Coddling of the American Mind

21st February 2019

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Books of the Week

This week we read two related books on movements that are emerging from college campuses and affecting society as a whole—and not necessarily in a positive way.

  • The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. It can be dizzying to understand the new “victimhood” culture that is arising in opposition to the more traditional US culture of dignity.  “Victimhood culture,” as Campbell and Manning define it “is marked by a low tolerance for slight. It produces a correspondingly low tolerance for all sorts of discomfort and difficulty, even if these are not considered offenses as such. Victimhood culture is also distinguished by a tendency to ask third parties for support in conflicts, and to do so in ways that advertise or exaggerate one’s victimization.”  This excellent book puts a helpful framework on a seemingly helpful movement that, given our past work with the Soviets, we know can lead to problematic outcomes for individuals as well as society. (We can’t help but also recommend Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment and The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhi-Sui, Mao’s personal doctor.) Campbell and Manning’s wrap up gives as good an overview of sociology as we’ve seen—between their fearless assessment of societal trends and their mastery of their field, those two authors carry the ground-breaking tradition of the great early sociologist Ibn Khaldun. (Read about Ibn Khaldun’s breakthroughs and adventures in Peter Turchin’s not-to-be-missed War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. Okay, so Turchin does go on a bit about the Cossacks…)
  • The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Where Campbell and Manning’s Rise of Victimhood Culture views the microaggression, safe space, and trigger warning trends from a larger perspective, as sociologists, Lukianoff and Haidt’s book also goes into more depth at a personal level about how these kinds of trends can be harmful. But this is actually an uplifting book overall, with plenty of insights from cognitive behavioral therapy to help you get, and keep, your own life in order.

A Wonderful New Video from 4-Time US Memory Champ Nelson Dellis on Making Life Memorable

This is one of Nelson’s very best videos, growing from one of his always-intriguing adventures, on how to make life itself memorable. Don’t miss it. (And read, if you haven’t already, Nelson’s useful book Remember It!) If you want to get away from the “coddling” mindset, follow Nelson’s advice!

Reproducibility  in Science

Here is a very informative video on replicability in science by Dr. Shai Silberberg, a Program Director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As Shai notes: “These days it appears that every other week in either the lay or scientific literature highlighting problems with the ability to reproduce scientific findings. Sadly, many of these publications either implicitly or explicitly imply wrongdoing on the part of scientists, unjustly tainting the scientific community. So to help put things in perspective, let’s describe what it means when results are reproducible, and then identify factors that might lead to low reproducibility.” Following the points in this video could do much to begin tackling the reproducibility challenge.

Sleight of Hand in Reporting on Educational Funding

The types of problems Shai Silberberg alludes to in his video—many of which might be attributed to pathologies of altruism—can also be found in government-issued reports. For example, the relatively recent report on funding inequity on education tackles an important topic, but it is perhaps most notable for its sleight-of-hand in reporting data.  As Commissioner Gail Heriot observes in her dissent, the report claims that the highest poverty districts receive far less than the lowest poverty districts, and districts with the largest numbers of students of color receive much less than districts with fewer students of color.   But, Heriot continues “But the figures—which came from an advocacy group, not from the Commission’s own research—are for state and local expenditures only. Even assuming arguendo that they are otherwise accurate… they do not take into account billions of dollars worth of federal funding, most of which is targeted at low-income, high-need students… When all sources of funding are taken into account…on average, more dollars are spent on these school districts.”

In other words, to get the results they wanted to report, it seems the authors of the report used data from an advocacy group which is suspect by reason of its provenance, and further massaged their message to leave off one of the most significant school funding sources.  

Heriot goes on to note: “If school districts that serve large numbers of students below the poverty line arguably need more money than other schools, why am I so interested in establishing that, if anything, more actual dollars, on average, are spent on school districts with high proportions of poor or minority students? Because if the total expenditures of actual dollars were really as the Commission alleged, it would suggest a much more inequitable situation than actually exists. It fuels racial and class resentment based on a misunderstanding. The real problems (as usual) are more complex and nuanced.” Heriot’s dissent is worth reading in its entirety. An important issue as well with these types of reporting biases is that they result in loss of respect for government-commissioned reports.

Help on the Way with Replication in Education Studies

Larry Hedges, chair of the department of statistics at Northwestern University, has won the Yidan Prize for “outstanding accomplishments” in education (Anant Agarwal, founder of EdX, also won $4m). As the article notes, “Hedges shoots high and is optimistic about the possibilities for education science. He believes that research can uncover ways to bring about real improvements in teaching, learning and how educational systems are organised – but worries that there is still too much emphasis on finding a ‘magic bullet’ while too many potentially valuable improvements are overlooked because their effects are small.” Hedges is using half the money he received from the Yidan Prize to tackle the issue of replicability in educational research.  Let us hope that government funding sources follow suit.

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team


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