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A 1970 Humanities and Technology Major Reacts to Russ Douthat’s Column on the Death of Humanities

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Russ Douthat’s NYTimes column today, “Oh, the Humanities“, did not afford a comment opportunity… so I am using this post to capture my reaction to the column, which I found to be generally thoughtful and— because I agreed with it’s take on the underlying causes for the demise of humanities as a discipline– accurate.

Using a 1946 poem by W.H. Auden as the framework for his analysis of the decline in the number of Humanities majors in almost every college, Douthat concludes that “Apollonians”, that is technocrats, have won out over the “sons of Hermes”, the artists and musicians. Why is this so? Dothan concludes that in addition to adopting ultra-radical positions on political issues, in an effort to make their discipline seem more analytic (i.e. technical), the humanities professors adopted “a pseudoscientific mantle” that seemed to add “rigor and precision” to their work. Here’s the paragraph that captures his thinking:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

The column resonated with me as one who majored in “Humanities and Technology”, a B.S. degree my alma mater Drexel Institute of Technology “invented” in the late 1960s in order to become Drexel University. At that time, the Humanities teachers emphasized the power of poetry and the importance of clear writing and consciously rejected any efforts to inject “a pseudoscientific mantle” that added “rigor and precision” to their work. Those of us who gravitated to this new major were drawn to it because we rejected the ideas that underpinned the emerging technocracy and wanted to see a more just and equitable world.

Douthat concludes his column asserting that all will be well and humanities will be restored to the “sons of Hermes” instead of the “children of Apollo”:

(A) hopeful road map to humanism’s recovery might include: First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I, for one, think it will be restored more rapidly if, like my professors in the late 1960s, the humanities professors focus on the beauty of the arts and avoid injecting “a pseudoscientific mantle” that added “rigor and precision” to their work.

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Larry Cuban Explains Why Efficiency is the Enemy in Measuring Learning

August 1, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday with a link to a post written by Larry Cuban describing the new “Cult of Efficiency” that reformers embrace when they measure school performance. Both posts implicitly decry the potential for technology and testing to enhance classroom teaching and student learning, a denunciation that is ultimately based on the premise that the ultimate metric for teaching effectiveness will be norm-referenced state tests. Mr. Cuban, for example, writes:

What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who now, as modern-day entrepreneurs and practical reformers, using the vocabulary of pedagogical Progressives want public schools to be more market-like where supply and demand reign, and more realistic in preparing students for a competitive workplace.

These reformers are of two types. Some want individual students to master the content and skills found in district and state curriculum standards in less time than usual while spending the least amount of money to achieve mastery. Examples would be current versions of competency-based learning aligned to, say, Common Core standards or programs such as Teach To One.

Other entrepreneurs and technology advocates see schools as places to create whole  human beings capable of entering and succeeding in a world far different than their parents faced. To these reformers, efficient ways that reduce waste while integrating student interests and passions into daily activities with the help of teachers. Students make decisions about what to learn and take as long as they can to demonstrate mastery while meeting curriculum standards and posting high scores on state tests.

I would argue that there is a third kind of efficiency-minded “administrative progressive”: one who values the use of business practices in overseeing the business functions of school districts while rejecting the notion that those practices can be used in the classroom, particularly if state tests are the only metric used to determine “success”.

Any school leader who rejects the need for efficiency in non-instructional areas like transportation, maintenance, purchasing, and food services is squandering resources that could be used for instruction.

On the other hand, any school leader who embraces the use of state standardized tests as the sole and ultimate metric for student learning is simultaneously embracing the notion the all students of a certain age learn at the same rate, a notion that is preposterous. State tests are normative and, as such, assume that learning time is a constant and individual student learning is variable.

Efficiency is the enemy to improvement of schools when it is based on normative test scores that are linked to age-based cohorts. But efficiency-mindedness has the possibility of improving instruction when it is driven by formative test scores that are untethered to the construct of “grade levels” and driven by a wider array of metrics that attempt to capture elusive but important aspects of schooling like “student well-being”. A district that values only test scores will relentlessly drill students on test preparation and deny opportunities for physical and arts education. A district that seeks to improve the well-being of students will form partnerships with social services, health care providers, and care-givers before and after school and offer an expansive array of programs outside of content that can be readily measured by standardized tests.

 

Creating Pension Plan Chaos for Teachers, Firefighters, and Cops

July 28, 2018 Comments off

A weep-done connecting of the dots by Sam Pizzigati shows the interconnectedness of tax cuts for the rich and the erosion of defined benefit pensions for public employees… and the foolishness of ANY public employee who votes for someone claiming painless tax cuts are possible.

Source: Creating Pension Plan Chaos for Teachers, Firefighters, and Cops

Cheating, High Stakes Testing, and the Winning at All Costs Ethos are Interrelated.

July 19, 2018 Comments off

Anyone who advocates the use of high stakes tests should read a recently posted article by Medium blogger Gustavo Razzetti titled “America Has a Cheating Crisis (Why Leaders Should Worry About It)”.

In the article, Mr. Razzetti describes how cheating undercuts the norms in a culture and offers compelling evidence that cheating, high stakes testing, and the winat-all-costs ethos that permeates our culture are linked. After describing the work done by Freakonomics writers Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in examining cheating in Chicago schools, Mr. Razzetti concludes:

Cheating is a byproduct of high-performance cultures.

Measuring people by goals or achievements makes everyone focus on winning at all costs. Self-interest and the need for self-protection drive employees. People will do whatever it takes to win or survive…

Endless ambition justifies all means; cheating becomes self-reinforcing — we take shortcuts to win. When financial goals are the one and only metric, companies ask little questions about how things get done.

Mr. Razzetti then offers two consequences to the individual that result from adopting an ethos based on “endless ambition”, an ethos that ultimately compels individuals to cut corners in hopes of “victory”:

When you cheat, the first person that you fool is yourself.

When you cheat, your win won’t last forever — the aftermath will.

He concludes his essay with a well reasoned argument that “carrots and sticks”, the underlying theory behind high-stakes testing, inevitably results in cheating which, in turn, ultimately results in an erosion of personal and societal ill-being. Mr. Mazzetti urges readers to draw on their own resources to avoid fooling oneself and suffering the aftermath of cheating. I would advocate a change to the system by abandoning high stakes tests that are driving the cheating by creating a “high-performance culture” ultimately based on financial goals as the one and only metric.

 

 

 

Robots Cannot Replace Humans When it Comes to Grading Essays— But No Matter! They are Cheap, Fast, and Unbiased.

July 17, 2018 Comments off

NPR recently ran a story by Tovia Smith on the use of robots (or more precisely computers) to grade student essays and found to no educators’ surprise, that they were not not up to the task. The story opens with this quiz:

Multiple-choice tests are useful because:

A: They’re cheap to score.

B: They can be scored quickly.

C: They score without human bias.

D: All of the above.

It would take a computer about a nano-second to mark “D” as the correct answer. That’s easy.

But now, machines are also grading students’ essays. Computers are scoring long form answers on anything from the fall of the Roman Empire, to the pros and cons of government regulations.

From this point forward in the story, Ms. Smith provides an account of the expansion of the use of computer-graded essays, work done by MIT research affiliate, Les Perelman, who has developed algorithms that generate nonsense responses to machine-graded essays that yield high scores, a rebuttal to Mr. Perelman’s work by ETS, who argue, in effect, that if someone is smart enough to game to the essays they deserve the high grade, and the “cat-and-mouse” game underway to catch students who use algorithms in states that have adopted computerized grading.

At the end of the report, Ms. Smith hits on the real problem with computerized grading: it compels teachers to teach students formulaic writing.

Indeed, being a good writer is not the same thing as being a “higher-scoring GRE essay writer,” says Orion Taraban, executive director of Stellar GRE, a tutoring company in San Francisco.

“Students really need to appreciate that they’re writing for a machine … [and when students] agonize over crafting beautiful, wonderfully logically coherent and empirically validated paragraphs, it’s like pearls before swine. The computer can’t appreciate what this person has done and they don’t get the score that they deserve.”

Instead, Taraban tutors students to give the computer what it wants. “I train them in fabricating evidence and fabricating fake studies, which is a lot of fun,” he says, quickly adding, “but I also tell them not to do this in real life.”

For example, when writing a persuasive essay, Taraban advises students to use a basic formula and get creative. It goes something like this:

A [pick any year] study by Professor [fill in any old name] at the [insert your favorite university] in which the authors analyze [summarize the crux of the debate here], researchers discovered that [insert compelling data here] … and that [offer more invented, persuasive evidence here.] This demonstrates that [go to town boosting your thesis here!]”

It results in a kind of mad-lib writing that is anything but artful, thoughtful, or pleasing to read. But it is cheap, easy, unbiased, and unbiased…. and the ultimate triumph of efficiency over excellence.

 

Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Mental Health and Well Being, and the Limits of Efficiency

July 6, 2018 Comments off

As a Buddhist practitioner, a retired educator who witnessed the expansion of technology in public education, and a blogger who has “efficiency is the enemy” as a tag, I was drawn to a Medium interview by Brian Walsh titled “The Chinese Buddhist Billionaire Who Wants to Fix Your Brain“. This billionaire in question is Chen Tianqiao who founded the online gaming company Shanda in 1999 and cashed in a decade later in large measure because he had a cancer scare, multiple panic attacks, and a sense that his life had no meaning.

The article opens with a response to a question that offers a brief biographical sketch of Mr. Tianqiao, which also includes an overview of his perspective of Buddhism.

Mr. Walsh follows with a series of questions that yield some thought-provoking insights. His response to one of the questions posed by Mr. Walsh was particularly compelling:

Right now we teach machines only one value statement: efficiency. The machine optimizes the efficient. The machine always knows how to quickly find the best way. But if the machine ruled the world, it must say, “Kill all the old men and sick people because of their weight on resources,” right? So we have to teach the machines fairness and compassion. But how do we do that when we don’t know how to define them?

Later Mr. Walsh explores Mr. Tianqiao’s ideas on the relationship between technology and our general well being… and Mr. Tianqiao’s perspective is that technology is outpacing humanity’s adaptability and that, in turn, is leading to an increase in mental health problems.. including suicides.

You have a phone in your hand that can connect you to anyone. You can get a thing done in one minute that 10 or 20 years ago would have taken you a month. This is the pace we live at now. But I believe people have a limitation on their capacity for connection. You don’t know how to handle these relationships. The speed of information. There’s so much information flooding into your brain, and your brain has to judge yes or no, because more and more people, with the help of a blast from technology, they also have a voice. There are so many different views flooding in your brain, and you have to judge what you like, what you want.

I say you run too fast. I cannot chase you. I just want you to stop. I want to stop you, right? This is technology. But we cannot just stop.

The article concludes with this question about the future of technology and Mr. Tianqiao’s somewhat pessimistic response response:

Ultimately, do you feel optimistic about the direction we’re going with technology and the brain? Do you think we’ll be able to make ourselves fitter and happier?

I cannot find an answer to this. That’s why I’m a little pessimistic. I think there are so many problems that are generated by technology. What I can do is try to use scientific ways to mitigate the possible consequence of that technology. But if we don’t do that, it could lead to very bad consequences.

When I gave money to an American university [CalTech], the Chinese media criticized me. But I think the current debate or current conflict is not between the people of one country and the people of another. This is our humanity.

In an era of tariff wars, the dissolution of longstanding alliances that stabilized relationships among relatively free countries, and the opportunities for technology moguls to make billions it is east to share Mr. Tianqiao’s pessimism… here’s hoping we can all see the our humanity is at stake as we continue expaning our use of technology.

Unions Fight Against Two Trends: Cultural AND Political Trends

July 2, 2018 Comments off

Two articles illustrate the uphill battle unions will face in the coming years… a struggle that may well ultimately decide the well-being of workers across the entire country.

Umair Haque’s article “How American Collapse Was a Choice“, published in mid-June, postulated that five myths– myths about our culture— led our country to make bad choices when they formulated their policies. Those myths were:

  1. The myth of anarchy — ”that a society doesn’t need a government or a social contract or anything at all to bind it together, structure it, and connect it.
  2. The myth of self-reliance— Americans belief that they should be able to do it alone or they were worthless.
  3. The myth of competition. As Haque writes: “If it’s every person for themselves, if I cannot rely on you, then what is the only thing left that we can do? Compete. Outdo the next little atom. Grind him into dust. Batter him until he’s defeated.”
  4. The myth of punishment. Hague links competition and punishment, noting that like the Spartans and Romans, Americans believe that by “mercilessly punishing” those who fail to adhere to the standards set by the ruling class, they’d “end up virtuous”.
  5. The myth of the predator. Haque writes: “The great myth Americans are taught today is that human beings are born to be predators — and the biggest predator is the best thing of all to be.”

When these five myths undergird the cultural norms, organizations like unions face an uphill battle because they contradict each. And, as an article by Colleen Wilson of the LoHud.com website notes, the political forces are seizing on this cultural disconnect and the direction of the political winds after the Janus case to promote a flight from the union. The think tanks funded by predators create a death spiral for unions… a death spiral that will not be stopped until our cultural norms change.