A Philosopher's Blog

The Hands that Serve

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 21, 2017

My grandparents made shoes, but I was guided on a path towards college that ultimately ended up with me being a philosophy professor—an abstract profession that is, perhaps, as far from shoe making as one can get. While most are not destined to become philosophers, the push towards college education persists to this day. In contrast, skilled trades and manual labor are typically looked down upon—even though a skilled trade can be very financially rewarding.

Looking down on skilled trades might seem unusual for the United States, a country that arose out of skilled trades and one that still purports to value an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. However, as noted above, there has been a switch from valuing skilled trades in favor of college education and the associated jobs. Oddly, skilled trades are even considered by some to be, if not exactly shameful, nothing to be proud of. Instead, the respected professions typically require a college degree. Although, since inconsistency is the way of humanity, financial success without a degree is often lauded.

At this point one must be careful to not confuse the obsession with college degrees and associated jobs as a sign that Americans value intellectualism. While there are cultural icons such as Einstein, the United States has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of this is fueled by religion, some by the remnants of blue-collar practicality, and some by the knowledge of the elites that intellectuals can be a danger to the established order. What is at play here could be called “educationalism” to contrast it with “intellectualism.” In neutral terms, this can be taken as the valuing of education for its financial value in terms of the payoff in the workplace. In more negative terms, it can be taken as a prejudice or bias in favor of those with formal education. Because of the success of this sort of educationalism, people are encouraged to get an education primarily based on the financial returns to themselves and those who will exploit their labors. And part of the motivation is to avoid the stigma of not being in a profession that requires a degree.

While education can be valuable, this sort of educationalism is not without it negative consequences. As many have noted, one result has been an increase in those seeking college degrees. Since college degrees are now often absurdly expensive (thanks, in large part, to the adoption of the business model of exorbitant administrative salaries) this has resulted in a significant surge in college debt. There is also the predatory approaches of the for-profit colleges, which exist primarily to funnel public money to the executives and shareholders.

Another impact of this form of educationalism is that professions that do not require college degrees are cast as inferior to those that do require degrees. In some cases, this characterization is correct: for example, assembling burgers for a fast food chain is certainly inferior to nearly all jobs that require a college degree. However, this contempt for non-degree jobs often extends to skilled trades, such as those of electrician, plumber and carpenter.

In some cases, the looking down is based on the perception that skilled trades pay less than degree trades. While this can be the case, skill trades can pay very well indeed—you can check this yourself by calling a plumber or electrician and inquiring how much they will charge for various tasks.

In other cases, people look down on the skilled trades because they often think that because these trades do not require a college degree those who practice them must be less intelligent or less capable. That is, a common assumption is that people go into these trades because they lack the ability to navigate the rigors of a philosophy, art history or a communications degree. Crudely put, the prejudice is that smart people get degrees, stupid people work in skilled trades or manual labor.

While completing college does require some minimal level of ability, as a professor with decades of experience I can attest to the fact that this ability can be very minimal indeed. Put crudely, stupid people can and do graduate with degrees—and some go on to considerable success. My point here is not, however, to say that college graduates can be just as stupid as those in the skilled trades. Rather, my point is that a college degree is not a reliable indicator of greater ability or intelligence.

Switching to a more positive approach, skilled trades can be just as challenging as professions that require college degrees. While the skilled trades obviously place more emphasis on manual work, such as wiring houses or rebuilding engines, this does not entail that they require less intelligence or ability.

I am in a somewhat uncommon position of holding a doctorate while also having some meaningful experience with various skilled trades. Part of this is because my background is such that to be a man required having a skill set that includes the basics of a variety of trades. To illustrate, I was expected to know how to build a camp, rewire outlets, service firearms, repair simple engines, and not die in the wilds. I used some of these skills to make money to pay for school and still use them today to save money. And not die. While I am obviously not a skilled professional, I have a reasonably good grasp of the skills and abilities needed to work in many skilled professions and I understand they typically require intelligence, critical thinking and creative thinking. Based on my own experience, I can say that addressing a technical problem with wiring or an engine can be just as mentally challenging as addressing a philosophical conundrum about the ethics of driverless cars.  As such, it is mere prejudice to look down upon people in the skilled professions. Interesting, some who would be horrified of being accused of the prejudices of racism or sexism routinely look down their noses at those in skilled professions.

Since I will occasionally do repairs or projects for people, I do get a chance to see the prejudice—I sometimes feel that I am operating “undercover” in such situations. This is analogous to how I feel when, as a white person who teaches at an HBCU, I hear people expressing racist views because they think I am “one of them” because I am white.  For example, on one occasion I was changing the locks for a grad school friend of mine who did not know a screw driver from an instantiated universal. While I was doing this, some of her other friends stopped by. Not knowing who I was, they simply walked past, perhaps assuming I was some sort of peasant laborer. I overheard one of them whispering how glad he was he was in grad school, so he would not have to do such mundane and mindless work. Another whispered, with an odd pride, that she would have no idea how to do such work—presumably because her brain was far too advanced to guide her hands in the operation of a screwdriver. This odd combination is not uncommon: people often hold to the view that skilled labor is beneath them while also believing that they simply cannot do such work. As in the incident just mentioned, it seems common for people to rationalize their lack of ability by telling themselves they are too smart to waste their precious brain space on such abilities. Presumably if one learns to replace a light switch, one must lose the ability to grasp the fundamentals of deconstruction.

When my friend realized what was going on, she hastened to introduce me as a grad student and everyone apologized because they first thought I was “just some maintenance worker” and not “one of them.” Needless to say, their attitude towards me changed dramatically, as did their behavior. As one might suspect, these were the same sort of people who would rail against the patriarchy and racism for their cruel prejudices and biases. And yet they fully embraced the biases of “educationalism” and held me in contempt until they learned I was as educated as they.

I must admit that I also have prejudices and biases. When an adult cannot do basic tasks like replacing a fill valve in a toilet or replace a simple door lock, I do judge them. However, I try not to do this—after all, not everyone has a background in which they could learn such basic skills. But, of course, I expect people to reciprocate: in return they need to not be prejudiced against people who pursue skilled trades instead of college degrees. And, of course, since a person cannot learn everything, everyone has massive gaps and voids in their skill sets.

While those who pursue careers in which they create ever more elaborate financial instruments to ruin the economy are rewarded with great wealth and those who create new frivolous apps are praised, it should be remembered that the infrastructure of civilization that makes all these things possible depend largely on the skilled trades. Someone must wire the towers that make mobile phones possible so that people can Tweet their witty remarks, someone has to put in the plumping and HVAC systems that make buildings livable so that the weasels of Wall Street have a proper place to pee, and so on for the foundation of civilization. As Sean Le Rond D’Alembert so wisely said in 1751, “But while justly respecting great geniuses for their enlightenment, society ought not to degrade the hands by which it is served.” Excellent advice then, excellent advice now.

 

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Free Speech & Universities I: Invitations & Exclusions

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 8, 2017


While the right to free speech is considered fundamental in classical liberalism, contemporary liberals have been accused of being an enemy of this right. Some recent examples include incidents at Berkeley and Middlebury. As always, the matter of free speech is philosophically interesting, especially when it involves higher education.

One important distinction in regards to rights is that of the negative versus the positive. A negative right is not an evil right; rather it is a freedom such that the possessor is not entitled to be provided with the means to exercise the right. It is, roughly put, a right to not be interfered with. A positive right, in contrast, is an entitlement to the means needed to exercise the right. For example, the United States currently grants citizens a right to public K-12 education—in addition to having the liberty to seek this education, it is also provided to students. In contrast, college education is currently a negative right: students have the liberty to attend college, but are (generally) not provided with free education.

The right to free speech is generally taken to be a negative right; it is intended as a protection from impediment rather than an entitlement to the means to communicate. To use an obvious example, while I have the right to express my views no one is obligated to provide me with free radio or TV time in which to do so.

While university personnel have no right to unjustly interfere with free speech, they are also under no obligation to provide people with speaking opportunities on campus. Decisions about who to invite and who to allow to speak in official venues are often made on pragmatic grounds, such as which speakers will boost the reputation of the school or who happens to be friends with top administrators. There are also practical concerns about the cost of the speaker, the likelihood of trouble arising, and the extent of the interest in the speaker. While these practical concerns are important, decisions about who to invite (and who to exclude) should certainly be made on principled grounds.

One reasonable principle is that decisions should be made based on the educational value of having the speaker on campus. Since universities are supposed to educate students, it makes excellent sense for them to operate on this principle. Speakers who would offer little or nothing in the way of educational value could thus be justly denied invitations. Of course, education is not the only concern of a university in terms of what it offers to the students and the community. Speakers/presenters that offer things of artistic value or even mere entertainment value should also be given due consideration.

One obvious concern about deciding based on such factors is that there can be considerable debate about which speakers have adequate merit to warrant their invitation to campus. For example, the incident at Middlebury arose because some regard Charles Murray’s co-authored controversial book The Bell Curve as being based on pseudoscience and bad methodology. While these matters can be clouded with ideology, there are already clearly established standards regarding educational merit in regards to such things as methodology and legitimacy. The main problem lies in their application—but this is not a problem unique to picking speakers. It extends across the entire academy. Fortunately, the basic principle of educational merit is reasonable clear—but the real fights take place over the particulars.

Another seemingly sensible principle is a moral one—that those invited should reflect the values of the institution and perhaps the broader society. At the very least, those invited should not be evil and should not be espousing evil.

This principle does have some obvious problems. One is the challenge of deciding what conflicts with the values of the institution. Another is the problem that it is problematic to speak of the values of the broader society, given the considerable diversity of opinions on moral issues. When people use this approach, they are often simply referring to their own values and assuming that they are shared by society as a while. There is the enduring problem in ethics of sorting out what exactly is evil. And then there is the classic concern about whether academic or artistic merit can offset moral concerns. For example, a Catholic university might regard a pro-choice philosopher as endorsing a morally wrong position, yet also hold that having this philosopher engage a pro-life advocate in a campus debate to have educational merit. As another example, a liberal institution might regard an extreme libertarian as having morally problematic views, yet see educational merit in having them present their arguments as part of a series on American political philosophy.  As with the matter of merit, there are rational and principled ways to approach ethical concerns—but this area is far more fraught with controversy than questions of assessing educational merit.

While I do agree that speech can cause harm, I hold to a presumption in favor of free expression. As a principle, this means that if there is reasonable doubt as to whether to merit of a speech outweighs moral concerns about the speaker or content, then the decision should favor free expression. This is based on the view that it is better to run the risk of tolerating possible evil than to risk silencing someone who has something worth saying. As such, I generally favor a liberal (in the classic sense) approach to inviting speakers to universities.

In the next essay I will consider the matter of the “heckler’s veto”, which occurs when the crowd silences a speaker.

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DeVos & HBCUs

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 3, 2017

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I was cautiously optimistic when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a luncheon with presidents from some HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  As might be suspected, HBCUs often face funding issues and increased support would be very welcome. This is especially relevant in Florida since the state has not only cut education funding, it has also imposed a punitive performance based funding system in which state schools must compete. While the top three schools are rewarded with more funding, the bottom three schools are punished. Since there must always be a bottom three, there will always be three schools being punished—even if they are doing a good job.

While this should have been an easy public relations victory for DeVos, she ignited a firestorm with her attempt to whitewash the history of HBCUS and link them with her ideology of school choice. Apparently ignorant of history, she said that HBCUS “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and added that “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

The obvious problem with her remark is that HBCUS were not pioneers of school choice; they were the result of a system of segregation that denied black students access to white colleges and universities. This segregation also extended to black educators, because “when segregation was rampant some of the most brilliant black educators had to come to [black colleges] in order to have an opportunity to teach. They couldn’t go any place else.” DeVos’ remarks about choice are thus both ironic and ignorant—HBCUs arose in a situation in which there was very little choice for black students. While there were a very few white schools that accepted black students, the real choice for most blacks was a black school or no school.

DeVos was, however, correct to claim that “more options help students flourish” in that having an option to attend college helps students flourish more than having no option. This is, however, rather different than the school choice she envisions as a model for education. As such, her effort to draw an analogy between HBCUs and her vision of school choice fails. While her remarks might have been a result of mere unforgivable ignorance (the secretary of education should have at least a basic grasp of the major historical facts of American education), they could also be taken as expressing a view that favors segregation.

While this might seem like a stretch, it is well worth considering the history of the sort of private schools that DeVos praises. While the Brown decision led to desegregation in the public schools, the ruling did not apply to private schools. As the public schools desegregated, white began to flee to “segregation academies.” This has contributed to a significant increase in public school segregation. While some might argue that using public money to fund private schools will address the problem of segregation, the data shows that private schools are even more segregated than public schools. Shifting public funds to private schools will result in an even more unequal system: well-funded, highly segregated private schools and poorly funded highly segregated public schools.

While I am not accusing DeVos of racism, it is tempting to see her praise of HBCUs and support for them in sinister terms. That is, that there is an intent to mirror the segregation at the K-12 level with segregation at the college and university level. Somewhat ironically, the desegregation of higher education had left HBCUs in search of a new mission to replace that of providing education to black students who lacked opportunities at white schools. DeVos, it seems, might be interested in making the old mission relevant again.

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Charter Schools II: Choice & Quality

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2017

In the previous essay on charter schools I considered the monopoly argument in their favor. On this view, charter schools break the state’s harmful monopoly on education and this is a good thing. It is worth noting, again, that the state does not have a monopoly on education (there are private, non-charter schools). Instead, the state schools often have a monopoly on public money and charter schools break this monopoly by receiving public money. This, it is argued by charter school proponents, allows for more choice. They are quite right. But not all choices are good choices.

Without charter schools, people face rather limited alternatives to the public-school system. One is home schooling. While this does appeal to some people, it does limit the educational experience and requires a great deal of the parent(s). Another is attending a private school. While these schools can provide excellent education, they can very expensive. As such, they are an option only for those who can afford them. Because charter schools receive public money, they can provide an alternative to public schools for those who cannot afford a private school. However, there is the question of why there should be such choice and why people would take it.

One reason often given in favor of charter schools over public schools is that charter schools are supposed to superior in terms of the education they provide (or in some other relevant way). Proponents of charter schools point to failing public schools as evidence for this claim. While this is certainly a rational argument, there are some concerns with it.

One concern is that while there are bad public schools and excellent charter schools, there are also excellent public schools and awful charter schools. As such, there is nothing intrinsic to the public system that necessitates its badness nor anything intrinsic to the charter system that necessitates its superiority. This raises the question about what causes school quality.

The easy and obvious answer is that the main cause is funding. It is no accident that the best schools tend to be in affluent neighborhoods and the worst schools tend to be in poor areas. After all, a significant portion of the funding for public schools is local and is often based on property taxes. As such, high value property generates more funding for schools. Low value property generates far less. Naturally, this is not the whole story for school funding, but it is an important part. It is also worth noting that not just community wealth is a factor—community health is also important for the quality of education. After all, stable communities that have families actively involved in the school can create a very good educational experience for the children. However, wealth and health often travel hand in hand.

As might be suspected, most parents would prefer their children attend the best schools—this is why parents who have the income buy houses in the best school districts. This provides another limit to choice: while anyone can attend the best public schools, they must be able to afford to live in the district. This makes the best public schools analogous to private schools; one must pay to be able to attend. The promise of charter schools is that children can escape the poor schools and go to a superior charter school, using public money.

While this does have some appeal, there are some obvious problems. One is that the poor schools will become poorer as they lose students and will presumably decline even more until only those who cannot escape remain. This would seem to be like pouring money into lifeboats for an ailing ship rather than using the money to fix it.

Of course, this analogy could be countered by saying that the public school ship is doomed and the only viable option is escape. This is a reasonable counter—if a school is so badly wrecked that it cannot be saved, then escaping to another school would be as sensible as fleeing a sinking ship. The challenge is, however, showing that this should be a charter school and not a new public school.

Another is that it would seem to make more sense to use the public money to improve the public school so that parents would want their children to attend. After all, if parents want to choose good schools, the best use of public money would seem to be to make public schools better. Since there are excellent public schools, this is clearly something that can be done with proper funding and a strong community. As noted above, there is no special magic to charters that makes them inherently better than public schools. To use another analogy, the charter school argument is like pointing to the poorly maintained roads of a community and saying that the solution is not to fix the roads, but to use the public money to put in another set of roads adjacent to the existing roads. It would seem to make much more sense to fix the existing public roads rather than putting in “charter roads.”

In light of the above discussion, the choice argument for charter schools based on quality does not appear compelling. Unless it can be shown that charter schools are inherently better than public schools in virtue of being charters, then it would be more sensible to improve the quality of existing public schools rather than siphoning away public money. There are, however, other matters of choice beyond quality. In the next essay I will look at the appeal of ideological choice—charter schools that offer an ideological or theological alternative to public schools.

 

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The Liberal Academy

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 19, 2016

While the high cost of college and the woes of student loans tend to be the main focuses of media coverage of universities, there has also been some attention paid to such things as trigger warnings and safe spaces. A trigger warning, in the context of a university class, is an explicit notification that the content a student is supposed to read, view or hear might be upsetting or even cause a post-traumatic stress disorder response. In an academic context, a safe space is supposed to be a place free of harassment, intolerance and hate speech. As might be suspected, some consider trigger warnings and safe spaces potential threats to free speech.

The existence of trigger warnings and safe spaces is also taken by some as a sign that the liberal masters of the academy have gotten out of hand and are imposing their agenda upon students and a few unwilling faculty. There are also concerns that the liberal dominance has marginalized conservative academics. There is some merit to these concerns. There is apparently a roughly 5 to 1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative faculty and there are certainly examples of how the academy can be hostile towards conservative ideas. And even liberal ideas that do not match the proper ideology.

Given that the stereotypical liberal accuses the stereotypical conservative of marginalizing others and opposing free expression, there is a certain irony in the claim that the liberal is the alleged oppressor and the conservative is the alleged victim. It is also ironic that some of the defenses offered for the marginalization of conservatives in the academy mirror the defenses offered for the marginalization of minorities by some conservatives. This should not, however, be surprising: those with the upper hand tend to use the same basic playbook—although the vocabulary does change.

While I certainly accept liberal concerns regarding the marginalization of minorities and women in the broader society, consistency requires me to also give due consideration to the marginalization of conservatives in the academy. After all, marginalization anywhere is a threat to inclusion everywhere.

I have considered elsewhere the causal factors behind the general liberal dominance of the academy, but it is certainly worth considering this matter again. One concern is that while conservatives might complain about liberal dominance of the academy, there simply might not be enough conservatives interested in becoming professors. This does make some sense—becoming a professor requires spending years getting a terminal degree, grinding through a brutal job search process that is likely to result in part time employment as an adjunct without any benefits. The same amount of effort applied to other fields, such as business endeavors, law or medicine would result in a vastly better chance of getting a much better paying job with greater benefits. Given that conservatives are often cast as interested in being practical and focused on financial success, it would actually seem odd for them to want to go into academics. The stereotypical liberal character seems to better match this career path. This is not to say that an academic job cannot be financially rewarding; but faculty positions yield far less financially than other positions that require analogous education and effort.

Administrative posts can, however, be gold mines—while they do not quite match the financial rewards of the big corporations, the upper echelons do come close in terms of pay, bonuses and perks. But, of course, conservatives taking administrative posts would still leave the actual teaching in liberal hands. But, back to the main subject.

The above reasoning is, of course, is analogous to a stock reply to claims that other areas are lacking in minorities or women: there is no oppression, it is simply the case that minorities and women are not very interested in those areas. So, while conservatives could become professors just as easily as liberals, they wisely elect to pursue more financially lucrative careers. Likewise, liberals tend to pursue less lucrative careers. For example, while there are liberals in the top echelons of the financial firms and corporations (Apple, which does its best to utilize cheap foreign labor and evade taxes is often presented as ruled by liberals), these positions tend to be dominated by conservative white men.

Conservatives can borrow a stock liberal argument here. Liberals typically argue that women and minorities want to be in the fields where they are marginalized, but there are systematic means of keeping them at the margins. For example, liberals often point to how women are treated to explain the small numbers of women in various fields. These methods include the usual suspects: discouraging women from taking classes relevant to the field, steering women away from careers in those fields, hiring biases against women, and hostility towards women who make it into the field.

Conservatives can use this approach and contend that there are many conservatives who want to be professors, but there are systematic means of keeping them marginalized. These means would include the usual suspects: the discouraging of conservative ideas in the classroom, steering conservatives away from careers in academics, hiring biases against those with known conservative views, and hostility towards conservatives who make it into the academy.

While it might be tempting for liberals to respond using analogies to the arguments employed by some conservatives in the face of claims that women and minorities are marginalized, that would be unjust. If being a liberal involves being opposed to marginalization, then moral consistency would require addressing all warranted concerns about the marginalization of conservatives in academics. As noted above, marginalization anywhere is a threat to diversity everywhere.

Making the academy more diverse would thus require approaches analogous to making other fields more diverse. These methods would include tolerance of conservative ideas in the classroom, encouraging conservatives to pursue careers in academics, addressing hiring biases against conservatives (perhaps with some affirmative action hires), and sensitivity training to mitigate hostility against conservatives in the academy.

 

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Textbook Prices

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on October 3, 2016

While most of the attention about the cost of a college education is focused on tuition, there is also concern about the ever-increasing prices of text books. While textbooks are something of a niche product, their prices tend to be far higher than other niche books. For example, a new hardcover version of the Pathfinder Role Playing Game retails for $49.99 and sells for $30.47 on Amazon. This 576 page book is lavishly illustrated and is of excellent quality. In contrast, the latest edition of the 512-page softcover Critical Thinking book I use in my class sells for $176.60 on Amazon.  While it is a quality work, it hardly seems worth the price.

There are numerous reasons textbooks have high prices. There is the fact that textbook sales tend to be relatively low, so the price needs to be higher to make a profit. There is also the fact that behind each textbook is typically a small army of people ranging from the lowly author to the exalted corporate CEO and everyone needs their slice of the pie. And, of course, there is the fact that the customers are something of captive market—the students are expected to buy what professors select and are often stuck with only that option. In any case, textbooks are now rather expensive—they can match or exceed the cost of a low end laptop.

While students have long been inclined to neither read nor buy texts, the rising prices serve as an ever growing disincentive for buying the books. This greatly lowers the chances that a student will read the book and this can have a detrimental impact on the student’s education.

Several years ago my students complained about the high costs of books (and these were not very high), so I took steps to address this concern. While they are lagging behind me, some state legislatures have started pushing for schools to address the high cost of textbooks. On the one hand, they seem to be taking the wrong sort of approach: publishers and sellers control textbook prices, faculty do not. This would be analogous to putting the burden of lowering the cost of prescription drugs on doctors rather than the pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. The state legislatures could, if they think that the high cost of texts is a cruel burden on students, legislate price restrictions on these books or address the matter directly in other ways. On the other hand, professors can take steps to address the costs that students have to pay in regards to the required material for their classes. As such, there is a legitimate role here for faculty.

While I certainly support the goal of making the costs of texts less burdensome, the focus on textbooks by state legislatures smells a bit like a red herring. After all, one main factor driving the increased cost of a state college education is the systematic disinvestment in higher education by these very same legislatures. Students would, I think, be far better served by these legislatures restoring the investments in higher education—something that will aid the students and pay for itself in returns many times over.  But since legislatures seem reluctant to invest in the future of America’s youth, I now turn to addressing how faculty can lower the costs that students have to pay for texts.

There are, of course, some easy and obvious solutions. One is for the professor to shop around when picking a text.  Textbooks vary considerably in price and some companies, such as Oxford University Press, make a point of keeping prices in a more reasonable range. The challenge is, of course, to ensure that the lower cost book is of suitable quality; but this is generally not a problem if a professor sticks with the reputable publishers.

Another option is for professors to use older editions of books that are still readily available from resellers such as Amazon and whatever used bookstores remain in business. These books can be far cheaper than the new editions. The main concern is that older editions can become out of date. This can range from the relatively minor issue of having examples that are no longer current to the serious issue of a book containing information that has been proven to be in error. Concerns about the age of the text tend to be relative to the field. To illustrate, a class on ancient philosophy can easily use an ancient book while a class on contemporary moral issues would need a contemporary book. There are also public domain books readily available for free in electronic format, including versions available through such sources as Amazon.

Professors can also keep costs low by ensuring that they only require books that are really needed in the course. Some professors, perhaps to get free desk copies, require many books for their courses that end up either being underused (such as reading one article from an anthology) or not being used at all.

There are also various other established solutions such as using a custom course pack of readings (often assembled and sold by a local copy business) and having the course material put on reserve at the library. Professors can also locate free online resources, such as educational videos, that can be used in place of or in addition to traditional books. The

Professors can also aid students by doing the student’s research for them—looking up textbook prices online and informing students of the best deals at that time. Some states have been requiring professors to turn in text book orders months before the start of the semester; the theory is that students will use that time to hunt down the best textbook deals. This does require a means of informing students about the books, something that presumably would be listed online with the class.  Sometimes professors have to turn in their book orders before they even know what they will be teaching, but this can be addressed by setting schedules early enough. In cases involving adjuncts (who are sometimes hired days before school starts) or new hires, books will no doubt be assigned by some other faculty member on the grounds that the alleged savings of being able to shop around early will outweigh any concerns about academic freedom or faculty decision making in regards to course content.

There are also solutions that require more effort on the part of professors. When my students began complaining of the high cost of books, I addressed the problem by assembling texts out of public domain works. While these “books” began as text files, the advent of PDF enabled me to create robust digital texts. The students can download these books for free from Blackboard, which saves them money. This approach does have limitations, the main one is that the works need to either be in the public domain or permission to use them for free must be granted. There are also creative commons works, but these are not terribly common in academics. Because of this, most of the works that can be included will be older, out of copyright works. For some classes, this is no problem. For example, my Modern philosophy class covers long dead philosophers, such as Descartes and Locke, whose works are in the public domain. For classes that require up to date content, such as science classes or classes devoted to contemporary content, this approach would not be viable.

Professors can, and often do, write their own texts for use in classes. If the professor goes through the usual publishing companies, they might have some ability to keep the price low. But, since author royalties are usually but a small fraction of the cost of a textbook, even if a professor were to forgo this royalty, the impact on the price would be minimal. As such, this is not a great option in terms of price control.

Thanks to on-demand publishing services (such as CreateSpace) and eBook publishing (such as Amazon’s Kindle eBooks) a professor can also publish their books with almost complete control over the price. For example, an author can set a Kindle eBook to sell for as low as 99 cents. On the positive side, this option allows a professor to provide printed and electronic books for very low prices.

On the minus side, self-published books are not subject to the review usually required by academic publishers and thus quality can be a serious concern. There are also some ethical concerns about a professor requiring students to buy their books—although a low relative cost can offset this worry. Although I have written numerous philosophy books, such as 42 Fallacies, I have not used them in my classes because of this concern. They have, however, been adopted by faculty at other universities.

While professors are now expected to keep the costs of texts down, there are ways students can save themselves money. The classic approach is, of course, to not buy the book (or only buy some of the books). While this does save money, it can impact negatively on class performance and learning. Another approach is to split the cost of the text and share the book, although this runs into the usual problems of sharing.

Text books can sometimes also be checked out from libraries; although there is the obvious problem of limited availability. Students who are more frugal than scrupulous can also acquire free books by other means—almost anything can be acquired through various channels on the web.

Students who are willing to buy a text can save money by shopping around online and at used bookstores for used or discounted copies of the text. Previous editions of books can also be found, often at lower prices. The downside is that publishers take special effort to make it harder to use previous editions—one tactic is to move around homework questions so the numbers are different between editions. On the positive side, content changes between editions tend to be otherwise minor.

Publishers also offer textbook rentals that offer savings relative to the sales price; given that the money students get for selling their books back is very little, this can be a good approach for people who would otherwise just sell their books back.  Some books are also available at a slightly lower price as eBooks (although there is the concern about being able to sell them back).

A student can also make an appeal to the professor; they might have a copy they can lend or they might be able to suggest some lower cost options. While many professors are aware of the cost of texts and take steps to keep costs down, some professors are unaware—but might be willing to address this if asked by students.

To close, while state legislatures should be focused on the main cost factors of higher education (such as their own disinvestment choices) they are correct in pointing out that textbook costs do need to be addressed. While this should be handled by those who set the prices of the texts, professors and students can use the above approaches to help keep costs down.

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Student Loans

Posted in Business, Law, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2016

English: Day 3 of the protest Occupy Wall Stre...

The student loan crisis has been getting considerable attention in the media, but the coverage is often quick and shallow. James B. Steele and Lance Williams of Reveal from the The Center for Investigative Reporting have presented a more in-depth examination of the student loan industry. As a former student and current professor, I am concerned about student loans.

The original intention of student loans, broadly construed, was to provide lower income students with an affordable means of paying for college. Like most students, I had to take out loans to pay for school. This was back in the 1980s, when college costs were more reasonable and just as student loans were being transformed into a massive for-profit industry. As such, my loans were fairly modest (about $8,000) and I was able to pay them off even on the pitiful salary I was earning as an adjunct professor. Times have, however, changed.

Making a long story short, the federal government enabled banks and private equity companies to monetize the federal student loan program, enabling them to make significant profits from the loans and fees. Because many state governments embraced an ideology of selfishness and opposition to public goods, these governments significant cut their support for state colleges and universities, thus increasing the cost of tuition. At the same time, university administrations were growing both in number of administrators and their salaries, thus increasing costs as well. There was also an increase in infrastructure costs due to new technology as well as a desire to market campuses as having amenities such as rock climbing gyms. The result is $1.3 trillion in debt for 42 million Americans. On the “positive” side, the government makes about 20% on its 2013 loans and the industry is humming along at $140 billion a year.

While the government holds about 93% of the total debt, the debt collection was contracted to private companies and these were scooped up by the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. As would be expected, these contractors profit greatly—about $2 billion per year. The collection process is often very aggressive and the industry has used its control over congress to ensure that the laws are very favorable to them. For example, student loan debt is one of the very few debts that are not discharged by a bankruptcy.

While student loans were originally intended to benefit students, they now benefit the government and the private contractors to the detriment of students. As such, there is a moral concern here in addition to the practical concerns about loans.

If the primary purpose of student loans is to address economic inequality by assisting lower income students attend college, then its current state is a clear violation of this purpose. This is because the system is creating massive debt for students while creating massive profits for the government and private contractors. That is, students are being exploited by both the state and the private sector. The collusion of the state makes seeking redress rather difficult—after all, the people need to turn to the state for redress, yet the state is an interested party and under the influence of the industry. This problem is, of course, not unique to student loans and it is one more example of how privatization is great for the private sector but often awful for citizens.

It could be argued that this is the proper function of the state—to serve the interest of the financial elites at the expense of the citizens. If so, then the student loan program should continue as it is; it is great for the state and the financial class while it is crushing citizens under mountains of debt. If, however, the state should serve the good of the citizens in general, then the status quo is a disaster. My view is, not surprisingly, that of John Locke: the state is to serve the good of the people. As such, I contend that the student loan industry needs to be changed.

One change that would help is for states to return to supporting public higher education. While there are legitimate concerns about budgets, education is actually a great investment in both the private good of the students and the public good. After all, civilization needs educated people to function and people with college degrees end up with higher incomes and thus pay more taxes (paying back the investment many times over). While there are professed ideological reasons for opposing this, there are also financial motivations: dismantling public education would push more students into the awful for-profit schools that devour money and excrete un(der)employed people burdened by massive debt. While this is great for the owners of these schools, it is awful for the students and society as a whole.

Another change, which has been proposed by others, is to change or end the privatized aspects of the system. While there is the myth that the private sector is vastly superior to the inefficient and incompetent state, the fact is that the efficiency of the private sector seems to mostly lie in making a profit for itself rather than running the student loan system in accord with its intended purpose. This is not to say that the state must be great in what it does, just that cutting out the large profits of the collection agencies would reduce the burden on students. This is, of course, a moral question about whether it is right or not to profit on the backs of students.

There has also been talk about reducing the interest rates of student loans and even proposals for free college. I do favor lower interest rates; if the purpose of the loans is to assist students rather than make money, then lower interest rates would be the right thing to do. As far as free college goes, there is the obvious problem that “free” college has to be paid for by someone—it is a matter of shifting the burden from students to someone else. As far as the ethics of such a shift, it depends on who is picking up the tab.

As a closing point, there is also the matter of student responsibility. My loans went entirely to paying education expenses—which is one reason my debt was rather low even for the time. While many students do use the loans wisely, my experiences as a student and a professor have shown that students sometimes use the loan money unwisely and put themselves into debt for things that have no connection to education. For example, faculty often joke that while the administrators drive the best cars, the students drive the second best and the faculty drive the worst. Students that overburden themselves with loans they use irresponsibly have only themselves to blame. However, the fact that some students do this does not invalidate the claim that much of the debt burden inflicted on students is unjust.

 

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The University that Wasn’t

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2016

While Hillary Clinton is mired in the tar pit of her email server scandal, Trump’s foes are hoping that Trump University will prove to be the quicksand that puts an end to him. While Trump named it “Trump University”, in 2005 the state of New York took action to make him change the name on the grounds that it was not, in fact, a university. A university has to meet certain standards and Trump’s operation did not meet these. This, however, is not the problem that Trump now faces.

As this is written, there is a class action lawsuit against Trump (who owned 93% of the “university”) that is based on an allegation of fraud against Trump. It has been claimed that the “university” was a scheme aimed at taking money from the elderly and the uneducated using carefully scripted high pressure sales tactics. The trial is scheduled in November, shortly after the presidential election. Because of this, president elect Trump might find himself in the courtroom after his victory. Assuming, of course, that he wins.

While I will not comment on the legal issues, the “university” seems to have been morally problematic. As noted above, calling it a university seems to have been deceptive, given that it was not a university. Naturally, Trump could be defended by arguing that he and everyone else involved were ignorant of the requirements for an institution being a university. While this would indicate poor planning, it would mitigate the charge of deception.

The practices laid out by the verified documentation show practices that are morally problematic. As noted above, the “university” seemed to have been targeted at the elderly and uneducated, people who would be regarded as easy targets for this sort of operation. Also as noted above, the sales tactics (though standard) seem morally dubious. There is also the fact that the customers seemed to have gotten little in return for their money and, in some cases, did not get what they were promised. One of the main focuses has been on the claim that Trump handpicked the instructors—a claim that was proven to be untrue. What adds an icing of awfulness to the whole wicked cake is that the “university” focused on how to cash in on the housing collapse. While making money off the suffering and misfortune of others is legal and often lauded in the United States, it should strike those with a conscience as reprehensible on its face.

Trump’s defenders can certainly address such moral condemnation. The easy any obvious avenue is to point out that it has yet to be shown that Trump did anything illegal. Targeting the vulnerable, using high pressure sales tactics, providing services of dubious value and training people to profit on the misfortune of others all seem to be legal. In fact, a case can be made that these are excellent things in regards to making a profit. Trump could even make the case that far from being a moral stain on his campaign, the way Trump University operated serves as proof that he knows how to get things done and that he has no qualms about doing what it takes to achieve his ends. Some might regard these traits as laudable in a president.

Trump has, as would be expected, responded to the explosion in the media. He has used the well-honed tactic of attacking the media, tapping into the well-established dislike and distrust crafted by Republicans and Fox News. While criticism of objectivity is a legitimate tactic, bashing the media is both a red herring (a rhetorical tool to distract attention from the issue) and a genetic fallacy (taking an alleged defect in the source of the claim as evidence the claim is not true). While the claims made about Trump by the professional media seem to be well and objectively documented, what matters politically is what impact this will have on the voters. Democrats are no doubt hoping for a “Trump U. Gate” to draw attention from Hillary’s server woes. However, Trump’s supporters might not care at all. This would be especially ironic, given that the allegation is one of fraud and his supporters tend to point to his authenticity as a major reason for their allegiance.

Trump has also gone after the U.S. District Judge who is presiding over the case. Trump has said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a “hater” and has said the Indiana native is Mexican. The hater remark is a mere ad hominem, which is a standard Trump tactic: to use personal attacks instead of providing actual reasons. Presumably Trump’s claim that he believes the judge is Mexican is also some sort of attack and perhaps a tactic to spin a narrative that he is being persecuted by the Mexicans for his courageous political incorrectness (or racism, as some see it).

This approach might play will with his supporters and he probably runs little risk in pushing people off the fence to the Democrat’s side. After all, if his remarks and behavior have not already pushed someone off the fence, these remarks should not be the rock that knocked the bird off the fence.

Trump has managed to thrive by behaving in ways that would have been political suicide for just about any other candidate, thus showing that the rules are different for him (at least for now). What remains to be seen is whether or not the revelations about Trump University will harm him politically. On the one hand, such allegations should damage his reputation as authentic and successful. On the other hand, while the details about Trump University are new to the public, it seems that they show nothing new about Trump himself. As such, it seems most likely that this will not hurt Trump much. That said, this might help Hillary a bit by getting the media, public and pundits focused on Trump University and not on Hillary’s server. Trump must get these eyes pushed back to gaze upon the server, which he is endeavoring to do.

 

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“Trump” Terror at Emory

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 1, 2016

Donald Trump & Melania enter the Oscar De LA R...

It was the day that fear and pain came to Emory University. No, it was not another horrific campus shooting. This day of terror was inflicted by chalked “Trump 2016” messages. In response, students staged a protest. Comedians, such as Larry Wilmore, mocked. The administration, somewhat amazingly, decided to take no action to find the chalk wielding Trump terrorist.

While this incident can be easily dismissed as yet another case of the absurdly fragile state of the coddled college elite, it does have some philosophical interest that makes it worth considering. I will begin by offering a defense of the pained and frightened students, then move to a discussion of free expression.

While chalked messages are frequently encountered on campuses, there are three ways to argue that the students were legitimately threatened by the Trump chalk marks. One approach would be to argue that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and apparent bigotry make his name something to be feared, such that chalking it on campus is akin to chalking actually threats or hateful remarks.

A possible reply to this is that Trump is not actually bad enough to warrant such a fearful response from the mere writing of his name—that is, the reaction is far too extreme given the level of threat. Another reply is that even if Trump is truly a threatening bigot, the invocation of his name should not suffice as a threat. It is, after all, just his name.

A second approach would be to argue that the chalk marks occurred in a broader context—that the much dreaded hostile environment had been created and in this context “Trump 2016” is a dire threat. This does have a certain appeal since, given the right context, almost any words can present a frightening threat. That said, it would certainly require quite a remarkable context to make an expression of support for the leading Republican candidate to strike legitimate terror into the hearts of grown people.

A third approach would be to argue that the words were written with an intent the threatened students were aware of—that is, “Trump 2016” and similar messages are a known code for actual threats. If this is the case, then the students could be thus justified in their terror and pain. This does, however, create a bit of a problem—what if “Bernie 2016” or “Hillary 2016” become code words for vile threats?

As might be suspected, my own view is that the students were most likely not warranted in their terror and pain. However, if it turns out that there really was a coded threat that the students understood, then I would revise my view. What is, I think, more interesting about this situation is the matter of free expression.

As many folks on the right have noted, there seems to be an ever increasing hostility to free expression on certain “elite” college campuses. There does not seem to be such a problem at many other schools, such as my own Florida A&M University. This might be because the students are rather busy with classes, university activities and working to pay for school. Interestingly, even some people in the liberal spectrum have regarded such things as “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones” as signs of an intolerance on the part of some of the left. These concerns, at least at certain schools, do seem legitimate—as supported by the Trump Terror Chalk Incident of 2016 (as history shall know it).

This episode of terror has not resulted in any change to my view of free expression: people should have complete freedom to express their views, provided that doing so does not inflict actual harm directly or indirectly. Making threats of violence, inciting violence or engaging in harmful slander would be clear examples of expression that should not be protected. What is merely offensive, annoying, or even regarded as vaguely threatening should not be restricted.

One practical concern is sorting out what legitimately counts as harmful expression that should be limited under the classic principle of harm. In this specific case, the problem is deciding whether or not it suffices that the students felt pain and believed they were threatened. On the one hand, one could use an analogy to physical pain: if something hurts, then it did cause pain. So, if chalked Trump support hurts students, then they should be protected from it.  On the other hand, there is the matter of what can reasonably be considered painful and what would be an overreaction. After all, if people could merely claim pain or fear was caused by some expression and shut down free expression, silence would soon reign. Fortunately, good sense can prevail in such cases—supported by arguments, of course. In the case of the Trump chalk marks, this would be on par with someone claiming assault and battery when someone merely brushed past them while walking. Such contact might strike terror into some, but it would be absurd to consider it an attack. Likewise, sensitive students might fear the words “Trump 2016”, but to claim true pain would be an absurd overreaction. The real pain will come when Trump is president.

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Mount St. Mary’s University III: Drowning Bunnies & Retention

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2016

While students have long been concerned about their grade points, colleges and universities have become enthralled by numbers. Many state schools, such as my own Florida A&M University, are being held hostage by numbers—they have been locked into the death match of number driven performance based funding. Even private, non-profit schools have fallen victim to number obsession. One rather unfortunate recent example involves Mount St. Mary’s University.

President Simon Newman devised a plan to improve the school’s retention rate by culling students before the federal reporting deadline. The plan was to get students to complete a survey described as a “valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself.” In reality, the survey was intended to identify the students to be culled. In response to some resistance to the plan, Newman responded by saying “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

While Newman’s proposed solution and its fallout proved to be a disaster for the university, schools do need to address the problem of retention. For all schools, improving retention is important for improving the reputation and status of the school. This applies both to how the school is ranked and how the school is perceived by prospective students and their parents. For many public schools, improving retention is important for maintaining or improving their funding from the state. Many states have adopted punishing performance based funding systems such that schools are forced to fight to avoid being the victims of funding cuts. There is also the matter of the students—retaining students so that they graduate is certainly beneficial to these students. After all, students leaving school and having little to show for it other than debt is not good for anyone.

There are various ways to approach the problem of retention. One approach, which was the general plan of Newman, is to cull the students who are least likely to be retained. If successful, this will improve the school’s numbers. While this approach seems harsh, it can be defended. An obvious defense is that schools already use a culling process, specifically the application process. In this case, the “bunnies” are drowned before they even get to the gates of the school. Another defense is to draw an analogy to sports. Many teams have both a varsity and junior varsity. Athletes compete to be on the varsity team and sometimes even to remain on the team. This, it can be argued, is the nature of competitive activities. Since schools are in competition, they can be looked at as analogous to sports teams: they need to have the best players they can get in order to improve their performance in the competition for status and funds. As such, the numbers are improved because poor performers are removed from the herd.

This approach does raise numerous concerns about having a competition model in education, especially in regards to funding for public institutions. One concern is that such an approach will abandon students from the lower economic classes—there is, after all, a strong causal link between the economic class of students and their retention and graduation rates. One obvious reason is that poorer students have less resources to pay for school and need to spend more time working. Another concern is with the methods that would be used to cull the students after they have been accepted. After all, the goal of such a culling is to be rid of them before they damage the numbers; so the culling process needs to predict performance rather than be based upon it. As such, the culling could easily prove to be unfair.

A second approach is to improve the pre-culling of students. My university has had the traditional role of offering opportunity to students who otherwise would not have such opportunities. This, not surprisingly, results in lower retention and graduation numbers relative to schools that focus on admitting those most likely to succeed (usually people from the middle and upper economic classes). It has been recommended that our approach be replaced with stricter admission requirements, thus abandoning many potential students. While this would have the benefit of improving the school’s numbers, it would have the serious disadvantage of denying many potential students the chance to succeed. These students would generally be from the lower income classes, thus helping to perpetuate poverty.  As such, pre-and post-admission culling have the same sort of problems.

An alternative to culling is to strengthen the students. That is, focus on improving the students’ chances of remaining in school and succeeding. This would bring up the numbers by improving performance. To use a sports analogy, this would be like a team that focused on training its athletes to be better rather than focusing on getting rid of the athletes that did not perform as well. One major downside to this approach is that it would require expending resources: lower income students would need more financial support, students who are less well prepared (who are often lower income) would need extra help, and so on. Since many schools have either embraced the business model or have had state legislatures ram it down their throats (to use one of Marco Rubio’s favorite lines), it is not surprising that this approach is less favored. After all, it is cheaper to pre-cull and cull than it is to provide broad opportunity for success.

A reasonable response to concerns about opportunity is to argue that it is better to use the limited resources for students who are more likely to succeed rather than waste them on students who are likely to fail. While this does have considerable merit, there is still the moral concern regarding denying opportunity in the name of economy. That said, it is certainly reasonable and rational to consider how resources should be best used.

My own view is that in a country as wealthy as the United States, schools should err on the side of opportunity. In addition to the usually “left” arguments about equality and justice, there is also a solid conservative argument: while some money will be “wasted” on students who are not retained, the return on investments in retention should pay off handsomely in terms of improved income, reduced crime, and enhanced opportunities. That is, in the long term the cost of investing in education will be far less than the cost of not doing so.

 

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