Posts Tagged ‘Education’

From an article in the Sept. 2020 issue (I’m lagging in my reading) of Harper’s Magazine by Laurent Dubreuil titled “Nonconforming“:

American academia is a hotbed of proliferating identities supported and largely shaped by the higher ranks of administrators, faculty, student groups, alumni, and trustees. Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming.

… identity politics as now practiced does not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. Ready-made identities imprison us in stereotyped narratives of trauma. In short, identity determinism has become an additional layer of oppression, one that fails to address the problems it clumsily articulates.

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.


In educational philosophy, learning is often categorized in three domains: the cognitive, the affective, and the psychomotor (called Bloom’s Taxonomy). Although formal education admittedly concentrates primarily on the cognitive domain, a well-rounded person gives attention to all three. The psychomotor domain typically relates to tool use and manipulation, but if one considers the body itself a tool, then athletics and physical workouts are part of a balanced approach. The affective domain is addressed through a variety of mechanisms, not least of which is narrative, much of it entirely fictional. We learn how to process emotions through vicarious experience as a safe way to prepare for the real thing. Indeed, dream life is described as the unconscious mind’s mechanism for consolidating memory and experience as well as rehearsing prospective events (strategizing) in advance. Nightmares are, in effect, worst-case scenarios dreamt up for the purpose of avoiding the real thing (e.g., falling from a great height or venturing too far into the dark — a proxy for the unknown). Intellectual workouts address the cognitive domain. While some are happy to remain unbalanced, focusing on strengths found exclusively in a single domain (gym rats, eggheads, actors) and thus remaining physically, emotionally, or intellectually stunted or immature, most understand that workouts in all domains are worth seeking out as elements of healthy development.

One form of intellectual workout is debate, now offered by various media and educational institutions. Debate is quite old but has been embraced with renewed gusto in a quest to develop content (using new media) capable of drawing in viewers, which mixes educational objectives with commercial interests. The time-honored political debate used to be good for determining where to cast one’s vote but has become nearly useless in the last few decades as neither the sponsoring organizations, the moderators, nor the candidates seem to understand anymore how to run a debate or behave properly. Instead, candidates use the opportunity to attack each other, ignore questions and glaring issues at hand, and generally refuse to offer meaningful responses to the needs of voters. Indeed, this last was among the principal innovations of Bill Clinton: roll out some appealing bit of vacuous rhetoric yet offer little to no guidance what policies will actually be pursued once in office. Two presidential administrations later, Barack Obama did much the same, which I consider a most egregious betrayal or bait-and-switch. Opinions vary.

In a recent Munk Debate, the proposition under consideration was whether humankind’s best days lie ahead or behind. Optimists won the debate by a narrow margin (determined by audience vote); however, debate on the issue is not binding truth, nor does debate really resolve the question satisfactorily. The humor and personalities of the debaters probably had more influence than their arguments. Admitting that I possess biases, I found myself inclined favorably toward the most entertaining character, though what I find entertaining is itself further bias not shared especially with many others. In addition, I suspect the audience did not include many working class folks or others who see their prospects for better lives diminishing rapidly, which skews the resulting vote. The age-old parental desire to leave one’s children a better future than their own is imperiled according to this poll (polls may vary considerably — do your own search). How one understands “better off” is highly variable, but the usual way that’s understood is in terms of material wellbeing.

Folks on my radar (names withheld) range widely in their enthusiasm or disdain for debate. The poles appears to be default refusal to accept invitations to debate (often couched as open challenges to professed opinions) as a complete waste of time to earnest desire to participate in, host, and/or moderate debates as a means of informing the public by providing the benefit of expert argumentation. As an intellectual workout, I appreciate the opportunity to hear debates (at least when I’m not exasperated by a speaker’s lack of discipline or end-around arguments), but readers can guess from the title of this post that I expect nothing to be resolved by debate. Were I ever to be offered an opportunity to participate, I can well imagine accepting the invitation and having some fun flexing my intellectual muscles, but I would enter into the event with utterly no expectation of being able to convince anyone of anything. Minds are already too well made up on most issues. If I were offered a spot on some bogus news-and-opinion show to be a talking head, shot from the shoulders up and forced to shout and interrupt to get a brief comment or soundbite in edgewise, that I would decline handily as a total waste of time.

Nicholas Carr has a pair of thoughtful new posts at his blog Rough Type (see blogroll) under the tag “infinite media.” The second of the two is about context collapse, restoration, and content collapse. I won’t review that particular post; I’m merely pointing to it for you to read. Carr is a journalist and media theorist whose work is especially interesting to me as a partial antidote to what I’ve been calling our epistemological crisis. In short, he offers primers on how to think about stuff, that stuff being the primary medium through which most people now gather information: via screens.

Relatedly, the other media theorist to whom I pay attention is Alan Jacobs, who has a recent book (which I read but didn’t review or blog about) called more simply How to Think. It’s about recognizing and avoiding cognitive biases on the way to more disciplined, clear thinking. I mention these two fellows together because I’ve been reading their blogs and books for over a decade now and have been curious to observe how their public interactions have changed over time. They have each embraced and abandoned various new media (particularly social media) and adopted more stringent media ecology. Carr posts ocassionally now and has closed comments at his blog (a shame, since his commentariat was valuable, quite unlike the troll mob at most sites). Jacobs is even more aggressive, starting and abandoning one blog after another (was active at multiple URLs, one formerly on my blogroll) and deleting his Twitter account entirely. Whatever goings-on occur at Facebook I can’t say; I never go there. These aren’t criticisms. We all evolve our associations and activities. But these two are unusual, perhaps, in that they evaluate and recommend with varying vehemence how to interact with electronic media tools.

The wide-open Web available to Americans (but restricted in some countries) used to be valorized as a wholly democratic, organic, grass-roots, decentralized force for good where information yearned to breathe free. Though pioneered by academic institutions, it wasn’t long before the porn industry became the first to monetize it effectively (cuz duh! that’s there the money was — at least initially) and then the whole thing was eventually overwhelmed by others with unique agendas and mechanisms, including commerce, surveillance, and propaganda. The surfeit of information demanded curation, and social media with algorithmic feeds became the default for folks either too lazy or just untrained (or uninterested) in how to think for themselves. Along the way, since a surprisingly large portion of human activity diverted to online media, that activity turned into a resource mined, harvested, and in turn monetized, much like the voting public has become a resource tracked, polled, channeled, activated, disenfranchized, corrupted, and analyzed to death.

An earlier media theorist I read with enthusiasm, Neil Postman, recommended that curricula include the study of semantics as applied to media. (Use of a word like semantics sends nonacademics running for the hills, but the recommendation is basically about thinking critically, even skeptically, regarding information, its sources, and its means of distribution.) The rise of handheld omnimedia postdates Postman, so I can only surmise that the bewildering array of information we confront absorb every day, which I liken to drinking from a fire hose, only compounds Postman’s concern that students are severely overmatched by media (especially advertising) intent on colonizing and controlling their minds. Thus, today’s information environment is a far cry from the stately slowness of earlier eras when teaching and learning (to say nothing of entertainment) were conducted primarily through reading, lecture, and discussion.

A comment came in on this blog chiding me for still blogging after 14 years. I admit hardly anyone reads anymore; they watch (or listen, as with audio-only podcasts). Preferred forms of media consumption have moved on from printed text, something USA Today recognized decades ago when it designed its print publication and sidewalk distribution boxes to look more like TVs. Nonetheless, the modest reproach reminded me of a cry in the wilderness by Timothy Burke: why he still blogs, though quite infrequently. (There’s a brokeback can’t-quit-you joke in there somewhere I’ll leave unformulated.) So this blog may indeed be past its proper expiration date, yet it remains for me one of the best means for organizing how I think about stuff. Without it, I’m afraid thoughts would be rattling loose inside my head, disorganized, only to be displaced by the next slurp from the fire hose.

Renewed twin memes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and Debt Jubilees (DJ) have been in the news recently. I write renewed because the two ideas are quite literally ancient, unlearnt lessons that are enjoying revitalized interest in the 21st century. Both are capable of sophisticated support from historical and contemporary study, which I admit I haven’t undertaken. However, others have done the work and make their recommendations with considerable authority. For instance, Andrew Yang, interviewed repeatedly as a 2020 U.S. presidential candidate, has made UBI the centerpiece of his policy proposals, whereas Michael Hudson has a new book out called … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption — From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year that offers a forgotten history of DJ.

Whenever UBI or DJ comes up in conversation, the most obvious, predicable response I hear (containing a kernel of truth) is that either proposal would reward the losers in today’s capitalist regime: those who earn too little or those who carry too much debt (often a combination of both). Never mind that quality education and economic opportunities have been steadily withdrawn over the past half century. UBI and DJ would thus be giveaways, and I daresay nothing offends a sense of fairness more than others getting something for nothing. Typical resentment goes, “I worked hard, played by the rules, and met my responsibilities; why should others who slacked, failed, or cheated get the benefit of my hard work?” It’s a commonplace “othering” response, failing to recognize that as societies we are completely interconnected and interdependent. Granting the winners in the capitalist contest a pass on fair play is also a major assumption. The most iconic supreme winners are all characterized by shark-like business practices: taking advantage of tax loopholes, devouring everything, and shrewdly understanding their predatory behavior not in terms of producing value but rather as gobbling or destroying competition to gain market share. More than a few companies these days are content to operate for years on venture capital, reporting one quarterly loss after another until rivals are vanquished. is the test case, though how many times its success can be repeated is unknown.

With my relative lack of economic study and sophistication, I take my lessons instead from the children’s game Monopoly. As an oversimplification of the dynamics of capital formation and ownership, Monopoly even for children reaches its logical conclusion well before its actual end, where one person “wins” everything. The balancing point when the game is no longer worth playing is debatable, but some have found through experience the answer is “before it starts.” It’s just no fun destroying bankrupting other players utterly through rent seeking. The no-longer-fun point is analogous to late-stage capitalism, where the conclusion has not yet been fully reached but is nonetheless clear. The endgame is, in a word, monopoly — the significant element being “mono,” as in there can be only one winner. (Be careful what you wish for: it’s lonely and resentful at the top.) Others take a different, aspirational lesson from Monopoly, which is to figure out game dynamics, or game the game, so that the world can be taken by force. One’s growing stranglehold on others disallows fair negotiation and cooperation (social rather than capitalist values) precisely because one party holds all the advantages, leading to exploitation of the many for the benefit of a few (or one).

Another unlearnt ancient lesson is that nothing corrupts so easily or so much as success, power, fame, wealth. Many accept that corruption willingly; few take the lesson to heart. (Disclosure: I’ve sometimes embarked on the easy path to wealth by buying lottery tickets. Haven’t won, so I’m not corruptible yet corrupted. Another case of something for nearly nothing, or for those gambling away their rent and grocery money, nothing for something.) Considering that money makes the world go around, especially in the modern age, the dynamics of capitalism are inescapable and the internal contradictions of capitalism are well acknowledged. The ancient idea of DJ is essentially a reset button depressed before the endgame leads to rebellion and destruction of the ownership class. Franklin D. Roosevelt is credited in some accounts of history as having saved capitalism from that near endgame by transferring wealth back to the people through the New Deal and the war economy. Thus, progressives are calling for a Green New Deal, though it’s not clear they are aware that propping up capitalism only delays its eventual collapse through another couple cycles (reversals) of capital flow. Availability of cheap, plentiful energy that allowed economies (and populations) to balloon over the past two and one-half centuries cannot continue for much longer, so even if we get UBI or DJ, the endgame remains unchanged.

Everyone is familiar with the convention in entertainment media where characters speak without the use of recognizable language. (Not related really to the convention of talking animals.) The first instance I can recall (someone correct me if earlier examples are to be found) is the happy-go-lucky bird Woodstock from the old Peanuts cartoons (do kids still recognize that cast of characters?), whose dialog was shown graphically as a series of vertical lines:

When the cartoon made its way onto TV for holiday specials, its creator Charles Schultz used the same convention to depict adults, never shown onscreen but with dialogue voiced by a Harmon-muted trombone. Roughly a decade later, two characters from the Star Wars franchise “spoke” in languages only other Star Wars characters could understand, namely, Chebacca (Chewie) and R2D2. More recently, the character Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy (known to me only through the Marvel movie franchise, not through comic books) speaks only one line of dialogue, “I am Groot,” which is understood as full speech by others Guardians characters. When behemoths larger than a school bus (King Kong, Godzilla, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cloverfield, Kaiju, etc.) appear, the characters are typically denied the power of speech beyond the equivalent of a lion’s roar. (True villains talk little or not at all as they go about their machinations — no monologuing! unless it’s a James Bond film. An exception notable for its failure to charm audiences is Ultron, who wouldn’t STFU. You can decide for yourself which is the worse kind of villainy.)

This convention works well enough for storytelling and has the advantage of allowing the reader/viewer to project onto otherwise blank speech. However, when imported into the real world, especially in politics, the convention founders. There is no Babelfish universal translator inserted in the ear to transform nonsense into coherence. The obvious example of babblespeech is 45, whose speech when off the teleprompter is a series of rambling non sequiturs, free associations, slogans, and sales pitches. Transcripts of anyone’s extemporaneous speech reveal lots of restarts and blind alleys; we all interrupt ourselves to redirect. However, word salad that substitutes for meaningful content in 45’s case is tragicomic: alternately entirely frustrating or comically entertaining depending on one’s objective. Satirical news shows fall into the second category.

45 is certainly not the first. Sarah Palin in her time as a media darling (driver of ratings and butt of jokes — sound familiar?) had a knack for crazy speech combinations that were utter horseshit yet oddly effective for some credulous voters. She was even a hero to some (nearly a heartbeat away from being the very first PILF). We’ve also now been treated to a series of public interrogations where a candidate for a cabinet post or an accused criminal offers testimony before a congressional panel. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos famously evaded simple yes/no questions during her confirmation hearing, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh similarly refused to provide direct answers to direct questions. Unexpectedly, sacrificial lamb Michael Cohen does give direct answers to many questions, but his interlocutors then don’t quite know how to respond considering their experience and expectation that no one answers appropriately.

What all this demonstrates is that there is often a wide gulf between what is said and what is heard. In the absence of what might be understood as effective communication (honest, truthful, and forthright), audiences and voters fill in the blanks. Ironically, we also can’t handle hear too much truth when confronted by its awfulness. None of this is a problem in storytelling, but when found in politic narratives, it’s emblematic of how dysfunctional our communications have become, and with them, the clear thought and principled activity of governance.

As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

I’ve written a different form of this blog post at least once before, maybe more. Here’s the basic thesis: the bizarro unreality of the world in which we now live is egregious enough to make me wonder if we haven’t veered wildly off the path at some point and now exist within reality prime. I suppose one can choose any number of historical inflections to represent the branching point. For me, it was the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. (The 9/11 attacks and “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq had already occurred or commenced by then, and it had already revealed as well that lies — Saddam had WMDs — that sold the American public on the Iraq “war” were effective and remain so today.) Lots of other events changed the course of history, but none other felt as much to me like a gut punch precisely because, in the case of the 2004 presidential election, we chose our path. I fantasized waking up from my reality-prime nightmare but eventually had to grudgingly accept that if multiverses exist, ours mine had become one where we chose (collectively, and just barely) to keep in office an executive who behaved like a farce of stupidity. Well, joke’s on us. Twelve years later, we chose someone even more stupid, though with a “certain serpentine cunning,” and with arguably the worst character of any U.S. executive in living history.

So what to do in the face of this dysfunctional state of affairs? Bret Weinstein below has ideas. (As usual, I’m quite late, embedding a video that by Internet standards is already ancient. I also admit this is equivalent to a smash cut because I don’t have a particularly good transition or justification for turning so suddenly to Weinstein.) Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist, so no surprise that the approach he recommends is borne out of evolutionary thinking. In fairness, a politician would logically recommend political solutions, a financier would recommend economic solutions, and other professionals would seek solutions from within their areas of expertise.

The title of the interview is “Harnessing Evolution,” meaning Weinstein suggests we use evolutionary models to better understand our own needs and distortions to guide or plot proper path(s) forward and get back on track. Never mind that a healthy minority of the U.S. public rejects evolution outright while an additional percentage takes a hybrid stance. While I’m impressed that Weinstein has an answer for everything (pedagogue or demagogue or both?) and has clearly thought through sociopolitical issues, I daresay he’s living in reality double-prime if he thinks science education can be a panacea for what ails us. My pessimism is showing.

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

Heard a curious phrase used with some regularity lately, namely, that “we’ve Nerfed the world.” Nerf refers to the soft, foam toys popular in the 70s and beyond that made balls and projectiles essentially harmless. The implication of the phrase is that we’ve become soft and vulnerable as a result of removing the routine hazards (physical and psychological) of existence. For instance, in the early days of cell phones, I recall padded street poles (like endzone goalposts) to prevent folks with their attention fixated too intently on their phones from harming themselves when stumbling blindly down the sidewalk.

Similarly, anti-bullying sentiment has reached fevered pitch such that no level of discomfort (e.g., simple name calling) can be tolerated lest the victim be scarred for life. The balancing point between preparing children for competitive realities of the world and protecting their innocence and fragility has accordingly moved heavily in favor of the latter. Folks who never develop the resilience to suffer even modest hardships are snowflakes, and they agitate these days on college campuses (and increasingly in workplaces) to withdraw into safe spaces where their beliefs are never challenged and experiences are never challenging. The other extreme is a hostile, cruel, or at least indifferent world where no one is offered support or opportunity unless he or she falls within some special category, typically connected through family to wealth and influence. Those are entitled.

A thermostatic response (see Neil Postman for more on this metaphor) is called for here. When things veer too far toward one extreme or the other, a correction is inevitable. Neither extreme is healthy for a functioning society, though the motivations are understandable. Either it’s toughen people up by providing challenge, which risks brutalizing people unnecessarily, or protect people from the rigors of life or consequences of their own choices to such a degree that they become dependent or dysfunctional. Where the proper balance lies is a question for the ages, but I daresay most would agree it’s somewhere squarely in the middle.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), which is an expansion of an earlier article in The Atlantic of the same title. (Both are callbacks to Allan Bloom’s notorious The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I’ve read twice. Similar reuse of a famous title references Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996).) I haven’t yet read Haidt’s book and doubt I will bother, but I read the source article when it came out. I also don’t work on a college campus and can’t judge contemporary mood compared to when I was an undergraduate, but I’m familiar with the buzzwords and ​intellectual fashions reported by academics and journalists. My alma mater is embroiled in these battles, largely in connection with identity politics. I’m also aware of detractors who believe claims of Haidt and Lukianoff (and others) are essentially hysterics limited to a narrow group of progressive colleges and universities.

As with other cultural developments that lie outside my expertise, I punt when it comes to offering (too) strong opinions. However, with this particular issue, I can’t help but to think that the two extremes coexist. A noisy group of students attending highly competitive institutions of higher education lead relatively privileged lives compared to those outside the academy, whereas high school grads and dropouts not on that track (and indeed grads of less elite schools) frequently struggle getting their lives going in early adulthood. Most of us face that struggle early on, but success, despite nonsensical crowing about the “best economy ever” from the Oval Office, is difficult to achieve now as the broad socioeconomic middle is pushed toward the upper and lower margins (mostly lower). Stock market notwithstanding, economic reality is frankly indifferent to ideology.