Friday, April 21, 2017

On the Spread of Private Governments in a Democracy: Should Churches and Universities Have Their Own Police Forces?

In mid-April, 2017, Alabama’s Senate approved a bill that would authorize Briarwood Presbyterian Church to create a police department. At the time, the church hired off-duty police employees to provide security-- “a common practice among nonprofit organizations.”[1] With 4,000 congregants, a K-12 school and thousands of events on its land each year, church officials had difficulty finding enough off-duty cops who were available. More important than being able to make up for any shortages, the proposed law “would empower a religious group to do a job usually performed by the government.”[2] That the group is religious in nature whereas police power is governmental (i.e., “church and state”) is less important than that the “job” had come to be viewed societally, as per the quote from The New York Times, as usually performed by government. In other words, the slippery, subtle slope is itself a red flag.

The full essay is at "Private Police Forces."

1. Ian Lovett, “Alabama Church Wants Police Force,” The New York Times, April 17, 2017.
2. Ibid.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Law School Dean Offers Grief Counseling to "Hysterical" Students after Trump Wins: Legal Reasoning Suffers

Michael Schwartz, dean of the law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced in November, 2016 that he would resign the following summer. His accomplishments included a lawyer-student mentoring program, live-client learning sessions, and a low-income clinic in the Arkansas Delta.[1] The trigger for his resignation was a school-wide email he had sent to students just days earlier in which he announced that he was making counseling available to any student who was upset by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Besides effectively normalizing over-reactions and failing to recognize normal venting, the dean’s email interjected partisan politics, albeit tacitly, into higher education. Rather than turn the popularized context into a teachable moment for assumption-analysis, the dean modeled what happens when unsupported assumptions run unchecked. In the end, the legal reasoning of students could suffer.
“For those of you who feel upset,” the dean wrote, “we have arranged extra on-campus counseling services today.”[2] Ironically, the dean who was taken up by the politics of the day instructed his law students (who in America are older as they already have one undergraduate college degree), “No matter how you are feeling, the most important thing for you is to focus on your studies.”[3] The dean’s assumption was that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was unique in this regard, for another professor at the school, Robert Steinbuch, noted at the time that he could not recall the dean’s office offering grief counseling after Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012. “I knew plenty of people who were disappointed,” Steinbuch observed, “but I didn’t know anybody [who] needed grief counseling. I think when we tell people that they need some form of grief counseling we are normalizing hysteria and suggesting there’s something immoral or wrong about our democratic process.”[4] I suspect that the normalization of the hysteria was aided by the intolerant political-correctness movement (i.e., how dare you accuse me of hysteria!). The dean was unwittingly facilitating the tacit demand for the normalization by normalizing the hysteria himself. Even the venting, which in itself is quite normal, can succumb to the demand that it be treated as something else, as if each of the vented grievances is valid rather than an over-reaction based on overblown assumptions.
The dean could have turned the attention on the election into a teachable moment by conveying to students how valuable critiquing assumptions can be when they are based on heightened emotions. Legal reasoning is presumably better when it is not at the mercy of high-charged emotions. Instead, the dean himself overextended his own assumptions—namely, that minorities would be attacked and not valued simply because Donald Trump won the election. “Our diversity is a strength and a goal that we need to cultivate in every way we can,” he wrote as if that needed all of a sudden to be said.[5] “Everyone deserves a safe, supportive, collegial learning environment,” he insisted.[6] Had reports indicated that the safety of the school would be compromised? “Please reach out to your peers and let them know they are valued.”[7] Did this include Republican peers? Furthermore, if some students were not feeling valued, maybe what they really needed to hear—for their own good—is that their inner feelings of value should not depend on external circumstances. Lastly, presumably without any evidence—a legal term—of any student being mistreated, the dean added, “And, if you witness someone being mistreated because of his or her politics, religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, please do not sit silently by.”[8] It is odd that after the campaign season the dean would assume that political mistreatment would be an issue. Even if Donald Trump has personal views on particular religions, races, ethnic groups, and homosexuality, to assume that students would begin mistreating each other is a stretch, to say the least, and that presumes that the dean knew Trump’s personal views. I submit that the dean was simply laying out the laundry list of partisan causes—going well beyond even the issues then at hand. In other words, the dean was representing a partisan position whose Democratic candidate(s) had lost.
Even in ideologically overextending his reach by “warning” his students, the power-seeking dean modelled how unchecked assumptions can result in muddled reasoning. That he presented such “reasoning” as sound and valid meant that the students’ own cognitive lapses were enabled. He did nothing to improve the students’ legal reasoning, but maybe the underlying problem is that he was not oriented to legal education as per the contents of his email. I submit that a dean has an obligation in leading a school to stay on point in the sense of focusing on the dissemination of knowledge, which includes sharpening reasoning abilities. Put another way, good reasoning and a value on higher education should be major factors going into the hiring of deans.

[1] Emily Walkenhorst, “UALR Law School Dean to Exit Post,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 19, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

For-Profits Cutting Corners in Higher Education: Distinguishing Vocational and Educational as a Solution

In my hometown, a local college decided to become a university. Not that the institution was expanding; the draw was tuition money from foreign students whose governments required that aid be given only to foreign universities. So overnight, departments became colleges. The underlying mentality, I submit, is that of forsaking what an institution is and so claiming to be something it’s not in order to get more money. In short, the underlying mentality is more, more, more, even if this means being something an institution is not. The change comes off as pretentious and greedy. The mentality is also in the mix when for-profit colleges take advantage of the U.S. student-loan program to the extent that they become financially dependent on the subsidized loans. Furthermore, some for-profits turn non-profit as a way to avoid oversight without losing the financial benefits of being for-profit. The trend points to an increasing decadence in American higher-education. The good news is that between 2011 and 2016, the enrollments at the major non-profit schools dropped by more than half; the “pullback came as the government clamped down on aggressive recruiting practices and stricter policies intended to ensure that schools are preparing students for gainful employment.”[1] Even the assumption that the purpose of a college is to train students for jobs rather than educate to make students knowledgeable. I suspect that the latter mission ironically makes for better hires among graduates.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for new students to decide on a major based on the sort of job they want after they graduate. This orientation willows down education artificially to that which fits with employer needs. While such a concern has a place in the professional schools, it does not fit higher education itself. Part of the problem may be that jobs-oriented majors (and schools) are housed alongside other majors (and schools) in American universities. In the E.U., the cleft is more pronounced institutionally. The American case risks a reductionism of higher education to vocationalism. Ideally, criteria appropriate to each should have their proper place at the American universities such that like fits with like. Whereas the practice of public accounting should have a place in the accounting major of a business school, such vocational concerns should not extend to majors in the humanities, for instance; a student doesn’t major in classics because getting prepared for a job is the motive. The bottom-line may be a lack of faith in higher education itself as a social good, including being of value to students in terms of knowledge as an end in itself.
To the for-profit “universities’” managements, I would point to the consistency between such a university being profit-oriented and the criteria being the preparation of hires in the for-profit workplace. It would make sense were such “universities” limited to the professional schools rather than having majors in the liberal arts and sciences, but the mentality is not one of self-limitation, but, rather, maximization, even if it means trying to have something both ways.
In a clear decision on August 11, 2016, for example, the U.S. Department of Education took aim at the sordid mentality in denying a request by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based college, to convert to nonprofit status for financial-aid purposes. Because board chairman Carl Barney was the main financial beneficiary of the college, the college was private rather than non-profit. The college would continue to face the higher regulatory scrutiny that goes with being a for-profit college; such a college “cannot derive more that 90% of its revenue from Title IV federal student-aid funds.”[2]
That a mentality of “wanting it both ways” was at least part of what the government was going after is clear from the Education Secretary’s comments. John King said, “This should send a clear message to anyone who things converting to nonprofit status is a way to avoid oversight while hanging onto the financial benefits: Don’t waste your time.”[3] That the college’s chief executive, Eric Juhlin, characterized the government’s decision as “arbitrary, capricious and unlawful” suggests that the administration did not get the message.[4] It would seem that wanting to keep the proverbial cake and yet eat it too is a sordid mentality that resists self-awareness even though it reduces credibility and thus has real costs. I submit that such a mentality can harm higher education more generally because corners tend to be cut even as the cutters remain in denial.
Fortunately, a federal crackdown on for-profit colleges had been taking place, such that in early September, 2016, ITT Technical Institute “abruptly closes more than 130 campuses, forcing more than 40,000 students . . . to begin looking for another school.”[5] The U.S. Government had banned the college from enrolling new students receiving federal aid. In short, the college had been too oriented to student loans and not enough oriented to training its students such that they could find employment. Put another way, ITT, and Corinthian Colleges, which faced liquidation a few months before, paid scant attention to their respective missions because making more money was the true mission.
Perhaps part of the problem with for-profit colleges has to do with the conflating of vocational and educational missions at non-profit universities that sport both professional schools and colleges of liberal arts and sciences. In the E.U., vocational training is institutionalized apart from the universities. Perhaps restricting for-profit colleges in the U.S. to being vocational-training centers would provide a fit for those institutions. Student loans would not apply as they would not be colleges or universities. By extension, professional schools at the non-profit universities would stress the application (and thus knowledge) of the basic disciplines. This orientation is practiced at Yale’s professional schools, especially its divinity and law schools. Were other universities to follow suit, we could distinguish those professional schools from the for-profit training centers.  Students could go “straight knowledge” in colleges of liberal arts and science, “application of such knowledge to practical pursuits” in university professional-schools, or “training in skills” at vocational training centers.

[1] Mellisa Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2016.

[2] Melissa Korn, “U.S.: For-Profit College Can’t Become Nonprofit,” The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Korn, “Loan Curbs Shut College.”

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Koko the Gorilla Meets Mr. Rogers

Koko, a western lowland gorilla held in captivity, learned over 1,000 signs from American Sign Language, and achieved a "sophisticated understanding" of spoken English by the age of 44.[1] Research has uncovered, moreover, that "gorillas may be capable of complex vocal behavior that defies previous beliefs about their communicative abilities."[2] In other words, the species is able to have a spoken language. Even though humans branched off from chimpanzees rather than gorillas 7 million years ago (our own species, homo sapiens, began 1.8 million years ago), the findings are hardly surprising; after all, whales and dolphins communicate by making distinct sounds. Even so, the prospect of being able to carry on a "conversation" with a member of another species is astounding. Gorillas like Koko might one day be able to tell us what it is like to be a gorilla. Ironically, we might learn more about our own species in the process. 

Koko teaching Mr. Rogers, star of the children's learning show, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,"  the sign for love.

Koko can make the sign for love, but do her keepers know she means the same thing as we do? Do gorillas feel love as we do? It is possible that a gorilla using human sign language is merely manipulating symbols according to rules. If so, it could not be said that Koko understands love. Even if she intends to communicate love by its sign, she might have in mind the love that gorillas have, rather than what we experience as love. Watching her favorite film, she turned away when the parents were saying goodbye to their boy as he boarded a train. Koko signed that it was sad because the mother loves her son. It is possible that Koko was referring to the biological attachment that a mother gorilla has for her baby, rather than what we mean by love. Koko might have meant merely that the mother will miss her boy, rather that the mother feels a selfless love for her son. Of course, what we mean by love may turn out to be more biological and less godly than we conveniently suppose. 

Koko, a fan of the television show, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," expressing affection for the star. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, seems weary of his fan, at least in his body language.

Moreover, the research being conducted on Koko and other gorillas in captivity may bring us one step closer to the realization that we are just one species among many others, rather than unique, as in being made in God's image. This is not to say that God does not exist, whether or not it coheres to the Western conceptions. Perhaps gorillas have a spiritual nature too; they may even have an idea roughly equivalent to ours for God (maybe Koko's god is similar to that of the Exodus). If not, theology may be a function of brain complexity. If gorillas could communicate to us a species-specific spirituality or idea of the divine, then we could put our own in perspective and thus see it in a refreshing light. Perhaps we might find that our religions are human, all too human.[3]

In short, learning more about how gorillas communicate, and teaching those like Koko more human language can potentially increase our knowledge of what it is like to be another species. Even though Koko has a sophisticated knowledge of English and the use of a thousand signs, language would have to be capable of transmitting what it is like to be a gorilla or human. 

1. Carolyn Gregoire, "Apes May Be Much Closer to Human Speech Than We Realized," The Huffington Post, August 15, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3. "Human, All Too Human" is the title of one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, but I have in mind David Hume's theory of religion. See his "The Natural History of Religion" for his account of how the human brain "translates" religion into distinctly human terms. See also the last chapter of my book, "God's Gold."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Educating Kids in American Schools: Early-Morning Zombies Subject to the Status Quo

It is natural to assume that the people in the business of educating children are highly committed to the dissemination of knowledge. That many school-administrators would stand by, and even enable the continuance of practices that compromise learning is difficult to believe; that fallacious reasoning would be used could only be reckoned as highly bizarre, and oxymoronic. Yet all this applies to dragging kids to school before their bodies have woken up.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised middle and high school administrators to begin the school-day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. “to allow teens—who are biologically programmed to stay up later than adults—to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep nightly.”[1] In the 2011-2012 school-year, the average start-time for 39,700 public middle, high, and combined schools was 8:03 a.m.; 83 percent of the schools began before 8:30.[2]

To Safwan Badr, a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the early start-times make absolutely no sense. “You’re asking kids to learn math at a time their brains are not even awake.”[3] In fact, we have made a virtue out of it, as per the adage, the early bird gets the worm. Parents praise their kids for waking up early for school, wholly unaware that the virtue may actually be a vice. Nietzsche would hardly be surprised, as he wrote of modern morality as decadent—even a weapon. Hence, we should question our moral truths, rather than simply take them as a given.

Strangely, many school administrators readily accepted the compromised learning in order to make room for after-school sporting events—as if academics were secondary in a school.[4] “It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Daniel Domenech of the School Superintendents Association.[5] As if being the status quo could serve as a justification, he adds, “This has been going on forever, and kids have been graduating from school and going on to college.”[6] Just because a practice has longevity does not mean that improvement does not apply. Indeed, a long-standing practice, such as slavery, may be in fierce need of correction. That kids have been graduating from high school and going on to college does not mean that such kids couldn’t be better-equipped intellectually as they matriculate, and that still more kids could make it to college.

On a Saturday when I was in my hometown, I stopped by the library at the junior college. Arriving shortly after 1 p.m., I was bewildered to find the hours were 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. even during the school year. I approached an early-elderly woman working in the small coffee shop across the hall from the library’s entrance. I expressed my astonishment that anyone would think that students would wake up early on a Saturday morning to go to the library. Indeed, on another occasion I witnessed the library nearly empty on a Saturday morning. The woman dismissed my assertion that afternoon hours would be more optimal. “If that were better, the college would have tried it and kept it,” she claimed. She was positing the status quo as being a justification, and thus of value in itself. Additionally, she was assuming that people afraid of change would not only embrace improvement, but also with near omniscience. “It is also possible,” I replied, “that the obvious did not occur to the administrators.” Ironically, people clutching the status quo may be most likely to miss the obvious staring them in the face. That this would apply to school administrators, who are in the business of educating students, is especially damning.

[1] Liz Szabo, “Class Times Too Early For Teens,” USA Today, August 7, 2015.
[2] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Szabo, “Class Times.”
[3] Szabo, “Class Times.”
[4] At Yale, I took a senior-level course on American schools. During a discussion on the purpose of schools, I was stunned that I was the only student defending the “antiquated” position that the learning of academic knowledge is and ought to be the primary purpose. Many of my fellow students seemed intent to remake schools into social-service agencies that happen to disseminate knowledge. Doubtlessly, those students had forgotten (or were taking for granted) what had gotten them to Yale.
[5] Szabo, “Class Times.”
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Analysis of Inferences and Assumptions: A Homework Assignment for “We the People”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.

The full essay is at “A Homework Assignment for ‘We the People’.” 

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Conflict of Interest at the U.S. Department of Education Keeps Students on the Hook

A conflict of interest can be viewed as two conflicting roles, wherein the one entailing more public responsibility is compromised or eclipsed by the other. The ongoing temptation itself may be sufficient grounds ethically to end or transfer the potentially exploitive role. In other words, sometimes the solution is as simple as ending the potentially encroaching task or role. When the institution is a governmental agency, selecting or creating another agency to perform the task is one alternative; privatizing it is another. Either way, deconstructing an institutional conflict of interest by separating problematic role-combinations is advisable even in cases in which the more private-benefits role has not corrupted the more public-benefits role. The U.S. Department of Education provides a useful case in point.

As of 2015, the U.S. Department of Education both funds and collects student loans. In addition, the agency decides which schools can have their students apply for the loans. With student-loan debt standing at $1.2 trillion (held by 40 million people), the magnitude of potential harm from a conflict-of-interest would be huge. Just such a conflict may have been behind the department’s decision to pressure Corinthian, a for-profit education company, to sell most of its campuses to ECMC, a student-loan collection agency, rather than go bankrupt. Had the latter occurred, the department would have had to let the 16,000 students out of their student-loans—nevermind that ECMC had no experience running colleges. “At this point the department is primarily a debt collector, but it’s supposed to protect students from predatory colleges while simultaneously making money as a mass issuer of loans,” Luke Herrine of the Debt Collective said.[1] The conflict of interest lies in the department putting its debt-collection/money-making role above the governmental responsibility to the public and the students. In other words, the conflict of interest involves shirking the role of wider responsibility in favor of one in which private benefit is foremost.

The department’s role in determining which colleges can apply for student aid is also potentially exploitable. According to Luke Herrine, “(T)he department first makes the loans that lets students go to these fraudulent for-profit colleges, and then when the students can’t pay back the loans, the department goes after them.”[2] That is, the department has a financial incentive to approve potentially-fraudulent for-profit “colleges” and to minimize the number of students for whom debt-forgiveness must be given. Arranging for Corinthian to sell its worst campuses to a loan-collective agency permits the Department of Education to get out of having to forgive the student loans of those students of those campuses. Had those colleges closed, the department would have had to forgive the student loans.

That the department was indeed exploiting students for private (i.e., departmental) gain at the expense of acting in the students’ interest is evident from the fact that the department did not discharge any of the $480 million of forgiveness that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau negotiated as part of the sale to ECMC.[3] Had the White House or Congress transferred the debt-collection function to another agency, the Department of Education would not have had an incentive to ignore the CFPB’s negotiated terms. Deconstructing an institutional conflict of interest can be that simple. I suspect that the failure to take institutional conflicts-of-interest seriously enough—especially when the exploitation is still only potential rather than actual—keeps such a simple solution from being implemented.

1. Tamar Lewin, “For-Profit Colleges Face a Loan Strike by Thousands Claiming Trickery,” The New York Times, May 4, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.