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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Doing things right

My four-decade long career in education is coming to an end shortly--at least in the full-time, college classroom sense--and I've thought a lot about how the concurrent collapse of our higher education system might be contributing to broader threats to society. Education should teach students to work hard (if not necessarily steadily), to assimilate very large quantities of facts, and to reach opinions. It should also teach integrity, which is why cheating, now endemic, deserves to be drastically punished. Last spring an enormous cheating scandal erupted at Harvard over a course on the Congress in the Government Department, a course whose professor admitted that it was pretty much an academic joke and made it as easy as possible for students to collaborate on their exams, which, of course, they did. In the commentary I read I never saw anyone complain that the course existed at all, or that some one who would give such a course had been awarded, and retained, tenure. Students, I have found, will now respond as enthusiastically to really good teaching as they ever did, if not more so, since it is rarer. But for the most part they learn that their education is a matter of jumping through hoops, regurgitating the fashionable academic jargon of the moment, and giving the professor what he or she wants to hear. They carry those habits into their future life, and it shows.

Two stories in yesterday's New York Times, sadly, illustrated the broader effects of these trends. In December 2011--nearly three years too late--the Obama Administration started a program to review foreclosures, identify cases in which financial institutions had taken advantages of customers, and compensate customers as appropriate. Several billion dollars were allocated for this purpose, which obviously involves the restoration of confidence in our financial system. But the program was inadequately staffed, undoubtedly a reflection of the continual cuts in our federal civil service, and much of the work was sub-contracted to consultants. When I read that I was reminded of Grover Norquist's famous interview with Terri Gross, in which he claimed, in defiance of all evidence, that the private sector could do jobs much more cheaply than government. Medicare is the largest insurance program in the country, but it has the lowest administrative costs. Military contractors are much more expensive than soldiers. In this case the results were quite predictable: the consultants pocketed $1 billion in fees but never found a way of identifying genuinely deserving mortgage holders. Now the program is being folded up and the allocated money will be divided evenly among all the candidates--a move which will further discredit government enterprise in general. The Obama Administration's failure seriously to intervene in the mortgage market to set things right in an equitable fashion, or to prosecute any of those most responsible for the frauds that nearly brought down the world economy, is one of its greatest failures, but its personnel apparently lacked both the will and the skill to solve the problem.

A second page one story dealt with a DNA examiner, a woman, who had made dozens of false findings--mostly false negatives--in analyzing DNA samples from victims in rape and other cases, losing easy opportunities to identify the criminal. The technician had been on the job for more than a decade but only recently were questions raised about her work. She also had a habit of mixing samples from different rape kits. Given the significance of this kind of evidence, it's rather frightening that such incompetence could be undetected for so long. But it was. Perhaps some of my readers can furnish comparable stories from other walks of life.

I grew up in a rather chaotic household in which people tried to impose their views on just about everything through the force of their personality. School, I can see now, was a relief, because it had right answers and wrong ones that were independent of one's personality, and one was validated for knowing the right answer. An institution or a society that rewards right answers is a healthy society, and ours has been increasingly sick, in this respect, for a long time. We desperately need to start building institutions, small or large, based upon the value of truth. That is the role the modern western university was at least trying to play until the last third of the last century, when the very idea of truth, in the humanities at least, became unfashionable. The effects are all around us, and I still wish I could have done more about this. As it was, I spent the bulk of my career working for the military, which places a far higher value on getting things right than civilian universities do today.

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