Revealing

Since we were just talking about the chattering classes, I thought I’d relate and briefly discuss a few recent comments from the Volokh site, from a post by Professor Kenneth Anderson on… oh… something or other with respect to higher education.

(By the way, that site always seems to take a long time to load, for no discernible reason.)

Now before I get into this I want to say that I think very well of Professor Anderson from what I know of him and don’t want to single him out for harsh criticism.  I am not attacking Professor Anderson; I am using something he said to illustrate a larger point not just about him, but about the class he typifies.

That would be, of course, the chattering classes.  Professor Anderson is a one percenter.  Or at least an adjunct to the one percenters.

In his discussion of the pitfalls for students who might want to broaden their areas of study from the humanities into the sciences, Prof. Anderson relates that some “very bright” students are reluctant to do that not because they don’t need to acquire the knowledge, but because it might give them a down tick on their GPA.  Casting about for a compromise solution, he comes up with “pass/fail” type science courses that humanities students can take without worrying about the impact on the GPA.  He then goes on to state:

This is why I am suggesting workarounds that might be doable at some schools, emphasizing pass-not pass minors, etc. The problem is how to manage both credential and education, in a world in which everyone understands the costs, the fantastic risks, and everyone is leveraging every credential advantage on the margin. I advise students that they have to put the credential first. It’s what I tell my daughter. I don’t like it, but I didn’t create the rules.

Well.

I brought him up on this gently, in a comment to which he did not respond, though it’s clear he’s reading the comments pretty closely.

What to make of this?  It’s unfortunate, putting it mildly, that the best and brightest put self interest over education, especially where education is supposedly their vocation.  The “problem” Professor Anderson describes is faced by everyone, in every field, indeed in every endeavor, in choices great and small, almost every day:  self-aggrandizement versus integrity.  When push comes to shove, Professor Anderson comes down firmly on the side of self-aggrandizement.

And this is the advice he gives his students.  And his daughter.

You could take from this that the behavior and values of the best and the brightest are no different from the common street thug.  The playing field is just more effete.  Multiply this over and over, and is it so difficult to understand what the OWS complaints of the 99% are?

I also wonder what sort of personality traits are being cultivated here, in practical terms.  These people, who are admittedly very bright, are also hyper-sensitive to the least diminution of their grade point average, excruciatingly aware from a very young age that they must accumulate honors and grades from their superiors to the greatest extent possible.  To develop not so much knowledge or strength of character – but “credential advantage”.

And it’s a life long pursuit.  There’s a perception that everything they attain is fragile.  But if they’re that worried that they’ll lose a couple hundredths of a point on their GPA, what happens later when they’re a federal judge and they consider the career consequences of crossing the US Attorney’s office, even once?

Yes, this reveals and certainly could explain a lot.  It’s not a conspiracy after all; it’s just human nature uninformed by virtues we used to take for granted among the educated.

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6 Comments

Filed under financial crisis, Judicial lying/cheating, Striking lawyers, wrongful convictions

6 responses to “Revealing

  1. Frederick

    Anderson’s comments exhibit fetishism of free-market economic analysis by a non-economist. He talks about leveraging credentials advantages on the margin, and so forth. You see this sort of thing often in judicial opinions, e.g., Posner. You see it in general on Volokh and that is also the style of Larry Ribstein.

    The underlying idea is that markets are a law of nature, efficient and god-like, the invisible hand. His daughter has no control over her behavior, is the idea. She will “naturally” avoid taking a science class so as to optimize her GPA on the margin, as will all other students, whether they realize it or not. They are in competition, is the idea. That is the truth of the situation whether they realize it or not, is the idea.

    Of course, the actual truth is that his daughter and her classmates are just human beings who wake up in the morning, eat and drink, learn a few things, work a little, and go to sleep at night. There could be nothing less natural or more bizarre than avoiding taking a class that you are interested in in order to achieve a slightly higher expected “GPA.” Marx talked about this sort of thing as well – the fetishism of markets leading us to abstract ourselves and our own lives. The daughter ceases being a human being and becomes (even in her own view of herself, if she spends enough time talking to her Dad) a GPA-optimizer seeking to enhance her marginal utility.

    You are right. It is sad and perverse. That is what Marx meant by people being mystified by markets. They believe in them utterly, to the extent that they willingly sacrifice their humanity to them.

    And you can also see how this sort of thinking could easily be used to rationalize injustice and violence. We are all in competition, after all.

    I am not a Marxist, by the way, but it is interesting how this group of Chicago-school judges and lawyers love to engage in this econo-speak as if their words are thereby imbued with some sort of mystical truth.

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    • I didn’t know Volokh was Chicago school dominated.

      I tend to be a free marketer myself, but I know what you mean about over-abstraction. Abstractions are mental constructs we sometimes use to understand reality, not reality itself. Some people get so wrapped up in what they have learned and what they think they know, they forget that.

      A human being is a real thing. The “market”, no matter how much you might believe in it and how much it helps explain things, is an abstraction.

      Prof. Anderson is at least dimly aware that something is wrong, since he says he doesn’t like it and he didn’t make the rules.

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  2. Frederick

    I’m for free markets too. As Ghandi quipped about Western civilization, I think free markets would be a good idea.

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  3. 2.733 undergraduate GPA represent!

    In all seriousness, I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it. It worked to my academic and professional disadvantage, but to my social and intellectual advantage. It was a tradeoff, and one in which I don’t think I made terrible decisions. I simply would not have had time for an adequate social life had I focused exclusively on academics. The time that I devoted to socializing at the expense of my grades is still paying off for me as a thirty-one-year-old; I can’t be sure that I would have developed as many lasting friendships had I spent my undergraduate years buried in textbooks.

    One of the more pedestrian dirty little secrets of formal education is how often academic achievement interferes with intellectual development. I felt this acutely as an undergraduate. I’ve never had enough time or energy to read everything that I’d like to read. I could become a library shut-in and still not come close, so I certainly did not feel like devoting more than a bare minimum of my energy to reading peer-reviewed literature and textbooks that were badly written, badly edited, often of no practical use and devoted to arcane subjects of no discernible interest to the general reader, and, in the most extreme case, assigned by a mentally unstable professor who couldn’t deliver a decent lecture or keep a roundtable discussion from turning into a train wreck.

    This same professor called me into his office and cursed me out because my first research paper was a piece of shit, in an out-of-control screaming fit that scared me at the time, but I had already stopped really caring about his class. It was terribly run and I had no rapport with most of the other students. Had I not been afraid of embarrassing myself in front of the one classmate with whom I was friendly outside of class, I would have stopped attending entirely; as it was, I made a conscious decision not to spend another second on research papers for him, and I stuck to it for the rest of the semester. His meltdown was the last straw. He was totally nuts. I had turned him into a belligerent egotist with one shitty research paper. In retrospect, the proper response to his screaming fit would have been to tell him that I was done with his course and that I would call the police if he ever contacted me again.

    I could have killed three liberal arts distribution requirements with one stone by passing that course, but it was a bridge too far for me. (I could have formally dropped it had I been more decisive, but I missed the deadline.) It wasn’t so much integrity as disgust with a self-serious, unhinged, nearly useless instructor who was turning his midlife crisis into my problem. He was finishing up a two-year sabbatical coverage contract, and I think one of the reasons why he was kooky was that he was preparing to transfer to a poorly-regarded Midwestern state school, I believe on tenure track. He probably felt like he was being shipped off to a life sentence in a Siberian penal colony.

    The richest part is that this all happened in the religion department. Go humanities!

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  4. Two other thoughts:

    1) I very much support GPA-neutral workarounds for difficult subjects such as Prof. Anderson proposed, but I think they’re most appropriately done under community college, adult education, or university extracurricular auspices. I agree that his specific pass/fail model is inappropriate because it’s designed to assuage insecurities that undergraduates should be mature enough to transcend. It’s certainly not hypocritical of me to tell neurotic undergrads that they should cowboy the hell up and not worry about depressing their GPA’s with rigorous courses.

    2) “[W]hat happens later when they’re a federal judge and they consider the career consequences of crossing the US Attorney’s office, even once?”

    The president of my Alma Mater was too cowardly to properly clean house when two campus police commanders, both of them widely distrusted by the student body, were caught going rogue. Instead he spent most of an academic year lying to the student body about campus police operations and harboring the junior commander (as interim chief!) before quietly replacing him early in the summer recess with an allegedly disgraced former lieutenant (probably the most popular officer on the force) whom he had fired for whistleblowing. Apparently he found the coverups less embarrassing than trying forthrightly to fix problems that weren’t even his fault. This guy was too scared to take action against his own subordinates. He’s widely revered, but I haven’t had a scintilla of respect for or trust in him ever since this saga.

    Similar dynamics explain the Penn State child rape clusterfuck. Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky were Graham Spanier’s subordinates, but one wouldn’t have known it to take a look around the place.

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