Stories of Decline, Stasis, and Progress

Peter Levine asks, “Why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” in areas where objective measures suggest progress or growth:

You can care deeply about public education, civic education, teenagers’ behavior, or–if you must–gun rights, but there is no basis for arguing that these things are worse than they used to be. I am pretty sure that the argument from decline (argumentum ad declivem?) is a harmful fallacy … although I am not saying that it has become more common of late.

I think this is related to general problems with narratives and persuasion, but at the same time there’s something uniquely self-contradictory about decline arguments. In general, decline stories appear to act like narrative “stubs” or snowclones that short-circuit critical appraisal: the story helps us suspend our disbelief, priming us to expect a certain kind of Protestant framework where renewed effort can restore the lost Golden Age.

Perhaps, too, such narratives help to combat complacency. For instance, runners are taught to push hardest as the finish approaches, and we might look at various kinds of homeostatic cognitive phenomena like risk compensation (the Peltzmann effect) or hedonic adaptation. “We are winning: redouble your efforts!” isn’t quite so motivational as the cornered rats’ refrain: “We fight or we die!”

Levine resolutely refuses to conclude that this is a recent phenomenon (and it’s clearly not.) But if it were, then we might look for historical events that make such narratives particularly resonant. Might not fears of the loss of American empire, in the midst of economic turmoil, produce a general malaise that spills over into areas that are not similarly turbulent? Similarly, these stories might simply be particularly popular as the Baby Boomers reach retirement, since their economic and political ascendancy pressures our entire culture to dream nostalgically of their youth. Certainly I don’t hear many decline fables from the Millennial generation… yet.

Then, too, progress may appear as changes from the status quo that we cannot recognize as progress: civic knowledge skills are flat, but convention indicators of civic engagement and communal trust are down. This may be due to new forms of participation and new solidarities supplanting the older forms, which disrupts our indexes and measurements. Yet online social networks produce different ties than neighborhood associations. So is this progress, stasis, or decline?

Different metrics tell different stories. While Levine is obviously right that per-pupil spending in public education is much higher, outcomes are stagnating. We’re spending much more per student but those students are performing at almost the same level they did when spending was six times lower. At the same time, we educate a much larger group of immigrants and deal with many kinds of developmental disabilities that we once ignored or institutionalized. Is this progress, stasis, or decline?

The NRA’s complaint that gun ownership rights are eroding is the most absurd of these: a transparent effort to preserve motivation in the wake of a string of victories. But are they wrong to notice that the majority of Americans want stricter gun control laws and worry what that bodes for the future of their signature issue? I worry that a similar majority of Americans prefer to let religious employers opt-out of the insuring birth control, even though as a whole the Affordable Care Act is a major victory for women’s rights.

So is that progress, stasis, or decline? I recently learned that Mao didn’t think it was too early to judge the French Revolution: that was a different Chinese premier, speaking of the student movements in Paris in 1968 only three years earlier. Yet some stories are too good to give up on the basis of mere facts, so I echo Mao when I say: it’s too soon to tell.

More on Regret

Metafilter’s dgaicun shares this meta-analysis on regret, “What we regret most… and why.” An excerpt:

Education is the number one life regret, accounting for 32.2% of all reported regrets (SD = 1.89). This is a strikingly consistent finding, confirmed by a wide margin in all but two data sets (those exceptions being Landman et al., 1995, and Data Set 3 ofLandman & Manis, 1992).

Educational regrets were things like “should have stayed in school, should have studied harder, should have gotten another degree.” In other words, people wish they’d worked harder. After education, people regret their careers, romance, parenting, self, and leisure. In contrast, few people have regrets related to finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, or community: “the remaining six regrets were so low in frequency as to be effectively inconsequential.”

In short, we probably shouldn’t ignore Ware’s advice, all we need to do is reverse it:

  1. Conform to expectations.
  2. Work and study harder.
  3. Bottle up your feelings.
  4. Don’t stay in touch with old friends.
  5. Don’t worry so much about happiness.

dgaicun comments:

One hypocrisy to always keep in mind about social class, is that people earn social status brownie points by A) earning lots of money and moving up in high status jobs, and B) simultaneously paying lots of lip service to the idea that money and good jobs are superficial and don’t matter much. People do this all the time; watch for it.

Sounds a lot like the satisficers from my post on the middle class. The study’s authors draw this conclusion:

Opportunity breeds regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed. Rankings of life regrets, interesting in and of themselves, point to this deeper theoretical principle. Life regrets are a reflection of where in life people see opportunity, that is, where they see the most tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal.

In other words: regrets are a luxury, not a truth-tracking emotion. Enjoy them as the mixture of nostalgia and tenderness that they are, but don’t succumb to the fantasy that they necessarily track better choices.

How to get a philosophical education for free

A regularly updated version of this guide can be found here.

DIY UI teach at the third-most expensive school in the country, where I regularly persuade students that they should major or minor in philosophy. For many students, this is a value question, and as I like to put it, there’s a difference here between the value of a philosophy education and its price. Specifically, it’s not clear to me that it ought to cost $200,000 to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy… but I do think it’s worth it.

As a result of this tension, the current crisis in the humanities has very personal implications for me. In the UK, whole departments are being cut, while the US continues to squeeze the humanities even when they are massively popular and profitable. As I’ve been trying to argue, this was always entailed by the growing rent-seeking class of administrators who we have apparently hired so that we can be saved the labor needed to fire us. Frankly, I suspect we’ve had this coming for a couple of millennia now: didn’t Socrates make his name undermining the paid-teaching models of the Sophists?

Iain Pears writes critically of this trend but the upshot is actually somewhat conservative:

The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge

I call that conservative because the humanities will again be relegated to their role in signaling status, as only richer Britons or Americans will be able to afford the tuition fees at top schools where the humanities are still taught.

Caught in the middle of this, I think we have two options: we can criticize and decry this course of events in hopes of changing it, or we can begin preparing for a time when humanities instruction is less accessible than it has been over the past half-century. In fact, we should do both, but today I want to focus on preparation.

So, here’s what I have in mind: a free syllabus in philosophy for all those students who can’t afford to attend one of the elite schools that still teaches philosophy in a decade.

Here’s how it works: combine the free online offerings of MIT’s Open Courseware, Academic Earth, Itunes U, and Youtube with other free web resources that would suffice to supply what could once only be gained by taking out student loans.

Check it out!

  • Introduction to Philosophy

Start with Oxford’s Peter Millican at Itunes U.

  • Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Michael Sandel’s Justice course has drawn tens of thousands of Harvard students and focuses on themes and problems in the good life and the good society. Steven B. Smith offers a historical approach at Yale on Academic Earth. Explore special topics the BBC’s Ethics Bites or spend a semester with Berkley’s Michael Nagler considering the case for Nonviolence.

  • Epistemology and Metaphysics

I haven’t been able to find an introductory course just on metaphysics, but how about John Searle’s lectures on the Philosophy of Mind? Alternatively, take a look at this course on the ethics and metaphysics of Death by Yale’s Shelly Kagan.

  • Aesthetics

Kent State’s Jeffrey Wattles offers an Introduction.

What’s missing?

Now, self-regard prevents me from really believing that the education available online is better than the one you can get in my classroom, but I’m not so arrogant to think that I’m a better lecturer than Michael Sandel. Notable is what’s lost when all you have are these kinds of courses: you lose feedback and the interrogative experience of a seminar room, you lose the cohort of fellow students who will stay up late hashing out a passage from Aristotle, you lose the synchronicity of associations between very different courses taken simultaneously, and you lose the assessment and professionalization that a professor’s comments and counseling supply. What makes my classroom work is the seminar-style I learned as an undergraduate at Bard College, and which I try to foster at George Washington. That’s the practice of philosophy as a liberal art, a technique for free citizens to inquire together into matters of fundamental concern. You can’t learn the habitus of philosophy from an online video.

  • Special Topics

So far, the courses available online might supply the first two years of a philosophy degree. A disciplined person pursing this syllabus would have a good sense of the overall discipline, but could not be said to have “majored” in philosophy, because the free university offerings become a bit sparser at the advanced level. Courses at this level become specialized, focusing on epochs, figures, problems, and themes. Plus, this is the stage when we start really pushing students to see which ones have potential to become professional scholars, if not in philosophy than in a proximate academic discipline or as lawyers. That means it’s a much more interactive and much more textual education, and it may be less easily-suppled online.

However, it’s always possible glean specific insights and avenues for research from Philosophy Bites or the Guardian’s How to Believe series. You can dig deeper into any topic using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Herbert Dreyfus takes students through Heidegger’s Being and Time (continued here), which you can supplement with Simon Critchley’s series in the Guardian. Also at the Guardian, Mark Vernon blogs The Platonic Dialogues, and in the same vein, Chris Long offers a series of interviews on Socratic Political themes. (More from the Guardian: KierkegaardNietzscheHume,Wittgenstein, and Hobbes.)

For a while Susan Stuart’s lectures on Kant’s epistemology offered a pretty thorough guide to The Critique of Pure Reason, but they’ve been removed. Perhaps they’ll be back. I wouldn’t ask DIY-ers to brave the first Critique without a guide, but this is the point when a good library or bookstore might supply the missing manual.

  • Interaction and Feedback

The quickest way to get feedback on an idea or argument is to start blogging about it. A really ambitious DIY student could recruit a cohort of fellow DIY-ers to work with her. Start a WordPress or Blogger blog and join a community like Big Big QuestionEphilosopherMetafilter, or Less Wrong. Start writing, reading, responding, and linking, and the commentary will come. Some of it will be critical, some helpful, some mean, but you’ll learn and make connections, develop insights and obsessions, just like a traditional student.

The hardest part is finding someone to grade your work, but Virtual-TA has you covered there.

  • Professionalization

If all the instruction is happening online, and all the grading is is Bangalore, who would want to be a “professional” philosopher? With the UK cutting budgets and whole departments, and humanities instruction increasingly done by adjuncts and graduate students rather than tenure/tenure-track faculty, it appears that there may soon be fewer opportunities for philosophy instruction that there were previously.

So maybe we could forgo professionalization… except that it seems to me that an amateur philosophy student has only learned enough to be dangerous, not enough to be useful. So in that sense, my free syllabus is a failure: you can get a philosophical education for free, online, but it takes bit more than that to garner the benefits of studying philosophy. (But hopefully not $200,000 more….) If this page whets your whistle, though… well, remind me to tell you about Socrates’ art of matchmaking and midwifery when you sign up for my course. 🙂

If we love our discipline as much as the paycheck and status it promises, we have to work to combat the exclusivity of an examined life available only to those who can pay. If the internet is not yet able to take over our duties… I guess we’re going to have to fight.

About Me (and Rawl’s A Theory of Justice, and the Economic Stimulus Bill)

I’ve always loved the cautious understatement in the title of Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. There’s a kind of bad faith humility implicit in the claim that you’re just offering the world another account of right and wrong, to be set on the shelves next to all those other cockamamie normative theories: nothing special, move along. Of course, this is more ironic in retrospect, because we now know that political philosophers would find this humility so authentic and charming that they can talk of little else but Rawl’s halting, fallible go at defining justice as fairness in excruciating detail.

The name of this site captures that feeling I get whenever I think about “a” theory of justice. There’s an ironic meta-statement about political philosophy built into my nom de plume, “anotherpanacea.” I’m both a big fan and a big skeptic of utopias, of cure-alls and universal remedies: communism, anarcho-syndicalism, or immortality through extreme calorie-reduction. I’m just as big a fan of dystopian predictions, apocalyptic planning, and conspiracy theories: Y2K, the Second Coming of Christ, Silent Spring, the Illuminati, etc.

The name is meant to be both descriptive and cautionary:

“Hey guys! Look at this great solution-to-the-world’s-ills I’ve discovered!”

Another panacea? Great, I bet you worked out all the kinks in the human condition this time….”

So that’s me: I’m both an idealist and a cynic. I have both the arrogant sense that I know how the world should run (at least a little better than most of the people actually in the position to do it), and yet I take great pleasure and wonder from its complexity and resistance to control, from the emergent behaviors that constantly trip up master planners and evil geniuses alike. Part of my job involves spending a lot of time studying the deleterious effects of the global political economic order, which is a task that can easily lead to despair. Another part involves talking with people about the good life, about happiness and flourishing, about community and belonging, and about the legal history of the United States of America, which is a pretty wonderful, hopeful story. That’s the tension I navigate most days, and it’s a satisfying one.

I’ve been thinking about these basic questions of identity and method lately as I find myself embroiled in conversations about the upcoming stimulus bill. Diagnosing economic disasters is a kind of Rorshach test for political philosophers. Any market failure in a capitalist economy has a multitude of contributing factors, many of which are not even evident at the moment of the disaster itself. We can locate the problem in ordinary human greed (consumer spending, household debt-to-savings ratios) or the special greed of bad men (bankers and brokers, speculators and Republicans), in lack of regulation (Where was the SEC? Should we have public bond-rating agencies?) or in over-regulation (mark-to-market accounting, distortionary taxation schemes), in the systematic exploitation of capitalism itself or in the apparently self-defeating impulse to control the business cycle (war spending, central bank regulation of interest rates), in the broken global financial order (trade deficits and tariffs) or in a long-overdue  correction of Euro-American economic hegemony (Chinese trade war waged through exchange rate manipulation.)

Added to the diagnostic question, there are the solutions and prescriptions adopted not just by political philosophers and economists, but by ordinary citizens. Right now, the national debate is focused on two solutions: deficit spending and tax cuts. It’s amazing how much ideology and political affiliation shapes our approach to this question: deficit tax cutting and defecit spending both have inflationary effects, and both saddle the next generation with debts for the spending of the last generation. Right now, we seem confident that our governement will spend the money wisely, though the same government under different leadership has stupidly wasted almost $2 trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, between war-time appropriations, future commitments to veterans’ education and health, and the costs to the economy of taking all those young, healthy workers overseas at a time when we needed their help domestically bolstering productivity.

Increasingly, I’ve seen people  asking: how are we to deal with the social justice issues that are attendant with any government spending when larger economic or political forces threaten everyone’s welfare but promise to harm the least-advantaged disproportionately? I’m glad this question is emerging for so many different kinds of people. Some of them express their concerns in terms of the ‘moral hazard’ of bailing out failing banks and negligent bankers, others with the question of the fairness of bailing out home owners at the expense of those who rent. A recent article about forgiving student loans (which is not a provision of the stimulus bill) excited a major debate at Metafilter over the justice of a wealth transfer from the poor and uneducated to the educated but indebted, about personal responsibility and moral hazard, and about the economics of higher education.

There are a profusion of panaceas on offer here, and an even larger set of reasons for skepticism. All of this is driving our attention back to the fundamental questions: how should our shared world be structured? What role is there in it for the state’s legitimate monopoly on violence and coercive taxation? What division of labor and goods is just? What goals and goods ought we to pursue as citizens, as parents, as neighbors, as friends? What’s fair? What works?

While as a citizen and a worker, I’d like to see steps taken quickly to rectify the ailing economy, I also like to see the debates and deliberations on these issues taking place in newspapers, in churches, in internet forums and blogs, and at the dinner table. It gives me a special thrill, in part,  because these are my favorite questions, but even that is rooted in my belief that everyone benefits when they confront these questions head-on and dig deeply to make their answers cohere in comprehensive theories of justice. As Michael Sandel says, “We live some answer to these questions every day.”