Category: Education

The real threats to free speech on campus

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is an excerpt:

…being at a state school is hardly a guarantee of tolerance. Teaching at a state university does widen the scope of what a professor can say without being fired. But ongoing student protests or unfavorable treatment from colleagues can make continued employment so unpleasant that a person simply decides to leave. In my experience, most professors aren’t in it for the money — rather, they love their work. Loving your work is a gift that can be taken away rather easily, regardless of whatever formal legal protections there may be.

Or consider the position of a student. You might have the legal right to start a pro-Trump group on campus. But you might be dissuaded from doing so if you fear your professors would respond by writing you mediocre letters of recommendation.

What really matters on campus is what the most obstreperous participants in these debates consider to be acceptable behavior and speech, and how far they will take their protests. These individuals are usually those with relatively little to lose from strident behavior, and perhaps some local status to gain. They may be students, or they may not; they can be student counselors, or faculty members, or even low-level university bureaucrats.

I explain in the piece why my own university, George Mason, has been strong in this regard.  And I am not crazy about the new proposed Trump executive order:

The relevant troublemakers are hardly ever university administrators. Yet they would inevitably become entangled in any tighter federal free-speech regulations. I have found such administrators to be pragmatic and able to see multiple sides of an issue, even if I do not always agree with their stances. Their primary goal is usually to get the rancor and protests to go away, so the business of the university can return to normal. Placing more constraints on their behavior could actually weaken their hand — by limiting their ability to mollify unruly student groups, for instance.

The full piece offers several additional arguments of note, so do read the whole thing.  Here is my conclusion:

I’m all for free speech, whether for public or private schools. But the fight has to be won in the hearts and minds of students and workers, not by the federal government.

The complacent class

The students who had taken over her office were a conscious throwback to the activism of the 1960s, when Hampshire [College] was conceived as an experiment in higher education. Now they were fighting for its survival in a different time, and it was not looking good. The college announced in January that it was facing “tough financial trends” and was looking for a partner to stay afloat…

Founded in 1965 and opened to students five years later, Hampshire, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, is an embodiment of the progressive education principles that arose from the spirit of individualism and self-expression of that era. There are no grades, only narrative assessments, and there are no prescribed majors; students design their own courses of study.

Hampshire and a few dozen other schools founded on similar principles were once the cutting edge of academia. But now, families facing sky-high tuitions are looking for a more direct link between college and career, college officials say. As a result, many of these small, experimental schools are being forced to re-examine their missions, merge with more traditional institutions or, in some cases, shut down.

Here is more from Anemona Hartocollis at the NYT.

Modern Principles of Economics

If you are teaching principles of economics next year do check out our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics.

Modern Principles means modern content and modern delivery. We cover material that many other textbooks ignore, such as how managers should choose between piece rates and tournaments and how firms can increase their profits using clever forms of price discrimination such as bundling and tying. In macroeconomics, we have created a simple yet powerful AD-AS model that combines insights from New Keynesian and Real Business Cycle models. We have also created the Super Simple Solow model which for the first time makes the Solow model of economic growth accessible to principles of economics students.

High-quality videos integrated directly into the textbook make Modern Principles a new kind of textbook, one born in the age of the internet. No other textbook has the quantity and quality of supplementary material available with Modern Principles. Whether you are looking to flip the classroom or just for the occasional video to grab the student’s attention before the lecture, you will find what you need in Modern Principles. The superb course management system also makes it easy to assign videos and grade questions.

Teachers can request a free examination copy here.

Here’s a video overview of Modern Principles of Economics:

How to improve the tenure process

Next, institutions must heed growing calls to abandon paper counting and similar metrics for evaluating researchers. One alternative approach, the Rule of Five, demonstrates a clear commitment to quality: candidates present their best five papers over the past five years, accompanied by a description of the research, its impact and their individual contribution. The exact numbers are immaterial: what matters is the focus on quality. A handful of institutions have required reviewers to consider individual contributions rather than lists of publications, and the shift has not been easy. Reviewers should be admonished for Googling individuals’ h-indices and citation lists, for example. Perseverance and self-reflection are essential.

Here is the Nature piece by Alan Finkel, via Lama.

RadicalXChange, March 22-24

Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours has an excellent podcast with Glen Weyl on Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better. Weyl’s diagnosis of the problems of capitalism and democracy strike me as wrongheaded but on the other hand his solutions are interesting.and original. Wiblin does a good job of gently but decisively pushing back in places, e.g. in the discussion of high modernism.

RadicalXChange is hosting a big conference March 22-24 in Detroit. In addition to Weyl, speakers include Vitalik Buterin, Margaret Levi and Zooko Wilcox among others. I will be talking about open borders and also about city development on a panel with Devon Zuegel, Mwiya Musokotwane and Mark Lutter.

Screening

Academic jobs are notorious for long, convoluted hiring processes, but becoming a school bus driver, at least in the county where I work, isn’t much easier.  For an academic position, applicants submit a dossier (often packed with repetitive material), survive a screening interview (with a committee larded by ulterior motives), and visit the prospective employer for at least a day, during which they’ll be tested and measured by dozens of gatekeepers, before negotiating a complex employment package and earning the governing board’s rubber stamp, all of which can take over a year.  Aspiring drivers attend an orientation, watch dozens of online videos, solicit moral references, pass a physical (including a drug screening), get a commercial learner’s permit (a laborious process that requires extensive testing and hours at the DMV), finish classroom and road training (at least 200 hours), sit for various written exams (failure of a single exam can mean removal from the program), complete a half-day CDL test (which includes a daunting pre-trip bus check), and undertake at least two weeks of on-the-job training before showing up at the intake office to request a route that probably isn’t available.  Trainees are paid once they reach the classroom.  I finished everything in about six months.

That is from Steve Salaita, who was forced to leave academia after several times making inappropriate remarks.  Here is another bit from the same essay:

You hear ex-professors say it all the time and I’ll add to the chorus:  despite nagging precariousness, there’s something profoundly liberating about leaving academe, whereupon you are no longer obliged to give a shit about fashionable thinkers, network at the planet’s most boring parties, or quantify self-worth for scurrilous committees (and whereupon you are free to ignore the latest same-old controversy), for even when you know at the time that the place is toxic, only after you exit (spiritually, not physically) and write an essay or read a novel or complete some other task without considering its relevance to the fascist gods of assessment, or its irrelevance to a gang of cynical senior colleagues, do you realize exactly how insidious and pervasive is the industry’s culture of social control.

Wordy at times, but mostly interesting throughout.

How do you teach writing in a scalable manner to third- and fourth-graders?

This is a bleg, so please leave your sagacious answers in the comments.  Kelly Smith, of Prenda, writes me:

To summarize, I want kids to love writing, to see themselves as writers, and to improve their skill. I’d love to know about anyone who has done that systematically.

Are you able to help?  Rest assured that your answers will be put to good use.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

What should I ask Emily R. Wilson?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, no associated public event.  She is the translator of a splendid and highly readable Homer’s Odyssey, which I named as the very best book of the year for last year.  She is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a classicist, a Seneca scholar, and an all-around very smart person.  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask her?

Women in Economics

Tyler and I are very pleased to announce a new series at MRU, Women in Economics.

Women in Economics highlights the groundbreaking and inspiring work of female economists – not only to recognize the important work they’ve done but to also share their inspirational journeys.

Our first major video on Elinor Ostrom will be released on February 12 followed by videos on Janet Yellen (featuring Christina Romer and Ben Bernanke), Anna Schwartz (featuring Claudia Goldin), Joan Robinson and more. We also have some more informal “mini-testimonials” discussing the work of some major contemporary economists who have been inspirational. In the video below I discuss the work of Petra Moser. (I should have cleaned my office.)

Tyler and I also want to take a moment to thank the fantastic team at MRU for a huge amount of creativity, inspiration and hard work in putting this series together. Lots of thanks and appreciation to Roman Hardgrave, Alexandra Tooley, Mary Clare Peate, Brandon Davis, Justin Dile, Lindsay Moss and William Nava. You too can join the team!

More here.

Engagement with “fake news” on Facebook is declining

In recent years, there has been widespread concern that misinformation on social media is damaging societies and democratic institutions. In response, social media platforms have announced actions to limit the spread of false content. We measure trends in the diffusion of content from 569 fake news websites and 9,540 fake news stories on Facebook and Twitter between January 2015 and July 2018. User interactions with false content rose steadily on both Facebook and Twitter through the end of 2016. Since then, however, interactions with false content have fallen sharply on Facebook while continuing to rise on Twitter, with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares decreasing by 60 percent. In comparison, interactions with other news, business, or culture sites have followed similar trends on both platforms. Our results suggest that the relative magnitude of the misinformation problem on Facebook has declined since its peak.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Allcott, Gentzkow, and Yu.

San Francisco fact of the day

San Francisco has more drug addicts than it has students enrolled in its public high schools, the city Health Department’s latest estimates conclude.

There are about 24,500 injection drug users in San Francisco — that’s about 8,500 more people than the nearly 16,000 students enrolled in San Francisco Unified School District’s 15 high schools

Here is more, via an MR reader.

California fact of the day

UCLA students call about 11,000 Uber and Lyft rides that never leave campus every week, raising concerns about the environmental impact of unnecessary trips.

Here is the article, via Jessica Roberts.  I can’t say I am crazy about the framing however — have you tried walking across UCLA campus?  You could just as soon write an article criticizing the people who don’t do bulk shopping, thereby creating unnecessary car trips to the store.  Students who live on campus hardly seem like the worst environmental offenders or anywhere close to it.

Does “putting yourself in the shoes of others” reduce attitude change?

From Rhia Catapano, Zakary L. Tormala, and Derek D. Rucker:

Counterattitudinal-argument generation is a powerful tool for opening people up to alternative views. On the basis of decades of research, it should be especially effective when people adopt the perspective of individuals who hold alternative views. In the current research, however, we found the opposite: In three preregistered experiments (total N = 2,734), we found that taking the perspective of someone who endorses a counterattitudinal view lowers receptiveness to that view and reduces attitude change following a counterattitudinal-argument-generation task. This ironic effect can be understood through value congruence: Individuals who take the opposition’s perspective generate arguments that are incongruent with their own values, which diminishes receptiveness and attitude change. Thus, trying to “put yourself in their shoes” can ultimately undermine self-persuasion. Consistent with a value-congruence account, this backfire effect is attenuated when people take the perspective of someone who holds the counterattitudinal view yet has similar overall values.

Yes, yes the replication crisis.  Still, this may be a useful countertonic against the notion that trying to understand other people always yields high returns.  Perhaps the better approach is simply to drain yourself of values when considering the perspectives of other people.

Craig Palsson does economics on YouTube — Market Power

His channel is Market Power, and he promises new economics videos every Tuesday.  Here is the associated Twitter account for the channel.  Here is his video “How much does vibranium cost in the Marvel movies?”:

Here is another video “How much is an Oscar nomination worth?

And I am pleased to announce that Craig is a newly minted Emergent Ventures fellow.  He also is an economic historian, and has lived for two years in Haiti, both big pluses in my view.