of realism, in connection to real world events, that made it relevant to what practicing lawyers do, as well as judges who decide such matters. VC was the nexus between theory and practice.

SJ is written from the criminal defense lawyer perspective, which meant that it tended to be too rough and vulgar for academics. From my perspective, the critical audience was fellow CDLs; that others, from lawprofs to civil lawyers to non-lawyers, didn’t really matter.  To the extent I was concerned about other people’s views, it was the views of my colleagues, my brethren.

That VC has abandoned its effort to connect academic theory, even with its libertarian tilt, with real world practice, and instead sees its future as persuading the groundlings to embrace its theories, makes no sense to me at all.

Does that mean the ridiculous drivel dished out by Paul Cassell will be the norm?  Does that mean Eugene will no longer offer First Amendment analysis of any depth?  Does that mean Orin will only use small words and abandon trying to explain the mosaic theory?

That’s a common area of tension that shows up in many fields, including the sciences: There are people who are important in their field, and there are people who are experts at explaining their field. There’s not much overlap.

Some of the explainers achieve a degree of fame, but when you look at their scientific contributions, they haven’t usually made major contributions to their field. Carl Sagan was not one of the world’s greatest astronomers, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is not one of the great astrophysicists. Much the same can be said of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker in their fields, and Bill Nye The Science Guy is more of an engineer and inventor than a scientist.

I’m not saying these people are idiots or fakes. I’m sure they all did their jobs very well, and they’ve usually contributed something original to their fields, and all of them by definition are good at science education of some kind. Nevertheless, they usually aren’t among the top experts in their fields in the opinions of other experts in their fields.

The real experts are rarely well known to the public. Except for major historic figures like Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, most of us wouldn’t recognize the names of important research scientists unless they have stuff named after them like Heinrich Hertz and Alessandro Volta or because they have entered popular culture, such as Erwin Schrödinger, known for his cat, and Werner Heisenberg, known for his uncertainty principle (and now for also cooking crystal meth). In their time, however, they weren’t well known to the public.

(Because the major contributors to scientific fields are generally not known to the public, I’m pretty much guaranteed to have characterized someone as an explainer rather than a major contributor because I am unaware of their important contributions to a field other than my own. Sorry.)

By way of example, my background is in computer science, and I think I can come up with a few very important contributors to computer science that you probably never heard of, such as Edsger Dijkstra, Donald Knuth, C.A.R. Hoare, Fred Brooks, Grace Hopper, and Niklaus Wirth. You probably know Noam Chomsky, but for his politics rather than for his influence on computer science, and everyone seems to have heard of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, but that was not Alan Turing’s most important contribution to computer science.

The division between contributors and explainers often occurs within academia, in the split between teaching and research. Economist Steven Landsburg illustrated the difference between these groups by analogy to a cocktail party involving two groups of people: The researchers are like a group of people in the center who are talking to each other about all the interesting things they do, whereas the educators are are all standing around the edges, talking about what the group in the center has been up to. (I may have mangled this a bit.)

Landsburg asked readers which group they’d rather talk to: The interesting people in the center or the people at the edges who talk about what the folks in the center are doing. To him, the answer obvious answer was that you’ll want to talk to the people in the center, and that’s why students are better off joining academic departments that do research.

I think that misses an important point: Talking to the group in the center is only the best choice if you can understand what the people in the center are talking about. A student new to the field is unlikely to benefit from discussions that assume half a decade of education in the field. More to the point, there’s a difference between understanding complicated subjects, and knowing how to break down complicated subjects into simplified component bits of knowledge that can be taught to students.

One of my introductory calculus classes was taught by a professor who was one of the most important researchers in the math department. It was a terrible class. I have no doubt he understood the subject, but he had no idea of what it was like to not understand calculus, and he was consequently incapable of explaining it to us. Rather than using carefully crafted examples to illustrate how calculus works, he would make up ad hoc problems that required us to spend a lot of time thinking about ancillary issues. The homework problems would be straight out of the lesson plan, which was not always what he had been teaching us. The disconnect was especially bad on the test questions — I’m convinced that some of them required us to know things he didn’t realize he hadn’t taught us yet.

There’s also the question of whether the people in the center will be willing to talk to people who know very little about the subject. After all, they also want to learn the cool new stuff, and that means they have little time for newcomers who can teach them nothing interesting. Serious research professors are known for having crappy office hours.

Switching back to my own field, software development, as an experienced software engineer, I would probably have trouble figuring out how to teach an introductory course in computer programming. For example, when I approach a programming problem, I might think about many aspects of it at once — algorithmic correctness, efficiency, resource consumption, parallel processing, network traffic, database architecture, interface design, scalability, generalizability, separation of concerns, layering, composability, opportunities for refactoring, testability, and so on. I’m not trying to brag. Those are all things that pretty much any experienced software engineer will keep in mind, and they are things that all developers should learn about.

However, it would be a mistake to try to teach someone computer programming from the ground up by teaching them about all those things at the same time. A good teacher would probably start with some foundational skills such as expressions, control structures, and basic class design before moving on to details of the language and the runtime library and then some of the bigger-picture organizational concepts.

Every field needs both kinds of members — those who do it well, and those who explain it well. Those who do it well sometimes look down on those who teach it, especially since the teachers often lack the detailed knowledge of the practitioners, and they often make mistakes. These errors and omissions are a problem, and they should be corrected, but when it comes to teaching a field of knowledge, a skilled teacher who gets some parts wrong can still impart more information to an audience than a skilled practitioner who knows everything but doesn’t know how to explain it.

For example, in discussing the weather, we refer to the relative humidity of the air. The basic idea is that air has a temperature-dependent maximum capacity for moisture — the higher the temperature, the more water the air can hold — and relative humidity expresses how much water is in the air as a percentage of the maximum theoretical capacity.

This concept explains thinks like why items in the refrigerator frost over when you leave the door open — the warm room air cools down, which reduces the water carrying capacity below the amount of water already in the air, forcing the excess water vapor to be deposited as “sweat.” This is also why air conditioners always have to drain off water: The suddenly cooled air can’t hold the water and deposits it on the evaporator coils.

This model also explains why we run humidifiers in winter — your furnace warms the air, which increases it’s water vapor carrying capacity, but your furnace doesn’t actually add water to the air. Since relative humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air divided by the maximum capacity, and only the capacity is increased, your furnace reduces the relative humidity of the air, and it feels too dry. A humidifier adds water vapor to bring the relative humidity back up to comfortable levels.

Further, the human body’s cooling system relies on sweat evaporating from the skin to carry off heat, but if the air is already near its carrying capacity, there’s no “room” for the sweat to evaporate, so your body doesn’t cool enough. This is why dry heat is more comfortable than hot and humid weather. It’s also why we set out thermostats warmer in winter than in summer: The heated air is drier, so evaporative cooling makes us feel chilly unless we bump the temperature up a bit.

This “carrying capacity” model of humidity is widely known, it makes sense of a lot of things we observe about the world, and it is routinely taught by school teachers. And yet it is almost completely wrong. The real explanation of what’s going on is considerably more complex and harder to understand, unless you are used to thinking about systems in equilibrium and know some basic physics of gases.

To be sure, the correct explanation is much better. It can be expressed analytically, and you can use it to solve real-world engineering problems, where it will give accurate answers across a broad range of scenarios. And yet most people can get by with the simple but wrong explanation, because it’s good enough. And in this case, good enough is easier to teach.

Understand, I’m not defending teaching people things that are wrong. That’s always a bad outcome, and in fields like medicine or law, it can be dangerous. What I’m saying is that often someone who’s good at explaining things can be a better educator, even if they make some mistakes, than someone who gets everything right, but can’t get it across to anyone else.

And sometimes it’s not so much that they can’t explain it as that they won’t explain it or they don’t have the time to explain it. We can complain about some of the questionable neuroscience in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, but most real neuroscientists are busy doing real neuroscience, and they don’t have time to answer your questions or write a popular science book. We can poke fun at law professors who reveal their lack of practical knowledge when they go on talk shows, but most experienced trial lawyers are too busy practicing law to answer questions about the latest trial in the news. In both cases, as long as they don’t actively make people stupider, we’re better off with them than without them.

As for the Volokh Conspiracy, I don’t read enough there to follow what’s going on, but if they are changing their target audience from “law nerds” to general interest readers, that’s going to disappoint the nerds, but maybe it will bring a smarter, more rigorous explanation of the law to lay readers.

Don’t Disinvite, Just Don’t Invite

It’s graduation season again, which means it’s time for the usual round of news stories about controversial graduation speakers and the attempts by protesters to get them disinvited. For example, after protesters at Rutgers got Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to back out of giving the commencement address, the normally wonderfully cynical P. J. O’Rourke went into full curmudgeon mode complaining about the kids these days and extolling Rice’s experience:

…she also served, from 1989 to 1991, as the Soviet expert on the White House National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush.

1989 happens to be when the Berlin Wall fell. I know, I know, most of you weren’t born, and you get your news from TMZ. A wall falling over can’t be as interesting as Beyonce’s sister punching and kicking Jay Z in a New York hotel elevator. But that 1989 moment of “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (and I’ll bet you a personal karaoke performance of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” that you can’t name the poet who wrote it) had interesting consequences. Stop taking selfies and Google “Berlin Wall” on the iPhones you’re all fiddling with.

Condoleezza Rice was named National Security Adviser in December 2000, less than a year before some horrific events that you may know of. She became Secretary of State in 2005 during an intensely difficult period in American history (which your teach-in was not going to teach you much about).  And she saw the job through to the end of the fraught and divisive George W. Bush presidency, making moral and ethical decisions of such a complex and contradictory nature that they would have baffled Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (of whom I suppose, perhaps naively, you have heard) put together.

You know what? Nobody gives a shit what Condoleeza Rice would have said at the Rutgers graduation ceremony. You know why? Because it was graduation day. All the exams have been taken, all the grades have been submitted. This material will not be on the test.

(O’Rourke goes on to make fun of Rutgers for being the 69th best-rated university according to U.S. News & World Report — so you know it must be true — and makes fun of a professor named Bell by nicknaming him “Jingle,” thus showing why he gets paid the big bucks while I toil here for free.)

Another of these articles comes from Stephen L. Carter, who has a sneering attack on oversensitive protesters in BloombergView:

In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas. Pure argument was our guide. Staking out an unpopular position was admired — and the admiration, in turn, provided excellent training in the virtues of tolerance on the one hand and, on the other, integrity.

Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that. There’s no need for the ritual give and take of serious argument when, in your early 20s, you already know the answers to all questions. How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day.

Look, if you’re arguing whether they’re right or wrong to protest, then your reflexive defense of free speech is missing the point. It’s just not the right occasion for controversial speakers and the “ritual give and take of serious argument.” I’m all for debate and new ideas, but by graduation day, you’ve kind of missed the window.

(And how is that argument supposed to take place, exactly? It’s been a while since I graduated, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a Q & A session.)

When students at Smith College protested a scheduled commencement address by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, she graciously withdrew from the event as college President Kathleen McCartney explains:

I regret to inform you that Christine Lagarde has withdrawn as Smith’s 2014 commencement speaker in the wake of anti-IMF protests from faculty and students, including a few who wrote directly to her. She conveyed to me this weekend that she does not want her presence to detract from the occasion.

“In the last few days,” she wrote, “it has become evident that a number of students and faculty members would not welcome me as a commencement speaker. I respect their views, and I understand the vital importance of academic freedom. However, to preserve the celebratory spirit of commencement day, I believe it is best to withdraw my participation.”

Lagarde understands what the people who scheduled her did not: Students have been working long and hard to get to that ceremony, and it’s supposed to be about them.

On the day I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, my parents drove down to see me. Neither of them had been to college, so they were proud that they had been able to send me, and I was grateful for their support and encouragement. I was also pretty proud of myself. I had done well and earned a Bachelor of Science degree with High Honors, which at that point in my life was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. I remember showing them around the campus, talking about where I lived and where I did all my studying. They had brought along some friends of mine, and afterwards we went out to dinner at a nice restaurant.

Those are my memories of of graduation, and I think I can safely assume that many of my friends have similar memories. And I’ll bet few of us can remember what the guest speaker said. But thank God that whoever planned the ceremony didn’t bring in some controversial lightning rod of a speaker. Our commencement address was given by physicist Leon Lederman. I think he said something about education.

(Dr. Lederman won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the method he and two other physicists used to discover the muon neutrino. He was also the director of Fermilab for ten years. He was one of the biggest advocates of searching for the Higgs boson and he wrote the most well-known book about it, The God Particle. By reading that book, or some textbooks on particle physics, or really even the Wikipedia article on neutrinos or the Higgs boson, you can learn much more about the real important work of Leon Lederman than anybody learned from his commencement address.)

Meanwhile, Stephen Carter had something to say about the Rutgers situation as well:

Then there are your fellows at Rutgers University, who rose up to force the estimable Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, to withdraw. The protest was worded with unusual care, citing the war in Iraq and the “torture” practiced by the Central Intelligence Agency. Cleverly omitted was the drone war. This elision allows the protesters to wish away the massive drone war that President Barack Obama’s administration has conducted now for more than five years, with significant loss of innocent life. As for the Iraq war, well, among its early and enthusiastic supporters was — to take a name at random — then-Senator Hillary Clinton. But don’t worry. Consistency in protest requires careful and reflective thought, and that is exactly what we should be avoiding here.

This just proves my point. You invite someone like Condoleeza Rice, and next thing you know, the political pundits like Carter are insulting your community and somehow linking your graduation ceremony to an attack on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It gets worse. After Haverford College students protested against former University of California (Berkeley) chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, leading to his withdrawal, his replacement speaker decided to make a stink about it:

William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton and a nationally respected higher education leader, called the student protesters’ approach both “immature” and “arrogant” and the subsequent withdrawal of Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California Berkeley, a “defeat” for the Quaker college and its ideals.

So he insulted the Haverford and its students, and it made the newspapers. Awesome job, whoever planned the ceremony. Are you happy with what you’ve done to your graduation this year? Is this what you wanted?

Also, as with O’Rourke, Bowen seems not to understand how commencement works:

“I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau’s handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of “demands,” said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. “In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments.”

Yeah, no question, sending lists of demands is a douchebag thing to do. But how the hell does Bowen think they’re going to “engage in a genuine discussion” during the commencement speech? Does he even hear what he’s saying?

In her letter to the Smith community, President McCartney doesn’t do any better:

I want to underscore this fact: An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion. I remain committed to leading a college where differing views can be heard and debated with respect.

Again, “debated”? On graduation day? This is feel-good nonsense. It’s an admirable defense of free speech principals, but if your graduation ceremony has become the subject of a rancorous debate, you’ve kind of already ruined it.

I understand the point McCartney is trying to make. It’s okay to object to speech you don’t like, and it’s okay to speak out and protest against it. But it’s not okay to silence speech you don’t like, and it’s not okay to deprive other people of their right to hear speech you don’t like. Everybody say it with me: The best remedy for bad speech is good speech.

Many colleges and universities are run by people who feel it’s their role to challenge students’ preconceptions and present them with a wide range of viewpoints and opinions. I think those are perfectly valid values for an institution of higher education. It makes a lot of sense to schedule speakers who are unorthodox, who represent unpopular ideas, and who make people uncomfortable.

(Although, if I seem less than completely enthusiastic, it’s because I am annoyed by the amount of importance placed on non-curricular stuff like this. I suppose plenty of people go to college to “have experiences” and “encounter other ways of being” or whatever. But I went to school to learn shit. My degree was in Computer Science, and I spent all my time learning algorithms and data structures and the discrete mathematical structures that underlie so much of computing. I learned computer graphics and databases and operating systems. I spent long hours learning computer architecture and the deep mysteries of compilers, and as hard as some of it was, it was also absolutely fascinating. If you’re really interested in the subjects you’re studying, there are worlds to explore.)

So if you want college to present students with controversial speakers, I’m all for it, and to hell with what a bunch of whiny protesters say. But can we please stop pretending that the graduation ceremony is a crucial moment in students’ education? You’ve had four long years to mold their minds and shape their way of understanding the world. You’ve had plenty of time for all the challenging speakers — or better yet, challenging classes — you could possibly want. If you haven’t done the job right by graduation day, it’s too late.

And if you have done the job right, what’s the point of having a controversial speaker? What more good could it possibly do? The students have done everything you’ve asked for four years and now they just want to celebrate with their friends and families. After all they’ve been through to get there, making many of them sit and listen to someone you know they’ll find offensive is kind of a dick move.

(By the way, you may notice something missing from all these articles complaining about protests against commencement speakers: Quotations. Condoleeza Rice, for example, has about a dozen honorary doctorate degrees, so you know she’s given commencement addresses before, yet for all that P. J. O’Rourke extolls her virtues and accomplishments, he never quite gets around to giving any examples of the awesome things she’s said at any of her other speeches.)

Finally, if there are protests, and your speaker backs down, it’s only going to draw the kind of ugly media attention that Haverford, Smith, and Rutgers have been getting. All you will have accomplished is making your college look stupid and marring the day for your graduating students. Again, it’s wrong that the protesters are able prevent someone from being heard. But it was a predictable consequence that could have been avoided if you had kept the students in mind and chosen a speaker who would complement the occasion instead of dominating it.

Mount What?

Over at Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall writes:

Most of all, I do not understand the persistence of the myth that a college education can, does, or should qualify a graduate for good job, when it appears that a large percentage of students, if not a majority, leave the campus unable to write, think, or name the men on Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore? That’s old media…

Seriously, though, in the context of qualifying for a job, what does knowing the faces on Mount Rushmore have to do with anything? Still, Marshall’s got a point about the mixed-up priorities of some universities. Read the whole thing.

Scholarship for a Nerd

Christie Wilcox writes one of my favorite blogs, Observations of a Nerd, and is hoping to win a $10,000 scholarship for her graduate studies. She’s an excellent blogger and scientist. Over the past week she had some great articles on evolution which you should check out.

Her competition looks lame, yet she was running behind in the polls when I voted for her. Please give her a hand and vote for Christie Wilcox! (Consider it practice for next Tuesday.)

Amateur Historians

I really enjoy studying history. I’ve moved around time and the globe delving deeper into Mycenaean influences beyond Greece and studying the nuances of one particular commander who has been maligned in the Battle of Gettysburg. Every time I think I might find some historical event boring, I run into some fascinating element that grabs my attention.

I would never consider myself a professional historian. I would certainly never claim that I was capable of writing a history book for use in a public school.
Just for the fun of it, however, let’s say I did write an elementary school history book. No school board would be stupid enough to buy it, right? I suppose that would depend upon what the school board wanted history to be.

In Virginia, as in most of the country, school boards are popularity contests that have virtually nothing to do with academics. They were so eager to rewrite the history of the US Civil War, they adopted a school history book written not by a historian, but by Joy Masoff who wrote the “correct” history and backed the position up with links to something she happened to run across on an Internet website. She did no fact checking. She didn’t look into the claims to see where they got their “facts”. It’s on the Internet, so it must be true! (*If a student of mine tried something like that on a term paper, I would have them rewrite it.)
Then the school board, which managed to find the history it happened to like, didn’t bother to run it past any actual historians. After all, it’s written in a book, it must be true!
Since it looks like I’ll have some spare time away from Windy Investments, perhaps I should write history books. The first step will be finding out what some school board would like to hear. The rest is easy. Just Google for the information and quote the first source I find.
* The Internet is a poor to fair resource for scientific research, but has been getting better. Google Scholar allows me to find materials that, just a few years ago, would have required out-of-state trips to university libraries. No one in their right mind, however, would take a basic Google search and assume that all of the results are Gospel.