In Loco Parentis?

I used to believe much more in procedural reform as a way to deal with questions of fairness, equity and justice. That every institution and community should have its established rules and processes, and if you signed on, you accepted those as obligations. It’s a very Ned Stark way of looking at things and has the same appeal that honor has to Ned Stark: in the best case scenario, mutual rule-following produces a kind of rough, semi-stable sort of utilitarian outcomes. A few men may get their heads lopped off for deserting from the Wall, and women might get stuck making the best of the bad deals handed to them by men, but at least life isn’t a Hobbsean nightmare. People who live outside the system might suffer, but that’s their problem. The harvest is stored and the world survives another long winter. In the worst case scenario, you go to your execution confident that you’re a better man than your murderers and that they’ll eventually regret what they’ve done. (After a lot of death and suffering.)

As the analogy ought to make clear, I’m less enamored of this approach now. Because at the least a proceduralist frequently discovers what Ned Stark did: respect for the rules is worth very little against those who not only disrespect those rules but know how to use the proceduralist’s self-restraint against him. But also because most rules, laws, deliberative processes and codes end up drifting from the lived reality of an institution or a community. Following the rules as rules disconnects them from their purpose, deprives them of an organic, renewable ideal. Simple truths and messy ambiguities alike get pushed aside, and the hard work of making a consistently better, more secure, more satisfying life for everyone within an institution or community gets deferred.

Rule-making also is often the equivalent of inviting a vampire to enter a home. Trying to make changes in everyday consciousness, practice or expression take hold through prescriptive rules is a mismatch of objective and method at the outset, but that mismatch is frequently aggravated because rule-making brings a whole host of experts, consultants and wonks into the room who are happiest dealing with human beings from the antiseptic distances that abstractions, generalizations and universalizations permit.

I think this is a bit of what was making me anxious last spring in talking to disparate groups of Swarthmore students about the changes they wanted to see at the college or even in the world at large. I am actually beginning to wonder if there isn’t a little teeny bit of truth to the idea that some of the current generation of college students really do not like certain formulations of autonomy or open-ended situations that are designed to maximize contingent outcomes. Even when they’re showing tremendous leadership and initiative, I see a lot (not all or maybe even most) of recent students asking (demanding!) that institutions and authorities do things for them, create rules and strictures, intervene, control (but controlling only what those students want controlled).

Some of my anxiety is probably just personal, just the difference between the world I grew up and the world that a 20-year old today has grown up in. But some of this has to do with the lessons I’ve learned about the limits to proceduralism, that if you ask lawyers to help you fix the world, what you get is some expensive instructions about how to comply with existing laws. I think this has become particularly evident in the changes that Swarthmore and many other colleges are trying to make around sexual assault and harassment policies.

Many changes as we’ve experienced them in the last year are good. When I recently talked with my departmental colleagues about the fact that they now have zero discretion about reporting what a student tells them about an experience of assault or harassment, I felt like that was a positive change in our professional practice. There’s still discretion in the system, but that’s between the Title IX coordinator (to whom we now report on these matters) and the students involved.

But there are aspects of what we’re doing that feel a bit too driven by rule-making and bureaucracy. There was some confusion earlier this semester, for example, about whether a student (or employee) who happens to mention in conversation that they were abused when they were young, before being at Swarthmore, should still be the subject of a report and if so whether that should trigger all sorts of further reporting and investigation. As far as slippery slopes go, that’s a short one: no college should be involving itself into the entirety of the lives of its students or employees, for any reason.

The students clearly were bothered earlier this semester when the college took stronger steps to enforce restrictions on underage drinking. But that’s another demonstration of the downside of procedural reform: institutions that are forced to take note of process, rules and law can’t afford to forget what they’ve noticed if they’ve noticed those things officially.

The deeper problem is that the roots of assault and harassment are both personal and cultural, and institutional policies and strictures and actions aren’t very effective at grappling with practices or subjectivities that operate at that level. I think broadly speaking this is a problem with the American left in general over the last three or four decades, that it has remained fixated on issues and questions that really are cultural and social while also showing very little ability to cope with those questions in those terms. Because that takes a fundamentally illiberal, even authoritarian kind of official power that goes well beyond laws and rules in the power it wields against culture and habitus. Or it takes a methodical kind of dialogic and persuasive approach spearheaded by people who are skilled in reading the patterns of everyday life, who have a good ear for how ordinary people talk and think, particularly the people who need to change their ways of being and doing.

I can’t decide if some of our students know that they aren’t yet very good at the second kind of approach and therefore avoid it, if they knowingly reject the need for the second kind of approach, or if they don’t see the limits of what can be accomplished with rules, procedures and enforcement within a basically liberal order. I’m not sure of the same of American progressives in general. But I do know that there can be bad outcomes when you’re not clear about what you’re doing or why. Lawmakers and rule-enforcers don’t usually know where to stop of their own accord, and the only way to keep them from going too far is to be absolutely clear all along about core principles and values. In particular, if you try to use rules as a tool for instrumental refashionings of culture and subjectivity, you are going to find it very difficult to set boundaries. For example, if this or that text or statement or idea is problematic outside of the classroom and should be banned or censured or punished, then it’s going to be very hard not to think the same about other texts or statements or ideas inside of it, even (or especially) those that are being taught because they’re troubling. If social censure or critique between peers isn’t sufficient to remake the cultural underpinnings of community, and official sanction or punishment necessary, where does that stop? If you start setting boundaries of inclusion and exclusion with very tangible instrumental purposes in mind (rather than a belief that a generally inclusive practice will produce basically good if indeterminate outcomes), where will you stop?

Posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore | 14 Comments

Look! Over There! What On Earth Can That Be?

When I was working on my dissertation, I read through the lengthy transcript of a Southern Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry that had been charged with investigating the poor living conditions in some of the rural reserves that Africans had been sent to after being removed from their land. It was a given that the commission would not be considering whether the seizure of the best and most fertile agricultural land in the colony for the use of white settlers was the only real problem worth discussing. So instead most of the debate among the commissioners concerned who or what they were going to frame as the suspect. Some of them argued that the problem was the poor quality of African agricultural practices. Some of them blamed unscrupulous merchants (Jews, Greeks, Lebanese or South Asian, for the most part) who were supposedly exploiting rural Africans. Some of them blamed the weather or other kinds of happenstance. A few blamed various minor government policies, though never the removals or the poor agricultural quality of the reserve lands.

I am the first to argue that higher education and academia could do with all sorts of transformations. That’s been my stock in trade as an academic almost from the beginning, even before I started a blog. I am still arguing for many of those transformations, because I think they’re in our interest and in the interest of the societies that we serve. But we’re at a moment where much of the negative attention being directed at academic institutions seems rather like that Rhodesian commission. It’s an elaborate distraction from the real ills of the global economy, a search for a patsy.

Sarah Kendzior’s November 3 piece for Al-Jazeera is a good redirection of attention. The issue is not majors. It is not whether or not universities are teaching employable skills. It is that the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few very large companies and a few very rich individuals is fueling a tighter and tighter feedback loop. Companies (and universities and law firms and every other institution that employs) are making bigger and bigger profits through casualizing more and more of their skilled labor force. They cut more and more people out of benefits, they find ways to employ workers in a strictly “just in time” fashion, they move their operations any time there is a hint of regulation or taxation in a given locality. Which leads to institutions and individuals sitting on large piles of money that they can’t spend. There’s almost nothing left to invest in, which is why something like Pinterest is suddenly valued at $3.8 billion. “When the plutocrats saw the size of their hoards, they wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The only thing left to invest in is people and society and the public interest, which is the one thing that the Peter Thiels of the world can’t abide investing in. But the Fordist bargain of the digital age rested on credit card debt and the last great ride of the white-collar middle classes in the 1990s. Now the professionals are out of money and most of their employing institutions and firms have been broken open like so many piggy banks. If their children chase culture on the cheap through peer-to-peer sharing, that’s as much a canary in the coal mine as it is an indication of their morality, a sign of the slow impoverishment of their social class, of a long slide into downward mobility. Some day, perhaps some day soon, even the near-necessary digital gadgetry that serves as the struts and foundation of professional life and work will be less and less affordable.

No! Repent, Professor, Said the Disruptive Innovator. You just aren’t preparing students for the real 21st Century economy! You should teach Nanotech Neurofabrication! Jetpack Discobobulator Prototyping! Inverse Investment Matrices! Something! If only the people were there, we’d employ them for…well, for what? Can anybody name me an industry or company that would double or triple its workforce in a week but doesn’t because there are skills it knows it wants but cannot have? That has that much work ready to be done, that much value to produce? It’s not what people know. As Kendzior says, it’s people themselves. And rather than talk about what might happen if we–or perhaps more precisely, they–valued people, society and publics, about how that valuing might begin a renaissance of other kinds of value, including the economic possibilities that flow from a society where a lot of people have some cash in their wallets, they would rather talk about majors and professors and universities.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Smarter Than You: The Ideology of the Incentive (Parking Lot Edition)

I’ve already made my feelings about most uses of “incentives” by technocratic planners fairly plain, and besides, I’m just really at best a handmaiden on this point for my colleagues Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz, who make the argument more elegantly. (And a bunch of other thinkers besides.)

Still, there’s always another reason to harp on this point. Say, for example, parking policy at a certain small liberal-arts college west of Philadelphia. Parking is pretty much the classic case of a “first world problem” so it feels a bit embarrassing to take it too seriously. Almost any issue, however, can illustrate the characteristic style of a certain kind of institutional or managerial thought as it approaches any problem, small or large.

So what are the “problems” with parking at this little college?

1. Not everybody observes the minimal rules that are supposed to govern parking. For example, there are choice spaces reserved for visitors to Admissions that on an average day are filled with the cars of students and even a few employees. I’ve frequently watched students I know park in those spaces and give me a shit-eating grin if they see me seeing them. They’re not parking there because the lot is out of spaces, they’re parking there so they don’t have to walk an extra 75 feet or so.

2. Every once in a while we run out of spaces completely, but not very often.

So far this does NOT really seem like a problem. #1 is only the very small problem that there are a few assholes around, which seems both not a big deal and unsolvable anyway.


3. We’re about to do a bunch of construction and there will be way fewer spaces for a long time even if we build a new parking facility in the process (which some people don’t think we should do for various reasons).

4. We would like to reduce our carbon footprint, and one way to do that is to get fewer people to drive to work.


Ok, 3 and 4 are genuine issues, but they’re really different kinds of issues.

On #3, why not just tell people, “Hey, fewer spaces! Sorry!” Well, because people will still drive and they will park in the surrounding neighborhoods, which have a limited street capacity plus this will badly annoy local residents.

Ok, why not just ration parking permits according to some scheme? Say, if you live further than 2 miles, aren’t near public transport, have small children, are pregnant or are disabled, you get one, and not if you don’t? Ok. But it won’t work if you don’t enforce permit parking, which we don’t really do much right now. Stepped-up enforcement isn’t just a matter of writing a few more tickets.

On #4, why not just persuade people, “Hey, save the planet, try walking or biking?” Well, this is already a pretty liberal place with plenty of exposure to that line of argument, so if people are still driving either they don’t take that argument very seriously or they feel there is something else more important about having access to a car. Or there’s something that makes walking or biking very hard. (There is, if you’re coming from west of the campus: all of the roads have no shoulders for bike riders and no sidewalks for walkers, plus there’s a major interstate in the way and a creek valley.)


So now what? You have three choices at this point: a) just do your construction and let whatever happens happens, same for the environment and sustainability; b) Ration parking permits, pay for enforcement, do your best to convince people to be do-gooders and maybe try to invest in more bikable/walkable connections to campus; c) use the magic power of the INCENTIVE!!!

Guess which option some consultants came up with? Yes, that’s right, get people to properly value parking in a suburban lot by charging them for parking because we all know that if you properly price things some sort of automagic utility rational choice dingus thingy kicks in and people behave the way they ought to behave. Just to make sure it’s all working right, since this is a college, we need to charge for parking and then create a Parking Advisory Committee, because faculty and staff don’t really rationally choose their maximum utility unless they get to have a participatory committee which can earnestly deliberate about the color of the paint on the parking spaces and whether the people giving out tickets should be called “Sustainability Contributors” or “Mobility Facilitators”. Participatory inclusive incentives!

You can see just how the thinking runs, just what the conversations must have been like. (No actual parking consultants were harmed in the making of this film. Offer void where prohibited.)

Rationing is too hard to do as a command exercise, too many people will protest, it’ll be too hard to be fair to people with genuine needs, let alone those who simply want to drive. Let’s get people to ration for themselves: if we put a price tag on it, only those who really have need will pay for it.

Not enough people really care about sustainability the way that they should! We’ve been trying for so long to get them to care but they just won’t! There must be something wrong with them. We’ll never persuade them with words and ideas. We can fix that by putting a price on it!

If you’ve been around long enough, you also know where this goes next.

Too many people are still trying to park! We’re crowding into the surrounding neighborhood AND we’re still destroying the planet! We’ll have to raise the price until we’ve ‘properly’ set it so that people will rationally decide to do what we know they should do.

Now they’re getting really mad about the price! We need the Parking Advisory Committee to do a study. Maybe hire a consultant again.


In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.

This goes over even less well when many of the people in question have Ph.Ds., both because they dislike even more the sense that they’re being maneuvered and because many of them understand full well the intellectual background behind trying to create social outcomes through proper pricing.

Technocrats and managers turn to incentives when they lack the political will to dictate an outcome or when they believe that people aren’t doing what they ought to be doing for their own good. Or as in this case, both. The former is somewhat understandable, particularly in institutions that otherwise have relatively flat or soft hierarchies. The latter is almost never a good idea. You can raise a tax, charge a fee, create a penalty when you’ve straightforwardly won an argument about what is good and not good, when you’re doing a lot of other things to persuade people. Say, in raising fees on tobacco: that wasn’t done in isolation from a broad campaign to persuade smokers and non-smokers about the consequences of smoking. You can’t do it as a substitute for winning the argument, or as a cheap way to win an argument that would otherwise incur some more expensive obligations. If, for example, you want people to drive less for environmental reasons, you have to seriously look at the reasons why they aren’t doing so already, and not just use an incentive as a way to automagically devalue and dismiss those forms of reasoning.

Posted in Academia, Oh Not Again He's Going to Tell Us It's a Complex System, Politics, Swarthmore | 15 Comments

The Cheese Stands Alone

The movement for higher education to divest from fossil fuel producers frustrates me. First and foremost in the way that participants in the movement are anointing themselves as sole moral paragons struggling through a wasteland of sin and sinners.

I think right now the country has its hands full enough with one small minority with strong views asserting the unconstrained right to have those views be the only possible or permissible policy controlling the future of the whole.

There may be times where that’s the only righteous position to take, that you stand on principle even if you’re against the entire world. You’d better be damn sure that you are absolutely and unambiguously right, that there’s not even a smidgen of legitimacy in any opposition, and that there are no alternatives left. Because quite aside from the privilege you’re asserting, quite aside from the emotional risks of perilously narcissistic high self-regard, voluntarily casting yourself in the role of Will Kane in “High Noon” is usually lousy politics. In any circumstance possible you’d rather the whole town turn out to support you and be generally vigilant against outlaws. That’s much better than perpetually rushing to lock yourself into engaging in an endless series of lone shoot-outs with an army of bandits while everyone else huddles in the saloon, has a drink, and waits for the hubbub to be over.

I’ve read advocates for divestment protesting that their case is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt and thus to oppose divestment is the moral equivalent of personally upending a barrel of sour crude on a sack of baby kittens. I think what they are often doing is transposing the moral and empirical certainty of the first part of a long chain of thinking onto the last part of the chain.

Here’s how I think the chain is structured.

1. Climate change is real.

Yes. Facts are proven here to my satisfaction, the satisfaction of 98% of scientists, and I suspect to the satisfaction of most of the Board of Managers of Swarthmore and other colleges and universities.

2. Climate change is anthropogenic.

With you so far.

3. Fossil fuel production and use is THE major contributor to anthropogenic climate change and has additional destructive effects on global environments.

Yup, completely right.

4. Fossil fuel producing corporations are profitable in significant measure because of a dense infrastructure of governmental subsidies (by both the US government and other world governments.) The real or ‘natural’ price of fossil fuel production (even without a carbon tax to build environmental damage into that price) would make alternative energy instantly competitive.

I think you’d get a lot of consensus on this point, even from (gasp) economists. This is pretty much where Bill McKibben’s initial argument for divestment started: this is the political problem he wants to solve.

5. In the medium-term fossil fuel corporations are a bad investment risk because climate change is real. They’re bound to fail as business ventures, maybe some of them quite soon.

This seems a fair point to me. Though in a way I’m not sure that anybody investing in any market is really thinking any longer about the medium-term viability of their investments. Folks really don’t buy IBM at a couple of bucks and hold on to it for thirty years now. That’s not a good change but it maybe is what it is. Still, if this is part of the argument for SRI funds, that they’re trying to return to the kind of capitalism that looks prudentially at the long-term, it’s a worthy argument. It also runs into the difficulty that many institutions depend on annual investment returns for annual budgets, however. As long as endowment income is part of your needs for this year and not just part of your model for the next twenty, this is going to be at best a partially persuasive claim.

6. We can’t afford to wait for fossil fuel producers to fail. They need to be stripped of their subsidies and protection and only strong political pressure from a large number of mobilized Americans will make that possible.

Right with you on this point. Only right about here I begin to think we’re heading into territory where there are other branches that could be plausibly followed from #1-5. For example, you could argue that the best thing to do is fight even harder for a carbon tax, to give even more generous subsidies to alternative energy and energy research, (as arguably the Chinese government has done to solar panel production), or to be far more aggressive about strategies for reducing carbon footprints or all of the above. E.g., an intensely exclusive focus on stripping fossil fuel producers of their political protection is at least debatable.

7. The best way to create strong political pressure is by changing the image of fossil fuel producers in public culture. The more that they are seen as moral anathema, a dirty and destructive industry that is putting billions of lives at risk, and a “welfare queen” that is only profitable because of corrupt manipulation of the political system, the more likely it is that Americans will demand the removal of governmental support for fossil fuels.

Ok. Here I think there’s still a pretty good argument to be made, but now we’re getting into territory where there is a very long history of disagreement even between otherwise progressive, leftist or liberal thinkers and activists, as well as a very wide range of models for political action that apply across the political spectrum. “Changing the image” of some facet of everyday culture is demonstrably a very hard thing to accomplish under the best of circumstances, and most of the successful examples (including making the apartheid state a global pariah or making tobacco companies look like bad guys) took decades of highly coordinated efforts across a wide range of initiatives to accomplish. There’s almost no examples of this kind of outcome happening quickly and almost no examples of it happening because of efforts originating from a narrow institutional or social base. In other words, we have now very clearly left the realm of empirically demonstrable facts and are now in the realm of very clearly debatable political and philosophical choices.

8. The best way to begin the process of changing the image of fossil fuel producers and/or bring pressure upon those companies is for colleges and universities to divest their endowments from those companies.

Wait, what? At least tell me either what else you’re doing right now, or what you’re going to do next towards the objective of #7.

Here’s at least some of what I think is debatable or arguable by any standard about #8:

Are institutions that are already regarded as liberal and leftist in American public culture really the best, first place to start a campaign to change the culture or bring political pressure? We can’t even win out in domains that are at the heart of our professional practices where we have decades of cultural capital built up in the public eye and with a Presidential Administration that ought to be at least moderately sympathetic to us. How are we going to win hearts and minds on something like “the image of fossil fuel producers” if we can’t easily win hearts and minds on something like “it is a good thing to study anthropology or philosophy when you are an undergraduate”?

Fossil fuel producers aren’t even going to be minimally inconvenienced financially by divestment, so this brings no additional pressure on them besides having higher education denounce them as morally repugnant.

Plus this doesn’t actually deal with a huge source of fossil fuel production in the world, which is state institutions, not private ones. To really impinge on actual fossil fuel production, this campaign would have to do more than strip away political support for U.S. government subsidies, it would have to push the U.S. government towards regarding big state-driven fossil fuel production as a reason to limit its commercial and political relationships with those state producers. And higher education would need to “divest” from foreign governments as well as corporate producers. (Curiously enough, I think this could directly sting those governments far more than it would hurt companies, but at the cost of being crudely nationalistic and nativist.)

All of these debatable points and others precede any discussion about whether divestment costs an institution some money or not.

Last in the chain of reasoning:

9. Divestment won’t hurt the institutions that do it, or if it does, it won’t hurt them much, or if it hurts them much, the contribution it makes to making fossil fuel companies into moral pariahs is worth it, or if it doesn’t make much of a contribution to that objective, who cares anyway because these institutions and their managers and administrations and employees and students are just part of the same political economy and society that sustains destructive fossil fuel production.


Ok! Here I beg to differ, but more importantly, here I cannot even begin to understand how even the most modest of these propositions (“divestment won’t cost money”) can be offered as a ABSOLUTE FACT BECAUSE THE EXPERTS SAY SO AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU ARE SO MORALLY WRONG THAT ANY ACTION AGAINST YOU IS JUSTIFIED. At best, it’s a valid debate (meaning that no projection of costs or no costs can just claim to be QED, including assertions of a cost of $200 million etc.).

But when we get past the point that it won’t cost to the back-up arguments of some divestment advocates that the costs will be pretty small, or the institutions are so rich that they can bear the costs, or the costs could be large but this is more important than anything else, or the costs could be large but the institutions themselves are so unimportant that who cares about them anyway, things get really dicey. This is precisely the moment where I see the high-stakes certainties and moral urgency of the first few arguments in this long chain being very casually swapped into the really tenuous or contentious reasoning of the last links in the chain. For example, for everything from #1-8 to hold water, virtually all of higher education needs to divest. Can all of higher education absorb the costs, if there are any? No. Casually mapping the financial situation of Swarthmore College or Harvard University onto less wealthy private colleges and universities, let alone publics, is about as privileged an assumption as you can make. But arguments #7-8 really don’t hold any water if it’s just the wealthiest institutions that divest.

Arguing that even wealthy institutions can live with smaller rates of return, smaller rates of growth in the principal of their endowment, or even with cutting into the principal if need be is…well, it’s true in the sense that if any of those things were to happen, they wouldn’t disappear in a puff of smoke tomorrow. But it’s not true if by that you mean, “They would not have to make decisions about ongoing commitments that would require limiting or eliminating some activities.” Swarthmore, for example, is in the middle of adding a number of staff positions so that it responds more effectively and aggressively to sexual assault. That’s why budgets have grown in most of higher education: a larger and larger number of functions, tasks and responsibilities that either higher education believes it must respond to or that it is mandated to respond to by other institutions (like the government). Colleges and universities have grown because services and products have gotten more expensive, which hits especially hard in a labor-intensive industry and even harder on a labor-intensive approach to a labor-intensive industry (which is what a small liberal-arts college focusing on teaching is).

Meaning that this whole argument isn’t really serious unless it concedes at least some possibility that the approach will have costs, that it is worth actually comparing the possible costs of the approach compared to the proclaimed costs of not-divesting, and worth clarifying whether there is actually anything about higher education in and of itself that the advocates of divestment value independent of its imagined utility for wounding fossil fuel producers.

But more important, it’s pretty hard to deal with a preemptive declaration that any dissent with any part of this chain of reasoning makes one guilty of dissenting against every link in the chain, therefore only those who follow the whole chain are righteously responding to climate change. And that those who have that righteousness on their side are therefore entitled to have their will and only their will enacted no matter who disagrees and no matter which processes stand in their way. If that’s true, there’s a long line of small groups, factions and pluralities (and maybe even a few majorities) who are similarly convinced of their righteousness who would have every reason to assert the same privilege to determine outcomes, whatever the existing deliberative structures and decision-making norms might be. The only argument you really have against those other groups at that moment is that you’re absolutely right and they (whomever they are) are absolutely not. Which is, by the way, one of the reasons that the federal government has been closed for the last two days.

Posted in Academia, Politics, Swarthmore | 5 Comments


John Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill, amended for 2013:

Now the onely way to ENSURE this shipwracke and to SCREW OVER our posterity is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe UNjustly, to SCORN mercy, to YELL LOUDLY ABOUT our God’s SPECIFIC OPINIONS ABOUT LAST YEAR’s TELEVISION SHOWS, for this end, wee must be FAR APART in this worke as CAIN and ABEL, wee must BE ARMED AGAINST each other in brotherly LOATHING, wee must be willing to GET OURS AND MAKE SURE THE OTHER GUY DOESN’T GET HIS, wee must GET TOO BIG TO FAIL AND SCREW OVER ANYONE who IS meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, wee must BE REVOLTED BY eache other, make REJOYCE IN others WRETCHED Condicions, MOCK each other, MAKE THE OTHER GUY LABOUR and SUFFER, allwayes CLOSING our eyes TO Commission and Community in the worke, our Community NOT as members of the same body, soe shall wee SCORN the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God AND YOU ALL HAD BETTER KNUCKLE UNDER TO OUR SPECIFIC IDEAS ABOUT HIM…wee shall finde that the God of MICHELLE BACHMANN is among us, when tenn of us shall be able TO FIRE THOUSANDS OF DRONES BY PRESSING A BUTTON IN VIRGINIA, when hee shall ROLL HIS EYES IN DERISION AT US, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of A SINKHOLE IN LOUISIANA: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a SHANTYTOWN IN A FESTERING BOG, the eies of all people are SENDING US CONDOLENCE CARDS.


Preamble to the US Constitution, amended for 2013:

We A FEW of the people, in order to form a LESS perfect union, ABANDON justice and REJECT tranquility, BUY BILLION DOLLAR BOMBERS and LOTS OF HANDGUNS for the common defense, SCORN the general welfare, and TAKE A DUMP ON the blessings of liberty, for ourselves and SCREW posterity, do DISDAIN and DISESTABLISH this Constitution except for the Second Amendment which is pretty cool.

Posted in Politics | 7 Comments

Lashed to the Rack, or the Ideology of Incremental Improvement

I was walking through a poster session at a conference on educational and learning games some years ago and came across two very nice presenters who had created a game for students who were planning to study abroad in countries where there was endemic malaria. The game was designed to teach the players the importance of taking anti-malarial medicine with strict adherence to the prescribed regimen. I asked, “Isn’t this a rather elaborate way to communicate a simple message? Why go to the trouble of making a game?” Well, they said, their institution had done a variety of things over the years to encourage students to follow the directions and had succeeded over time in reducing the number of students who failed to do so, but there was a small remaining contingent who were still not complying and of them, a few actually contracted malaria. These two presenters (I recall that one was a faculty member, the other an administrator) decided that a game might help them close the gap further.

The game itself seemed hugely unfun, in the manner of so many learning and “serious” games. It also seemed as if it took a good bit of effort to create. I wondered: why not just accept that there’s a few students who will not take their medicine and a few out of the few who will get malaria? When would their efforts to educate students be good enough such that they could simply keep doing what they’d been doing?

The answer in so many institutions is, “never”. Why not?

Perhaps in some small measure because the thought of even one student dying from malaria makes any effort to prevent that into a moral obligation.

Perhaps in some small measure because simply repeating a training or educational exercise each year actually reduces the pedagogical effectiveness of the teachers, that students can sense when something seems like an obligation or a repetition and that they take content less seriously when they sense that. Maybe always doing something slightly new or different is just a bit of professional craft that helps a teacher or trainer keep their edge.

But mostly I think this is what I would call the ideology of incremental improvement, a central dogma of the technocratic faith.

Incremental improvement is on one hand a way to ward off destabilizing or transformative arguments about the values and purposes of an institution: it coats the regularized processes of work with a layer of amber. The ideology denies that there could ever be a deep or fundamental branching point where an institution actually could make dramatic progress towards its stated goals by changing some fundamental aspect of its everyday workings. All progress in this view is small and constant, towards well-understood objectives using fixed or steady methods.

Incremental improvement is white-collar productivism. It’s driven by the proposition that a worker must always be more efficient and more productive, always making more of the same outputs through a constant intensification of the inputs. It’s also about carving out a stable niche in the institutional ecosystem for a supervisory class whose mission is to shepherd incremental improvement. As with most technocratic conventions, it is at least partially about defending the self-interest of the technocrats. Who can secure incremental improvement? Not the people whose practices are being improved. Only those who define the targets and specify the technical measures by which one moves steadily towards those targets can secure incremental improvement: it takes someone outside and above the labor that is being improved. Incremental improvement is a mutation of Taylorism, except that it stresses mind and affect rather than efficiencies of bodily movement.

Incremental improvement is one of several things that I think is fundamentally wrong with the current approach to assessment in both K-12 and higher education.

There is nothing wrong and everything right with a teacher or an institution performing a self-examination and asking whether the deliberate commitments and practices of instruction are improving the knowledge, performance, creativity or self-realization of students. It’s particularly important for selective private institutions to do this kind of assessment, because they might (and have) otherwise just assumed that they’re doing everything right when it’s possible that the only thing they need to do is recruit the very best students and have a lot of money in the bank. Assessment is the cure for smugness and unexamined privilege.

But you don’t go to your doctor for an annual check-up to get 1% better in every aspect of your health every year. You go to make sure you don’t have serious health problems building up and to make sure that your existing medication and therapeutic practices are working as intended. At least some of assessment is about the maintenance and fine-tuning of highly functional or successful practices.

And at least some of assessment should be about framing major choices about values or philosophy. Sometimes improvement isn’t about increments: sometimes it happens by leaps and bounds. And sometimes big changes aren’t improvements or degradations per se: they’re just change.

Most importantly, incremental improvement fundamentally doesn’t work for those values and practices that by nature are not incremental and measurable. Near the end of the classic The Phantom Toolbooth, the protagonist Milo confronts a series of “demons of ignorance”, one of whom is the Terrible Trivium.


The Trivium attempts to ensnare Milo by asking him to move a pile of sand grain by grain. Some of the things we value in our teaching are only perceptible and imaginable as unbroken wholes, and some are only important as pervasive but unseen spirits. Incremental improvement denies both of those kinds of values. They’re unmeasurable, unimprovable, undefinable. If you’re dealing with an incremental improver, he or she might not deny you the right to think you are working towards these kinds of goals, but he or she is going to ignore you when you do. And so bit by bit–incrementally, even–whole institutions eventually move all their resources towards picking up grains of sand one-by-one, toward eliminating the last student to not take his malaria medication, to producing 1% more empathy in a history major.

Posted in Academia, Games and Gaming, Politics, Swarthmore | 6 Comments

War and Understanding

The violence at Kenya’s Westgate Mall over the weekend stirs something in me besides fear and sorrow and pain. There’s also the thump of righteous anger thudding away in me as I read the reports. I’m slower to let it out than I was on September 12, 2001, because I like to think that most of us learned from that moment that such anger, however heartfelt, is ready to be stolen and refashioned and used as justification for many actions it was never intended to endorse or permit.

But even if you can let the anger come out soft and low, there is a part of me that is willing more dispassionately to revisit the rhetoric of a “global war on terror” and ask whether there is anything in that phrase that makes sense. The answer is really, “No, not, given the people who would plan and fight that war”. Because the thing is, none of the people who’ve acted in the name of that phrase really mean it, whether they’re keyboard cowboys who think that writing nasty things about a blogger is the equivalent of landing on Omaha Beach or the actual military and intelligence planners who fire drones, stage counter-insurgency operations, monitor communications, and so on.

The “war” framework is tempting in part because most common alternative rhetorical framing is just as unsatisfactory and often just as inconsistently adhered to in its ultimate implications. I say this as someone who is most likely to indulge in this approach when I’m writing in social media like Twitter or Facebook, and as someone who expects most of his friends and contacts to prefer this style. This response, when confronted like an event like Westgate, moves between anguished reflection about the mysteries of the human condition and a call for understanding, empathy and investigation into the social and cultural underpinnings of mass violence. I’ll come back to the shortcomings of this kind of answer a bit later.


First, war. Calling for a “war on” something (drugs, hunger, poverty, terrorism) typically gives rise to state and civic action that bears little resemblance to any kind of war. It’s really a move that’s meant to protect enormous deployments of resources from any kind of debate and to justify strong uses of official power, often for long-sought objectives that have relatively little to do with the supposed targets of the “war”. “Wars on” are a master class in why metaphors are never “just” words, why metaphorical speech can be in its way as dangerous as a tank full of toxic waste.

If the global war on terrorism was a literal rather than metaphorical war, what would be different? Clausewitz may have been a characteristically modern thinker about war, but at least part of his famous declaration that war was politics by other means was an observation about wars and victors past as well as future. I think the first basic thing that any state or society going into a war would consider is: what would be victory and when might we expect to achieve it? The second thing, following directly on that, is “how”?

Good luck trying to find any evidence that either the keyboard commandoes or our generals and leaders have any answers. Even premodern empires fighting unrestrainedly brutal punitive wars on their frontiers typically have had some sense of just how many sandcastles they’re going to kick over before they go home and stage a triumph. The “global war on terror”, on the other hand, seems roughly as permanent as 1984‘s “always at war with Eastasia/Eurasia”. If your victory condition is, “No one will commit an act of deliberate, ideological mass killing ever again” or even the more specific, “Militant Islamic fundamentalism will be eradicated”, why stop with that, go on to “all sadness will vanish” and “it will always be 75 degrees with a light breeze”.

Much action has been justified by saying that this is a new kind of enemy, a non-state enemy, an asymmetrical enemy, and so on. This is actually nonsense: the weapons and scales of mass violence are new, the global cultural space in which these events are perceived and experienced is new, but large empires or states facing persistent attacks on the safety and welfare of their people and their commerce at their periphery is as old as agriculture itself. Any sense of novelty is a result of the modern nation-state’s inability to understand its own historical oddity. Essentially talking about this moment being “new” is a case at best of modern nations taking their own press too seriously and believing that formal war between the mass armies of centralized, industrialized nations was a permanent achievement in a global march towards progress. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would prefer fully mobilized total wars between nations instead of terrorist attacks. But among our problems is that the big state-to-state wars of the 20th Century have left the impression that most of the time it is possible to get an adversary to surrender unconditionally and even to turn adversaries into allies.

If someone seriously meant, “We are at war with the people who planned the attack on Eastgate” and wasn’t just venting or trying to provide themselves metaphorical cover for some other kind of power play, what could that mean? Could a group like Shabab ever be defeated in a literal rather than metaphorical war?

I think yes, but it means taking Clausewitz seriously. Talking about a territory like Somalia as a “failed state” is a kind of policy-wonk nonsense at best, narcissism at worst. It’s a non-explanation explanation. But there’s a germ of a point somewhere in that phraseology that’s worth pulling out. Imagine you set as your victory condition, “Make Somalia a territory where joining a group like Shabab and participating in a military assault on a shopping mall a thousand kilometers away would be as relatively marginal a decision to make as hiding out in a cabin in Montana and mailing bombs to ideological enemies”–not impossible, just unlikely. Well, what makes being Ted Kaczynski unlikely even now in the U.S.? (I’m here taking Kaczynski as a person who acted consciously in service to his own convictions, not as a mentally ill person, which I know some would dispute.) What makes most ideological violence an unlikely choice throughout the U.S. and Western Europe?

A “war” against the present dispensation of power and political economy in Somalia that would seriously hamper or limit Shabab can’t possibly be built around the systematic use of military power against enemy targets. Occupation (by Ethiopian, Kenyan, AU or Western forces) is the equivalent of clicking “like” on Shabab’s Facebook page: it’s an endorsement. Killing Shabab members is substituting an imaginary “national” enemy for the one you really have, which is an always shifting, indeterminate potentiality. It’s like saying you’re going to bomb all boxes that might be harboring all Schrodinger’s cats just to make sure than none of them get out alive when the wave function collapses. You could kill everyone in Somalia, which is pretty much the approach that Russia took in Chechyna. You tell me how well that seems to be working in terms of ending a war and letting everyone live in peace afterwards, leaving aside the absolute moral disaster of such an approach and the ethical idiocy of its asymmetry to the provocation. (And you tell me how well that’s likely to work in a region full of porous boundaries, refugee camps and states that have difficulty controlling their own territories.)

If you’re really going to war, and you really have a strategic objective, do what a genuine military leadership does: inventory your weapons, measure your supply chains, assess your tactics, plan a strategy. And I’d think that the only conclusion you could come to is that the ‘war’ is winnable only if Somalia becomes a very different kind of polity, if South Sudan becomes a very different kind of polity, if Eritrea becomes a very different kind of polity and so on. People don’t join a Shabab if their settled social worlds and institutions are providing them more sustenance (financially, culturally, emotionally, ethically) than a nihilistic religious movement can offer. People don’t join a Shabab if there is some real hope of justice and legitimacy and fairness right at hand. They don’t join if they have a future to care about and a stake in the present. And people don’t join, or hesitate to join, if there are people in their lives who have credibility and wisdom who tell them, in languages and histories and forms that make sense to them, that the Shabab are murderers, hateful to God and man and all the spirits and mysteries that lie in between.

You tell me what actual killing weapons win that war for you. If guns are involved, it’s the kind that are mostly kept in holsters so that they can keep the peace. Sometimes they have to come out, because sometimes there are bad men and women who want to keep choosing again and again to hurt their communities, their neighbors, their enemies. You win that war by every villager being willing to call for help if that neighbor or that familiar stranger shows up to cause trouble. To do that they have to believe that when they call, the helpers will not make things worse, will not be simply another kind of terrorist.

If you’re not prepared to mobilize resources and people and effort for that kind of war, that kind of strategic plan, that kind of victory condition, don’t talk to me of war. If you recognize that the resources and people aren’t available and that there’s no model for that kind of war, fine–just don’t substitute some bombing and occupation and shooting because “something must be done”.


But don’t talk to me of understanding either unless that’s an equally driving commitment. The problem here is that my social networks light up after events like Westgate with people who are enormously pained by the pointless, senseless loss of life and are as furious as those who cry “war” with those who did the killing, but who turn to a different metaphorical language to map their response. That language is about understanding, investigation, research, and equally a language that sounds more like my “war” above, of remediation and aid and change.

This is all fine–I clearly think that’s closer to an answer. The problem is that many of the people who light up my networks with this package of metaphors don’t apply it evenly. I don’t apply it evenly. This is as much confession as accusation on my part. If we’re talking drone warfare or the building of a surveillance state or torture in Abu Ghraib or neoconservative war planners, we skirt right past the part about engaging the human landscape from which such activities arise, we don’t call for understanding the “roots of evil”, we don’t look for how the actors involved in those activities might have been searching for their own lost forms of security and comfort. We don’t usually imagine that they are caught up in the same indeterminacies that resolve down into a young man taking a gun to kill shoppers in a mall or getting a young man to raise his children and make his community a better place. But they are or could be: there could be a moment where an official decides it is wrong to interrogate a fellow citizen for hours at a border, a moment where a finger poises over a kill button and refuses to press, a moment where a pilot spots a wedding and decides it is better not to bomb even if somewhere in the crowd an insurgent might slip away free. A moment where a leader says not today or a judge says not this time. We don’t think very hard about how to give them a village that makes them love the plow more than the sword.

But even before we get to those moments, the commandment to investigate, to know, to understand, has to weigh heavily in all directions and to all things. As Inga Clendinnen argued, even to Henreich Himmler. If we say it for the Shabab, say it for everyone and everything in all the world and mean it. Which, I grant you, is a hard thing to live up to–but then our snark, our anger, our dismissal is not altogether that different than the moment where someone else’s composure slips and he or she says, “Exterminate the brutes!” The work that’s done in the world by those moments is very different, one relatively harmless and the other sometimes brimming with potency. But the thing about a commandment is that it is the worst when you lay it heavily upon others but forgive yourself an endless series of light trespasses. The injunction to understand, mind you, is not a call to love or affection or sympathy. It’s just about the deeper and harder truths inside of things, a trust that we don’t know as much as we ought but that what we ought, we can.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

The Strains of Decision

I know I’ve written very similar posts to what follows, but this is really on my mind as I watch the ‘dance of enrollment’ with a bit more focus than in the past, due to my receiving the harshly punitive sentence of being designated department chair.

I feel really clear that we have really distinctive “decision models” in play every semester as students choose their courses for the semester that I could almost model using an autonomous-agent simulation, though there’s also a complicated environment that I’d have to simulate as well.

As I watch enrollments come in and listen to students talking about their choices, I see the following really different types of enrolling agent:

1) Driven by affinity for course-specific title and subject matter. This type of student doesn’t really care very much who is teaching the class or who is taking the class. They are not interested in the department’s overall curriculum and are not interested in either prerequisites or later courses in an implied sequence except inasmuch as they pose a barrier to enrollment; this student’s choices are mostly a la carte. This student’s affinity can have different sources (sometimes the student is very aware of what has sparked their affinity, sometimes not): parental advice (or demands), previous experiences, self-image, independent reading or research.

2) Driven by affinity for particular professors and their pedagogy. This type of student doesn’t care that much what a class is about. They are not that interested in the disciplinary affiliation of their preferred professors. This student takes classes that are either taught in a way that a student prefers or with a particular individual style distinctive to the faculty in question. Generally this student has narrower information streams: either past personal experience with professors or the informal information shared between students about faculty.

3) Driven by adherence to a course of study as formally defined by departments and programs. This student wants to know what the rules are and wants to follow them largely as they are specified. Where the rules are implicit or more open-ended, this kind of student often wants advice that will turn implicit rules into explicit ones or wants open-ended choices to be foreclosed by rules or strictures imposed by the advisor. This student is often much more focused on the final certification at the end of this course of study and on outcomes that follow on graduation and receipt of that certification.

4) Driven by perceptions of difficulty and a preference in relation to those perceptions. Yes, some students are looking for courses they imagine are easier (either one such course in a tough semester or in general) though they often will not admit to such a preference that explicitly, at least not to a professor. (Which is politically canny on their part.) At Swarthmore, I see at least some students whose decision rule is the opposite: they’re looking for a course or courses in general that they perceive to be difficult, painful or challenging.

5) Driven by self-conscious whimsy. This is pretty rare, but I do run into students who are basically choosing courses as part of a performance of autonomy and non-systematic, non-compliant behavior: the main principle is to go with their first impulse and try to break any dictates or obligations they feel are being laid upon them (as far as they can while still complying with the requirements for graduation, which include completing a major).

6) Driven by antipathy to a discipline, methodology or worldview. E.g., all courses they choose are intended to attack or repudiate some other disciplinary approach or ideology, to compile a prosecutorial dossier against it. Also relatively rare.

7) Driven by a fairly systematic critique of Swarthmore’s curriculum or common pedagogies, e.g., a student who is choosing courses that they believe represent or empower that critique. This is really rare, and generally something you only see from seniors.

There are also many students who mix and match these decision rules: one course chosen to comply with a disciplinary program, one course chosen by whimsy, one chosen by a desire to take a class with a particular professor.


The problem on the other side of things is another subject I’ve written about with some frequency: how to distribute resources in a way that anticipates these different decision rules and the consequences of their distribution, or if you so choose, how to actively combat or disallow some of these rules or use resources to favor some over others.

Faculty, for example, really cannot have fully public, usefully candid conversations about the impact of student perceptions of professorial charisma, even if we have strong intuitions that those perceptions are having a major effect on particular enrollments.

What we don’t really have, though, is anything consistent or shared to stand as a counterweight to enrollment. There is a hodgepodge of smaller counterclaims that crowd into that space when there is a discussion. That some types of classes have to be small (true), that some subjects are important no matter how many students take them (or by extension, no matter who is teaching them) (true), that our job is not just to mirror the prior demands and desires of students but to rework and transform what they think they want with what we believe to be important for them to know and do (true). The problem is that none of those can really be shared values unless we have some non-arbitrary agreements about which types of classes, which kinds of subjects and what kinds of learning–and simply favoring what we have in the curriculum at this exact moment as setting the standard is arbitrary.

Which of those decision types do faculty as a matter of deliberate principle want to push back upon, advise or otherwise not permit to set the terms of our curriculum? You’d think that type #3 would be our idea: the student who is following what our curriculum tells them to do. But for many students that is not only dissatisfying personally, it turns out to shut them out of the benefits of a liberal arts approach to learning, because nothing inside of a department’s curriculum typically specifies those parts of learning that should or must happen outside of it. Sure, we have some general education requirements that are supposed to attend to that, but those contain almost no specific instructions about which courses should be taken at which times. For Swarthmore, that’s 20 credits that can’t just be chosen by obedience to prescribed rules. So every student will need some other decision rule, and if we try to disable that reasoning, we’re disabling that part of their education.

I keep banging my head against this wall. Building this bigger conversation is something we have to do–not just the Swarthmore we but academics at most institutions. And some days it seems to me to be the conversation that we never can quite get around to having.

Posted in Academia, Swarthmore | 6 Comments

Mind It Is Blown

Me reading suggestions from Twitter about how to do some data visualizations of co-citations out of my Honors seminar on colonial Africa.

Some days the difference between a dilettante who just likes to read about cool stuff (me) and people who actually do cool stuff (them) is rather stark.

A list of the helpful, stimulating suggestions:

For starters.

I think the one difference in my concept from some of these examples is that I want to start with essentially a semantically-aware tagging process, e.g., I want the students and me to tag the citations that they see as being especially crucial or formative to the historiographical thinking of the scholars we’re reading based on what they’ve read, and then to do some exploration of how close our semantic intuitions are to actual networks of citation. But I think I can see how we could do this using some of these models.

Posted in Digital Humanities | Comments Off

Procrustes’ Market

My knee jerks pretty hard when I read an argument that because a service or institution does not behave like a perfect model market in economics, it must be changed until it conforms to the model. There is wreckage strewn all around the world from attempts to lop off limbs and contort reality in order to make non-model markets fit into a Procrustean bed.

So this is part of my problem with Dylan Matthews’ latest analysis of the cost of higher education: it is another example of a think-tanky Beltway writer with the generic hammer of neoclassical economics running around pounding down a world full of nails. But there are important and legitimate points made along the way.

For one, it’s true that education fits what economists call an “experience good”, though that’s a little like saying that life is an “experience good” and if you only had more information you’d make proper consumer decisions about living from seven to seventy. Life–and learning–aren’t just commodities that should be evaluated in some abstracted way by a universal rationality, even though life–and learning–have a big price tag. Even if there was all the information in the world, you couldn’t make the correct decision.

I point this out often to students when we’re discussing which class to take, or to prospectives who are thinking about applying to Swarthmore. There is a lot of information that you could acquire about courses or about colleges that you could reasonably use to assemble a decision matrix. What size is the class or the college? Do you have a good reason for thinking that you flourish in small or large classes or institutions? What do you think you need in terms of knowledge or training? What kinds of environments and teaching styles do you enjoy or find stimulating? And so on–this often information you could have, and sometimes, I agree, information that is hard to come by that shouldn’t be so hard to get.

But then think on all the things that make a difference in a class or a university that you cannot possibly know about no matter how much information you have. The friends you will make. The people you will love. The mentors who will strike a chord with you. The class that will surprise you and change your views of everything. The chance experience you have that will transform you. You can find an environment that is rich in people, in time, in resources, in the unexpected (and some colleges and classes are impoverished in all or most of those). But you can’t determine any of the specifics with all the information in the world and yet it is these specifics that create the most “added value”. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s not the person who just had the experience who will value the commodity most (or rue it most dearly), it’s the person you will be in the years to come. That person is not you in so many ways: you are today very very bad at predicting what that person needed or wanted and you always will be bad at it. If we could sue our younger selves, many of us probably would.

So the people who look and say, “Oh, just make sure there’s more information and people will make the choices that economists think they ought to make” are doomed to disappointment. Which would be fine if they would consent to just being disappointed but policy wonks tend to think that when the outcome that the models predicted doesn’t happen, the answer is to make people behave like the models said they would.

Matthews also indulges the “more administrators equals more budgetary bloat” argument straight out of Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty. Again, there’s something to it: large universities especially have added layer upon layer of administrative hierarchy and organizational complexity to little perceptible gain. But the way that Ginsberg lays it out, it’s a Manichean drama with the noble, voluntarily parsimonious faculty on one side and the sinister imperial administrators on the other, with the administrators grabbing territory for no reason other than “because that’s what they do”.

Go deeper and there’s several things at work. The first is way more important than Ginsberg (or Matthews) credit, which is the massive growth in “external mandates”, e.g., regulations and legal obligations that have been slapped onto universities and colleges (both public and private) without any attention to the costs of compliance. This is one of the few areas where I’m fairly sympathetic to a common conservative refrain about businesses: the desired outcomes of regulation are often very important, but it’s equally important not to act as if they are free. Equally important are “internal mandates”: new administrative staff who are brought on board to answer a demand made by faculty and students. It really grates on me when someone like Ginsberg complains about administrative bloat without an audit of the role of faculty themselves in creating the need for many administrative positions. Not infrequently, when I’m talking with a colleague who talks about how there are too many administrators (here specifically or generically in academia), if I ask, “So which positions do you have in mind in specific”, I get a lot of vague hand-waving. Or I get a named position and then I ask who is going to do the work that the person doing that work now does, and it’s usually, “Oh, someone else on staff will just have to do more work”, which is not exactly what you’d call grand solidarity between laboring people. Very rarely can a critic name an overall kind of administrative work that simply should not be done at all, and usually when they can they’re just being stupid or self-destructive.

Though in the end this is the kind of thinking that maybe we do need, and not just about institutional or instructional support, but about instruction itself. The basic thrust of Matthews’ analysis is fair enough: until they have to, institutions of all kinds (including companies) do not often think about what they shouldn’t be doing, or what they don’t need to do. And when they have to it’s usually too late to make those decisions judiciously and ethically. You want that a faculty and an administration and students should work and live in a progressively more focused or generative way all the time, to operate sustainably (with all that implies, environmentally and otherwise). Living sustainably means at least thinking about costs, and not thinking about costs (or making other people think about them) makes a savage, degrading reckoning with reality an inevitability.

But mindfulness of cost does not mean an abstemious, starveling existence. It doesn’t mean lopping off your feet so you don’t have to worry about the expense of boots any longer. Education, life and other “experience goods” are partly valued for their unpredictable excesses, their moments of giddy and unexpected sensation. A grey, spare, brutalist education in which one always received the training that was expected in order to service the need that was defined would impoverish more than professors and administrators.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 4 Comments