Citizen, Renew Thyself

I tend to think that the most fundamental question in political philosophy is whether we need a state and what sort of thing that is. (In political theory it’s how we got a state and what we should do with it.) Peter Levine recently asked a related question: what should we do when political leaders call for civic renewal?

It’s kind of a confusing question: where do citizen-elected leaders get the authority to ask us to be better citizens? What’s clear is that we frequently ignore such calls: as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s calls for citizen action were quickly channeled into the traditional Democratic electoral machine, and today Pope Francis’s calls for the same will have to be channeled through the steering and transmission mechanisms of the Catholic Church. I’d say perhaps we even ought to ignore them, for all the reasons that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” capture. A citizens movement doesn’t have to be leaderless, but the kinds of leaders ensconced at the top of large institutions are not well-suited to be the leaders of civic renewal movements. They can inspire and celebrate such movements, but neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders nor Pope Francis can lead them. Their institutional authority appears to be inimical to the very bottom-up power they’re trying to engender.

Part of the issue here is that I have a strong anti-electoral-politics bias. I worry about the ways that elections serve to blunt citizen action and legitimate state power. I worry about the ways that elections polarize us. I worry about the ways that elections create heroic narratives of individual politicians come to save us. And so I tend to think that civic renewal must de-emphasize the importance of elections and partisanship.

Another issue is money. Peter watched throughout his life as US elections have been swamped by money and he has actively fought against it; I’m a bit younger and it seems that’s always been the case and that the battles were always destined to be losing ones. One can *almost* imagine a civic renewal movement that takes up this problem explicitly and campaigns for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and re-assert some form of campaign finance restrictions… but given the size of the country and the difficulty in amending the constitution, it would (ironically) have to be an extraordinarily well-funded campaign to end well-funded campaigns.

We might instead choose to devote those resources to responding to a specific policy demand, for instance Pope Francis’s call in Laudatio Si’ that we organize and protest for climate change. This is much more exciting for me, in part because of the demand for substantive rather than procedural policy changes, and in part because the focused attention to a political project seems to offer more hope for procedural changes along the way than a procedural project would offer substantive side effects.

In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis mostly calls for dialogue and education, which strikes me as appropriate for his position but inadequate to the need. In public comments he has called for direct, citizen-led action, however, and the encyclical also hints at it as an expression of “social love”:

Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties of importing the Christian conception of caritas into the public sphere, so I won’t belabor that point here. But surely this is divine demand for intervention is an important substantive claim: as more and more religious organizations have realized, the global and international role of faith and religious solidarity means that they cannot be satisfied by the politics of nation-states, and the cross-cutting relationships that faith can make a space for are not necessarily anti-political. Even for people of faith, our treasures do not entirely lie in Heaven: we must organize to be efficacious in particular policy arenas and to be effective this organization will have to both deeply rooted in the specifics of the faith and simultaneously ecumenical.

Organizing for a cause, citizens often learn that political contestation and civic engagement is intrinsically rewarding. But it suffers from the same teleological paradox as other such goods: the telos of an engaged citizenry requires that engagement serve as a meaningful means to some other end. As is often the case, it comes back to Hannah Arendt for me: we must wrestle with our fellow citizens in the public sphere on matters of shared concern to live flourishing lives, yet when we engage we must do so for some other, particular reason.

As terrible as the threat of climate change might be, it gives me some hope that it might force us to rediscover the revolutionary treasure that is often lost in amillenial times.

Foucault on Education and Human Capital

From Foucault’s Collège de France lecture on March 14th, 1979 (in what the publisher has misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics despite the fact that that year’s lectures basically spelled the end of Foucault’s work on biopolitics and focused on the limitation of state control over the market):

What does it mean to form human capital, and so to form these kinds of abilities-machines which will produce income, which will be remunerated by income? It means, of course, making what are called educational investments. In truth, we have not had to wait for the neo-liberals to measure some of the effects of these educational investments, whether this involves school instruction strictly speaking, or professional training, and so on, But the neo-liberals lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital? What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine? Experimentally, on the basis of observations, we know it is constituted by, for example, the time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking. We know that the number of hours a mother spends with her child, even when it is still in the cradle, will be very important for the formation of an abilities-machine, or for the formation of a human capital, and that the child will be much more adaptive if in fact its parents or its mother spend more rather than less time with him or her. This means that it must be possible to analyze the simple time parents spend feeding their children, or giving them affection as investment which can form human capital. Time spent, care given, as well as the parents’ education because we know quite precisely that for an equal time spent with their children, more educated parents will form a higher human capital than parents with less education-in short, the set of cultural stimuli received by the child, will all contribute to the formation of those elements that can make up a human capital.

The echos of Heidegger on standing-reserve are quite strong here, but I also think we see one problem with my attempt to resolve the teleological paradox in education yesterday.

What happens to care and affection when they are analyzed in terms of their human capital-formative effects? This is the other reason that humanities advocates decry the instrumentalism of education: the fear that things like art and history which have previously stood as pure teloi [telê?] will subsequently become mere means to an end. We have to be very careful if we are to keep the instrumentally-reflective stage from infecting or polluting the genuineness of the commitments and relationships that we learn on reflection are best-suited to achieving our guiding or ultimate ends.

And perhaps, too, being “very careful” will not prevent instrumentality from colonizing the life-world. The “helicopter parent” has simply taken the neo-liberal realization about care-as-investment to heart, and is “saving up” for the future.

The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education

In my brief response to Community College Dean a few weeks back, I said something that I think is pretty obvious, but that is often ignored:

humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education [because] you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Consider the classic paradox of hedonism articulated by Henry Sedgwick: across a whole range of domains, you cannot maximize utility if you take the maximization of pleasure as the motivation for engaging in activities that tend to be pleasurable. Your motivation matters. Even a hedonist has to have projects, and those projects are only reward to her if she takes them on for their own sake and ignores the utility she will gain.

For instance: being in love increases your utility, but if you approach a potential partner with an offer of mutual hedonism, he will rightly suspect that you are not seeking long-lasting love. “I really want to have a relationship with you, not because I think you’re awesome, but because I think it will make me happy and this seems like a good way to do it” is no way to fall in love; the potential partner will rightly say, “That’s weird, I don’t want to be loved selfishly, I want to be loved for myself.” You might think that you are then lying to your partner when you claim to love him for himself, but in fact we are impressively good at catching such lies. We have to really take that “for-himselfness” of loving seriously, to the extent that we’d even be miserable if our lover dies, in order to garner the hedonistic benefits of loving. The rational hedonist courts just this sacrifice.

You might also go to church to increase utility, but folks would think you were crazy if you went to church and said, “Hi! I’m here not because I have faith in the particular doctrines of this institution, but because I’ve been told that belonging to a community of religious inquiry will increase my utility.” Worse, like a bad Pascalian wager, you’d lose your Sabbath and you wouldn’t get the (mundane) benefits! So it is that the rational hedonist, motivated only by happiness, even courts irrationality!

Now, there’s a similar problem for education: if we instrumentalize education by treating it like a set of skills and practices, or even worse, as the acquisition of discrete knowledge, then the real benefits (especially of college education) will be lost. The real benefits of education are soft skills that are hard to “acquire” in that discrete sense. Habits of mind that enable analytic writing, close reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills cannot be learned unless the student takes a long detour through irrelevant material. So there’s a similar teleological or motivational problem to the one facing the hedonist: you have to read the Classics for their own sake in order to become a better advertising executive, even though reading the Classics isn’t directly relevant to advertising. Following Sedgwick, , T. M. Scanlon calls this the “teleological paradox” in a long footnote to What We Owe to Each Other, which can be described thus:

though the telos in question may depend on factors within an agent’s control, that does not mean that it is rational for the agent to target it and make it in that sense a matter of active demand.

In many areas, you must do things that are only instrumentally-related to your goal in order to accomplish your goal. The risk, however, is that this process of divergence from the goal might actually become counter-productive or self-deceptive: how will we know if the instrumental means supplants the true goal entirely?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In metaethics, there is a response to the teleological paradox and the problem of self-deception: R. M Hare’s “two-stage” or “two-level” utilitarianism. In the first stage, our ordinary lives, we take on ordinary justifications for our projects. But every so often we reflect on the value of particular methods and motivations, and during this reflective second-stage we tweak them from the perspective of the overarching goal. Maybe we only do this at the level of institutions or laws. So, instead of saying “You should have a family because it will bring you pleasure,” we normally just advocate family life for the normal, intuitive reasons that preserve love and loyalty as ultimate ends. But at the level of policy, we still ask questions like, “Should we incentivize large or small households?” or “Should we give tax breaks for children or not?” That second stage allows us to take on the utilitarian perspective for the purposes of improving our projects. So the teleological problem dissolves, so long as we’re able to willfully blind ourselves to our ultimate motivations: we get to be utilitarians some of the time, but when it matters we can be fathers and mothers, lovers and church-goers, citizens and consumers, etc.  Virtue and deontology are then sublimated under a utilitarian perspective, called to bear when they’re best suited to some basically utilitarian goal.

The same solution works for education. In the classroom, the library, and the lab, we can embrace wasteful irrelevance, detours into difficulty, and the rigors of basic research. Then later, at the level of syllabus-construction, course-design, academic policy, project funding, or tenure-line evaluations, we can ask: “What are the instrumental educational goals that we’re trying to accomplish? What is the best (most efficient, most effective) method for achieving those goals?” Yet because we are not fundamentally committed to any particular major or method of instruction, we can also ask: “How many Classics majors do we really need? Can we get the same benefits from Philosophy or Anthropology?” The close, careful reading of abstruse literature, abstract and irrelevant mathematical work, or the cultivation of the jargonistic language of High Theory all become tools, but tools we take up as if they are ends in themselves.

The key to this process is that at the administrative or policy level we have to seriously believe that these projects matter: we have to actually commit ourselves to the claim that studying the Classics (or Philosophy or Anthropology) is more useful than studying Accounting, even if what we want are more accountants! That may seem odd or self-deceptive, but the evidence suggests we have no other choice: when we study the data and look at the Collegiate Learning Assessment, we end up concluding that the most useful education is the one that focuses on the least useful work.

So, even though we’re pure instrumentalists at the policy level, as instrumentalists, we become committed to the rejection of instrumental approaches. Not always, not if better evidence comes along, but for the time being, given our current knowledge, etc. We become instrumentally non-instrumental. When we are in front of the classroom or when we are advising students about majors, we should discourage an instrumental relationship to education. And that means that we have to discourage instrumentalism when we are deciding which programs to fund, too.

Administrative Bloat?

Confessions of a Community College Dean takes on one of my cherished beliefs, that “Administrative Bloat” drives skyrocketing tuition:

Never mind that this assertion has been empirically discredited, or that the “supervisory” ranks in colleges have shrunk even faster than the full-time faculty ranks.  The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid.  Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut.

Notably, Community College Dean depends on “empirical discreditation” that only goes back to 2001, which ignores the beginning of the bloat during the 90s and takes advantage of the increases in enrollment from the significant “mini-baby boom” during the 00s. His perspective is at least partly biased by his specific experiences at community college, because in most universities the bloat has been particularly top-heavy:


CCD notes Baumol’s cost disease, which I covered in my “23 Things about Capitalism” post, but concludes:

Long-term, I’m convinced that the only way to break the spiral is to break free of time-bound measures.  The credit hour must die.

I’m generally sympathetic, but CCD is a dad, so I wonder if he’d advocate the same pursuit of efficiency for parenting or other care work. You can see why humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education. It’s practically a teleological paradox: you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.