Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat”

This excellent comment requires no introduction, just reading. 

Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment Of The Day on the post, “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White Of Popehat”:

One thing I have noticed on those rare occasions when I truly listen to someone whose viewpoint is diametrically opposed to my own is that I discover there are indeed legitimate points being made and legitimate concerns that need to be heard. That doesn’t mean that I experience a paradigm shift. I will still believe that opposing viewpoint is incorrect, but at the same time I discover that my understanding of that opposing view was actually wrong.

There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being right, and I confess that at times I am more concerned with being right than with listening to someone whom I think is wrong. But there may be much more to the desire to be right than mere ego. Our brains are wired to find the simplest and easiest course. We learn actions that can then be performed by rote, without even thinking about them. That is why we find ourselves, upon walking into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and staring at food for five minutes before we recall we really entered the kitchen to find a flashlight. Our brains have developed a pattern that says: “enter kitchen, open fridge”. Having the right answer is a great thing, for our brain can discard all else and hold onto that right answer. It is easier. Simpler. Life now makes sense and we can proceed with cataloguing the more important details in life (the current Kardashian scandal or the names of all the Pokemon and their evolutions).

Being challenged in our right answers is uncomfortable. It can be especially distressing when someone presents us with a set of facts that, at least on the surface, contradict our right answers. We have two choices when confronted with such a challenge: we can either try to hone our own arguments, or we can retreat and try to insulate ourselves from further confrontation. We’ve seen quite a bit of the latter. We develop little adages about how it is impolite to discuss religion and politics — the two most important areas of life, and the two areas most likely to spark an argument. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, listen to the news that most appeals to our viewpoints, and never venture outside the echo-box. Certainly all these tactics are easier than constantly assimilating new arguments, researching new theories and developments, stringing together logical narratives, and perhaps even adjusting our own viewpoints when our conclusions lead us to recognize errors in our previous judgments.

I’ve read a little bit recently on St. Thomas Aquinas, and in reading I gained a peek into life in the universities of the thirteenth century. Students did not come to a university to attend lectures. They essentially apprenticed themselves to a master, who then did not teach so much as dialogue. They demanded that their students ask questions and find answers themselves. I read an account of how universities would host open debates, and the masters would throw their students into the ring to answer the challenges and objections people would raise.

I mention this because (aside from St. Thomas’ tendency to gather all the best objections he could find, and then answering them in a systematic fashion) it certainly seems to me that universities have devolved over time from institutes in which one enters to expand upon human knowledge to institutes that are a form of job preparation. Classes aren’t about dialogue and exploration of ideas, but are a regurgitation of facts. The professors have the right answer, and the students don’t challenge those answers, but rather absorb them. At least at the undergraduate level, there is little difference between college courses and high school courses. Students are provided with the right answers, and are tested on how well they can repeat back those right answers, so that they can pass their classes, get their degree, and then get that dream job they were promised.

In the light of human tendency to form an idea and stick with it, and the universities becoming higher-level job training, free speech becomes an unwelcome interruption. If the universities are about delivering the right answers so that students can pass their classes and move to on to get high-paying jobs, where is there room for dissenting views? They’re wrong, they take effort to address, and they distract from the tranquility of all the nicely-packaged right answers.

 

29 Comments

Filed under Comment of the Day, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Religion and Philosophy

29 responses to “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Ken White of Popehat”

  1. Congrats, Ryan. This is where education has gone wrong, and our society suffers for it.

    Colleges have discovered they can extend the infancy of already coddled teens, and get the parents to pay for it, with ever increasing fees versus less and less education and more indoctrination. This is a scam that is beginning to bite educators as the monster they have helped create turns on them.

  2. Tyberius A.

    Well written commentary, Ryan… a lot of well thought out points made here. You mentioned something in the first two paragraphs that struck a cord with me and something I have been struggling with in reading some of other excellent commentaries written on this blog.

    During one of my first interviews out of college, the interviewer asked me to write an essay on the spot of anything I chose. It should be at least a page long and explain something that was particularly relevant to me that I learned in college and why. I wrote a page and a half within 15 mins on “Cognitive Dissonance theory” and why I believed it to be one of the more useful things I learned in college.

    In the above first two paragraphs, you essentially described what happens during times of cognitive dissonance and why it is so important to understand this in ourselves as a means to better understand and thus better communicate with others. Of late, I needed to be reminded what is most important when confronting my own “need to be right” in that it is not about a personal paradigm shift as it is about recognizing the value in what others have to say even if, by chance, they are wrong (or rather their conclusions are wrong).

    I have been struggling with many excellent posts here around social issues. I purposely held back from responding for many different reasons. I understand and share the value, as many who have written here also seem to share, for open dialogue with people who may or may not share the same ideas based on varied experiences and values. This is good and in many ways, and I believe helps move the society forward. Having said that, I also have strong feelings that such dialogue can sometimes be very time consuming and fruitless. I realized that I have to balance that against the need to speak up and to offer a different view others may have heard and rejected or they just may not have considered.

    While I may disagree, there is a lot of value in understanding why people may not know or agree with why groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM) exist. It seems like the disconnect has a lot to do with seeing them and others like them as socio-political groups organized to bring about social and legal changes. However, this is actually a very small part of why they exist in the first place. The reason why BLM, Black Panthers, NAACP, and a host of all the other groups that have existed throughout American history because of the need to bring about equality to a group that has historically been disfranchised since the day they were brought here in chains. It is only by understanding the history or the consistent and systematic way African Americans were treated in this country can we begin to appreciate the needs of this group. We may disagree with the means and method, but as Ryan pointed out in his excellent commentary, we must realize that our understanding of their view may be wrong. And in acknowledging this, we can offer better, more productive strategies that will achieve the same goal… a goal we should all have as Americans.

    I was in my senior year in college when the OJ Simpson trial was going on. One of my college professors spoke very intently about the different reactions to the verdict seemingly on racial lines. I remember that he made a very important point, “the verdict is not as telling as the reaction to the verdict… The statement is clear, but we can’t be comfortable as a county having people cheer the not guilty verdict of a murderer.” And that is where I’m going with this… agree or disagree, the conversation needs to happen. We cannot accept an “us against them” mindset as some fall back position that leaves us to retreat into intellectual complacency. As uncomfortable as it may make some of us, I applaud Jack and many others who speak their mind here.

    Ultimately, its not about people creating a forum where we all agree with each other, but one that raises the bar of our UNDERSTANDING of each other and working towards a more equitable society together.

  3. dragin_dragon

    While Ryan and Tyberius both make excellent points, both also fail to mention that SOME folks have an unfortunate tendency to make up their own facts as they go along. Thus, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have a meaningful dialogue with them. Among other things, if you have to stop every thirty seconds to fact-check what they are saying, or if they have to do that with you, one or the other is very quickly going to turn on his/her heel and walk away. Ad what about those folks who distort the meanings or reasons for the ‘facts’ they are using? They are just as difficult to deal with, because they are certain that they and they alone know the truth behind the facts. Frankly, there are a couple of people I refuse to engage, here, for those very reasons. Any dialogue that devolves into an argument is more likely to turn into a fist-fight than to settle an issue.

    • SOME folks have an unfortunate tendency to make up their own facts as they go along.

      This tendency will be exacerbated by our President’s proclivities.

      • dragin_dragon

        Sad, but true. What’s worse, I think he actually believes the stuff he makes up, so that if he says it, it must be true.

    • Dragin_dragon, of course to have a meaningful conversation, it needs to be a two-way street. If someone is just in the conversation to shut someone up, then it isn’t possible to have a meaningful conversation. There’s not much more to do than walk away. One question I will ask, though. In your experience, are those people making up facts, or just regurgitating what they have heard without having vetted the source?

      • dragin_dragon

        Actual fact, Ryan, a little bit of both. Some of the ‘facts’ they present are gleaned from the internet, but you know, somebody had to come up with them. And when they did, they (the facts) were wrong then, as well. A made-up fact is just as made-up after being filtered through a half-dozen people.

        • I’ll agree that a made-up fact is still wrong, even after a host of people have repeated it. However, I will concede a slight reduction of culpability in those who are repeating the disinformation, in part because I know we humans cannot function if we have to verify everything anyone tells us. If someone we trust tells us something, we tend to believe it without needing to fact check it. Now, if someone refuses to accept that there are any contrary facts to what is currently believed, that still means the discussion will go nowhere. But I do think there is at least a minute qualitative difference between those who make things up themselves, and those who haven’t vetted their information.

          • dragin_dragon

            I’d have to argue that. I tend to check even things my (conservative) sons tell me. I can’t think of anyone I’d trust more…possibly my wife, but I check her, as well. The point being, be careful who you trust. I even check Jack, on occasion, but he’s mostly right.

  4. Scott GF

    The one professor I had told the class the truth and it resonated with me since, “Know enough to pass the class, learn the material after”. If you understood the nuance of the swim lanes of higher education you understood what he meant.
    I sought the topical dialog when going to college. Seeking the edges of the taught material. How far did they (the scientists) go and did they go far enough. Were they limited by lack of technological advances, sexism, racism, religious doctrine etc… . I still like to try and pull back the curtain seeking more.

  5. This is a cogent analysis up to a point, but I must say I’m more than a little sick and tired of having people tell me what goes on in my classroom. I teach at a non-flagship state university. And the description of what happens in college classrooms simply does not match my experience of them.

    (Side note to Ryan: I really do like a lot of what you’ve said here. I apologize if the succeeding sounds like a personal attack. It is not intended in that spirit. Just one too many sweeping generalizations about my profession, and the last straw happened to be yours.)

    Ryan cites Thomas Aquinas. I prefer the great late-20th century philosophers known as Monty Python: “I’m not dead yet.”

    I do expect students to know some objective facts: if you can’t tell me the basic tenets of neoclassical theory or who David Garrick was, you’re not going to fare well in my theatre history class. If Ryan wants to say that in this sense I insist on regurgitation, he has my permission to do so.
    But to get an A on the research paper, you’d better be able to interpolate from incomplete data, and to articulate a point of view based on the facts as they are available to us. That means finding out what the facts are, but also finding context: okay, so it cost a penny to see a play at the Globe Theatre. But that’s a meaningless statistic if you don’t know what that Elizabethan spectator could have bought for a penny if he didn’t spend it on standing room in an outdoor theatre.

    Equally importantly, if I ask a student who the protagonist of a play is, you can bet the script under consideration isn’t Hamlet or Oedipus, but something like Death of a Salesman: is that play about Willy or Biff (or Linda, if you can make a case)? I don’t care (much, at least) what you answer; I care how you get there, and whether your conclusion is based on your close reading of the play, or on expert opinion, or on what your high school teacher said.

    I tell students that if they agree with me for all the right reasons and can articulate why they do so, that’s probably good for a B+ on an end-of-semester paper. If they want an A, they’d better disagree with me for the right reasons, or at the very least make me reconsider something I had previously accepted perhaps too uncritically.

    I mentioned Death of a Salesman above. I’m reminded of a scenario many years ago. I was wrapping up my PhD and looking for a part-time job to supplement my part-time lectureship. I got an interview at a local technical college to teach an intro to theatre course. One of the questions I was asked was “what is the great American play?” I said that depended on what is meant by that term, and suggested that probably the most important American play was Oklahoma, the one generally agreed to have considerable artistic merit to be produced the most today would likely be The Glass Menagerie, etc. Nope. The “correct” answer in the mind of this accounting teacher was Death of a Salesman, and all else was equivocation. I didn’t get the gig. I am still thankful for that.

    To be sure, my method is sometimes terrifying to students who have grown up in an era of largely bogus standardized testing that does indeed encourage regurgitation rather than thought. But secondary schools and teachers are increasingly under the gun to raise scores on whatever meaningless (at best) test a gaggle of idiot politicians of either party decided would increase “accountability.” I can’t really blame my colleagues in secondary schools for teaching to the test—their livelihood depends on good scores—but what can be quantified and what is important are discrete categories, whether the petty pols and the educationists think so or not.

    I don’t suggest that there aren’t some lazy or indeed unethical faculty at about every institution in the country. They present opinion as fact and reward toadyism. And they get a lot of notoriety from the right-wing media. But I’d argue four things:

    1. The majority of faculty in traditional liberal arts disciplines really are more interested in how students think than in what they think.
    2. Administrations tend increasingly to run scared. It’s just a question of who scares them the most.
    3. It tends to be students (and faculty) in pre-professional programs (business, accountancy, nursing) who want to be able to memorize the “correct” answer rather than in developing the ability to think.
    4. Many (not all, but many) of the problems in higher education are created completely outside the academy. Students arrive at universities unable to write, to problem-solve, to consider multiple perspectives in large part because of the “teach to the test” mentality to which their secondary school teachers needed to ascribe for their own career safety. This is primarily a function of well-meaning but also willfully ignorant state legislatures and boards of education, who trust corporate propaganda more than the expertise of their teachers. And that leaves university professors at a disadvantage: trying to teach subject matter while simultaneously struggling to backfill the communications, research, and study skills which inevitable had to be tossed aside in order to sufficiently worship the Great God Accountability.

    None of this is likely to change any time in the near future. But I, personally, am going to keep challenging students’ suppositions and demanding evidence for their claims. I have tenure. And I’m not dead yet.

    • This doesn’t directly address your post, but, if you have the time to peruse this professor’s philosophy, what are your opinions?

      “3. The single most important factor in separating A’s and B’s – she does not get beyond the obvious.”

      About three-quarters of the way down on this page

      How to get from B-land to A-land

      B-level writers ask:

      What happened?
      When did it happen?
      Where did it happen?
      Who made it happen?
      These are descriptive questions. They describe what happened but don’t go beneath the surface.

      A-level writers ask:

      Why did it happen?
      How did it happen?
      What might have prevented it from happening?
      How did it affect other things?
      What are connections that most other people have missed?
      What will happen as a result of it?
      What might have happened if it didn’t happen?
      What have I found out about it that nobody knew before?
      What are some unanswered questions that nobody thought of before?
      These are analysis questions. They take the incident apart (that’s what “analysis” means in Greek) to see how it works and what it implies.”

      If you don’t mind reviewing the other links in his “University Survival Guide”. I’ve posted his vision before with hopes to gather opinions, but I don’t think I’ve directly asked an educator for their opinion.

      It is somewhat summarized.

      • I like this a lot. I’ll quibble with some of it–I’ve had students who freeze on written exams but can carry on a perfectly reasonable conversation about the material, for example. I’d also argue that for certain kinds of research the internet (some sites–and helping students develop the skill to know which ones are valuable and which ones are BS is part of what I’m here to do) and newspapers (real ones) are legitimate sources. But in general, I’m a fan. Some of this looks familiar… I probably bumped into it somewhere along the line.

        And I’m all about “If there is any conflict between lecture presentation and the textbook, lecture presentation takes precedence,” if for no other reason than that if I argue with the textbook, I’ll make it clear that I’m arguing with the textbook. And any quiz question will start, “According to lecture,…”

        I have served as Interim Director of my School (i.e, Department Chair) for the past year. I wasn’t a candidate for the permanent job. Although the sizable pay boost would be nice, I belong in a classroom, not behind a desk. A rising sophomore who knows me only slightly asked if I was leaving the university. No, I’m just moving back down the hall to my real office. I’m going back to teaching instead of 75% administration.

        She looked relieved and said something about how a lot of people would be unhappy if I left. It was a generic compliment–perhaps sincere, perhaps not. Then she said something about how I have a reputation for being tough, but otherwise she’s heard only good things. I smiled and said that the “tough” part was the real compliment. She looked at me for a second, the penny dropped, and she nodded and smiled. She’s going to be welcome in my classroom.

    • “Students arrive at universities unable to write, to problem-solve, to consider multiple perspectives in large part because of the “teach to the test” mentality to which their secondary school teachers needed to ascribe for their own career safety.”

      The latest education meme burning through the politically snarky channels is “in one hundred years we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high schools to teaching remedial English in college” (or some variant of that meme).

      It lacks in nuance in terms of subject matter change, but my dad who taught from the late 70s to the early 00s observed first hand a clear loss of rigor in primary education.

      • “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know thit is not true. (Robert Wilensky)

        Because according to the internet, Ron Paul will be President and Serenity is the best movie evah (Fizzyland)

        It’s not so much surfing as Dumpster-Diving. I used to wonder how bad it could be if we just let anybody publish their ideas. Now I know. Real bad.

        (from his website)

        Glad this popped into my head. From a family of educators (I’m the fluke), his bluntness is refreshing.

      • That’s unquestionably true. My best students today are still really good. But the 10th best in a class of 35 now would have been #25 even 15 years ago. I’d argue that this corresponds precisely with pushes for “objectivity” and “accountability,” i.e., high stakes testing. At its best, this produces Jeopardy champions. But there’s nothing to guarantee that it will produce a useful, informed, and engaged citizenry. (N.B. these two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. I have a friend who made a pot of money on that show, and he’s a good citizen, too.)

      • “MB>I Disagreed With the Professor’s Stand on —-

        The time to deal with this issue is when it comes up in class. I have no respect for anyone who complains on the course questionnaires.

        But the professor might put me down, or the students might laugh at me. Not too likely, but even if it happens, so what? If you don’t have courage in the safe setting of a classroom, when exactly are you planning to develop it? When your boss asks you to falsify figures or lie under oath? When someone throws rocks through your minority neighbor’s windows? When the local hate group burns the synagogue?”

        From his No-Excuses page

    • Curmie,

      I certainly take no offense at what you right, and certainly do present me with the opportunity to step back and listen to a differing viewpoint. I confess that I did make a sweeping generalization that is hardly fair to the good professors (and I did have good professors at UW, especially my graduate studies advisor). Overall, I would hardly rate my time at the university as not worthwhile — I frequently wish I could return and continue studying. Some of the classes that I felt had the greatest impact on me were two philosophy classes: “The Philosophy of Science” and “How to Think About Weird Things.” You could probably identify, if you look carefully at any of my writing that talks about the passing of scientific paradigms, the influence of those classes.

      The time I spent at the university was quite worthwhile, and I would strongly encourage people to attend college, despite the negative aspects that we have been focusing on here at Jack’s blog. But I have to pause and truly explain what I mean by that. I would not encourage someone who is looking to enter a trade to attend college. I would not encourage someone who is uncertain about what they should do with their lives to enroll at a university, but instead take a year or two at a community college, or work for a year or two, or go on a mission, or something that won’t find them in an environment where they won’t thrive, and thus won’t waste thousands of dollars.

      Now here comes the tricky part. Certainly, I would encourage someone who desired to research, to expand upon human knowledge, or to study the great thinkers of history with the intent of solving humankind’s most intractable problems, to attend a university. But what about those who look to become engineers, or major in business, or seek some other white-collar profession? There is an overlap in these fields between the free, creative thinking that the liberal arts of college are meant to foster, and the rote memorization of facts and tools that perhaps could be as easily taught in a trade school as at a university. I know that many engineers emerged from the university with a toolbox of engineering methods, but more importantly some direction on how to tackle real world problems. The engineering skill that companies find so important is not so much the book knowledge, but the ability to problem solve that hopefully developed over the course of study.

      However, I do note that those engineering classes were still a matter of the professor lectures, the students absorb, and then utilize the contents of the lecture on assignments and tests that still are matter of right or wrong answers. And this perhaps isn’t the fault of the professors, but of the nature of the field. If you don’t do the calculations right, buildings collapse, bridges fall down, chemical plants explode, and pumps aggressively disassemble themselves. So students are given information and need to demonstrate that they absorbed it properly. It is excessively flippant to describe this as regurgitation, but I will confess that, yes, I did paint with such a broad brush that even these very legitimate forms of teaching and testing fell under that fell stroke.

      The worst classes, in my experience, were in the Department of Education. Those epitomized my regurgitation complaint. There was a single philosophy in that department, and you had best toe the line. I spent a year there, and eventually decided that if I was going to teach, it would be at a college level, where I wouldn’t be railroaded into a philosophy I disagreed with, and where any outside-of-the-box thinking wasn’t ruthlessly squelched. But there were other classes which I did not experience myself that many of my friends endured. They were classes in which two extremes persisted — toe the line with the teacher, never saying anything except to repeat back what he said; or make anything up, and you’ll still pass. These were the cultural context courses that were highly popular because they either were an easy A, or you could pass them if you happened to be of the right sex or the right ethnicity.

      And this brings me back to the problem I mentioned in my comment above. The university was not a place to experience diversity or broaden horizons. It was the next step in a well-defined path to getting a job. You graduated high school, went to college, earned a degree, and then used that degree to land a respectable job. Diversity of opinion and freedom of expression were not typically something that factored into anyone’s thinking, unless their viewpoints were being suppressed to detriment of their grades. But if you ended up in a class in which the professor was hostile because you were, God forbid, a white male, you gritted your teeth, earned your cultural context credit, and then promptly forgot about it, because in the end, that job was waiting for you.

      I’m sure there a hundred other reasons why we’re starting to see freedom of speech being stifled in a growing number of campuses across the country. I’m sure there is a lot that could be said about Millennials, about the agendas of political parties, or about the backbone (or lack thereof) of university administrators. They are probably more valid than my thoughts about viewing the university as just a stepping-stone to a career. But I do think there has been a lot of tailoring of expectations, of advertising universities as the means by which one acquired a respectable job. And I think that influences administrators for which battles they will or won’t fight. Are more students going to get placed in high-earning jobs if they hear Ann Coulter lecture for an hour or two? Probably not. Thus defending her right to speak and the students’ rights to hear if they desire is not worth the effort.

      As for Death of a Salesman, I would argue that the main character is Willy. Biff is the foil by which the audience understands the gross disconnect between Willy’s perception of himself and the sad reality. Through Biff, we see how Willy is not anywhere near the prosperous salesman he aspires to be, how Willy is not a man of integrity or fidelity, and how finally even his last attempt at greatness falls flat. That is the analysis of a mathematician, who probably has no right to comment on theater in a public forum.

      Curmie, please keep terrorizing those students. We need as many professors like that as we can get. You’re not dead yet, and I think you’ll recover.

      • The engineering skill that companies find so important is not so much the book knowledge, but the ability to problem solve that hopefully developed over the course of study.

        Ryan, I had the same experiences you mentioned (while likely less vehemently anti white male in the early ’90s) and agree with your post. As Engineer students and facility, we were very focused on what employers wanted (they even sent lecturers to teach and focus curriculum) and therefore 94% of graduates in my program had either multiple job offers, or had accepted a job before graduation made it official. Those that were going on to graduate school or going into the family business (not using their degree) made up almost all of the 6% left.

        Employers emphasized critical thinking skills. They told us we could look up the formulas, if needed, but adapting them to the situation at hand was more important than memorization.

        Many of my engineering classes open book tested. With lecture notes (provided by the prof to minimize writing and facilitate learning) the available material for any test could be 200 plus pages, and the answer to any question could be a single sentence in all that. You had the formulas available, but were not told which ones fit the question. “Know the covered material well enough to look up specifics,” we were told. I still have small torn up post it notes (small ones did not yet exist) in my college textbooks to help find sections rapidly during a test.

        (Funny story: the only ‘D’ I ever got in a class was the pet Applied Diff EQ class taught by the Department Dean, his on. I was working 40 plus hours a week and had a full load, and had to squeeze out a ‘C’ on the final. The Dean gave me a ‘D’ meaning I had to retake the class in the summer to keep on schedule. I was pissed off at him, but he was The Man, after all. I legitimately made an ‘A’ that summer, just to show him I could (while being respectful, after all: he was just ‘challenging’ me) while having significantly less on my plate. He gave me a ‘B’ “because I made a ‘D’ the first time.”)

        This process refined my natural inclination to logically solve problems, and has served me well since.

        As an aside: my proof that schools really don’t want to teach skills needed in life is that balancing a checkbook was not taught in high school. This is called account balancing and budgeting today. In college, the time value of money (how interest works for or against you) should be a freshman level concept for everyone. That these are not taught is res ipsa loquitur for this negligence.

      • Ryan, thanks for this thoughtful response. I think we’re seeing the same phenomenon; it just that you perceive it to be more pervasive than I do.

        It is certainly true that a lot of college students would be better off elsewhere. Universities, and the students who belong there (this is a descriptor, not a qualitative judgment), would also benefit from smaller class sizes and fewer unengaged colleagues. But the “college education equals a better job” crowd has been at it since at least the early ’60s, when I was a wee lad.

        You’re right to distinguish between what is essential knowledge in different fields. If one of my students thinks Adolphe Appia was a German playwright instead of a Swiss designer, it’s not the end of the world. But if an engineering student (or engineering degree-holder) makes a mistake and a bridge collapses, that’s a bigger problem.

        But every field has a certain amount of material that is objectively true, a certain amount that is subject for debate, and some that has no answer, so we’re really talking about problem-solving. I direct plays; problem solving is what I do. Knowing that something looks awful on stage is part of the job; knowing plausible fixes and trying them out until one works is the rest.

        I absolutely hear you about departments of education. I’ve known some excellent colleagues in that area, but there’s a whole lot of flavor-of-the-month theory in certain areas of that discipline.

        As for Ann Coulter, that’s another matter. No, the university shouldn’t be forbidding speakers to come to campus, irrespective of the rationale. But there is a pragmatic issue: it might be the College Republicans or whoever who invite her to campus, but it’s (often) the university that’s left footing the bill for all the security and similar expenses. Provide them and it gets really expensive really quickly; don’t, and court a disaster. (N.B., increased security is required whenever there’s a big crowd, not simply in the case of someone controversial.)

        Your analysis of Death of a Salesman, by the way, is very good. You might have anticipated and refuted the counter-argument a little more, but you’re a mathematician, not a critic. And you actually present an argument, which is what I’m looking for. Solid A.

        • it’s (often) the university that’s left footing the bill for all the security and similar expenses. Provide them and it gets really expensive really quickly; don’t, and court a disaster. (N.B., increased security is required whenever there’s a big crowd, not simply in the case of someone controversial.)

          I think that the uneven application is what rankles. The perception is that progressive speakers who draw large crowds are seldom turned down. A non-progressive is turned down because the progressives might riot, crown size be damned.

          Arrest the little snowflakes who riot, as you should any other citizen, and this will stop. How else will they learn that this behavior has consequences? If outsiders come in to riot, arrest them.

          No, I think many colleges have made their bed here, and will have to actually enforce the law to get out of it.

        • Curmie, thanks for the passing grade!

          I will also admit that I have no hard numbers of how many people should or shouldn’t take a university approach, and I have no solid numbers of how many classes are succumbing to a lecture-regurgitate approach. I have mainly anecdotal evidence, confirmed by even more anecdotal evidence. But I know very well that anecdotal evidence is not enough to confidently generalize. Just because all I see around me is sagebrush, that doesn’t meant the whole world is blanketed in sagebrush. I hear that back east somewhere there are these vegetative anomalies call “forests”…

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