Category Archives: Epistemology

Soft Skills and Other Definitions: Problematic Logic at Demos

David Callahan at the Policy Shop writes about masters degrees in this post. He begins by posting numbers on graduates. He writes

Here’s a statistic that I found surprising and also troubling: Roughly 730,000 master’s degrees will be awarded this spring. And it’s estimated that another 2.2 million master’s degrees will be handed out over the next three years.

I’m assuming he means “this spring” as in “now.” It’s a good estimation to make, also, in that more will be coming. But then he writes this:

Investments in education are often positive, and it’s good to know, for instance, that over 40,000 young people will receive master’s degrees in engineering and technology this spring. This country badly needs a more skilled workforce.

I don’t know why the author uses the qualifier “more skilled.” Engineers may have other skills than poets, but they are certainly not “more skilled.” The logic is important. The poet may not be of much use to Space X but because Space X requires engineers does not mean that Space X engineers are “more skilled.” This goes to my critique of our current administrations “science and math” priority.

This muddying of language creates a false sense of a problem, much as Steve Jobs did in claiming that the U.S. doesn’t produce the kinds of workers to sustain tech.

It’s definitely a problem if a whole bunch of masters degrees are given in fields that don’t require them. For example, if a million people graduate from masters programs in teaching and there are only 100 teaching jobs, then this represents a problem, I would assume. In the United States, however, we need excellent teachers with lots of effective ability. But it’s also true that we don’t prioritize this need, in my opinion. I also suspect the rigor of these degrees.

So, the bottom line: is the issue for Callahan a question of rigor or a question of structure? He writes

This spring, over 185,000 people will received master’s degrees in education. Many of them will carry student loans that won’t be easily paid down given that the starting salary of public school teachers is under $40,000 in every state and, in many states, it’s under $30,000. Moreover, even as credentialization and debt burdens have gone up for teachers in recent decades, salaries have generally stagnated.

He makes an interesting point about over-credentialing but the evidence needs development.

Start with business. While MBA students certainly learn a lot of useful things, it’s also true that many of these same skills can and should be taught by employers.

How does he know this?

In our current economic state, and the state of college entrance numbers, we will certainly be seeing labor problems in the future. But remember, while the big banks were bailed out, the education institutions were not.

My Plans for After I Die

My plans for after I die include coming back to the living and confirming or disconfirming their ideas. In my literature courses, I often go into comedic mode for and during a writer who treats the afterlife or the meaning of death in whatever tradition. Blake or Dario. For Neruda, for some reason, Death had the color of “wet violets.” There are serious implications to this in terms of logic and musing.

I ask the students: why not just come back and inform the audience? Why bother with all this guessing.

Sometimes the response is: because you can’t.

Sometimes I respond: I guess so, as many have died and don’t return.

But then we have to head to the rules and this is where things get interesting.

Neruda writes:

I see, when alone at times,
coffins under sail
setting out with the pale dead, women in their dead braids,
bakers as white as angels,
thoughtful girls married to notaries,
coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,
the wine-dark river to its source,
with their sails swollen with the sound of death,
filled with the silent noise of death.

Death, In terms of boundary lines, is an image and not much more. It’s not a science or subject to experiment. In the above poem, the key has to do with the size and extend of the phenomenon and, in a reading, how close and far it is, how nearby and distant.

We continue the conversation: How was the rule made that death would involve a conspiracy to withhold information? One way of getting around this is to go into Christian theology and assert that in the Christian universe governed by an Augustinian sense of time we do already know but don’t have access to the knowledge in the present mode. In this universe we are already long gone, soon to be created, and created always in the grand sum of things. There are analogies for this: someone, somewhere is playing in the key of C in the present moment, even though you might soon be doing the same but not in that present moment.

Many of my students are believers in the range of religions. But they aren’t quite sure of the arguments for or against, not quite sure of the contexts.

One of the meanings that Milton explores is the notion of rules and that there will always be an entity willing to break or test them. This is one method of creating drama. A person will test the boundaries.

Modern worlds and interesting reading: The Swerve and De Rerum Natura

Thanks to Timmons, I’ve read and read Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve. Greenblatt’s study tells the story and influence of Lucretius after his text is found by Poggio Bracciolini. One thing I learned in the text was surprising. I hadn’t realized Montaigne’s copy of De Rerum had been found, complete with notes.

Regardless of some odd conclusions by the author, especially those having to do with Lucretius’s influence and the implications about the “modern,” Greenblatt has sent me back to Lucretius, historical context or no.

More on Belief and the Language of Politics

This is really an epistemology post, but the question of birth keeps coming up, pushed not just by originators but by the people who love them. Mitt Romney is caught on film saying, in response to a question about the sayings of Donald Trump:

“You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Romney said. “But I need to get to 50.1 percent or more and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

We should break this language down, as a poet would. Number one, we could build an entire college course on this sort of hamming as an example of linguistic parsing. Romney here puts the question of relationship as a question of belief, which is a word I’ve come to dislike immensely. The question of Obama’s birth is not a question of belief but one of available records and standards of counting. For example, I just learned today that the number of Civil War dead was mostly undercounted. The question of how many people died is not subject to belief but to the technologies of arithmetic, even though we will never know the precise number. It’s based on available knowledge. And, of course, the technologies of knowledge change over time. Genesis would have been written much differently if the writers had had computer chips.

I have a running joke with history colleagues, people with Ph.Ds, about their own origins. (Note that the degree gives them little armament.) It turns out they themselves only know where they were born based on documents and on what their parents attest to, much like the President. I wrote a whole novel about this joke. I, for example, was born in El Paso, Texas at, well, at the moment, I can’t remember. And the hospital itself doesn’t even exist on any current map because they went out of business. But I do know I was born. It costs money to grab the certificate, which is required for things like travel. Good thing I’m not traveling.

Romney, a smart guy, knows the difference between belief in something and knowing that something is either valid or observably testable. To suggest that those who dispute the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth is simply a matter of belief is irrational and willfully cynical. It’s like a dispute between scholars about how many people died in the Civil War. One scholar says 100 people, another says 700,000. This is not a dispute of beliefs. Worse, if the former scholar says: “Well, I need the grant money, and those who will give it to me believe in a false arithmetic so I have to make shit up, so there.”

No. The eyes are glassy, quod Orwell (paraphrase).

On the Question of Evil

I was brought up in the Catholic Church in the diocese of El Paso Texas. We did Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Sundays and all the religious holidays. We did the Advent Wreath, early morning Christmas mass. I was a curious altar boy as none of the robes fit.

In this context, evil was defined as sin, as a cause, and as a reduction point. We were all sinners and had to avoid sin at all costs or Hell would flag at us after dying. There were also evil people in the world. That’s an exaggeration. We grew up with the typical cast of characters: Christ, the Devil, the Holy Spirit, and Mary and Pilot and Judas. First Communions came. We got our missals (I lost mine and still kick myself for it). But I also grew up surrounded by stories of World War II and the Holocaust. My nightmares were filled with images of being lost deep in Nazi Germany. I grew up with the language of fascism and communism, all the scares of the 50s and 60s. But the neighborhood was also nicely multicultural. So much so that we never really took on the language of race or ethnicity. We knew everyone by their names. The Enemy was defined as “anyone we didn’t know.”

In Anglo-Saxon cultures, the word evil was attributed to bad behavior. They could be seen as synonymous and thus syncretically meshed well into the growing spread of Christianity out of the historical periods.

A list could certainly be drafted providing all the senses of the term evil. Evil as cause, however, or as adjective or as philosophical quandary, as in the “problem of evil,” or as a noun all need qualification beyond those attributions and formulae.

At some point, Hitler and Komisarjevsky lost their sense of empathy, their ability to see others as human within the universe of humanity. The better formal educators I had about this question of empathy were Borowski, Baldwin, Garcia Marquez, and numerous other poets, even Roddenberry. Borowski didn’t have answers to causality. But he had a powerful sense of irony.

I really don’t think my ideas about evil are all that interesting. To me, the notions it evokes are just irrelevant.

An Essay on Belief and Definition

It is true that I often get visitors at our Simsbury house. They are often inconvenient but as I don’t like to be rude, I bear the visitations. A often comes with B. Or A will come with B and C. One time D came with B and I sensed the smell of alcohol on B, but it might have been that B was suffering a cold and had taken medicine. I didn’t ask. Who comes is a form of strategy.

The purpose of these meetings is conversion. I’m to be brought around to the views of A, who holds to Russell’s and Rutherford’s ideas. A contends that he’s right and that I’m wrong. On one of the visits, A argued that he was right because of birds. This is a fairly accurate paraphrase:

“Have you noticed how birds can fly so swiftly through the trees without hitting any branches?” I agreed with this, that I had indeed observed this activity, although I also said that sometimes the birds do indeed smack into limbs. He said, “The reason is that God built them this way.” This I disagreed with. I told him, partly with a joke, that birds evolved with this capability as without it they wouldn’t be able to get where they needed to go or make good at escape. He wasn’t impressed. I also told him that there were many theories about bird flight. I closed with a question: it’s usually the small birds that do this best, right?

A and Co’s typical method is to carve their fingernails under lines of the Book of Isaiah and tell me how these words justify or supply proof for their conclusions. I tell them that this kind of proof is not something I find all that convincing. One of our discussions had to do with a belief in evil. A had brought E this time, who has yet to return. E was a young, serious guy, a computer geek, and he told me point blank: “You do believe in evil.” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “You don’t think Hitler was evil?” I said, “No, I think he was crazy.” E was visibly shocked.

With A I pursued this line: why do you need to use deity to explain the flight of birds? Why was it not good enough to explain bird flight by studying bird flight, a curriculum he obviously hadn’t taken up? But he asked a legitimate question in return: why was that “good enough” for me?

Mitt Romney in his Liberty U speech claimed that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” The problem of same sex marriage will obviously persist in our culture. I often wonder when people say things like this what they really mean. Do they really believe that this is what marriage is or are they trying to get people on their side, as a statement of conviction or as a statement of fact? Does the distinction matter to them? Historically speaking, this is not how marriage has been defined or used in practice. There are several domains of marriage. In some theologies, marriage has been defined as a relationship between people and the church. The word also forks back to the Latin mātrimōnium, which has to do with mothers and their “state.” The Old French marier seems to indicate an act, that is the act of combining or providing a husband for a woman, a means of creating kinship relationships, or establishing any number of forms of unions, one of them being religious. In politics, the later is emphasized, which is the domain of explanation for the flight of birds for A.

What does it mean to say that “marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman”? The first observation is that Mr. Romney asserts this as a “universal” fact. Delta equals Delta(1). If we observe, therefore, Delta(1) we label it as Delta. More precisely, Delta comes with conditions which, absent any one of them, alters one side of the algorithm, therefore the conditions are not met for the definition to be valid. This would mean that when the Old Testament claims 700 wives for Solomon that Solomon was not married according to Mr. Romney’s definition. Solomon’s was an invalid “marriage.”

When I lecture on the idea of clubs in class I usually claim that clubs define their members by who is excluded. Belonging is often defined by exclusion. Because to not belong means one is “outside.” As kids, my brother and I started a club whose name I can’t remember. In our mean way (which our mother set right by giving us a good dress down), we wrote beneath the name of the club “No Smellingsuaces.” This was a reference to the kid whose odor we found not to our liking. We had used black crayon for the sign. We scratched the excluding condition out with red crayon, but I’m pretty sure the unliked boy still knew what we had intended. Writ large, religions work in much same way to various degrees. Doctrinal ideas are a means of defining who is not in the club just as much as they define the congregation. The Catholic Church, for example, excludes gays and lesbians from Catholic marriage.

The problem is that these kinds of assignments are not phenomenologically factual. Nor do they conform necessarily to true beliefs or statements of faith. Do people believe in definitions? It seems odd to claim that one can “believe” in a definition. A could certainly believe that the deity “created” bird flight and birds and, therefore, require no further examination. A can believe in the deity, building the degrees of his faith. A can also want me to believe in these things, too. Definitions provide meaning, and these meanings can be agreed upon with their variety of stipulations, connotations, and cases.

In arguments, persuasive cases can be made for reasonable definitions. Poverty, for example, can be reasonably defined as Delta if several items can be excluded from Delta. Or, in Romney’s case, an argument to define a set without having to supply arguments of essence, as in quid nominis/quid rei relationships or the Lockean nominal and real. Romney may want to the definition of marriage to be “this and that” but to claim that definition as Marriage’s authentic nature is like claiming a case for bird flight by avoiding avian observation and, instead, just making wild guesses and pretending to know what you’re talking about.

Ultimately, I think A’s world view is insufficient and with his world view he can easily avoid responsibility. I don’t find claims for deity all that interesting. That’s what I told him. It’s sufficient for me because it’s more interesting and comes with more profound conclusions and insights.

On the Creation of Imaginary Friends

From Alexsander Hamon’s The Aquarium

It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella’s age to have imaginary friends or siblings. The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses. Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect—in its California-ness. Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California. The words demanded the story.

On Atheists and Heathens

This tongue’n’cheek bit in the Guardian titled Atheists please read comes with several consequentialities. Julian Baggini writes

We are heathens because we have not been saved by God and because in the absence of divine revelation, we are in so many ways deeply unenlightened. The main difference between us and the religious is that we know this to be true of all of us, but they believe it is not true of them.

The first consequence comes in that initial, quoted sentence, a binary reliance for meaning. The second comes with the word “enlightened,” which is a baggage term.

If a person can claim an intellectual indifference to “religious” belief, that person might want to avoid classifications that rely on traditional frames. Atheism, for example, is always bumped up against its opposing force. Atheism, it can be written, depends upon religious belief for meaning: meaning, if the world were a room populated by two unbelievers, the room would have a confused identity. The above quote comes from a section in Baggini where he acknowledges the absurdity of such definitions.

I’m very much interested in these definitions, having restudied Lucretius and just completed The Swerve all in the context of Goethe, Basho, and Dostoevsky. If Atheism is defined as a “rejection,” then the subject of rejection remains “another inhabiter of the room.” One problem for Lucretius was an epistemological one: how does one know something or what conclusion can or should be drawn from a list of observed phenomenon? In a particular belief system, the term “know” is, in an Augustinian sense, a supporter of faith. Faith is buttressed by knowledge. In another context of knowing, faith becomes an inconsequential force, an irrelevancy. It simply doesn’t matter or plays no role in epistemology. In this sense, “Heathens” would need no specific frame of reference to hold identity, such as a love of science. A person could simply observe the yellow birds and relate their color to an onion.

End of Semester Review: the Story Continues

It’s that time of year for an end of semester review. Spring 2011 and a few prior to that were dispiriting times in my career. Just after I was hired at the college full time in 1998, I had my first experience of walking into a writing classroom with about seven or so people in it on “paper due” day, wondering where all the students were. Turns out all other students had either dropped or stopped attending (I’ve entered classrooms where one or two students were there, with absolutely no plan B). This was a class of 24 students to start and it hit me that something had changed about the ethos of that particular classroom. It’s became habitual for writing classes to dwindle after about the fifth week from full to half, give or take a few people. Spring 2011 was no different. I even thought that it might be time to quit.

I took on a summer course and changed a few things. I provided students with what I call practice lessons in paragraph copying, grammar, and analysis work, real by the numbers stuff: do this, do it again, do it again, now do it again. By analysis I refer to the act of applying evidence and reasoning standards and interpreting ideas for significance. This gave the summer students more intensive work, but more students completed the course–and I responded with a “hm.” I tried the same this semester, but finding practice for students to do beyond paper development was difficult in the extended semester (so much space in between things), which I now consider too long. We should move to eight week semesters.

This semester, I developed fairly straight-forward assignments and have more completers, this despite Storm What’shisname, and the intensified load. Yet, I find the end-game grading more difficult, not because of the pressure of getting them done, but because the matter for grading is becoming stranger: as in what I read as “final drafts” often doesn’t reflect a semester’s worth of specific learning technique. Most of the students in our classes are moving to college with the baggage of NCLB around their necks and were little more than toddlers when G.W. Bush became president. Their centers of gravity are very different from students I saw in the early nineties and early twenties. Their frames of reference are difficult for me to understand, as I don’t necessarily know what they interpret when I say things like “context,” “conclusion,” “analysis,” and “deadline.” In many ways this reflects no difference between a college freshman experience of any other representative time. But, then again, years ago, the audience hadn’t yet been split into its several cultural fragments.

One element I must cope with in the future is the question of requirements and standards and being mindful of the purpose of the college classroom. At the college, I’m an interdiscipline person, a generalist, with a principle interest in new media I hope that’s not a contradiction). But the notion of an academic discipline is still severely important in the context of knowledge interpretation, development, and creative problem solving, and from a discipline perspective, the college classroom is in many respects bent on expressing a coherent and precise history of a discipline, providing a framework for its genre of questions, and opening doors for supplementation. We can never know enough about any one thing.

My job isn’t all that hard, and my subject matter is graspable by majorities. But I often wonder as I read student work whether the subject matter to them has become peculiar, frustrating, and strangely disaffecting. It’s no longer a question of “why should I know this” but “what is this stuff you’re talking about?” Sometimes I wonder if certain student have a notion or a conception of the subject at hand given their histories, their backgrounds, and their habits, and this is a remarkable turn of events.

The Common Questions
Students come to my office with grave concerns and sincere questions. Even this video which as seen its rounds misses something keen in the elastic relationships of teacher/student. That the student is, indeed, sincere in their concern about grade. Moreover, the discipline required to demonstrate honest learning may be absent in the students’ methods and process. I see too many students who simply don’t understand that what is said in the classroom requires practice outside the classroom to engender development of mind. I see too many students who simply think that they can memorize on the spot and transfer later. I don’t doubt that this is a sincere “belief” because I haven’t the evidence to think differently. But I can, from my conversations, conclude that many of the people I work with have very little exposure to the debates and ideas of the day and don’t really involve themselves in them.

Throughout the semester, students expressed real shock at their early scores on our colleges standards of evaluation, which are meant to be low to give students means of improvement. They visited my office and informed me that they’d always received Bs or As and so what was up with me and my grading. This was always supplied in a tone of accusation. The student couldn’t comprehend that they were accusing me–offering fault–of being unfair as they sought answers for their own underperformance against the standards. I told them: “study and you’ll improve.” Theory: people improve when they study in method courses.

Grades are indeed a means of judging. But grades in college are institutional symbols; they’re an exposed stitch in an otherwise ambiguous universe of hidden twingles, knots, and shadowy patterns. In a perfect world, students would read an evaluation and then retire to the cloister and improve where they were asked to improve, trusting that there was some rhyme to the stanza, which is simply one of a rather long and dense poem, whose deeper parts will unravel later in life. I often find that these conversations lead to mutual frustration. I seek the language of explanation, encouragement, and development. The student wants assurance that their GPA will be okay in the end, that they won’t ultimately be harmed (which is symbolic harm); but they rarely express concern about subject matter knowledge. We’re not, in the end, understanding each other. Neither of us is, perhaps, at fault.

But many of my students learned something. Many of them inspired me. Many will be not be happy, and my colleagues and I have a lot still to talk about:

1. Intensifying a semester often filled with too much space
2. Diminishing the pressure of grades
3. Prepping for students who will be coming with yet stranger habits and expectations
4. Figuring how to tap into talent and new talents

P.S.
I like the studio art method where grades are withheld till the end but learning is asked for throughout. I also like the proposition of gradeless completion and let the market hash out competence. Isn’t this what portfolios are for? If there are portfolios, why do we need grades? Note that grades and evaluative standards are not the same thing.