Thursday, December 01, 2016

Maintaining the Value Proposition of the University

For quite a long while, American higher education has been adrift in a devolving eddy of self-pity, whining about overregulation while obsessing about bracket placements and rankings, pandering to political and philanthropic overlords while remaining largely silent on the great social issues of our times. We have lost the great narrative of American higher education as the counterweight to government excess, as the bastion of free thought and speech, as the public intellectual voice of the society.

Patricia McGuire seems to think that, since Trump owes his victory to non-college-educated Americans*, the disaster (if that's what it is) could have been avoided by getting more Americans through college. I think that misunderstands what the true "value proposition" of the university is.

In so far as it has anything to do with politics, the university should teach people what Hillary Clinton forgot: how to govern people, not deplore them. Those who hold university degrees, especially from elite colleges, are likely to enter the governing class, whether in business or politics. Their job will not be, as many progressives assume, to transform society, but, rather, to maintain civilization. The skill set that is needed for this is quite traditional. Indeed, it's pretty conservative.

Higher education is almost by definition elite education. It should be reserved for the most intelligent and curious people among us. But if your education only works with other educated people it's not much of one. Imagine an engineer who knows how to build bridges that only other engineers can safely cross. Or a doctor that can only explain a healthy lifestyle to another doctor. Or an architect who can only design buildings that are livable and workable for other architects. Indeed, imagine a nation's poetry that can only be enjoyed by other poets, or novels that only novelists can appreciate. (I'll leave it to you to decide how far along we are.)

In a civilized society, there should be no shame in not having a university education, nor should not having one make life particularly difficult. A university education certainly shouldn't be a prerequisite for meaningful participation in civic life. And it is the responsibility of our educated elites to maintain a public sphere that it doesn't take an elite education to participate in. If you ask me, it was their failure to provide such a sphere that gave Trump his victory, not the failure to provide the masses with a college education.

I realized where McGuire went wrong when I read this sentence: "We need more focus on students and less on institutions." That is exactly backwards. Universities have been chasing after students for way too long. (as McGuire actually implies when she says they "obsess" about "rankings"). They need to reassert themselves, precisely, as institutions. "Too many institutions, particularly wealthy private and flagship state institutions," McGuire says, "claim a desire to welcome more low-income students of color yet fail to change the interior circumstances of costs, culture, educational programs and pathways that would enlarge the pipeline and ensure success for those students." That's not how it looks it to me. My sense of the unrest on college campuses is that the institutions have been bending over backwards to "ensure success" for students that might otherwise struggle.

The problem is that the struggle university students are being spared is the very "value proposition" of the university. It is supposed to be providing an environment in which that struggle can go on and where the skills to overcome it can therefore be developed. To use McGuire's propositions, it is the struggle to exercise "free thought and speech" and, ultimately, become a "public intellectual voice" in society.

It's interesting to note that McGuire doesn't say that it's the students who should be these voices. She believes that the university, in the person of the university president, should be "the public intellectual voice of society". That's an interestingly authoritarian sentiment, and implies that higher education is the process by which one comes to respect an intellectual authority, understand what the master's voice is saying. Indeed, what was most notable, at least to me, about the reaction to Trump's victory on college campuses was how inarticulate it was. The reaction was, for lack of a better word, uneducated. It was unformed. The students lacked voices of their own, and so they joined various mobs.**

What is needed is for the universities to reassert themselves as institutions of free speech and thought. This does not mean that they should "enlarge the pipeline" of academic success. On the contrary, it means that they need to insist on "interior circumstances" that require a great deal of discipline to master. It's true that some students—those who come from already elite segments of society—will find those disciplines somewhat more natural than others. But the universities are supposed to be precisely the place where their natural advantage is redistributed a little, where those who aren't born with it can gain some of it. The value proposition of the university is most certainly not to subject all 17-23-year-olds to such coddling that they are unable to deal articulately with a populist president and will then have to look to their college president to speak for them.

University should be a place where you learn to make up your own mind and speak with your own voice. It should make you a better interpreter of the vox populi, not deaf to it or, worse, afraid of it. (After four years of "safe spaces" is it any wonder that so many young people can't stand to hear Trump speak?) The existence of a cadre of highly educated people should enrich the public sphere for all. It should not require the indoctrination of the same "value proposition" into every citizen.

*There is good reason to think this is true.
**We see here the important sense in which so-called "elitism" is actually a form of anti-authoritarianism. But I'll save that for another post.

The Foundations of Society, part 2

Jordan Peterson has explicitly argued that [in order to maintain our civilization] we have to be free to make up our minds and to tell others what we've come up with. For him, the real threat to "the very foundations of our society" is the restriction of free thought and speech. But Peterson also seems concerned about another possible "foundation", namely, the mechanisms, both social and biological, by which we keep the species going. In a word: sex. And here gender, of course, plays a crucial role.

[Some] progressives seem intent on undermining our intuitions about gender differences. These intuitions, however, are at the core of our mating rituals. We try to choose a mate across a pretty radical distinction, namely, sex. [In order to navigate this "ultimate gap, as between two people, that not even a penis can bridge," as Rosmarie Waldrop aptly puts it, we have (socially) constructed the category of gender.] Peterson is concerned to keep this distinction [, this construct,] sharp and the selection processes it manages precise.

Now, one thing I've noticed about the people who have been arguing (some of them explicitly with Jordan Peterson) that gender is not a natural kind but a social construct—strangely, some of have even argued that there's no biological basis for distinguishing between the sexes—is that the "science" isn't settled. Or, more precisely, they have argued that it's been recently unsettled by, say, comparative studies of male and female brains—or, if you think that begs the question, the brains of people who were "assigned" male and female at birth.

I'll detail this criticism of gender studies in later posts. (I've seen it come up in enough discussions to be confident in asserting that the argument does exist.) My point here is that if we're going to say that our society is "science based" we get into the problem that science hasn't yet understood everything. And on the points where science doesn't yet have anything very clear to say, we seem then to be in the unhappy position of having to declare our social practices "baseless".

So, suppose it's true that a brain scan can't distinguish "male brains" from "female brains". Does this mean that we have to abandon all our intuitions about how men and women think differently? (Notice that this also supposes that the only "scientific" basis for psychology is biological, i.e., neurological.) I'm not saying those intuitions aren't due for some adjustments (just as I won't suggest that men will be men, and women, women, unchanged for as long as human beings roam the Earth), but I am very skeptical about letting "science" set the agenda for the coming changes to our perceptions of ourselves and each other.

I don't think that people who distinguish between men and women every day are doing so on the basis of "science". And I'm not going to give science the authority to undo that distinction. I'm certainly not going to let scientific ignorance (i.e., the incompleteness of biology and psychology) undermine my confidence when trying to mate. Just because science can't tell men from women (and I'm only granting for the sake of argument that it has any difficulty doing so) doesn't mean I can't. And it certainly doesn't mean that I have no legitimate basis to make that distinction.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Foundations of Society, part 1

Here are two statements that are worth bringing together:

"The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society."

"The pronoun discussion is not simply about grammar or gender – it's about re-examining the very beliefs upon which our society is based."

The first is from "An open letter from women of science", which, according to Jessica Kirkpatrick at the Women in Astronomy blog, was written by "a group of women scientists who have been working in Washington as AAAS science fellows". It's sort of a vague affiliation, but I take it seriously because it is being promoted by the CSWA. The second is from an opinion piece for the CBC by Julian Paquette weighing in on the Jordan Peterson controversy.

I will presume that Paquette and the "500 Women" are natural allies in the current iteration of the culture wars. But the ideological contradiction is here quite glaring and very common on the Left. Depending on the issue, the ideologues are prepared to declare either that "the very foundations of our society" are threatened or that "the very beliefs upon which our society is based" must be questioned. I think it's fair to say that this ambivalence is itself foundational for "progressive" politics.

One way to resolve the contradiction is to assume that they are talking about the foundations, not of our society, but their society. That is, they are talking about the basis of the ongoing progress towards the utopia they imagine. And that utopia is indeed "science based", if you will. As the "Open Letter" put it: "Science is foundational in a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet." What about a "conservative" society? we might ask. Perhaps innovation is there fueled by something like human ingenuity and initiative, and perhaps the state is there constitutionally restrained from building institutions that, somewhat creepily, propose to "touch the lives of every person on the planet".

These foundations need, precisely, to be conserved, not implemented after traditional beliefs about what people are and how they can most happily live together have been "re-examined"—a word that is almost certainly a euphemism for "overturned". I have to say that, given the state of science (and the science of the state, if you will) these days, I understand the anti-science sentiment. Many pro-science people seem to the think that science is simply epistemic authority: an institution that has the power to tell you what to think and to believe. I like to think of science as a protected space of free thought and inquiry—not a place where I'm forced to examine my beliefs, but where I'm allowed to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fear of Fear has declared "xenophobia" to be the Word of the Year. I think it's a good choice. If we take the two big spikes in look-ups that cites to explain the choice, we can see that both came at a time when a populist backlash against the elites needed to be reinterpreted as a pathology in the population. There wasn't anything wrong with the elites, it had to be made clear, there was something wrong with the people. Ordinary people, it was said, are irrationally afraid of "people with backgrounds different from their own".

And this fear, it is usually implied, makes them bad people. It makes them less compassionate of others. At bottom, then, the rise of the word "xenophobia" marks a doubled othering: first "foreigners" are othered by ordinary people, and then ordinary people are othered by the elites. In fact, the fear of others marks a fault line (let's play the pun: a "line of blame") within the "common people" themselves. "We" are turned against each on the question of whether or not we fear "them".

I've always found the political "phobias" puzzling. We don't vilify people for their fear of flying or fear of spiders. We don't even hold agoraphobia against people, even though we might, as members of the "public", take a little offense at their anxieties about us. But xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are a different matter. Here we confidently denounce the person who harbors the relevant fear. We do not grant them the right to be afraid, we might say.

In my view, we should take seriously the idea that xenophobia is an exaggerated fear of foreigners. In an important sense, it is "irrational" (just as flying is actually perfectly safe and spiders are perfectly harmless), since most xenophobes have perfectly safe encounters with the relevant "other" every day. But, in another sense, there really is something to worry about. (When I was a young man, I, too, took a wrong turn in an American city.) Certainly, if the xenophobe is worried about the pace of cultural change, then it is rational to worry about the rate of immigration. This worry becomes a fear once one comes to believe, as many xenophobes do, that the elites don't care about the effect of immigration on local neighborhoods. Or when, in a more paranoid variant, they come to think that the elites are actively trying to destroy local culture.

The best way to cure oneself of fear is to face it. This does not, however, mean that it is always a good policy to force people to face their fears. If you put an arachnophobe in a closed room with a spider you're probably just going to turn them into a claustrophobe as well. (I have no idea if that statement is psychologically valid, but you get the point.) The important thing here is compassion. We have to understand that we really are talking about something that is rooted in fear. Too often, I think, we think it is rooted merely in hate. But that's only a consequence of mismanaging fear. We often come to hate the things we fear.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You were already thinking it, I'm sure.) We seem at the moment to be very afraid of the fear of others—indeed, we are afraid, sometimes pathologically, of other people's fear of other people. This fear makes us hate the "xenophobe", who, ironically, is really just another Other. Maybe we need a word like phobophobia, the fear of fear. And then, maybe, we need to face that fear courageously. Perhaps we need to be as accepting of the existence of people who fear strangers as we are of the strangers themselves. Perhaps we need to face our fear of phobia.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Notes on Identity, Ideology and Ontology

The debate about gender pronouns is framed as both a political and a scientific issue. It raises questions of practice and theory that go well beyond the niceties of grammar. I think everyone agrees on this point, even if they disagree about how the questions should be answered and the issue resolved.

As I pointed out in my last post, however, it seems to me that the parties to this dispute sometimes talk past each other because they haven't distinguished as rigorously between sense and reference as Frege suggested we do. Of course, they can be forgiven for not observing a late-nineteenth-century analytical distinction that isn't even much used by professional philosophers today. In this post I want to get even more technical, so let me apologize in advance. It's a bit "inside Basbøll", if you will.

In his "Notes on the Theory Reference" (From a Logical Point of View, p. 131ff), the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine said that "the notion of ontological commitment belongs to the theory of reference." A theory, he explained, presupposes the existence of certain kinds of objects and these presuppositions just are its "ontological commitments." He also proposed to "give a good sense to a bad word" by defining "ideology" as a constraint on the ideas that can be expressed in a theory. Importantly, he pointed out that "the ontology of a theory stands in no simple correspondence to its ideology." Just because we know what sorts of things a theory is about, we don't necessarily know what knowledge claims it is able to express about them.

In my view, sense is to "ideological commitment" what Quine says reference is to "ontological commitment". While Quine used rather abstract theories of mathematics as examples, we can easily imagine how this insight could be applied to theories in the social sciences, which are certainly often ideologically "committed". There are many different social theories, many of which share the same ontology while affording the theorist resources to express very different ideas. In fact, at a very general level we could argue that all social theories are "about" the same "things", namely: people. But what they believe can (and should) be meaningfully said about those people is very different.

I put "things" in quotation marks because, in my view, we should, properly speaking, say that the human or social sciences are about people in the same sense that the natural sciences are about things. People and things are, in my opinion, ontologically distinct. In fact, as we will soon see, they are radically distinct from the point of view of ontology and reference. But bear with me just a little longer.

Social theories can differ ontologically depending on what they mean by "people", "person", "human being", etc. This actually maps neatly onto the distinctly political question of what "inalienable rights" people (and not other things or creatures) are supposed to have. We can imagine two theories that both claim to be about "people" (and not other things) but, on closer examination, we might discover that they construe the essential "being" of people different. There would then be talk of different "social ontologies". The ideal "charter of human rights" implied by these theories would, presumably, protect "the people" from the violence of the state in different ways.

The clash between people like Jordan Peterson and people like Mary Bryson is a great example. Both are, indeed, people, and, though we will see that this is worth not taking for granted, I think both would grant the other's "humanity" or "personhood" in an everyday sense. Interestingly, however, both feel that their very essence is being threatened by the other's rhetoric, and this rhetoric, I want to say, implies a "theory". We can say, then, that they don't recognize themselves in the ontology that the other seems to propose.

But do notice the different ways in which this plays out. Bryson thinks Peterson's "cisnormative" view of gender "erases" the possibility of non-binary persons. There is no room for the non-binary person in Peterson's ontology, Bryson thinks. Peterson, meanwhile, thinks that Bryson's theory fails to recognize the necessity of free expression. Bryson thinks people are essentially identities we might say, and the "right to be human" is therefore the right to be who you are. Peterson, on the other hand, thinks that people become who they are; they are not pregiven identities. He is therefore concerned to defend the right to express yourself as you choose, not the right to choose what others say about you. Bryson is worried about the threat of other people's expressions to your identity, who you are. Peterson is worried about the threat of not being able to express yourself, and therefore not being able to become yourself. It's a fundamental difference of temperament.

And, if I'm right, it's an ontological disagreement. Bryson seems to think we are who we are and need to be left alone to be that. Peterson (perhaps unsurprisingly as a clinical psychologist) thinks we've all still got a lot of work to do to become what we're capable of being. It would be interesting to see them debate the issue at that level. But that, of course, assumes that the parties could agree even to this way of describing their differences, which I don't think they could. I think Peterson would say that Bryson's position is ontologically incoherent and ideologically regressive. Bryson, thinks Peterson, doesn't care what Peterson is talking about but is concerned to prevent him from expressing his ideas.

In my opinion the problem cannot be solved as long as it is framed in terms of ontology, i.e., "the ontology of the social", "the nature of the self", psychological essentialism (my characterization of Bryson's position) vs. existential psychology (my characterisation of Peterson's position). The problem is this: the very idea of social ontology is nonsense. The social is not grounded in being but in becoming. The material world puts constraints on what we can become and this constraint is what we call "nature". Our theories about nature do have an ontology, but our social practices do not.

What about "people"? Didn't I say that people are the "things" of our social theories? Yes, and that's precisely why we shouldn't have social theories. The very idea is incoherent. We do not need to understand social ontologies but, as I have slowly come to understand, social "ethnopathies"*, which are not "what we think we are" but "what we feel ourselves becoming". Ontology, remember, is part of our theory of reference; indeed, it determines the proper referents of a theory and the theory of reference is a meta-theory in that sense. If there is not such thing as social ontology there is also no way of constructing social theory because there can be no system of social reference.

The strong view of this is that we can't actually, properly speaking, refer to people. This no doubt sounds very mystical. I don't think we should refer to people at all. I don't think we can. We can only refer to the bodies that people live through, their "natural avatar" if you will. What we can do with people is to defer to them. We can, in that sense, respect them. In fact, I would say that we demonstrate our own humanity towards another human being, not by identifying them as human, but by deferring to their own humanity.

This idea of deference might seem to throw in with Bryson. Isn't using someone's preferred pronoun simply an act of deference? Yes and no. I agree with Peterson that such deference is rendered impossible when it is mandated by law. We cannot be compelled to defer. That's just not how it works. If I use "they" to refer to you in the third person out of respect for the law (or fear of the consequences of breaking it) then I'm not, at the end of the day, showing you any respect at all. I have to feel my deference as a deference to your fundamental humanity, not as one more thing to fear the state for.

Let me conclude with what Kierkegaard might call an "unscientifc postscript" or "poetical experiment":

The meta-theory (the theory beyond the theory) of reference and ontology is, as Quine attests, a philosophical one. I would argue that the infra-practice (the practice beneath the practice) of deference and ethnopathy is a poetical one. Just as we cannot settle philosophical questions by invoking science, we shouldn't settle poetical questions with politics. (I'll return to this point: the pronoun activists are trying to accomplish with a policy what needs to be done with a poem. The only way to coin new words legitimately is with poetry.) A few years ago, I tried to transpose Quine's ideas to this end. I can now be even more precise.

Taking any practice, one poetically interesting handle we can get on its governance is its ethnopathy* [i.e., who is involved in the practice?]. But we can also govern through its realisability (to give a good sense to a vague word): what realities can be contained by it? The ethnopathy of a practice stands in no simple correspondence to its realisability.

The sentiment of ethnopathic commitment belongs to the practice of deference. For to say that a given essential qualification applies to subjects [people] of a given ilk is to say simply that the open sentence which follows the qualifier is just of all subjects of that ilk and none not of that ilk.

I realise that this might at first seem to be utter nonsense. But trust me when I say it is just very, very precise. And I think we're entering an age where this sort of precision may become very, very important.

*The notion of "ethnopathy" is not my coinage. I've heard it used both on the left and the right, both in a neutral descriptive sense ("the feelings of a group") and in a pejorative diagnostic sense (the constitutive malevolence, or ill-feeling, or antipathy, or even pathology of one group towards another). I have previously contrasted ontology simply with ethnicity. But I think this is too narrow, as the gender identity discussion shows. Ethnopathy is the feeling that individuals have for a group that is constitutive of that group. Ethnicity, on this view, is just one kind of ethnopathy. I recently noticed (see the footnote to this post) the word in the work of Daniel Bar-Tal on "intractable conflicts". I think that's very fitting.