Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chesterton for March XXXI

I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

Source: What's Wrong with the World

The Other Wesley

The 29th was the 224th anniversary of the death of Charles Wesley. Together with John Wesley, he was founder of the Methodist movement within the Church of England; Charles tended to counsel John to take as irenic a course as possible with regard to the Church of England, and as he lay dying he insisted that he was still a member of the Church of England, and requested an Anglican burial, which he was given.

Charles Wesley is best known for his hymns, of which he wrote literally thousands. Probably the most widely sung is "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," but there are many others, like the following.

Christ, from Whom All Blessings Flow
by Charles Wesley

Christ, from whom all blessings flow,
perfecting the saints below,
hear us, who thy nature share,
who thy mystic body are.

Join us, in one spirit join,
let us still receive of thine;
still for more on thee we call,
thou who fillest all in all.

Move and actuate and guide,
diverse gifts to each divide;
placed according to thy will,
let us all our work fulfill;

Never from thy service move,
needful to each other prove;
use the grace on each bestowed,
tempered by the art of God.

Many are we now, and one,
we who Jesus have put on;
there is neither bond nor free,
male nor female, Lord, in thee.

Love, like death, hath all destroyed,
rendered all distinctions void;
names and sects and parties fall;
thou, O Christ, art all in all!

You can find more of Wesley's hymns at the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Free-Rider Problem

The free-rider problem has been discussed a fair amount in the past few weeks in talking about health insurance, and the more I hear about it the less certain I am that there is really such a thing. There are free-riders, of course, in some sense of the term, but people rarely define the sense in which they are using it, and when you try to pin it down, the sense in which the free-rider problem constitutes a genuine problem becomes very elusive. For instance, children are in some sense always free-riders. Infants don't pay taxes; in fact, they don't do much at all except inconvenience other people. But they benefit from all sorts of collective action. If you look at the definitions most people use to describe free-riders, infants are clear examples, receiving benefits they do nothing to support. But obviously there is no problem with infants riding free on the system. No one complains that infants get the full benefits of fire, police, and other emergency services despite not contributing to the support of these services. Likewise, nobody claims about the massive free-rider problem of children receiving rather expensive public educations on public dime, all paid for by people who are manifestly not children.

Thus the mere fact that anyone is riding free on the system doesn't mean that there is any actual problem. If people receive services to which they are entitled, but are actually unable to help pay for them, there is likewise no free-rider problem: if they're entitled to the services independently of whether they can pay, then they are fully within their rights to take the services whether they pay for them or not. If the entitlement doesn't depend on the payment, who is paying for the service is a completely different issue from who is receiving it. The one is simply not relevant to the other. And in fact a lot of services and benefits are set up this way precisely so that no one will miss out even if they can't pay. It's not the only reason, but it is one of the reasons we engage in collective action in the first place -- so that some people can ride free, if they have to.

What most people are really talking about when talking about the free-rider problem is evasion of the responsibility to contribute, perhaps combined with the question of how to make the system sustainable. But this is a completely different matter from people receiving benefits and services to which they do not contribute. We see this with the infant case: the reason there is no problem with infants riding free on the system is that they have no responsibility to contribute. But the reverse direction shows it as well: someone may have the responsibility to contribute even if they themselves don't benefit at all. We see this with taxes: as a citizen your tax responsibilities are set without any regard whatsoever for whether you get any benefits at all. To be sure, virtually everyone who pays taxes does receive benefits that are supported by taxes. But there is no intrinsic necessity to this, and the responsibility itself is not fixed (for instance) with any concern for whether the rich are getting their fair share given all that they put in, or whether they are in fact just subsidizing a lot of poor people who can't pay taxes. The sort of collective action involved in government simply doesn't work that way. We do it because we all recognize the benefit; only then does the practical problem arise of how to make the benefit sustainable, and this happens any way we can manage it. Only in light of this plan for sustainability does the responsibility to contribute actually get decided, and the best plan for sustainability might well allow for, or even guarantee, free-riders. And if it's really the best plan for sustainability, there is simply no problem with there being free-riders.

So the problems people are really talking about have nothing whatsoever to do with whether anyone is riding free on the system; what people are really talking about are responsibility-evaders who endanger the sustainability of the system. Whether the free-riders are responsibility-evaders, or vice versa, has to be shown, not assumed. And thus the whole talk of free-riders ends up being otiose and obfuscating; all the work is done by assumptions about who is responsible for contributing. Which is perhaps a good thing, since if we actually understood 'free-rider problem' as broadly as Hardin does in the SEP link above, we are almost all free-riding almost all the time.

I think the problem here is that there is a genuine abstract 'free-rider problem', in game-theoretical discussion of the logic of collective action, that has begun to be used to model all sorts of behaviors that don't necessarily meet the original game-theoretical assumptions (e.g., that responsibility is equal or at least proportional to ability to contribute and that the benefits are made possible by consent of the contributors), and which has no moral or political implications on its own, being simply a problem about optimal and suboptimal strategies. But we all know the irritating character of the Freeloader who manages unfairly to get by on our work rather than his own. So the combination of these leads to people using some loose, vague mix of these to describe all sorts of situations that seem unfair. But it doesn't actually contribute anything. What you really want to know is whether the system is worth it, whether it is sustainable, what division of responsibilities is best for sustaining the worthwhile systems, who is actually evading their actual responsibilities, and what can be done (if anything) to prevent such evasions. These make the problem precise, whereas it seems to me, more and more, that 'the free-rider problem' is just thrown in as a vague diagnosis without much critical examination, and always signals that the discussion is going to become less useful.

Chesterton for March XXX

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else's thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else's philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy.

Source: The Common Man

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shepherd on the External World III: Independence

We have previously seen how Lady Mary Shepherd breaks up the question of how we know that the external universe exists into three different but related questions. Two we have already discussed:

(1) How do we know that anything continues to exist when we aren't perceiving it?
(2) How do we know that there is anything external to us?

That leaves the third question:

(3) How do we know that there is anything that doesn't depend on our minds?

Shepherd gives five ways in which we know that there is a continuing, external world that is independent of us.

First, we can extend the reasoning that was used for discussed the externality of the external world. Shepherd doesn't develop this at great length, because it is not her primary approach to the topic, but the basic ideas is that causal principles show us that the causes of our sensations are external to that internal world which we call our minds, understood as the capacity for sensation in general. But if these causes, when not being sensed, continue to exist and are wholly external our minds when they are doing so, then they must be independent of our minds.

Second, we can consider again the five organs of the senses and motion (which Shepherd elsewhere says is like a sixth sense) and how they relate to the world. There are objects that are ready to appear through our sensory organs; we previously recognized that they continue to exist even when not sensed. But of these ready-to-appear objects, we find many that have changed some of their qualities or properties while they were continuing to exist unperceived. The grass is a little longer, perhaps, than when we saw it last time; the color of something has faded or bled a bit; the mailbox was knocked down. Since we didn't observe those changes, and they took place outside our minds and unperceived, the processes and operations that made them must be independent of our minds.

In many ways, Shepherd's third approach is the most interesting. One of the early modern philosophers who come closest to holding that the whole external world is dependent on our mind is George Berkeley. He doesn't quite get there because he thinks that there are actually many minds, and that the external world is just the collection, so to speak, of all the sensations of these minds insofar as these sensations can be signs of each other. But to get this far, he has to argue that we have reason to think that other minds exist. This he does in A Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowledge, section 145:

From what has been said, it is plain that we cannot know the existence of other spirits otherwise than by their operations, or the ideas by them excited in us. I perceive several motions, changes, and combinations of ideas, that inform me there are certain particular agents, like myself, which accompany them and concur in their production. Hence, the knowledge I have of other spirits is not immediate, as is the knowledge of my ideas; but depending on the intervention of ideas, by me referred to agents or spirits distinct from myself, as effects or concomitant signs.

Shepherd agrees that this is the primary way we know that other minds exist, but she also argues that Berkeley's argument for other minds can be generalized to become an argument for the mind-independence of the external world. On her view, we cannot know the existence of the external world otherwise than by the ideas (sensations) excited in us by them; Shepherd thinks we only know the external world by way of effects or concomitant signs. We perceive several motions, changes, and combinations of sensations that inform us that there are particular causes effecting them. These causes are like ourselves in being continuously existing causes but that differ from us in ways proportionate to the effects they causes.

Fourth, we can use this kind of argument for other minds in a different way. Let's use it to conclude that there are other minds. Then let's think about what happens when five different minds perceive one pond. If there were nothing about the pond that was independent of the mind, then this situation would be impossible: five different minds would perceive five different ponds. In order for their to be one pond seen by all five minds, there has to be something, continuing to exist when unperceived, that in its unperceived state is independent of, and external to, each of the five, so that the pond can be ready to appear to any of the five. She recognizes that Berkeley has a response to this, but she doesn't find it convincing; I won't go into any details of why here.

Fifth, and this is the point at which Shepherd most sharply deviates from Berkeley (who rejects the claim that there are abstract ideas), we can run, with minor modifications, many of the arguments we've looked at for abstract truths and relations. We find the abstract relations of mathematics as ready to appear as any sensible form, and by the same reasoning we have given, the only conclusion to be drawn is that in some way these relations, even when unperceived by the intellect, continue to exist independently of, and external to, our minds. Our discovery of a truth does not cause it to be true; rather, our minds discover it to be true because it is true. Our discovery of an abstract relation in, say, mathematics, does not make that abstract relation to exist; rather, the existence of that abstract relation makes its discovery possible, and is part of the explanation of the discovery. When physicists discover a certain mathematical law in the world around us, for instance, it can only be because there is some continuing, external, independent cause that makes the phenomena behave according to that mathematical principle. It is more abstract, but as straightforward, as the argument that some kind of continuing, external, independent cause makes us see green on leaves.

Given this, we can form an abstract idea of existence. Every sensation springs up and passes away, but what begins to exist must have a cause. On the basis of this, Shepherd argues, we can conclude that there is some existence that is neither a particular sensation (which is in the mind), nor a mere capacity for sensation in general (which would be the mind), which can be a cause of particular sensations in the mind. Thus we can formulate the idea of an indefinite unknown existence -- as we might put it, the idea of a something-or-other that exists. Berkeley, of course, rejects the possibility of such an idea, but Shepherd is unimpressed with his arguments, and says in response:

...we can always separate or abstract the most general quality of an object from the rest, whether that quality be supposed among them by the imagination, known to be among by the senses, or concluded to be among them by reason, as a result from their mutual bearings. (EPEU 85)

All this is somewhat brief, and Shepherd herself goes over some parts very quickly when she discusses independence as such, although she discusses many of these parts in more detail elsewhere. But if any of these arguments work, Shepherd has established what she set out to show: we know that there is an external world (continuing, external, and independent); we know it by reason and not (e.g.) by mere assumption or by a trick of the mind; and this rational inference is of a sort that it can be quite extensive -- even children have some grasp of it. If you asked an ordinary person why she thinks that the world is not wholly dependent on her mind, she might well appeal to its externality, to the shared experiences of the human race, and so forth; and on Shepherd's account such arguments, however primitive, are quite good when the essential causal principles underlying them are recognized.

This is not the whole of Shepherd's account of how and why we perceive there to be an external universe. There is a very important test case for whether any account of our knowledge of the external world is viable -- any such account must be able to distinguish between dreams and waking life. But that will take another post.

Chesterton for March XXIX

Man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else’s; that of somebody he trusts or that of somebody he never heard of; thought at first, second or third hand; thought from exploded legends or unverified rumours; but always something with the shadow of a system of values and a reason for preference. A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.

Source: The Common Man

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Seven Captains of the Howling Army

I have been trying to finish up grading projects for my Intro course and failing miserably because of the humidity. My air conditioner has been wonky lately, and while I have a dehumidifier, it has been running and running and not making much of a dent. So instead I'll post something on the Seven Deadly Sins, since that's what we looked at in my Ethics class today.

The Seven Deadly Sins as we know them were worked out by St. Gregory the Great. He was building on predecessors. Evagrios had a similar sort of list, as did St. John Cassian, but Evagrios's list isn't really the Seven Deadly Sins in the proper sense, first, because it is a list of eight; and second, because Evagrios is actually talking about kinds of temptation (distracting thoughts) rather than vices. Cassian could reasonably be considered the first person to speak of them (although he attributes them to Abbott Serapion) precisely in a form that makes them a list of vices, since he speaks of them as principal faults. And Conferences 5 makes an interesting, if extraordinarily complicated, set of arguments that will clearly inform the later tradition. But Cassian, like Evagrios, is concerned specifically with monastic life, and his list is not quite the same as the later list, although one can see that it's pretty close:

There are eight principal faults which attack mankind; viz., first gastrimargia, which means gluttony, secondly fornication, thirdly philargyria, i.e., avarice or the love of money, fourthly anger, fifthly dejection, sixthly acedia, i.e., listlessness or low spirits, seventhly cenodoxia, i.e., boasting or vain glory; and eighthly pride.

To get the actual traditional list of Seven Deadly Sins, we have to go to Gregory's modification of them in the Moralia in Job. Gregory generalizes Cassian's list, gives it a simpler and more straightforward organization, precisely characterizes why these are the principal faults, gives the order that will become standard, and does it all in an image so striking that it's not at all surprising that it grabbed everyone's imagination. You really need to read it for yourself (this is from Book XXXI). He's been talking about life as a heavenly soldier fighting for virtue, all very interesting, but then he hits Job 39:25, which talks about captains and a howling army, and he takes that and outdoes himself:

87. For the tempting vices, which fight against us in invisible contest in behalf of the pride which reigns over them, some of them go first, like captains, others follow, after the manner of an army. For all faults do not occupy the heart with equal access. But while the greater and the few surprise a neglected mind, the smaller and the numberless pour themselves upon it in a whole body. For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders it immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. And an army in truth follows these generals, because, doubtless, there spring up from them importunate hosts of sins. Which we set forth the better, if we specially bring forward in enumeration, as we are able, the leaders themselves and their army. For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin. [Ecclus. 10, 1] But seven principal vices, as its first progeny, spring doubtless from this poisonous root, namely, vain glory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, lust. For, because He grieved that we were held captive by these seven sins of pride, therefore our Redeemer came to the spiritual battle of our liberation, full of the spirit of sevenfold grace.

He goes on to note that each of these vices spawn many more vices (giving precise examples), that five are spiritual vices and two (gluttony and lust) are carnal vices, and gives a brief account of how each of these vices take root. In later lists, avarice, being a sort of borderline vice, sometimes gets treated as spiritual and sometimes as carnal. We do have here all seven of the Seven, and, what is more, we have them in the order that will become standard. Notice that there is a sense in which there are still actually eight principal vices: there's a super-vice, the queen of vices, which is pride, and pride is the source of the Seven, as her generals. This will be part of Aquinas's account, too, since Aquinas's account of the Seven is essentially Gregory's, but given a carefully laid-out philosophical backing. Aquinas's account will later become the major source on the subject. But in Aquinas's account the connection between pride and the Seven is not so clear as it is in Gregory, due to a different format, and is certainly not put in such a striking way. Because of this very late accounts of the Seven will sometimes conflate pride and vainglory; this simplifies things a bit, but also makes it unclear how the Seven are related to each other, whereas this is very clear in both Gregory and Aquinas. It also tends to trivialize pride, which as a vice was traditionally understood as something far and away more insidious, encompassing, and dangerous than vainglory (although vainglory, as being the worst and most dangerous vice springing from pride, has always had a special connection with its root). And it's important to recognize that each of the Seven, even lust, gluttony, and avarice, can be considered as an extension of pride, as a kind of pride in a broad sense. Once this sense is lost we begin to get a sort of an impoverishment of the way people understand the Seven. There are still some major and important contributions once this has begun to happen: Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio are based on them, and the Parson's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (the 'tale' told as the pilgrims finally approach Canterbury and therefore need to get into the right frame of mind after their various vices have been put on display), is just a confession manual based on the Seven that is adapted into a sermon by added some funny touches as the pious but stern Parson speaks the truth but sometimes gets off track a little or unintentionally says something funny (my favorite point is in his discussion of pride, when he ends up ranting somewhat inordinately about the clothes kids wear which show off their backsides as if they were she-baboons, which is not quite what one would expect from a sermon on pride). But most of the contributions from this point end up being in striking images more than in substantive clarifications or improvements.

Chesterton for March XXVIII

People say, in a shocked sort of voice, "Do you know that in the Middle Ages you could not find one gentlemen in ten who could sign his name?" That is just as if a mediaeval gentlemen cried out in horror, "Do you know that among the gentlemen of the reign of Edward VII, not one in ten knows how to fly a falcon?" Or, to speak more strictly, it would be like a mediaeval gentlemen expressing astonishment that a modern gentleman could not blazon his coat-of-arms.

Source: Illustrated London News (2 Dec 1905)

The Straw Man Straw Man

John Casey somewhat flubs his criticism of Stanley Fish and in the course of doing so gives us an interesting example of a straw man fallacy involving the accusation that someone is exhibiting the straw man fallacy.

Fish had said
, while discussing an attempt by Richard Dawkins to characterize the distinction between scientific trust and acceptance of religious pronouncement:

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, "you can actually cite chapter and verse."

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

To this Casey replies:

Really slowly: the list of items Fish mentions here (in bold) are prescriptions based on divine commands. The chapter and verse Dawkins refers to are prescriptions based on arguments. They're just reported second hand.

Those things are hugely different.

And this is all intended to show why Casey is holding up Fish's argument as an example of a straw man.

If you actually read Fish's claim in context, it doesn't take much to find out the problems with Casey's argument. They are three.

(1) Fish notes that Dawkins and Pinker would make just this response (or something very similar to it), in the very next paragraph. Casey's response can only be a reason for taking Fish to be a straw man if Fish isn't taking into account the point that the response raises. But Fish does. One gets the feeling that Casey simply stopped reading right here, because Fish's raising of precisely this point in response is quite clear and obvious and, as I said, is the entire subject of the very next paragraph.

(2) Casey clearly has missed the point of Fish's argument, or he wouldn't have responded in this way. That "those things are hugely different" merely begs the question against Fish, because Fish's argument is simply that there is an important way in which they are not. That is, Casey has responded to Fish's argument by treating Fish's conclusion as if it were an assumption. Both of these problems, (1) and (2), tie in with the third point.

(3) Casey seems to have missed the actual structure of Fish's argument. Fish's points here are obviously (I) that it is ironic that Dawkins would use the language of religious faith to characterize the superiority of scientific rationality over religious faith; and (II) that the use of such language shows that there is a common ground on which the two sides can be compared, namely, the question of rational trust. This is all simply a set up, establishing background (context, terms, reason for approaching the argument this way), for Fish's actual argument, which is that the kind of response Casey makes here is circular. The next paragraph gives the 'hugely different' response to the way Fish has described the issue, the paragraph after that gives Fish's reason for rejecting this response, which then leads to the main point of the post.

So Casey's argument that Fish is strawmanning is a strawmanning argument: his characterization of the argument is so off that his knocking it down actually doesn't affect Fish's argument at all, and the mischaracterization is egregious, since it requires claiming that Fish doesn't take into account a point that Fish immediately goes on to take into account. Fish's argument is not hugely well-developed (although it doesn't put itself forward as rigorous and thorough), but it certainly doesn't have the problem Casey suggests.

I actually think a lot of accusations of straw man fallacy run the danger of being examples of the fallacy themselves. It is interesting, though. Straw man fallacy is a very slippery category of fallacy. Many informal fallacies actually admit of a fairly straightforward characterization in terms of the ends of the argument, but straw man is more elusive. You aren't committing a straw man by simplifying your opponent's argument; nor are you even committing it if you oversimplify it. If I just oversimplify an argument, I am not thereby committing the straw man fallacy -- for instance, people often oversimplify their own arguments, and it is odd to think of anyone strawmanning themselves (straw man is a fallacious attempt at refutation), and I might oversimplify my opponent's argument but not in any way that's relevant to the point at hand. The basic idea of the straw man is easy to grasp -- one reason people appeal to it so often is that it has a very vivid image attached. Instead of knocking down the real man, I construct a straw man that looks roughly like him and knock that down as if it were the real man; but, of course, it isn't the real man, and in knocking down the straw man I haven't touched the real man. If it were that obvious when talking about arguments, there wouldn't be a problem, but in the case of arguments we are actually faced with continual questions about how much oversimplification is required to make an objection simply irrelevant to the actual argument. Lots of objections that are not obviously relevant to an argument may nonetheless be relevant; and a toy-model version of an argument may make it easier to see what is wrong with the original argument. (I occasionally have complaints against analytic philosophers and their use of toy versions of the arguments they are examining, but even I would never say that analytic philosophy consists of almost nothing but the straw man fallacy. Sometimes you do learn useful things from the really simplistic toy version.) There are still obvious cases -- this one for instance, which criticizes an argument for not considering a point it explicitly and obviously considers -- so the straw man fallacy does seem to latch on to something. But characterizing it is certainly tricky.

UPDATE: John Casey has clarifies in the comments that he didn't intend the post to sound like he was claiming that Fish was strawmanning, but was trying to make a different point; he's done some revising to avoid the misleading impression. That's good, of course -- although in a weird way I'm disappointed to lose an example of straw man straw man -- and thanks to John for clarifying.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Classroom Exchange

We were talking about the privation theory of evil in class today:

ME: Can there be anything that is pure evil, that has no good in it at all? Is there any such thing?

STUDENT: The Kardashians!

ME: That's probably one of the better suggestions I've heard.

Chesterton for March XXVII

It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play; it is really possible to say the highest things in praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke — that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of souls. When we are really holy we may regard the Universe as a lark.

Source: All Things Considered

For What They're Being Paid, Yes

A lot of people have been discussing this recent op-ed, which asks the question, "Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?" It's difficult to convince people about this, since people honestly don't understand how academic life works, but if there's any problem with the professoriate it's not that they don't work hard. Academics don't have jobs that stop when they go home, and I have never met anyone -- and I mean anyone -- in an academic profession who "worked less than half the time of their non-academic peers". Practically everything in the op-ed is wrong or misleading. Consider this argument:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

First of all, even the finest professorships you can get do not generally receive executive-level compensation (and certainly get less than executive-level benefits). College presidents often do; perhaps higher-level positions like deans at wealthier schools get into that arena. In short, people like Levy. Highest-level faculty -- tenured positions with long seniority -- at the very wealthiest and most prestigious schools in high cost-of-living areas sometimes get into six figures, barely. (It's notable that Levy's example of Montgomery College is a community college in a high cost-of-living area in which the average household income is itself nearly six figures.) But let us assume that faculty do get executive-level compensation, and consider the other assumptions here. The categories of hours worked are, according to this author, the following:

Class time
Class preparation

As any academic knows, this is not exhaustive. There are, in addition, office hours, appointments with students outside of office hours, departmental meetings, course preparation (which is not the same as class preparation), course review, paperwork (e.g., relating to evaluation procedures), and this doesn't even get to time devoted to research, which is an immense part of academic life, and something that faculty are often required by their jobs to do. But let's assume that we're at a school where the academics do nothing but teach, and it's barebones teaching -- the faculty are required to do nothing but prepare for lecture, lecture, and grade assignments. Twelve to fifteen hours per week would be a decent courseload, although there are heavier ones, but the thirty weeks assumes that the teaching is only done for two terms; it is highly implausible that there are full-time faculty at any school devoted so much to teaching who never teach the more intense and condensed summer courses. So already the comparison is loaded by assuming that faculty always take summers off, which cannot be assumed even if faculty had nothing to do in the summers except teach -- which they don't. Class preparation varies considerably depending on whether one has taught the class before; I vary my classes from term to term quite a bit, but for segments that I have taught quite often before I can get preparation consistently down to a bit less than class time. For entirely new segments it is indeed an "unlikely event" that class preparation is equal to class time because preparation time often exceeds delivery time -- in delivering a lecture on a new topic, for instance, one is presenting in condensed and organized form information that was not originally in condensed and organized form. Exactly how much of a factor this is depends on things like format; but in general high-paid faculty are going to be expected to lecture, and lecture is preparation-intensive -- three or four hours of preparation for one hour of class is not really that unusual. Grading is extremely variable; in my hybrid Intro courses I spend much more time grading than I would ever spend teaching a normal class, while the current version of my Ethics course is a fairly grading-light course with some minor during-term work and some intense end-of-term grading. What this means overall, I'm not sure; perhaps it evens out to something like the author has in mind, but I know of no evidence for this.

So actually the perspective on the argument is arguably wrong: what the author has shown is not how little faculty work, but the opposite. Even covering only three areas, which do not by any means account for all teaching-related hours and do not account for any research-related hours, and given the absurd assumption that faculty members have 22 weeks of vacation a year, faculty workload would still be between 36% and 45% of that of non-academic professionals. It's like measuring the workload of lawyers by tabulating how much time they are literally in a courtroom, how much time they spend preparing for precisely and only those things that they do in a courtroom, and how much time they spend doing the filing so they have record of what they did in the courtroom. Even a person who knows next to nothing about law can see that this is going to underestimate, massively, how much work high-paid lawyers do. Even the best paid academics probably don't generally work as hard as high-paid lawyers (although they don't get paid as well as high-paid lawyers, either), but the numbers here are obviously leaving out necessary parts of the academic life -- even obvious things like office hours and consulting with students are being left out in this estimate. According to Levy's argument, faculty take nearly half the year off, do a tiny fraction of what real faculty are usually required to do, and even on these absurdly leisurely assumptions Levy still has assigned them a workload approaching 45% of the workload of an executive. And, again, in David Levy's world there's no such thing as research expectations for teaching faculty. All academics are expected to research; how formal or informal this is depends on the situation, but even the most teaching of teaching colleges expects even its part-time faculty not to be teaching canned classes but innovative ones that take into account the most recent research that's relevant. Most faculty are expected to show that they are doing more.

This is not to say that there's nothing to be said that's relevant to the matter. Academics can be a bit prima-donna-ish, there's no question about that. And there are genuine benefits to the work. One of the genuine advantages of a faculty position at a teaching college is that only parts of your schedule are fixed. Your to-do list as a faculty member is extensive and never-ending, and you always have deadlines (and are often behind on meeting them) -- which is why I am baffled at the notion of any faculty in the entire United States actually managing Levy's alleged 22 weeks of vacation, as if there weren't things to do before a course starts and after it ends -- but you do (often, at least, and within limits) have a lot more flexibility and control over how you are going to organize the whole lot. That is undeniably nice. You're more likely to be doing what you enjoy doing anyway, at least for much of the time, and you have relatively easy access to some moderately nice resources for doing it. If you can stand the politics, having to fulfill arbitrary requirements that do little to contribute to what you are actually there to do, having to jury-rig solutions to problems you've not been provided appropriate or adequate resources to solve, and the fact that there's always something you still need to do, there's a genuine argument that it has some very nice benefits in comparison with other professional positions. But being underworked and overpaid is just not generally on the list.

In any case, the whole presupposition of the argument is dimwitted; like all professionals, teachers are best paid for the actual quality and importance of the work and their actual ability to deliver it, not how many hours they have spent on a clock, which encourages filler time. If you did put faculty on a forty-hour clock, you wouldn't get more work from the faculty; you'd just get, at best, faculty doing less of their work at home. Likewise, the number of courses is generally determined more by demand (students wanting to take them) than by supply (teachers available to teach them), and merely making professors teach more classes wouldn't have any direct affect on your end results on even an optimistic assessment. What you might actually end up doing is providing about the same number of courses with fewer faculty, who would be harder to keep, a situation that could drive up faculty salaries in the long run. And Levy's argument approaches dishonesty by failing to consider how many of the actual teachers even at teaching colleges are in adjunct positions, with slight and not always predictable income, limited benefits, and dubious job security. Take Levy's example of Montgomery College: about half the courses taught at Montgomery College are taught by adjuncts, not by faculty making anything like the salaries he's talking about, and this is not unusual (currently more than half of appointments in higher education are adjunct positions). The percentage of faculty who even potentially fall into the group Levy is talking about is tiny.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chesterton for March XXVI

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen. Chastity does not mean abstention from sexual wrong; it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc.

Source: Tremendous Trifles

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Awesomeness of Queen Elizabeth

John and Frances Canning were just an ordinary bride and groom in Manchester; hearing that the Queen was going to be in the city on other business the day of the wedding, they invited her as a sort of lark.

She and Prince Philip showed up. One suspects that it was also a bit of a treat for the Queen; she has to go around on a lot of official business, especially since this is her Diamond Jubilee year, and most of it probably not as fun as just showing up, even briefly, to make a a newlywed couple's wedding day even better.

Chesterton for March XXV

The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. Nor is this peculiarity confined to the mere form of the word; the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well.

Source: Robert Browning