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.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

American Students View College as Job-Training: Forsaking Education?

“What is your major?” is a mantra (and undoubtedly a pick-up line too) on college campuses. In giving students some exposure to a variety of academic disciplines, distribution requirements are meant in part to help students make more informed decisions of what to major in. According to an analysis of twelve randomly-chosen American colleges and universities in 2015, an increasing percentage of students since the recession of 2009 were circumventing this help by declaring their respective majors during their freshman year.[1] The reason, according to the business newspaper, is pragmatism, student debt-loads, and a difficult job market. “In 2012, nearly half of college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed or had jobs that didn’t use their degrees.”[2] In response, a higher proportion of students were going to college to get a job. Although The Wall Street Journal lauds the reduction of education to vocation, even more striking is how even academic administrators mischaracterize the intellectual mission of colleges and universities.  

The associate vice president for enrollment and marketing at DePaul, for example, told the journal, “People don’t go to college anymore to be fulfilled or to gain life perspective; they go to get a great job.  . . . There’s been a shift from hippie culture to corporate culture.”[3] In overgeneralizing becoming knowledgeable through formal learning being “fulfilled,” the administrator makes the benefits seem so vague they could be gained in other ways.

To claim that gaining knowledge in, say, chemistry or mathematics gives a person “life perspective” treats a distant byproduct as if it were the main point. A survey of freshman at American colleges and universities in 2014 found that 45% of them believed that “an essential or very important objective of college was to develop a meaningful life philosophy.”[4] In 1971, 73% had that belief. Those students who cited the belief got higher education wrong because they missed the obvious point that an education makes a person knowledgeable whether or not he or she uses the knowledge to develop a life philosophy.

Were higher education primarily to give students a meaningful life philosophy, the benefit would hardly be worth the cost in student loans alone. It is no surprise, given this “understanding” of the purpose of a liberal arts and science education, that 82% of the surveyed freshman in 2014 said college is essential to being very well off financially. In 1971, 37% thought so, and in 2006 the percent was up to 73.[5] In other words, shortchanging the real benefits of being knowledgeable as distinct from being skilled has facilitated the shift to declaring a major in one of the professional schools early.

Of course, studying chemistry, for example, can result in a job. In fact, the higher-order analytical and synthetic thinking that goes beyond the critical thinking (skills-training and problem-solving) in professional schools can actually be extremely valuable on the job as well as in virtually any domain in life. A student might major in accounting, for example, only to find that he is bored to death on audits. Having used his electives for business classes so he could graduate on time—having switched majors after his sophomore year from biology—he would have had no inkling that his mind was most suited to philosophy. Meanwhile, he would never use the skills he had learned in all the accounting courses he took.

I submit that resisting the temptation to reduce a college education to vocational training at least until the student has had some exposure to a variety of academic fields through distribution requirements is not “hippie culture.” As the assistant dean for academic advising and career counseling at UT-Austin puts the problem, “How do you know that you don’t want to major in say, anthropology, if you’ve never taken an anthropology class?”[6] He points out that students who choose a major during their freshman year are likely to switch, and this can delay their graduation date or make it more likely they will drop out.

In fact, the hippies of the late 1960s trivialized knowledge by presuming that they could teach themselves in “teach-ins.” These were not only a pragmatic part of the Vietnam-War protests on college campuses such as UC-Berkeley and UW-Madison; rather, the egalitarians decided that being well-learned is not a prerequisite for teaching the knowledge. Such an attitude toward knowledge is perhaps even more dismissive than that of the job-oriented freshmen who view academic knowledge as worthwhile only or primarily for developing a life perspective.

1 Douglas Belkin, “Freshman Are Picking Their Majors Earlier,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2015.
2 A 2014 paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Quote taken from Belkin, “Freshman.”
3 Belkin, “Freshman.”
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Universities and Hospitals: Time for American States to Tax Nonprofits?

The 2015 budget that Gov. Paul LePage proposed to the Maine legislature takes aim at the “sacred cow” of property-tax exemption for nonprofit organizations. Colleges and hospitals, for example, would be levied a property tax, with places of worship and government-owned entities remaining exempt. The rationale is that of fairness to home-owners, who must bear a disproportionate weight particularly in New England, where colleges and hospitals in particular are ubiquitous. However, I submit that a second justification exists—one based squarely on the colleges and hospitals themselves.

The full essay is at “Universities and Hospitals.”

Donations to Colleges and Universities: A Widening Inequality among Schools

For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014, colleges and universities in the American States received a record $37.5 billion in donations, which represent a 10.8% increase from the prior year.[1] Alumni giving increased 9.4% to $9.85 billion, with the average graduate gift up more than 25% to $1,535.[2] The top ten universities by amounts raised snagged 18% of the total ($37.5 billion), thus doing disproportionately better than even the schools in the middle stratum. What is behind this growing economic inequality, and can anything be done to reverse the trend?

Ann Kaplan, at the Council for Aid to Education, explains that the colleges and universities in the middle of the pack are less likely to have as active, wealthy, or well-connected alumni.[3] I suspect, however, that the level activity takes a nosedive at the level of local universities, which tend to operate as commuter schools. Also, while the propensity to do well financially years or even decades after graduation is likely enriched from having received an excellent education, the top ten universities by donation level in 2014 do not match up with the rankings based on quality of the education. To be sure, Harvard and Stanford came in first ($1.16 billion) and second ($927.5 million), respectively, but they are followed by non-Ivies including the University of Southern California, Northwestern, and John Hopkins. Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth did not make the cut, whereas the University of Washington did.

Surely, the performance depends at least in part on the quality of the university’s development office, and schools in the middle of the donations-ranking can certainly invest in that. In fact, improvement may not hinge on increasing budgets. For example, “(a)s schools get better at tracking down alums due to the growth of social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, they’re able to tap those graduates for targeted gifts to support student scholarships and new buildings, among other things.”[4] Encouraged by the financial bonus system, I made a habit while working part-time at Yale’s development office while I was a student at the university of asking the alumni whom I called what they liked about their experience at Yale. I would then casually mention that I could target a donation to a particular residential college, or group such as the Glee Club. Even a small donation would make a difference if narrowly targeted, and I did well on the bonus contests.

Beyond improving fundraising skills and tapping into the great opportunities available through social media, university administrations bent on increasing donations could do the unthinkable: get the staff to actually be nice to students, as they stand a good chance of being alumni one day. This incredible insight is not as easy as it might seem. At the University of California at Davis, for example, university police decided to use pepper-spray on students sitting on a campus sidewalk to protest a tuition hike in late 2012. For the university administrators at Davis, a heads-up: spraying pepper spray in students’ eyes at close range is not the best way to get them to donate years later. Just saying.

[1] Melissa Korn, “Harvard Tops Record Year for College Gifts,” The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Should the U.S. Government Have a Role in Elementary and Secondary Education?

In a speech in January 2015, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged a continued central role for the federal government in education policy. He said the president was proposing to increase federal spending on elementary and secondary schools by $2.7 billion; Congress had appropriated $67 billion to the U.S. Department of Education—with $23.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—in the 2015 budget.[1]  Typically, debate on the federal government’s role had focused on the use of standardized tests in holding schools accountable. I submit that a self-governing people has a duty to consider the wider implications, such as the impact of a greater role on the federal system. Otherwise, unintended consequences may show up after it is too late to do anything about them.

The full essay is at "Federal Policy in Education."