Even by the standards of the authortarian depravity of people who work in the West’s places of higher education, this caught my eye:
“Against Autonomy is a defence of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated — that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioural economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others — and in particular, of government regulation — to keep us from going wrong.”
Via the website of Stephen Hicks.
Read the whole thing. And look at the sort of coercive measures she favours, such as over the number of children that people have. Here is the book.
The other day, we had a debate on this site about free will and determinism. It is a debate that goes back centuries. For what it is worth, I am on the side of those who believe that human beings, by their very nature, have volition – it is hard to see how humans can form concepts, judge and reason without a volitional capacity. Here is a great discussion of the issues over at Diana Hsieh’s Philosophy in Action blog.
Now, some people argue, this is all very academic. But as the example above shows, once supposedly “academic” and “scientific” people put about the idea that we are nothing more than puppets in a deterministic universe, certain consequences follow. It can – although it needn’t – lead to fatalism and nihilism. It can also mean that certain intellectuals and the like, rather as the Marxists of old, consider themselves able to rise above the herd, diagnose the ills of we meat-puppets, and lead us “for our own good”. Just as a Marxist would shout “bourgeois illusion!” if a person ever contested such ideas as historical inevitability, so today’s modern determinists, such the Sam Harrises, do the same in suggesting that our free will/volition is also an illusion.
And Harris’ recent forays into the world of political philosophy give us a good idea of how collectivist such people frequently are. Here, by the way, is an excellent short book by Tim Mawson, a philosopher, on the free will issue – it has a huge bibliography at the back which is also very useful.
Some things change and some things stay the same. And it seems that one constant debate is that between those who think that Man is, to an extent anyway, the master or author of his own story, and those who would rather Man just did what he was told, for his own good, of course. Well, I know which side I’m on.
Update, via the Art and Letters Daily website, I came across this rather soft-ball review of the book by a certain Cass Sunstein, one of those unashamed paternalists whom, it pains me to say, seem to be popular with the current political class. (But even he has reservations about this book.)
Successful people are often born into a world that is not, so to speak, theirs. The world in which they get dealt their first cards is what it is and where it is, but their real world, the world they were meant for, is something and somewhere else. They are born the son of a coal miner or of a provincial shopkeeper, yet their natural place in the world is to be a classical musician or a weather forecaster in a big city or a diplomat or a music hall comedian or a technology billionaire. The mega-successes are those who know, early, not so much what they want or want to do, as where they need to be – where, for them, the action is – and who shift heaven and earth to get to that sweet spot in the world just as soon as possible, often taking truly hair-raising risks to get there. They identify where they want to be, calculate the price of getting there, and pay that price. And then, having got to where they need to be, they are happy! The inconveniences and disappointments – even the humiliations – that they then encounter do not depress them, because everything that happens, however bad, is evidence that they are exactly where they want to be and where they should be.
In the early pages of Think Tank, subtitled “The Story of the Adam Smith Institute”, we are told exactly such a story, of a group of young pro-free-market guns knowing where they need to be, and doing whatever they have to do to get to that exact place, namely within ten minutes walk of the House of Commons, in the centre of London. They juggle finances, scrounge furniture off aunts in faraway places, put money down on a London office lease well before they know how they are going to meet the payments, buy and sell cottages in Scotland, earn extra money by teaching, and generally bet their farms on their new farm being just what they want. (By the way if you want a shorter review of this book than this posting is, try the three short reviews at the other end of the above link. All three are very positive, but also very informative.)
To help me think about this posting, I asked a respected friend what he thought of the Adam Smith Institute. I expected some sort of rumination on what they had achieved and what they might yet achieve, on what they have got right and what wrong. Instead my friend simply said that he liked Madsen Pirie. This is a significant fact about the ASI, I think. Simply, they are nice people, fun and interesting to be with. Following Madsen Pirie’s lead, they exude a gleeful camaraderie that my friend and I, and surely many others of a like mind, find very appealing. Madsen Pirie’s Think Tank radiates a similarly good humoured and companionable atmosphere. When reading it, I kept hearing that Madsen Pirie voice, with its big grin and its self-mockingly over-precise diction.
Cards on the table. I liked and admired this book a lot, just as I have long liked and admired its author. I was given a free copy of it by its author, who had very good reason to hope that I would say nice things about it, and I will. I recommend this book as an entertaining and informative way to acquaint yourself with the Adam Smith Institute and with those who founded and still lead it.
→ Continue reading: What the Adam Smith Institute did
UNESCO has published some statistics (in a fact sheet) about how badly Nigeria is doing educationally. But, says James Stanfield:
Unfortunately, these statistics fail to take into account the thousands of unregistered low cost private schools that exist across Nigeria and the millions of children who attend these schools.
But why is this unfortunate? First, the state of the world is better than someone says it is, which is good to know. Second, a bunch of people with the desire to govern, in practice to derange, the entire world is ignorant of what is really going on in it. To me, that also sounds rather good. Accurate statistics are the lifeblood of government.
Stanfield’s answer to why it is unfortunate that UNESCO is wrong about Nigerian education goes like this:
Without an education crisis and UNESCO would quickly become redundant. Second, by widely exaggerating the number of out of school children, this also allows UNESCO to point the finger at Western donors for failing to meet their funding commitments.
If proving UNESCO wrong about education in Nigeria would really lead to UNESCO’s demise, then Stanfield might be right to call UNESCO’s mistaken statistics unfortunate and to set about convincing UNESCO and the world of UNESCO’s wrongness. But they will surely have no such effect. “If only” says Stanfield’s title, UNESCO would admit its errors. But UNESCO being wrong about it hasn’t stopped education improving in Nigeria. UNESCO will go on being wrong about education in Nigeria. Education in Nigeria will continue to improve.
I do not object to the substance of Stanfield’s blog posting, merely its rather unfortunate wording about how unfortunate the UNESCO “fact” sheet really is. The ideal arrangement is for people like James Stanfield to carrying right on telling everyone how well education is now doing in places like Nigeria. This tells rich donors that they can keep their money instead of giving it to UNESCO, and it tells people in rich countries to stop fretting about education in poorer countries, and instead to tackle their own educational problems, by dismantling their own state education systems.
Last night, before going to sleep, I switched on the radio commentary for the India England cricket match now in progress in Kolkata, so that, in the event that I did the opposite of dozing off (dozing on?) I would keep up with England’s currrently very satisfactory progress in that game. With luck, tonight and tomorrow night, England will bowl out India cheaply in their second innings and England will go 2-1 up in the four game series. Find out if that happens by looking, e.g., here.
So far so sporty. But this morning, waking up at tea time, so to speak, I found myself listening, not to England’s batsmen batting and India’s bowlers bowling, but to this broadcast (that link switches it on straight away which you might not like – maybe going here would be more convenient – details down a bit on the left) done by the BBC’s long-time cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew. This broadcast was about a charitable enterprise in Kolkata which rescues street children, gives them somewhere unscary and unprecarious and unchanging to live, and which then educates them.
This broadcast lasts a mere fifteen minutes, otherwise it would have gone on longer than the tea interval. The enterprise it reports on is called Future Hope.
Learning about Future Hope is the sort of process that causes people with opinions about how the world should be organised to say: “and this just goes to show how right I have always been about …”. To me, what comes through is how morally uncorrupted these children were when first rescued, it having been precisely their moral excellence that got the attention of the man, a chap called Tim Grandage, who started Future Hope, in order to rescue some of these children from their terrible physical deprivations and torments. The children who have grown up in the care of Future Hope sound, in this broadcast anyway, like the very definition of the “deserving poor”.
This being a Test Match Special broadcast, you would expect cricket to figure in the story, and it does, although for a long time rugger seems to have been a bigger deal than cricket for Future Hope. Is Grandage a rugger enthusiast, I wonder? Indeed he is. Ever since it started, Future Hope has used sport to physically improve, to socialise and to excite its charges, and generally to give them positive and amusing things to think, and thereby helping to take their minds off past miseries. But India being India, Future Hope also wants to develop its cricket. The England Cricket Team have got involved, and they recently spent a day at Future Hope, as the broadcast describes. England’s formidable new captain, Alastair Cook, opened their new cricket coaching operation for them. Good for him.
This is the first time I have ever heard about Future Hope, and I have no idea if it really is as good a thing as Jonathan Agnew and the Future Hope people he talked to made it sound. These days, you can’t help but be slightly concerned about such a phenomenon. But it did sound like a very good thing indeed. And I want to believe that if there were any doubts about its excellence, the England cricket team would not have gone anywhere near it.
In primary school I very much enjoyed arithmetic. I distinctly remember rattling through activity books with names like “Starting Points” and “Fletcher”. One day, someone, possibly a teacher, alluded to a kind of mathematics that involved letters instead of numbers. It sounded very interesting, and I looked forward to “getting to” that. That was how it was, in school. You sort of learned what you were told to learn.
At the time it did not occur to me that I could just go and study algebra. In fairness I remember individual teachers in later years who gave me out-of-curriculum books to take home. But looking back on this I am left thinking that it is very easy for schools to hold children back, and even beat the enthusiasm out of them. I think the unschooling movement gets a lot of things right. Self-directed learning is more efficient because you are always studying what you are interested in.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, we find out what happens when you leave a big pile of tablet computers (loaded with Neal-Stephenson-Diamond-Age-esque software) in a village with no school.
We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.
Via Bishop Hill, I learn that Christopher Booker has an interesting little story up about a student who got a (nearly) fail for expressing insubordinate climatic opinions in an exam.
Her son is “an excellent scientist” who got “straight As” on his other science papers, but he is also “very knowledgeable about climate change and very sceptical about man-made global warming”. His questioning of the sources earned an “E”, the lowest possible score. His mother then paid £60 for his paper to be re-marked. It was judged to be “articulate, well-structured” and clearly well-informed, but again he was marked down with “E” for fail.
I realise that the ideal to which educationalists ought, in an ideal world, to aspire to is to measure how well a student understands and can explicate a particular body of alleged knowledge, rather than merely noting whether he agrees with that alleged knowledge. But this is a lot to expect. I have always regarded exams as measuring not so much actual rightness about things, as the ability to find out what the examiners want to be told, and to put that as fluently and ingratiatingly as possible. Exams have always been about identifying articulate yes-men. It’s just that what examinees have to say yes to changes from decade to decade.
But maybe this will change with the arrival of the internet, now that anyone who gets failed for saying “no”, fluently and persuasively, can now, as in this case, expose the inevitable biases of the education system to outside scrutiny and derision.
I look forward to learning who this young man is, what he actually wrote in his exam, and more about exactly who the examiners were who failed him. If he displayed a real knowledge of official opinion about climate change, before then explaining why he did not share this opinion, he might yet come out of this spat very well, better than if he had merely got straight As.
He might, for instance, get himself a job as a scientific journalist.
Wise words from Zed A. Shaw:
To me indoctrination is the enemy of education because it creates people who can’t think for themselves and can only function in the culture they’ve been raised. It makes them into little mental slaves that can’t question what’s going on and see the world for what it really is.
Instead I want people who will question the way things are, try to find out how things are really built, explore the world and build new stuff without worrying about whether they’ll anger some community. They can’t do this if their thinking is constrained by these arbitrary social norms that only exist to keep them in line with what the community wants, or worse what the leaders of the community want.
When you teach people social norms as if they are universal truths you are actually indoctrinating them not educating them.
Then again, this is probably the reason these social mores are enforced and taught. Teaching social mores as universal truths keeps people dependent on [...] use of them.
Keep in mind though I’m not saying teaching these social mores is wrong and should be avoided. I’m saying teaching them as if they are the universal truths is bad. I teach them too, but I teach them as if they are just arbitrary bullshit you need…
I am probably being unfair by quoting him so out of context. Shaw is writing about programming. But still.
The state funded Great Britain team has (by perception) done extremely well at the London 2012 Olympics. As a consequence (?) there are calls amongst politicians and sports bureaucrats to make competitive sport compulsory for children.
The state funded Australia team has (by perception) done extremely badly at the London 2012 Olympics. As a consequence (?) there are calls amongst politicians and sports bureaucrats to make competitive sport compulsory for children.
I have a standing personal rule that whenever someone proposes compulsory activities for children that are implied to be wholesome – particularly if they involve going outdoors and running around in some way – I should immediately compare them to the Hitler Youth, on the basis that the comparison is always fair. So consider it compared.
I enjoyed this posting, at David Thompson’s blog, which includes a bit about a Guardian writer who (the horror!) has an inclination towards sending her daughter to a private school.
And I particularly enjoyed this comment attached to it, from “sackcloth and ashes”:
During the early 1980s, my mother taught at an inner city comprehensive which was going downhill fast, largely due to the efforts of the Inner London Educational Authority and the trots in the NUT.
Staff room discussions were usually dominated by the iniquities of private education, and how socially divisive it was, up to the point she let slip that she sent both her boys (self included) to a fee-paying school.
As a consequence, she often found herself being button-holed in the corridors by the most hard-left revolutionaries amongst her colleagues, all of whom wanted her advice on how to get one’s kids into an independent school, rather than a failing comp like the one they were working in.
In my opinion a pro-state-education lefty who sends his/her kid to a private school, because that’s the best school they can contrive, is doing the right thing. I disagree with them about the goodness of state education, not with them doing their best for their kid. What is really creepy is if you send your kid to a terrible school, which you know is terrible, purely in order to be ideologically consistent. Sending your kid to a good school, even though you officially don’t approve of such behaviour, is a tad hypocritical. Deliberately sending your kid to a terrible school, when you had the choice not to, is downright evil.
One of the few policy areas where the current British government at least appears to be making some headway is education. Here is an article by Toby Young, describing what he confidently believes is such progress, and I hope he is right. (Earlier thoughts by me here about Toby Young’s educational ideas and efforts here.)
Whether, in the longer run, these new free schools will go anywhere especially good remains to be seen. Two thoughts about them occur to me.
First, the customer is still, at least partly, the government. Government money follows the choices of parents. But what if a future government, rather than going to the bother of totally shutting down such schools, started instead following its own money and demanding all kinds of relatively subtle changes and impositions, with a view to grinding them down a little less publicly, and then blaming them for the failure that was inflicted upon them? That’s not at all hard to imagine.
When truly free markets start, they often do so in a very muddled way. Only when the worst of the muddle is sorted does progress then get seriously under way. When, on the other hand, there is immediate improvement, of the sort that Toby Young describes in his article, that can mean merely that government employees have been replaced with other government employees. At first, the new government employees do a better job. Later, progress falters, and eventually things start getting worse, again. The best public bid becomes replaced by the most enticing private bid, made covertly to the politicians. There’s been a lot of that lately.
It is tempting for right wingers to assume that, merely because the slighted government employees – in this case the old school unionised state teachers – are angry about having their monopoly snatched away from them, that the new approach must necessarily be a wholly good thing. Sadly, it does not follow.
My second thought concerns the rules that these new free schools must follow. My question is: Are they allowed to threaten expulsion to pupils they decide they don’t want to keep? I can find no answer in Young’s piece, but suspect that they probably can. If that’s right, then that really is a huge step in the right direction, towards freedom of association.
That may sound an unnecessarily depressing, even belligerent, way to talk. But in schools, in my limited but still very real and quite recent experience, the right to expel is the biggest single difference between success and failure.
Paradoxically, if you can expel, you very seldom actually want to, because the mere hint of the threat solves your problem. But if you cannot expel, you cannot threaten it either, and problems then multiply. Add that to the fact that, quite properly, you also cannot threaten tortures of the sort that used to be routine in schools but which are now frowned upon (like severe beatings or solitary confinement or compulsory hard labour), and the school has literally no power over its pupils, other than its power to amuse. As soon as those pupils work that out, the ones who prefer mayhem to learning or even to being otherwise entertained become the rulers of the place. There is simply no way to control them. At that point, just about everyone involved wants out of there.
I have personally witnessed this kind of thing, when doing various stints of volunteer teaching. The problem was not the age of the pupils or the incompetence of the teachers. In other circumstances the same pupils would have behaved fine, and in other institutions the teachers would have done fine work, a fact that many failing teachers act upon, thereby becoming successful something elses. The problem was the rules.
If Toby Young’s school is obliged to go on attempting to educate whichever pupils they are at first happy to welcome but later wish they hadn’t, then look out Toby Young. Trouble. Just as corruption and monopolised failure takes a bit of time to organise, so too does it take time for pupils in a place like Tony Young’s school to work out that the people bossing them around are actually defenceless against determined rebellion, if that is the situation. But if that is the situation, the pupils will work it out, and that will have consequences, of the sort that Toby Young will not like at all.
If, on the other hand, Toby Young and his comrades can simply say to such potential rebels: “Our gaff – our rules – break our rules and ignore all warnings, and you’re out”, then the problem won’t even arise, because the mere hint of expulsion will end such problems at once.
Expulsion is the opposite side of the coin to the right to leave, the coin being (see above) freedom of association. Freedom of association is, I think, one of humanity’s very best ideas. If all those present in some institution prefer, however grudgingly, being there to not being there, and if everyone there is tolerated, however grudgingly, by everyone else, then everything just works so much better. There may be lots of other problems, but tackling them becomes so much easier if all those who don’t even want to solve those problems can be told to get the hell out of there, or can just get the hell out anyway.
The answer to a market where the participants compete to make things worse by following bad incentives is to ask what is creating those bad incentives and to stop doing that, not to impose a monopoly.
That thought is my response to, and my almost entire agreement with, an ASI blog posting by Anton Howes, which is critical of Education Minister Michael Gove’s plan to replace competing examination boards with a state monopoly examination board. Gove says these are now racing each other to the bottom, racing each other, that is to say, in lowering standards.
But, says Howes:
The proposals to limit exam board competition to monopolies for every subject (or duopolies between O-levels and CSEs) would therefore exacerbate the problem by limiting healthy academic discrimination even further. With only one exam board to be lobbied for each subject, we would face a system where every self-interested education minister could easily ‘dumb down’ the system even further, no matter how much an overhaul could raise standards in the immediate short term.
Howes is spot on in identifying one of the biggest reasons why state action is so frequently resorted to, even by politicians generally inclined to favour free market solutions. To start with, state action sometimes seems to improve matters, definitely so to many eyes. Only later does the arrangement revert to brazen, monopolised incompetence. Markets, on the other hand, often start out as a bit of a shambles, and only yield their benefits to politicians who are prepared to be patient. In the long run, markets are incomparably superior, and some politicians do know this. But politics mostly happens in the short run.
Howes also notes that “free marketeer” Lizz Truss MP supports Gove in this move towards state monopoly.
Alas, Howes himself gets a bit confused in his final paragraph:
… the real solution to grade inflation may lie in more accurate and discriminating government league tables, …
Excuse me! Now who is putting his faith in a government monopoly? But before even the next full stop arrives, Howes corrects himself.
… or even their replacement with a competing system of tables by universities, employers, and other private groups.
Quite so. But lose that “even”.
“Frustrated that his (and fellow Googler Peter Norvig’s) Stanford artificial intelligence class only reached 200 students, they put up a website offering an online version. They got few takers. Then he mentioned the online course at a conference with 80 attendees and 80 people signed up. On a Friday, he sent an offer to the mailing list of a top AI association. On Saturday morning he had 3,000 sign-ups—by Monday morning, 14,000. In the midst of this, there was a slight hitch, Mr. Thrun says. “I had forgotten to tell Stanford about it. There was my authority problem. Stanford said ‘If you give the same exams and the same certificate of completion [as Stanford does], then you are really messing with what certificates really are. People are going to go out with the certificates and ask for admission [at the university] and how do we even know who they really are?’ And I said: I. Don’t. Care.”
Via Instapundit. He was quoting from an article by the Wall Street Journal.
Of course, such “remote learning” is not quite as new as it might appear: even the Open University system in the UK has been going for more than 40 years. But the internet and related technologies are accelerating developments in this vein. Given all the issues surrounding the need to cut the cost of the public sector and improve standards and teaching, anything that can drive change in a better direction is a good thing. I wish this “education entrepreneur” well. If the best minds in Silicon Valley – and elsewhere – get involved, then this is one of those developments that will be arguably more significant than any amount of public service tinkering that usually makes more noise in the news.
Of course, his supreme blog highness, Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, has been pushing the whole theme of there being a higher education “bubble” for some time, but being the kind of person he is, does not just complain. He likes to pounce on examples of how to move education in a saner direction.