In Defense of Perfection

We tend to be subjectivists about perfection. But that is hardly the obvious view. It would have struck Descartes and most people as obviously false up until pretty recently. We may have our different tastes and this may bias us so that we have different ideas of perfection. But that’s just variation in our perceptions and opinions. Perfection might be very real and objective in spite of our differing opinions of it. 

It’s not hard to think of cases where some things are objectively closer to perfection than others. People might have a pointless debate over whether Taylor Swift is a better musician than Beyonce (as if either holds a candle to Joni Mitchell). But all these women are far closer to perfection as musicians than I am. I don’t think anyone doubts the objective truth of this comparison. If some things are objectively closer to perfection in some way, that would imply a standard of perfection that makes this so. None of us have a clear idea of just what that standard is, but that’s only because we are limited an imperfect. The idea that there is no perfection because we can’t quite imagine or define it is self-defeating since it presupposes that we have minds perfect enough to understand perfection.

Academic Freedom isn’t what this Pamela Paul thinks it is

Opinion | Colleges Are Putting Their Futures at Risk – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Pamela Paul takes universities to task for failing to promote open ended inquiry and knowledge seeking in the editorial linked above. She blames misuses of academic freedom whereby academics short-cut inquiry on a rapid path to conviction, advocacy, and activism, generally of a left-wing sort. But Academic freedom isn’t quite what she thinks it is. Most of our professors are adjuncts, they are contractors hired to teach a course that won’t run without adequate enrollment. A professor who would prefer to eat and pay the rent can only teach what students are willing to sign up for. Open-ended inquiry requires patience, perseverance, and intellectual humility that is increasingly hard to find in our culture. Logic and critical thinking are hard. Too many people want the satisfaction of feeling they know what is right, and the quicker the better. Not so many people are interested in the hard work it takes to actually know what is right. So, the easy to comprehend melodrama of social justice sells with students. The patient hard work of learning how to reason well doesn’t.

Of course, we still advertise and give lip service to critical thinking. But then look at the class schedule at your local college and count the number of sections of courses in logic or critical thinking. Now compare that to the number of sections offered in sociology or cultural and ethnic studies. Social injustices are relatively easy to comprehend, and the naive inquirer has a much shorter path to the satisfaction of resolving doubts and justifying convictions.

None of this is to accuse my colleagues in the social sciences of left-wing political bias. The injustices protested on campus are typically grounded fact, and Pamela Paul does open-ended inquiry a disservice if she means to suggest that it needs to make room for contorted denial or rationalization of things like systemic racism. And that is pretty much what the countervailing political pressures are demanding. Ron Desantis isn’t demanding attentive fact-based open-minded inquiry on matters of race or LGBTQ issues. He is simply demanding that that academics not reach the conclusions such inquiry tend to reach. Either that or shut up.

Open-minded inquiry doesn’t place us under any obligation to entertain disingenuous both sides-ism. Open mindedness doesn’t require neutrality between competing views when some views are well supported by evidence and argument and others just aren’t. Open-mindedness requires that we be open to fairly evaluating the evidence and argument. When the evidence and argument clearly favor one among the competing views, we should have the degree of confidence warranted by the evidence and argument. This is often sufficient to settle the issue. When an issue is politicized in the broader culture and people on one end of the political spectrum don’t like the conclusions reached by a fair-minded evaluation of the evidence and argument, it’s not professors that are being politically biased. It’s the people that are having a hard time with the facts and the conclusions these support. We’ve seen this happen with climate change for decades. Now we see it happening with contemporary culture war issues like race and LGBTQ rights.

More perspectives on campus won’t fix this. At this point it would just ignite more conflict on campus. More focused and dedicated instruction in how to reach conclusions, how to analyze evidence, formulate and evaluate arguments, seriously entertain objections without begging the question, identify and filter out fallacies; all of this would help enormously. Now try to get your student to sign up for that class. Critical thinking is challenging. Your student might not get an A.

Higher education in the US is in a sorry state. We still do pretty good at STEM. Moneyed interests demand this, after all. But we are badly failing to prepare students for participation in a free and open society. Many competent professors are doing the best we can. But there is more to the problem. We are up against a culture of instant gratification where education is routinely approached with a consumer mindset, political polarization that undermines critical thinking about the most important issues we face, and debilitating anxiety among students who vaguely get that things are not well with the world. Who is to blame is not a pertinent question. There is plenty of that to go around.

This said, colleges and universities could do better. General education courses that focus deliberately on critical thinking skills, the skills required for patient, open-ended, open-minded inquiry, should not be in competition for enrollment with courses that offer satisfying conviction, even where this is warranted. Courses focuses on the methods of open-minded inquiry should be pre-requisites for the others. Courses like logic and critical thinking need to be supported by degree requirements. This is something colleges and universities could do. It would help enormously to restore the credibility of our institutions and it would better prepare our students for the sort of open-minded inquiry needed a free and open society.

Critical Thinking Note 30: It’s not about Buying and Selling

Arguments are commonly regarded as tools of persuasion. Seen this way, arguments are sales pitches for believing something. In our consumer society, we are all skilled at negotiating the constant onslaught of sales pitches. Our default is the hard no. Any of us would soon be broke without rejecting the vast majority of sales pitches. And yet, we buy often enough. Whether we buy, consider, or reject a sales pitch, we make this determination in reference to ourselves, what we want, what matters to us. We are passive in our mode as consumers. We accept the sales pitch, or we don’t. Perhaps we step back and do some research when the stakes are high. Sellers would generally prefer that we not. And typically, there is no need to reach beyond ourselves, to actively engage the world beyond our needs and wants. We know how to operate as customers, it’s a comfortable space for us denizens of late-stage capitalism. It also misses the point of argumentation.

When we treat arguments as tools of persuasion, our default stance is to resist persuasion. Persuasion, after all, feels like an assertion of someone else’s will, which we will naturally want to resist unless it aligns with our own will. In such self-referential assent or dissent, our will is engaged in reactive mode. But reaction is not the same thing as exercising agency.

Our general reluctance to change our minds about things is known as epistemic conservativism. Perhaps without a healthy dose of epistemic conservativism, we’d be changing our mind all the time and wind up confused (or confusing). A degree of epistemic conservatism can be a healthy thing. But it is healthy only when we are reluctant to give up beliefs that are themselves rigorously examined and well supported by evidence and argument. Otherwise, epistemic conservatism leads straight to confirmation bias, the tendency to endorse or reject arguments on the basis of how we already feel about the conclusion.

How are things different for the critical thinker? A distinguishing mark of the skilled critical thinker is that she treats arguments as instruments of inquiry rather than instruments of persuasion. An argument is a set of premises offered as a reason for thinking some conclusion is true. We should find good arguments persuasive simply because it’s good to believe things that are true. What is operative for the critical thinker, though, is inquiry, the active search for truth and understanding. Not the passive consumer’s role of being persuaded, or “buying” the conclusion. The critical thinker may still want others to find her arguments persuasive, but only if they are good arguments. For the critical thinker, the desire to persuade is conditional on the quality of her reasoning being good, not on her own will.

Critical thinkers aren’t just concerned with determining whether the conclusion of an argument is true. Rather they are more broadly concerned with what can be learned from the argument. This starts with aiming to understand the viewpoint embodied in the argument. We aren’t in a good position to evaluate and argument without first clearly understanding what it says. Beyond this, learning from arguments often takes the form of learning from our mistakes. When the critical thinker finds a flaw in an argument, she will straight way consider whether is signals a compelling countervailing argument, or whether that flaw points the way to a better argument. Whether the conclusion of an argument is true or false is not the primary concern for the critical thinker. The primary concern is to see how the argument can help us get closer to understanding and truth, even if this only amounts to recognizing that some line of argument is a dead end.

Critical thinking is not really about figuring out what views to “buy” or “not buy.” It’s about building a robust understanding of the world and each other. It’s about getting clear on all sorts of issues, from those our well-being depends on to those that simply engage our wonder (though I’d argue that the latter is itself an aspect of well-being). The critical thinker is actively engaged in the project of building a mind that focuses and clarifies her understanding generally, including her understanding of herself, her interests, and values. The skilled critical thinker is not a consumer of arguments, ideas or beliefs. She is a gardener, cultivating her own mind, producing her own intellectual sustenance and delight, and nourishing her own community of fellow critical thinkers. Our ability to act in ways that realize our considered interests depends on engaging inquiry actively. In this regard, critical thinking replaces reactivity with agency.

Where is the value?

People don’t appreciate ideas they don’t understand. This is quite natural. On what basis could you value ideas you don’t understand? Part of our job as educators is to cultivate the kinds of understanding that pave the way to valuing things in a new light. Sometimes that job is not as hard as getting the chance to do it.

Our students come to us well aware of the value of a roof over their head, financial stability, reliable transportation and such. A young adult needs a healthy appreciation for the value of the basic necessities of life. But a life driven exclusively by necessity is one that lacks agency. Part of the role of higher education is to cultivate agency. This is built into the very concept of a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education is one aimed at freeing the mind from the necessities of custom, dogma, intellectual manipulation, and other forms of ill-considered opinion.

This kind of liberty can look like a luxury to people who feel trapped by the imperatives of life in a highly competitive materialistic society. That perception is often encouraged by people who relentlessly focus on the ROI of higher education. Specifically, the value higher education as job training. These people will be eager to find shortcuts through general education requirements. College in the high school comes to mind as an easy way to cut the financial overhead of education and get young people “more efficiently” into the workforce.

I’d submit that such efforts demonstrate an implicit lack of regard for young people as people. Further, its disregard young people won’t protest because they are simultaneously denied the opportunity to understand the value of college level inquiry into, say, history or philosophy. (Quick note here, I’m highly skeptical of the ability of any institution of higher learning to ensure that college level inquiry will happen in a high school classroom. In my own discipline, philosophy, I can pretty much rest assured that it won’t).

And thus, we can shortchange young people and they will never be the wiser (quite literally). This might seem quite clever from the perspective of policy makers and administrators who are acting like managers for a private equity firm. But that would presume that the decision makers understand what they are doing in diluting a liberal arts education. And this, ironically, would be uncharitable towards them. What’s more likely is that even as decision makers in higher education act like unscrupulous managers for a private equity firm, its good intentions all the way down. Higher education is expensive after all. We need to look out for the interests of tuition paying parents and taxpayers. And, of course, students just want to get a good paying job.

Value that isn’t understood is value that doesn’t get realized. And, of course, its value that is never missed. So, what’s the problem? Apparently, none. But you know what they say about appearances.

I’m hosting a rebuttal from Michael Reese in below:

My Gen Ed Journey

I find myself leading an effort to reform General Education at BC. How I got here is worth some mention. It is hardly out of a love for General Education assessment. I have long history of sporting a bad attitude when it comes Gen Ed assessment at BC. To the degree that I’ve participated actively it has been out a sense of duty to the college. I wound up serving on FACT (our Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team) when Magie Harada asked me to serve some six or seven years ago. I had just been awarded full professor status, with a nice pay bump. And I was coming off of a stint as chair of the Tenure Review Committee. Maggie caught me at a moment when I felt obliged.

Around that time, we were just implementing our system for assessing campus wide General Education outcomes (all 18 of them) at the direction of accreditation. The data analytic tools were impressive. My task was mainly to help faculty learn how to input student learning data based on the assortment of rubrics we had associated with our Gen Ed outcomes (all 18 of them). I didn’t really understand how all of this was supposed to be useful to us as educators or useful to our students. I tried to figure it out. I can be quite dogged at trying to figure things out. Several years later, at the end of Spring Quarter, 2022, I’d come to the conclusion that we were generating lots of useless data, mainly because we didn’t really understand just what we were trying to measure.

At this point, I was determined to get off FACT and spend the remainder of my career having as little to do as possible with Gen Ed and assessment. That fall, however, we had a new dean, and we were entering the last of a 3-year assessment cycle. Dumping Gen Ed assessment on a new dean and some hapless faculty colleague in the final and crucial year of a project that matters for accreditation seemed a rather nasty gift, and so I decided to stay on FACT for one more year. Carl Freeburg, who had chaired FACT for several years, had just retired. And so, that fall of 2022 FACT was without a leader. And nobody wanted the job. We were working under a couple of accreditation recommendations including one that asked us to use Gen Ed Assessment data to improve our delivery of Gen Ed instruction and inform our academic planning. I was convinced that there was no way this could happen since we faced a serious “junk in” problem with our assessment data. Like so many of my faculty colleagues, I was skeptical and cynical about assessment. And my cynicism was rational. My bad attitude was based on careful study and diagnosis of the assorted ways our program of General Education didn’t work.

It’s one thing to see how Gen Ed Assessment at BC failed. But then what would a functioning Gen Ed program look like? And beyond keeping accreditation happy (which is important if we hope to keep serving our students at all), what would it look like for a program of General Education to serve students? What’s put me in the leadership role for General Education reform at BC, as opposed to comfortably coasting towards retirement, is that I began to see a path to benefiting our students through pursuing new approach to General Education. One where we clearly communicated to our students, their future employers, and the public at large, just what it means to get an education here at BC. One where we got clear amongst ourselves what our General Education outcomes meant and had realistic plans for delivering on the Gen Ed promises we make.

So, I took the job nobody wanted because I thought I saw a path to better serving our students through a redesigned program of General Education. Is there such a path? Was I just delusional when I accepted the role of FACT chair (now Gen Ed reform lead)? These are reasonable questions. Any interested party can judge for themselves if they read the small collection of brief working documents the reform effort has generated over the past year. The dozens of colleagues that have collaborated on this effort have helped to articulate and clear that path. We do have a worthwhile opportunity to better serve our students through Gen Ed reform. And to better define our institutional educational mission and please accreditation along the way.

An opportunity, however, is just that. An opportunity is not yet a reality. And we face assorted obstacles to realizing the promise of this path. As I reach out beyond the circle of collaborators I’ve worked with this past year, the chief obstacle I see on this path is the very bad attitude I sported until little over a year ago. It remains widespread among my faculty colleagues. And understandably, since our best efforts at Gen Ed Assessment over the course of several decades has felt like confusing, pointless, soul killing bureaucratic busywork.

But we are done with that. Gen Ed at BC will no longer just be futilely trying to measure what-have-you or what-not. We are clearing a path to a program of General Education that focuses on what we want our students to learn and figuring out how we can best support their learning. A new program of General Education that serves students well requires a new attitude.

Why Gen Ed Reform?

The college curriculum looked quite different a couple generations ago. When my mother attended the University of Redlands in the early 60s, the standard practice was for all students to take shared core-curriculum classes before they move on to their majors (pathways?). This approach to higher education created an institutional sense of community founded on a shared learning experience. Many small liberal arts colleges continue the tradition of community building through campus wide shared core-curriculum. There were real problems with the core-curriculum of my mother’s generation. It was usually built around “Western Civ” and a canon of works by dead white males. General education at this time was culturally myopic and ethnocentric. So, we had good reasons for doing away with the canon and the traditional “Western Civ” approach.

At public colleges like our own, what has emerged in the wake of the core-curriculum has been a sharp paring back of required courses and the replacement of a core-curriculum with what we now know as the infusion model. On this model, what it means to get an education at a particular institution is defined by a set of learning outcomes that are to be taught across the curriculum. No longer would the defining features of a college as a community of scholars and students be the purview of a couple of disciplines who had authority over a core-curriculum. Rather, ideally, the infusion model would invite continual collaboration across a diverse community of educators, negotiating amongst themselves to define what an education at their school means.

I participated in some of this at Bellevue College some twenty years ago when we routinely devoted entire college issues days to articulating our 18 Gen Ed outcomes. There were working groups that outlined the content of these Gen Ed outcomes in significant detail. We haggled at length over definitions, what specific points to include and what to leave out. Over the years, most of this work got lost. A thorough search of our online archives leaves a full third of our 18 outcomes lacking even one sentence definitions. In terms of what we communicate to students, our legacy Gen Ed program is represented by one page in the course catalog where we give a nice statement from the AAC&U about what it means to get a liberal arts education and then simply list the 18 Gen Ed outcomes by name. Students hear nothing about the 18 in their classes. They have no idea which of their classes claim to teach which of these 18 outcomes. Instructors are often not aware of the outcomes claimed by the courses they teach.

In the place of continual campus-wide collaboration that builds a community of learners around a clearly defined set of General Education outcomes, we have lapsed into departmental silos where, solely for the purposes of assessment, as required by accreditation, we claim a few of the 18 that seem somewhat related to what we teach in our disciplinary silos, interpret these in ways that suit our standing curriculum, and fill out the forms we are told are necessary to keep accreditation happy.

As it turns out, accreditation is not happy. The recommendations continue. On FACT (the Faculty Assessment Coordinating Team), where I have served for the better part of a decade, we diligently implemented one fix after another in response to different recommendations, trying the patience of our colleagues who had to keep relearning what is expected of us in doing assessment. Having doggedly done the best we can to get the old machine to run, it’s become clear that this is just not going to happen. The fundamental problem is that we cannot assess what we don’t understand. And at this point, we lack any meaningful shared understanding of our 18 General Education outcomes. We can’t learn from our past performance if we can’t meaningfully assess it. This is where our legacy program of Gen Ed gets stuck. This is where accreditation has called us out.

It is understandable, given this history, that many of us have lost sight of the point of an institution-based program of General Education. Which makes this an ideal time to refresh our perspectives and consider anew the value we can realize for our students through our program of General Education. We can build community among our diverse learners through a shared educational experience. We can foster in our students the skills and qualities required to participate in a free and open society. We can help our students better navigate the rapidly changing world they are entering with robust transparent instruction in things like communication, cultural diversity, critical thinking and sustainability. We can better equip students with the basic skills and abilities that are valued by employers. We can build a distinctive brand for the college by clearly articulating what it means to get an education at Bellevue College. The degree to which we realize some or all of these goals depends on us and our willingness to thoughtfully and collaboratively engage in building a meaningful, transparent, assessable program of General Education.

We don’t have to realize all of this all at once. For now, it will be enough if we get started with a Gen Ed framework that allows us to learn from our mistakes and adapt accordingly.

The Moral Psychology of Self-righteousness

Most people want to think of themselves as good people. When we self-identify as good people, any questioning of this is likely to be experienced as a personal attack. It is, after all, your perceived identity as a good person that is being challenged. In this case, a defensive reaction is to be expected.

But what if we aspire to be good people without self-identifying as such. It’s the self-identifying as good that makes criticism an attack. Aspiration, on the other hand, calls for continual self-assessment and course correction. Here-in lies the deep wisdom of the Christian idea of original sin. The acknowledgement that we have things to atone for, areas for improvement, even concerning issues we might not be fully aware of, instils a kind of humility that can only be born with grace. The proud person may only see humiliation or self-debasement in owning their mistakes. The humble aspirant, however, sees opportunity for growth.

Bearing the humble recognition of our own fallibility with grace is not easy. There’s an ironic human predicament here. Often what’s hard about coming to terms with our own fallibility is just going easy on ourselves even as we observe a responsibility to work on ourselves.

Why should this grace towards ourselves be difficult? I think part of the answer is that we must square our attitudes towards our own shortcomings with the attitudes we have towards the transgressions of others. When we see badness in others as deserving of harsh condemnation, consistency demands harshness towards our own failings. This, I suspect, is the difficult turn that leads many to spurn humble aspiration towards goodness in favor of rigid and fragile self-identification with goodness. And this is the essence of self-righteousness.

At this point we might interrogate our harsh and unforgiving attitudes towards others. Why are we so punishing? The idea of retribution carries a lot of weight here. Philosophically, the idea of retribution is the idea of returning the wrong upon the wrongdoer. Kant thought of retribution as a moral duty, a matter of respect for the wrong doer embodied in treating the wrongdoer according to his own standards. Kant would also hold that we only see moral virtue in administering this duty when we do so dispassionately, or even against our inclination to let things slide. The emotional craving for vengeance would mask or even negate the duty of retribution.

Maybe Kant could keep retribution apart from revenge, philosophically anyway. But people who crave retribution often have a harder time at this. I worry that retribution more often than not amounts to a thin veil of rationalization for the baser motive of revenge.

The vengeful motive is powerful, perhaps instinctive. I think of it as the fight or flight response after the fact. Sustaining hostility through revenge was probably adaptive long ago on the savanna where the member of a rival clan who kills a member of your clan remains an ongoing threat.

We haven’t outgrown this emotional and motivational legacy of evolution. But restraint serves us well. When it comes to the wrongs of others, we usually leave retribution to the state where it can be administered somewhat more in the spirit of duty than for the emotional motive of vengeance. Granted this might be a half measure in practice. We still often see criminal justice as “getting justice for the victim” rather than seeing it just as holding the wrong doer accountable and treating them as they deserve based on their own motives and actions.

But to our present point, whatever vice there may be in vengefulness towards others, the prospect of finding ourselves deserving of that spite is a driver of self-righteousness. When I self-identify as good and judge those who fail to measure up harshly, the stakes for finding myself in error may be too high to bear. The Christian imperative to forgive others as we forgive ourselves won’t be much help if we are harsh judges in both cases. And so, we often see the self-righteous person doubling down and refusing to acknowledge their errors.

In trying to understand the moral vice of self-righteousness we find a helpful intersection between ethics and critical thinking. The critical thinker is someone who is skilled at learning from her mistakes. The moral vice of self-righteousness prevents this up front by ensuring that we remain blind to our mistakes. Perhaps then, self-righteousness is as much an intellectual vice as a moral vice.

TILTing Gen Ed

I’ve been thinking and talking lots about TILTing Gen Ed. This idea might call for some elaboration. Our default is to think of TILTing assignments. We do this when we are explicit and transparent about the learning objectives of an assignment, the processes through which these are advanced and the criteria we will apply in evaluating student progress. However, it’s not assignments I’ve had in mind with talk of TILTing Gen Ed. I suppose we should TILT Gen Ed assignments, but I’ve been thinking about how to apply TILT principles to our program of General Education itself. That is, let’s clearly communicate to students what we want them to get out of BC education, how they can achieve these learning goals, and how we will assess their progress.

Applying TILT principles at the level of assignments is typically the job of individual instructors. Applying TILT principles to our program of Gen Ed is not about imposing shared TILTed Gen Ed assignments, teaching methods or grading practices on faculty. This would be at odds with academic freedom as we understand it here.

That said, applying TILT principles to Gen Ed at the level of a campus wide program does call for new kinds of collaboration. The first step may be the biggest. There is no path to clearly communicating to students what we’d like them to get out of a BC education without first developing a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes. Developing a campus wide infused program of General Education that is meaningful to students, where their path to attainment is clear and our methods of assessment are transparent will require that we collaborate in coming to a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes, engage in collaborative curriculum development, and participate in formulating, norming and applying our standards of assessment.

It would not be realistic, or even all that helpful, to have all faculty on campus fully participating in a TILTed program of General Education. The model we are proposing is opt in and it affords varying levels of participation. Still, it is important that all faculty be well informed about how we are TILTing Gen Ed.

In developing a shared conception of our Gen Ed outcomes, many will be tempted to start by defining these. I think this is a mistake. Nobody learns much about elephants by studying dictionary definitions of the word “elephant”. To come to a decent understanding of what an elephant is, you’d want to study elephants. Only once we’ve done this will be in a good position explain what an elephant is. And we want a good understanding of what an elephant is before we set out to define the word “elephant”.

Gen Ed terms like “critical thinking” or “cultural diversity” refer to programs of study that involve a range of knowledge, skills and abilities. Before we are in a position to define and explain our Gen Ed outcomes in ways that will be meaningful to students, we need to acquaint ourselves with the full scope of these KSAs and only then deliberate amongst ourselves about which we deem essential, optional or problematic for our program of General Education. It’s not likely or necessary that we reach unanimity concerning how a Gen Ed is best understood. There will have to be compromises along the way. But we should start with a wide-ranging understanding of the options and the value they represent for our students. This, I hope, will describe the sort of agenda our Gen Ed working groups pursue this Fall.