Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ivan Krastev on Democracy, Trust, and Transparency

Check out this Ted Talk by Ivan Krastev about trust and democracy:

Of the ideas in this talk, the main one, and the one I find most interesting, is how Krastev pokes a hole in one of the major talking points of the internet age: that transparency will inevitably lead to a better government. Here is a key quote (starting at 10:45 in clip):
“Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is politics’ management of mistrust. . . .But when politics is only management of mistrust then—I’m’ glad that 1984 has been mentioned—now we’re going to have 1984 in reverse. It’s not going to be the Big Brother watching you. It’s going to be we being the Big Brother watching the political class. But is this the idea of a free society? For example, can you imagine that decent, civic, talented people are going to run for office if they really do believe that politics is also about managing mistrust? Are you not afraid that with all these technologies that are going to track down any statement the politicians are going to make on certain issues? Are you not afraid that this is going to be a very strong signal to politicians to repeat their positions, even the very wrong positions, because consistency is going to be more important than common sense? And the Americans who are in the room, are you not afraid that your presidents are going to govern on the basis of what they said in the primary elections? I find this extremely important because democracy is about people changing their views based on rational arguments and discussions. And we can lose this with the very noble idea [of] keep[ing] people accountable.”
Transparency is often helpful but in an environment where ideology is more valued than critical thinking, transparency can become a stick used to beat those who try to break out of established ideological and political trenches.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Academically Adrift

I recently finished reading Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa. This book is worth reading for those working in higher-education, especially those who teach freshman level classes, but will also be of interest to those working with high school students, especially those that are college bound. In sum, the book argues that we are more sending students to school at increasing costs and yet they are learning less because classes aren’t rigorous enough and students spend too much time socializing. In particular, the authors note that tuition and fees have increased from $2 thousand to $6.5 thousand in public institutions between 1978 and 2008 while fifty percent of students had not taken a course that required at least forty pages of reading a week and fifty-one percent of college seniors had never written a paper of twenty or more pages.

A couple of years ago the documentary Waiting for Superman caused a stir for its portrayal of American education as a failed system. When I reviewed it for Sounds of Cinema, one of the flaws I noted about the picture was its incomplete examination of the youth culture in which education and intelligence are undervalued. While not as alarmist as that film, Academically Adrift is a complementary piece of work in that is suggests systemic ways that higher education (and to an extent the K-12 system) is failing to produce the citizenry required by a contemporary economy, an innovative culture,  and a healthy democracy.

Here are some provocative quotes from the book:
“Students often embraced a ‘credentialist-collegiate orientation’ that focused on earning a degree with as little effort as possible. Academic ‘success’ was achieved through ‘controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors and limiting workload . . . by doing no more than is necessary.’” (pg. 70)

“Decisions [by students] are indeed based on personal preferences, but student perspectives are often exceedingly myopic and focused on short-term gains, understood as increased freedom for strenuous academic effort.” (pg. 76)

“The financial and social experiences of the students in our sample suggest that they are relatively hard-working and motivated. As a college class, they deserve and have earned our sympathy. Unfortunately, their inflated ambitions and high aspirations have not institutionally been met by equivalently high academic demands from their professors, nor have many of them found a sense of academic purpose or academic commitment at contemporary colleges.” (pg. 89)

“Thus, students’ college experiences and institutions attended make almost as much of a difference as prior academic preparation. If the blame for low levels of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills of college students is to be placed on academic preparation, then almost an equal amount of responsibility rests with what happens after students enter higher education.” (pg. 119 - 20)

“If [individual instructors] raise course demands on their students but their peers do not, they will potentially be disadvantaged by course evaluations in which students express dissatisfaction.” (pg. 134)

“The results from our work show that learning is related first and foremost to academic activities, and particularly to individual studying. Social activities, including studying with peers, have either no consequences or negative consequences for learning.” (pg. 135)

“What conservative policy makers have missed, however, is that market-based educational reforms that elevate the role of students as ‘consumers’ do not necessarily yield improved outcomes in terms of student learning.” (pg. 137)
Click here for the listing at University of Chicago Press website.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Choking the Chick-fil-A

Before The Great Chick-fil-A Battle of 2012 passes by I want to try and make some sense out of this debacle. To recap: Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy made public comments in which he took a stand against gay marriage. In response, GLBTA rights groups protested the company and leftist politicians in a few major cities indicated that they would try to block Chick-fil-A from bringing its business to their communities. In response, right wing politicians and pundits voiced support for Cathy and his position on marriage and Mike Huckabee called for a national “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” which led to restaurants across the country seeing gangbuster levels of business on August 1. Two days later GLBTA activists held “kiss-in” events in which same-sex couples engaged in public displays of affection at Chick-fil-A locations.

If there is one word to describe this entire ruckus, it is “stupid.” To start, making a fast food restaurant the center of a national civil rights debate is worthy of the satire of South Park or The Onion. But the stupidity of Chick-fil-A-gate went beyond the ridiculous and became one of the most dramatic examples in recent memory of just how stupid the arguments and rhetorical tactics of a public conflict can be.

Moving through this more or less sequentially, the first person to earn the stupid label is Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy. Setting aside religious liberty or even personal integrity for a moment, consider what happened in terms of public relations: the Chief Operating Officer of a national company went on record saying that he opposed gay marriage. In most recent polling, the majority of Americans agree that gays should be allowed to marry, and that majority is only going to get bigger. Although Chick-fil-A did great business on August 1, let’s not lose sight of the long game. The crowds that showed up on Huckabee’s day of activism aren’t going to be there every day. As gay marriage becomes more widely accepted the opposing crowd is going to shrink if not go extinct altogether (and not simply from dying of cancer due to eating at Chick-fil-A). The company seems to have recognized that and issued a statement saying that they endeavor to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender” and plan “to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” It’s a well-meaning statement but the media attention given to Cathy’s comments has tainted Chick-fil-A with an anti-gay image and in the long term their business may suffer for it.

Although Cathy’s comments were the kind of thing that give nightmares to public relations professionals, the reaction of gay rights activists and their allies was stupid as well. This is a movement that has been notoriously bad at two things: succumbing to knee-jerk reactions to any and every conceivable slight and exercising poor judgment when it comes to picking battles. I don’t want to diminish the challenges that the gay community has faced and continues to face, but the way their advocates responded to this story made it worse. Cathy was not instituting a company policy or actively discriminating against a demographic group. He framed his comments as a statement of his Christian faith and no one in the gay rights movement bothered to come up with a counter-narrative. When GLBTA activists and their allies went after Cathy they effectively went after his religion as well.

The optics of this approach were disastrous as gay rights activists played into the hands of their opponents. Members of the religious right have long fancied themselves victims and in this instance they were correct: their values were under attack and they responded to the call to mobilize. Cathy became a martyr and Chick-fil-A was transformed into a front in the culture war, which in the short term was very profitable for the restaurant.  Instead of using this story to demonstrate entrenched homophobic attitudes and the importance of extending civil rights protections to homosexuals, the story became a fast food passion play. Worse, GLBTA advocates came off as bullies. A video of a protester harassing the wait staff of a Chick-fil-A restaurant went viral and the push by some high profile mayors to block Chick-fil-A from opening restaurants based on the religious convictions of the company’s COO was correctly viewed as a form of religious discrimination not only by the rightwing media but by center and leftwing outlets as well. In short, whatever goal gay rights activists hoped to achieve—and I don’t think there was any goal beyond showing Dan Cathy that they didn’t like his opinion—backfired.

But the menagerie of stupidity in the Chick-fil-A farce would be incomplete without those hungry hoards of chicken-eating homophobes. While those people might bristle at the “homophobic” label, this is precisely what they showed up to advocate on behalf of. Rightwing and religious commentators may try to cast the narrative as a matter of religious liberty but that is ultimately a minor point. Yes, the Bible forbids homosexuality; yes, many religious leaders disapprove of homosexual marriage; yes, individuals have the right to believe those things and even to say them out loud. Individuals in a free society also have the right to burn books and desecrate flags and stand on street corners with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” But just because a belief is held as a matter for faith does not make it a good idea nor does it excuse that belief from criticism. What should be at issue is the quality of that belief. There is no way of getting around the fact that denying marriage equality is homophobic just as denying ethnic minorities the ability to marry is racist. In the short term, the images of customers lined around Chick-fil-A restaurants were an impressive show of religious solidarity but in coming years (and I would guess sooner rather than later) those images are going to be regarded with the same confusion, anger, and embarrassment with which contemporary viewers regard images from anti-integration protests from forty years ago.

We can and must support tolerance for religion, including religious ideas that are unpopular, outmoded, or stupid. We tolerate them as a matter of social stability; everyone gets to hold their beliefs and practice in their own way. Using the mechanisms of government to force a particular religious belief on others or out of the culture is dangerous, it undermines the state, and it never works anyway (just ask the Inquisition). But tolerance is not and should not be the same as acceptance or agreement. I can tolerate that some people believe women are inferior, that homosexuality is evil, that the earth is 6000 years old, that bread and wine turn into flesh and blood, or that I will spend eternity in a lake of fire. I can also tolerate that others believe in reincarnation, magic stones, and Tarot cards. But I will not accept any of those ideas as valid, factual, or credible and they should not be granted critical amnesty just because their advocates hide behind a cross or the Constitution.

If anything useful has come out of the Chick-fil-A debate it is the way it has demonstrated how absurd our public debates have become. It is popular to call for “coming together” and “having a dialogue” but between the web, television news, print media, talk radio, and public protests there is already plenty of that. What we need is a better discussion. In this case, that starts with both the religious constituency and gay rights advocates pausing before they protest and considering exactly what message they are trying to send. Protests and counter-protests are fine but if you can’t contribute meaningfully to the discussion, then shut up and eat your chicken.