Monday, December 24, 2012

Our Own Ideas About Guns Are Killing Us

A connection of mine posted the following to Facebook today:

I'm sure the people that write these fables (and yes, I don't think this is actually true) think they're being clever. But this is an example of what I wrote about the other day when I argued that Guns Don't Kill People, Ideas Kill People.

I've no doubt that a number of people will read this little vignette and think, "Yeah, right on! That'll show 'em!" They'll feel a warm, emotional glow of self-satisfaction as they bask in reflected self-righteousness. But in point of fact, this is a parable of barbarity. A society that actually worked this way would only be described as barbaric.

I will say, as a side note, that the person who posted this story is a church-going Christian who is proud of his/her faith. I apparently missed the part of the Gospel where Jesus commanded us to shoot thieves in the back.

The barbarity of this response - you stole my purse, therefore you deserve to die at my hand - can be clearly seen both in our own laws and in how we view other societies. In other parts of the world, people are shot or stoned for adultery, or their hands are cut off for stealing, and we call them uncivilized. In our own set of laws, a convicted thief is sentenced to jail, not to death - even the most ardent death-penalty advocates have never suggested that it be extended to purse-snatching.

"Hey," some will argue. "It's just a joke. Lighten up!" But it's not just that I fail to see the humor in jokes about killing purse-snatchers. The ideas contained in humor are serious, and they effect our behavior. Not so long ago, jokes about lynching blacks were widespread in the American South - and so were actual lynchings. Do we find it acceptable to joke about rape? About domestic violence? So why is this funny?

Most of the people who kill with guns feel quite justified in doing so. Yes, some of them are mentally ill - but even they have to get their ideas from somewhere. And many are not - there are thousands of gun murders per year in the US, and in nearly all cases the shooter felt perfectly justified despite being apparently sane. Those feelings of justification don't come out of nowhere - they are a part of our society, woven into our conversations and our collective consciousness, just like the "joke" above making its way around the internet.

If you want to live in a society where you can use deadly force to "defend" yourself any time you like, may I suggest relocating to Afghanistan or Somalia. If you want to live in a society of laws and civilization and a chance at peace, help stamp out these ideas. In the end, getting rid of our gut-level "justifications" for shooting is the only way to move towards genuine peace.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Everyone's a Law Abiding Citizen ... Until They're Not

One of the popular phrases in the ongoing discussion about guns and gun restrictions is "law abiding citizens", as in this quote from Ohio Governor John Kasich:
"Whatever we do, we don't want to erode the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens."
He said this in the context of signing a bill slightly tweaking Ohio's concealed-carry laws. The changes in the bill are fairly minor, and don't have a lot of impact on the broader national debate. But the phrase is indicative.

Update: Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, made the same point at a news conference today by uttering the following:
"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association
The image of the "law abiding citizen" is a popular one in gun-rights rhetoric. Its popularity stems in part from its emotional, mom-and-pop, America-and-apple-pie feel. Who would be against the notion of law abiding citizens exercising their rights? Isn't that what freedom is all about?

Underlying the idea of the "law abiding citizen" is a fundamentally Manichaean view of the world. The term assumes that there are two categories of people in society: "law abiding citizens" and "bad guys". The law abiding citizens are good and trustworthy and would never misuse their guns or do other bad things. The bad guys, by definition, are the ones that cause the problems. The proper response, therefore, is for law abiding citizens to make sure that they have more power than the bad guys, so that the latter can be kept in check and defeated where necessary.

This worldview permeates our psyche. It is the basic plot line of the vast majority of American movies and TV shows, and many of the most popular books. We bathe ourselves in this mythology on a daily basis, to the point that it is so deeply seated in our subconscious that it doesn't even occur to us to examine it. Which is why the phrase "law abiding citizen" has such staying power.

The problem, of course, is that as mythologies go this one is a really terrible reflection of reality. For a supposedly Christian (according to some) society, we have apparently forgotten the wisdom of Paul:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:15-19)
Eastern philosophy speaks in similar fashion about Yin and Yang, the darkness and light that dwell within each person. The Prophet Mohammed spoke of the greatest Jihad being the struggle within. That people are not "all good" or "all bad" is hardly news - we've understood this for thousands of years.

Even if we ignore the wisdom of collected human history, circumstances should show us the same truth. By all accounts so far, Adam Lanza was a "law abiding citizen" right up until last Friday. So was James Holmes prior to his shooting spree in Aurora. The same is true of two other recent unprovoked shootings (here and here), and of George Zimmerman, and of any number of other high-profile shooters. At the University of Toledo, a dispute between two friends who were rooming together apparently escalated into a knife fight that left one severely wounded and one dead.

In every one of these cases, people were "law abiding citizens" right up until the moment when they weren't. In some cases, the perpetrators were convinced that they were still "law abiding citizens" even as they committed acts that are against the law, and that society finds reprehensible.

If we're going to have a serious conversation about violence, the use of force, and the appropriate laws and means of preventing violent deaths, we have to get rid of our "law abiding citizen" mythology and deal with a far more complex reality. In a different context and long ago, Walt Kelly got it right: We have met the enemy, and he is us. If we acknowledge that, maybe we can move beyond childish simplicity to the difficult choices of a difficult world in which, often, we are our own worst enemies.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Guns and the Temptations of Power

It is fitting that the first installment of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" series of movies has just come out. The Hobbit, for those who haven't enjoyed Tolkien's writing, is the precursor novel to the Lord of the Rings series. The thing that binds the books together is a magic ring, found by accident by Bilbo Baggins in the midst of an altogether different adventure.

Those who have read and understood Tolkien know that the ring is the fulcrum of the entire story. It is a stand-in for Power - the One Ring to rule all things, to command, to govern, to dominate. It is a concrete symbol of our quest for tools that will allow us to control others.

In the story as it unfolds, Tolkien - a keen philosopher as well as writer who regularly talked with some of the intellectual giants of the 20th century - made his views on the nature of power clear. The ring is all-consuming, and ultimately turns whoever tries to wield it to evil. It turns an ordinary hobbit named Smeagol into a nasty, brutish, almost inhuman monster called Gollum. It turns friend against friend, and tempts the already-powerful of the day to tyranny and war. Tolkien's entire Middle Earth saga - including the even earlier mythology in The Silmarillion - is a series of parables with one central theme: power corrupts.

We would be wise to heed Tolkien's message as we carry on our national conversation about guns. Guns are, for many individuals, the Rings of Power of our day. They offer the ability to dominate others. Much of the pro-gun mythology about guns as tools of self-defense ignores this reality, and assumes - as did Boromir and Saruman in Tolkien's stories - that power wielded by the virtuous ("law-abiding citizens") has no effect on their virtue. To believe this is to ignore thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. Tolkien's view is hardly original, and draws on a very long tradition. If we really believe that having guns doesn't change us, we are ignorant fools lost in our own hubris.

"Sure," our NRA friends might say. "Them's a lot of fancy intellectual words. But I don't believe it if I can't see it with my own eyes. Having a gun doesn't make me a bad person." Leaving aside the red herrings in that argument, let's consider these cases as examples:

- In a recent case in Florida, a middle-aged man shot an unarmed black teenager in an argument about loud rap music. The man started the argument himself (by insisting that the teens turn their music down in a public space), and then escalated the argument once they (predictably) objected by talking smack. Did he feel empowered to start the conflict, and to continue to escalate it, because he was carrying a gun? Put it this way - how many 45 year old guys would pick that fight with a carload of black teens if they weren't packing heat?

- In a similar incident, one man shot a stranger in a Little Caesar's pizza after an argument. The source of the argument? The victim began complaining about how late his pizza was. The shooter chose to confront him about it, and the argument escalated. When the victim shoved the shooter, the shooter pulled his gun and fired. The shooter later claimed that he was acting in "self defense" - apparently under the theory that deadly force is an appropriate response to being pushed by an unarmed man. Again, did the shooter feel more confident starting the argument and "standing his ground" because he knew he had a gun?

People every day are confronted with opportunities to start, escalate, or diffuse conflicts. In our muddled thinking, guns represent a "trump card" in any confrontation - hence the popularity of the saying, "never bring a knife to a gun fight." We believe that if we're carrying a gun, we're invincible - that if things get "out of hand", we can control the situation and win the argument because we have the power. To believe that having that power won't change people's behavior is lunacy.

Does this mean that everyone who has a gun will go around starting fights and shooting people? Obviously not. But the outcomes are easy to see in the aggregate. Having a gun in the home, far from making you safer, increases your likelihood of dying from either homicide or suicide by three to five times (not to mention accidents, which are also a serious danger - as in this heartbreaking case in which a father killed his own 7 year old son outside a gun store). Not everyone who has a gun ready to hand will misuse it. But a great many do, with tragic consequences.

The characters in Tolkien's story have a simple (if difficult) way out: they can destroy the ring, removing its power from anyone's reach. We can't do the same with guns - the genie is, as they say, out of the bottle. But there are any number of sensible proposals for reducing the impact of guns by reducing access to the deadliest types.

Those who oppose these proposals do so in the name of broad ideals of Freedom and Rights. They talk of universal truths of Liberty and Tyranny. But those are not the only universal themes of human experience. If you want to argue that gun access should be free and unfettered, you have to confront the reality that guns are a dangerous form of power - and that every form of power corrupts. Restraining power and its corrupting influence has been one of the main challenges of human civilization. Pretending that we ourselves are virtuous and incorruptible will only lead to more death. If we want to live in peace, we have to find a way to reduce the temptations of power - which means we have to give up the fantasy of "guns for self defense only" and confront a reality far more difficult.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Do Political Parties Define Our Lives?

Regular readers of this blog (all three of you) know that I've railed against the tendency for people in general, and Americans in particular, to sort themselves into arbitrary tribes. I long ago included a "Tribalism" label for posts on the subject, and I haven't been shy about using it. Anyone can click that link at the bottom of this post and see what I've written previously on the subject.

But for all of that, even I was taken aback to run across this set of data today:
Republicans' LIfe Ratings Plunge, Democrats' Improve
The data, coming straight from the Gallup organization, is startling. The questions they're asking here are pretty straightforward:

  • Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
  • Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. Just your best guess, on which step do you think you will stand in the future, say about five years from now?
Basically, they're asking people how happy they are with their lives right now, and how optimistic they are about the future. And the data - in particular, the first graph at the top of the article - demonstrates clearly that the answers vary a lot depending on your political party affiliation, and tend to move very sharply around election time.

If this is true - and given Gallup's track record, I have no reason to doubt their data - this is cause for very grave concern. Are we so given over to our political tribes that our views of our own lives, taken in total, are determined by which party team we associate with?

It cannot be objectively true that Republicans' lives are suddenly worse than Democrats' just because a Democrat won the Presidential race. For most of us, the "best possible life" for us involves our own personal circumstances, where we live, what our job and career prospects are, how much money we have, how healthy our children are, whether we have supportive and meaningful relationships with family and friends, whether our dog is happy and healthy. None of these things, and a thousand more we could add, are changed one iota by the results of an election.

The ability of the President or the Federal government or any other level of government to affect these things is marginal at best, and even that only over time. Yet based on the Gallup data, the lives of millions of Republicans suddenly got worse in November, and the lives of Democrats suddenly got better.

"Ah," you say. "It isn't about how things are now, it's about their views of the future." That seems to be the case, based on the Gallup data, but here again we're deluding ourselves. How well our own lives are doing in five years will be only tangentially affected by government decisions. That isn't to say that government decisions don't matter at all - but for most of us, their immediate impact on our personal circumstances is pretty minimal. My life is much better today than it was three years ago, a result which has nothing whatsoever to do with who was President then or now.

What this points to is, to me, a bit frightening. Far, far too many Americans have apparently drunk the toxic Kool-aid that political parties have been spooning out over the past couple of decades. We make fun of parties during election years for blasting us with "the world is going to end" and "thousand years of darkness" apocalyptic fantasies. But according to Gallup, a lot of us have apparently been listening to this nonsense.

For our own health and sanity, we need to find a way to detox from this sewage. For a people who pride themselves on "rugged individualism" to impute this much power to the state should be anathema. We may prefer some policies to others, but the range of possible political outcomes is pretty narrow. Our mythical "can do" American spirit should be able to work out its own way whatever the outcome of the policy debates. Our success and happiness should be up to us, not dependent on who wins or loses elections every few years. But we have let the political parties - both of them - poison our minds.

So if you find yourself chronically depressed because your guy didn't win the last election - get over it. If you are boldly confident about your future because your guy won, remember that your future success depends on your efforts, not his. And for all of us, let's take responsibility for our own lives and our own happiness - not as Republicans or as Democrats, but as Americans.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People; Ideas Kill People

The national conversation will be dominated for a while by the events this past Friday in Newtown, CT. Very few can remain unaffected by the tragedy of so many young, senseless, and brutal deaths, and we will mourn the lives of those slain for some time.

In a society as raucous and open as ours, it is also not surprising that the arguments started soon afterwards. The double-edged sword that is social media allows us to see reactions in real time, unfiltered by CNN or the NYT or anybody else. Much of the initial response was simply shock, grief, and sorrow - all appropriate and to be expected. But some of the early and continuing responses have compounded our sorrow by reminding us of how, as a society, we are trapped in a spiral of recrimination and spite. Every time we witness another mass shooting, the same bitter dance is replayed. On this subject, we are as dysfunctional as any sitcom family, repeating the same lines over and over - except that in this case, there's no laugh track.

The magnet that keeps us trapped in our rut is guns. That is not to say that we don't need to have a serious conversation about guns. It is also true that the conversation about guns shouldn't come at the expense of conversations on other issues like mental health, as my friend Steve Saideman has pointed out. But the gun conversation has become stuck in a decades-long cycle of repeated sound bites that no one else listens to anymore. A brief synopsis would go something like this:

- Gun-Control Liberals: Guns are bad. Take them away if possible, regulate them to the hilt otherwise.

- NRA Gun Advocates: Guns protect people. Everybody should have a gun. Guns don't kill people - (bad) people kill people.

These are, of course, exaggerations - but not by much. I have seen both arguments made in social media over the last three days. And in each case, the argument is accompanied by a demonization of the other side. Thus, in the middle of the day on Friday - mere hours after the tragedy, when details were still emerging - I saw Facebook posts that started, "those take-away-my-gun liberals are at it again". I've also seen arguments that the Newtown event is somehow the fault of gun and ammunition corporations funding the NRA, which then buys members of Congress - a sort of "Browning pulled the trigger" explanation.

This kind of demonization not only accomplishes nothing, it adds to the pain. Some people are so attached to their principles (however sincerely held) that they would rather thump their chest and feel righteous than acknowledge that others may feel differently - and that their sorrow and grief are no less than ours. We rub salt in our own wounds with every fresh tragedy.

Why can't we move beyond our bumper-sticker argument? In part, I believe, because we're focusing on the wrong thing. The guns themselves are tools, technology. It's the use of guns that we need to talk about. But to do that would require confronting the real issue: violence and the appropriate boundaries around the use of force (including deadly force).

Both sides in the debate have unexamined beliefs about violence, and contradictory ideas about when it is or isn't appropriate to use. If we're going to make real progress at reducing gun violence in society, we need to stop hiding these ideas and bring them out into the open. The question isn't who should or shouldn't have guns - that's merely instrumental. The real question is, who should be prepared to kill another human being and when?

In this regard both sides of the gun debate have much to answer for, in large part because they don't listen to the legitimate concerns of the other side:

- For gun-control advocates: What is the appropriate role of self-defense in society? If I am attacked, what am I permitted to do to protect myself? If I have to rely on the state to protect me I'm in trouble, because no police force can preemptively protect everyone - they exist to deter and to respond, not to protect (whatever their mottos say).

- For gun-ownership advocates: How do we weight the benefits of self-defense against the collateral costs of accidents and misuse? Under what circumstances can someone use a gun in "self-defense", and when does it cross the line? (Bernie Goetz, anyone?) What do we think are acceptable and unacceptable uses of force?

Readers of my blog (all three of you) know that I am not a fan of guns as a means of self-defense. But the broader point is far more important - how guns get used is driven by how we think about guns and violence. This is the national conversation we desperately need.

Three recent cases will serve to illustrate the point:

- I wrote a blog post recently about a fellow who shot and killed two teens who had broken into his home. In the name of self-defense, he killed these kids in cold blood, pumping extra shots into their heads in a calculated fashion to make sure they were dead. He did so in the apparent belief that what he was doing was perfectly legitimate and reasonable.

- A couple of months ago during the election campaign, a student of mine mentioned how she had threatened a political canvasser, who had knocked on her door about a local elections issue, with her gun. The canvasser's "crime" was intruding on the student's time with a political view different from hers. She thought it perfectly reasonable to threaten the woman with death for disagreeing with her and ringing her doorbell - again in the name of "defending my property."

- In a recent case in Florida, a middle-aged white man killed an unarmed black teen in an argument over loud rap music. This fellow apparently thought this an entirely appropriate response to a conflict he himself had initiated.

The key point in all of these cases is not the presence of guns but the ideas of the people who were carrying them. Each thought, in response to a stressful situation, that using or threatening lethal force is the first and best option. The thing about stressful situations is that they are very revealing. We don't have time to consider all the consequences, or to think about how others will view us. Our responses comes from the ideas and the reflexes we have in place - ideas often built up unexamined over years.

This is the conversation we need to have. Not just who should have guns, or which guns, or where - but what are they supposed to be used for. Far too many people are carrying guns around with the undefended (and indefensible) idea that guns are tools for resolving conflict. In all three of the cases above, the armed individual got into a conflict and saw lethal force (or threatening it) as the best way to resolve the situation.

Brought into the light of day, this is a barbaric notion unworthy of a civilized society. Gun advocates like to point out that the Swiss population is even more well-armed than America, yet they have almost no gun violence. There's a reason for this: the Swiss don't consider guns to be an acceptable way of settling disputes. Far too many Americans, on the other hand, do.

The current debate over gun control legislation is deadlocked precisely because different groups have profoundly different assumptions about how people will use guns if they have them. Liberals are afraid that if everyone has a gun, there will be shootings every time someone gets annoyed at someone else. Conservatives believe that the problem is a "few bad apples," and that if the rest of us are "law abiding gun owners", we can take care of the few bad guys. In a complex world, both of these are fantasy caricatures. And nowhere are we talking about what ideas people should hold and when guns should be used.

Personally, I would support a number of legislative changes in response to this most recent senseless slaughter, starting with a reimposition of the lapsed ban on assault weapons. But laws are not going to solve the problem, because the problem of gun violence (writ large, not just one nut job shooting up a school) is a problem of human behavior. Like racism, and domestic violence, and child sexual abuse, and any number of other social pathologies, that behavior flows from ideas. Let's move beyond the bumper stickers and have a real conversation about those ideas. In the end, that's the change we really need.

UPDATE: I sometimes wish I was a cartoonist, because they have an ability to distill a lot into a few images. Here's an excellent one from Tom Tomorrow that gets at some of what I wrote above (taking a lot more space than he does). He's a little harder on the NRA side, but the larger point is pretty clear:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff Kabuki Theater: It's Our Own Fault

Much of America - or, at least, much of the American news media - is glued to the edge of its seat watching the "fiscal cliff" negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker Boehner. Actually, I suspect that most of America is doing holiday shopping, baking cookies, preparing homes for visitors, and attending their kids' school Christmas concerts. But at least the breathless folks at CNN and Fox News are keeping an eye on things for us.

If I'm right about the relative lack of attention Americans are paying to what is obviously an important issue, the reasons are pretty simple. First, it is a very busy time of year and people have a lot to do in their own lives. South Africans don't call December "silly season" for nothing. But more importantly, I think that most people believe that there's going to be a deal, probably at the last minute, probably some kind of compromise that will involve higher taxes (especially on the rich) and some spending cuts. We'll learn about the details when they get announced, so why worry about it until then?

This is actually a pretty reasonable approach, which makes the constant media drumbeat all the more annoying (and ignorable). The annoyance factor isn't helped by the two sides spitting insults at each other when they aren't negotiating, as Boehner did yesterday:
Boehner: White House willing to "slow-walk" up to "fiscal cliff"
Inevitably, there are people who will say "why can't they just act like grown-ups and get this done?" Certainly, any deal that they announce two weeks from now could have been reached already, saving us all a lot of breathless headlines and pundit pontification - not to mention the dreaded "uncertainty" in the markets, which pundits constantly remind us markets hate.

So why don't these guys decide to be grown-ups and just solve this now? Simply put, it's our own fault. The President and the Speaker both answer to a lot of people - they both have multiple constituencies on whom they depend. Obama has a bit of an upper hand, in that he doesn't ever face re-election again, whereas Boehner will be up in two years (and his Speaker's gavel will be re-issued [or not] much sooner than that). But both have a lot of people they have to please if they are going to keep and be effective in their jobs.

Unfortunately, many of those people don't have the "let's solve this through compromise like grown-ups" mindset. They have strong views on the issues, and they want to win. They want "their man" to "fight" for their point of view as hard as possible. Doing anything less is, in their eyes, treasonous.

So there is a built-in disincentive to announce a deal early. Any deal will involve compromises - the grown-ups among us already know that, and are fine with it. But the tribalists are convinced that they can always win more, if they only try a little harder (a little like those who think we could have won in Vietnam if only we had tried a bit more).

So if this afternoon, Obama and Boehner appear at a news conference and announce a deal involving compromise, their respective partisans will howl and gnash their teeth and scream "Traitor! Why aren't you still fighting for What's Right?? You have two more weeks - go push him some more!" The plaudits they would get for being responsible adults will be drowned out by the screams of the petulant children who desperately want "their side" to win.

Under such circumstances, what would you do? Engage in a tacit agreement with the other side - we'll negotiate a deal, keep it quiet, agree to call each other names in public but keep it civil, and then announce our deal at the last possible minute so we can each tell our constituents that we "fought as long and hard as we could". We'll wink and nod and everyone will understand that this is how the game is played. And the hard-core tribalists' grumbling will be kept to a minimum.

In other words, the Kabuki theater that the two sides have been engaged in is our fault - or at least, the fault of those petulant tribalists among us who scream the loudest and refuse to accept compromise. Our politicians don't leave things to the last minute because they're stupid, or hard-headed, or unreasonable. They do it to placate the non-grown-ups among us.

If political leaders and parties had the guts to tell these folks to pound sand, we could have a more mature politics in public. But they can't, because they need the votes. So they pander - and we blame the politicians, and not ourselves, for their pandering.

For me, I've got too much to do this holiday season to hang on every silly word from a politician or a pundit. Chances are that an agreement will be announced at the last minute. Chances are that everyone will claim victory and live to argue another day. And even if that doesn't happen, chances are that the world will go on spinning anyway (the Dec. 21 Mayan Apocalypse notwithstanding). Meanwhile, I've got concerts and Christmas parties and family and friends - the precious things in life - to occupy my time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Central Problem in Higher Education Reform

There is a lot of talk about "reform," "revolution," and "disruptive change" in higher education. Not a week goes by when we don't see an article about MOOCs, or online education, or the Khan Academy, or some other new and exciting Next Great Thing. Many in higher ed are genuinely concerned about the sustainability of our enterprise - as we should be.

While not every board of trustees will go bananas and fire their president in a panic (as UVA's apparently did), there clearly are demands building for change. Lots of interesting sub-conversations are going on: are government subsidies for higher ed driving up the price? Can online education provide the same quality and results as traditional education? Are for-profit universities innovators or charlatans?

All of these are important conversations, and I wish I had more time to keep track of them all. At present, I try to take in what I can, and so appreciate it when nice people at the Chronicle summarize multiple arguments for me, as one columnist did here.

The entire article linked there is worth reading. But there's one particular spot that I thought especially noteworthy, in a broader discussion coming out of MIT's Media Lab about fundamentally reconceptualizing education:
In the words of Joi Ito, the dynamic new head of the lab, himself a famous college dropout, the key to 21st-century learning is "antidisciplinary," not just "interdisciplinary." Ito's goal is "a world of seven billion teachers," where everyone on the planet has something important to teach to someone else, and everyone does.
This, it seems to me, starts to get at the fundamental business challenge faced by higher ed. In this case, I think Mr. Ito has it wrong, but at least he's raising the central question.

What is that central question? Briefly put, if you want something like university education to be sustainable this is the puzzle you have to solve: how do you get somebody to pay enough money to subject experts in exchange for them developing that expertise and sharing it with others who want it?

I emphasize the term "experts" here, because this is where I think the "seven billion teachers" image is misleading, even misguided. It's not that we don't all have something to learn from each other. But not all knowledge is equally valid or equally useful. Would you learn chemistry from an auto mechanic? Neuroscience from a lawyer? Music from an accountant? The "wiki" approach to knowledge is interesting, but it doesn't generate the knowledge and innovation we really want - the stuff that advances our understanding and makes things better than they are now.

The problem with expertise is that it takes time and effort to acquire and maintain - and that means that somebody has to pay for it. With a few notable exceptions, few people will dedicate their lives to becoming good enough at something that they are competent to teach it to others for free. People need to make a living, and many people want to not just survive but have the resources to improve their and their children's lives. So somebody has to pay.

All of the other conversations - about MOOCs, online education, for-profit vs. non-profit, disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary, government grants vs. student debt loads - are dancing around this one central puzzle. We need to figure out, as a society, how we pay for something we clearly want - the development and dissemination of expertise. The present model of universities, for all that it is flawed and old, manages to accomplish this. When somebody comes along with a better way of achieving the same thing, people will sit up and take notice. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy the conversation - I just haven't seen any real answers yet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Religion in the Military Matters

Much has been written, both in the past and recently, about the spread of aggressive evangelical Christianity within the US military. As my colleague Steve Saideman has pointed out, the Air Force Academy has long been known as a less-than-tolerant environment. Now word comes that the problem may have spread to West Point, primary service academy for the US Army, as well.

Much of the criticism here is rightly directed at the Constitutional violation, and therefore the violation of soldiers' and officers' oaths to defend that Constitution, involved in aggressive proselytizing within the services. There is a bitter irony in a military working to defend freedoms for all Americans - including freedom of religion - yet squashing that same freedom within its own ranks.

But there is another, perhaps even more dangerous, consequence to the spread of a particular religious viewpoint within the armed forces. Different religious perspectives, even (perhaps especially) within Christianity, have very different views on the role of the military and the appropriateness of the use of force in general. Broadly speaking, the more a military becomes infused with a particular point of view, the more that point of view will come to shape its decisions, its directions, and the kinds of wars it will or won't fight.

This is particularly concerning when the viewpoint in question is the aggressive strain of evangelical Christianity that seems to have attracted so many adherents within the Air Force and Army. At issue here are more than views about salvation and the inherent infallibility of the Bible. This particular strain of Christianity has very definite views about war and the use of force. Some examples:

• The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in support of the Iraq War in 2003, specifically citing Romans 13 ("But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.")

• Pentacostal Publishing House, the publication arm of United Pentacostal Church International, has published Will Islam Rule the World? Will the Antichrist Be a Muslim?, a book which asks questions more rhetorical than analytical.

• Sarah Palin, an Assembly of God church member, famously said in a speech that the Iraq war was "a task that is from God," arguing that the invasion of Iraq was part of "God's plan".

Many similar examples can be found pertaining to Israel, the Muslim world, and Iran, just as a number of years ago similar preachers railed against "godless Communism" and the evils of the Soviet Union. I've no doubt that these folks are quite sincere in their views, and that their theology and their politics are logically linked.

I'm not interested in arguing whether these folks are right or wrong, either in their theology or their politics. But it is clear - from examples like these as well as from the widespread use by these and similar churches of "spiritual warfare" imagery - that this is a religious view with a particularly accepting, even embracing, stance towards the use of force as a foreign policy instrument. These are churches, in other words, perfectly happy to go to war (the real, not the spiritual, kind) if the cause is deemed to be "righteous".

Why does this matter? Because a military whose leaders are strongly influenced by this point of view is going to lean more assertively towards preemptive, preventive, and even aggressive wars. They will be quicker to support political leadership that, say, wants to attack Iran over its nuclear weapons program. They will be more accepting than the broader American public (since these are minority religious views within the US) of getting the US involved militarily in various spots around the world, in support of an agenda (e.g. Israel) that may be more theological than practical.

But doesn't the US military answer to elected civilian control? If they take orders from the government (as Romans 13 says they must), why does it matter what their own views are? While this is true, and an important component of our governing system, the military brass can still wield substantial influence over decisions of war and peace. They can do so in particular by setting the parameters of the possible and the impossible. If the US military is in favor of attacking Iran, they will draw up plans, acquire weapons, and train forces in support of that mission. If they're not in favor of such an attack, they can render it very difficult by not having those plans, those weapons, or that training in place.

The upshot here is that a military dominated by a theology that supports the aggressive use of force is, all other things being equal, more likely to end up actually using that force. That's a political decision being made for theological reasons - on the basis of theology not shared by most Americans. And that, even more than the Constitutional violations of oath-sworn officers, is a serious danger that must be addressed in America's standing military.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Down With Credit Hours!

Apparently, somebody over at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been reading my blog. Either that, or they've got some really smart people who can figure stuff out better than I can. I'm betting on the latter.

At issue here is news that the Carnegie Foundation, which invented the standardized measure of a "credit hour" in higher education over 100 years ago, is now recommending that the measure be scrapped. Even more interesting, they are suggesting that it be replaced with something that measures "competency instead of time spent in class". After 100 years of calculating what students do based on how much time they put in, now perhaps we can measure based on what skills and abilities they gain.

It's not hard to see how the credit hour is an insidious force. Among those of us that teach, how many of us have run into the student who argues, in effect, "I put in my time, I deserve an A"? I would venture to say it's nearly 100%, and although not all students think this way more of them have tendencies in this direction than they would like to admit.

But as everybody who has read Thomas Kuhn (including the grad students I've tortured over the years) knows, you can't just take away a paradigm - you have to replace it with something better and more widely accepted. There are at least two serious barriers to doing so in this case:

• The Faculty/Standardization Battle: One of the great advantages of the credit hour is that it's standardized - it means the same thing everywhere you go, at every university. The Chronicle article linked above puts it this way:
And yet, said Ms. Silva [senior associate at Carnegie], some standardization may be necessary. Without it, a new unit could be easily watered down. "To earn a credential or a badge isn't going to mean anything if everyone measures it differently," she said.
This means that faculty are going to have to give up a LOT of control. Right now, if I teach an introduction to International Relations class, I can teach pretty much whatever I like in terms of content (so long as it passes my department's muster and it meets the time definitions for credit hours). The skills and competencies that students develop in my version of the class may be wildly different from those that students elsewhere get. There may even be significant differences within departments.

There will be significant demand for standardization from the outside - from students, employers, parents, state governments, and others who actually pay for the product we produce. Fighting that battle may have unintended consequences - like further eroding support for tenure, and pushing universities to further increase the ratio of untenured to tenured faculty. I don't see an easy fix for this problem, and since faculty control the curriculum and its delivery they may be able to stonewall this issue for a very long time.

• The Social Promotion Problem: We have a model of education that focuses on standardized competencies - high schools. With the advent of "graduation tests" (under No Child Left Behind, most if not all states have some version now, usually taken starting in the 10th grade), schools are supposedly only passing students who have demonstrated the standard competencies we've decided are necessary for a high school diploma.

But these tests have come up against fierce resistance from parents and others who recognize that our schooling system serves two purposes. One is indeed education - to impart knowledge and skills to our children. The other is social - to establish the individual child as a member of society based on time spent in school. Witness the social stigma attached to a 21 year old still in their junior year in high school, and you can understand what this is about - it's about "putting in the time".

So if universities manage to establish some kind of competency standards (with all the attendant complaints about "teaching to the test"), will they have the guts to stick with them? Moreover, will state legislators - who are currently on a big, loud bandwagon with the words "shorter time to degree" and "degree completion" written all over the side - have the fortitude to see success rates go down, and time to degree go up? Competency based systems sound great until somebody actually implements one - then we discover the price that has to be paid. And a lot of people don't want to pay that price.

For myself, I am all in favor of educating for ability rather than time. Nor do I, personally, have a problem with letting a student take as long as it takes to master whatever it is they're trying to master. That's the model of good martial arts education, and it works pretty well. Of course, there's not much standardization in the martial arts world, so everybody can teach to whatever standards they think best.

But since my influence is near zero, my opinion doesn't matter much. When I look at the forces arrayed against change, I have to wonder about the prospects for a credit hour replacement. I appreciate that Carnegie, which invented the darned thing for a different purpose 100 years ago, has gotten on the bandwagon. But the opposition will be steep and multifaceted. And in the end, the reigning credit hour paradigm may keep its position simply through inertia.