Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about

There’s a fascinating moment in The Righteous Mind where Jonathan Haidt makes a point similar to one I wrote about earlier:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Compare this to my December 2010 post “What people want and what they are: religious edition:”

. . . as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Haidt doesn’t use the word “signal,” but his idea of using moral claims to “justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to” is pretty close. This also describes why, over the past ten years, I’ve become a person much less invested in political, moral, or (many kinds of) intellectual arguments: most of those arguments aren’t really about their content, but about something else, below the surface, that doesn’t always bob up to the surface. Here’s Paul Graham on that idea in “What You Can’t Say:”

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

Most people seem to equate “winning” an argument in a lawyerly fashion with being intellectually right. This might be why lawyers have some of the reputation they do: they get paid primarily to construct arguments that may be specious, but that have to be convincing.

I also like to think that realizing how moral arguments really work makes me a better teacher: rather than fighting with students who bring up moral arguments, I try to ask them where their arguments come from and how they come to believe what they believe. In other words, I try to work at a higher level of abstraction—which is what Haidt is doing in The Righteous Mind.

One other point about Haidt: if you’re frustrated by “how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you,” imagine how you must act to them.

Instant feedback in the classroom, and in life

You never really know if you’re teaching the right thing. The best way to get closer that ideal is instant feedback.

When I’m teaching, I often ask simple, binary questions (“How many of you think you’d leave the body?” of Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home;” “How many of you checked Facebook at least once while you were writing your essays? More than once?” of Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“) to gauge the classroom’s temperature. I also ask a lot of questions and ask students to write their answers in two to five minutes, so they have some kind of coherent response. The writing serves a second purpose: I can walk around, look over students’ shoulders or ask to see their answers, and get five to ten responses in less than a minute and change plans accordingly based on those responses.

A few days ago, for example, I asked open-ended questions about “Disconnecting Distraction” and found that about five of twenty students had read it. So a discussion about “Disconnecting Distraction” made no sense. Talking about what it meant that so few people had read “Disconnecting Distraction” made a lot of sense. So we did that instead.

I never know what’s going to happen when I walk in. I have some things planned if no one wants to start a discussion, as well as some ways of steering conversations toward close reading and ideas if the conversation meanders too much. But making hard-and-fast plans, then executing them regardless of the conditions on the ground, leads to sub-optimal class time.

I’ve been in plenty of classrooms like that, and my experiences have been every bit as dull and tedious as yours. Instead, I incorporate immediate feedback and establish the tightest loop I can between me and and students. If class doesn’t go as planned, I’m not going to take it personally: I’m going to ask “why?” and figure something out. Anything less can be done online, through a broadcast lecture (I’ve actually thought about getting a friend to record my classes, then putting the recordings on YouTube, but it’s a project that would take a fair amount of effort and deliver little immediate return to me. I might do it anyway).

These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere, and they’re linked to the larger intellectual climate. For example, innumerable Hacker News posts discuss how business plans don’t survive first contact with customers and how you have to listen to customers and iterate rapidly if you’re going to run a successful business—especially a successful startup. The “survive first contact” reference in the first sentence is adapted from the military’s idea that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. It’s easy to see how those ideas can be adapted for the classroom. See also this Atlantic article on great teachers:

Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing. . . .

For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding . . .

The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer.

The article focuses on K – 12 teachers, but the same principles apply across the age spectrum: does the person you’re trying to reach understand what’s going on? Can they think on their feet (or, since they’re sitting, on their ass)? A week later, can you ask follow-up questions and see if students retain what they were doing? How about a month later?

These are questions I should be able to answer, and I should be able to get data on them quickly, without disrupting what else is happening. Granted, there’s near-zero institutional incentive at universities for grad students or even professors to think about this when they teach, but I do it anyway because I think teaching well is important and because I’ve sat through so many hours of idiotic, half-baked instruction and would like to avoid inflicting the same on my own students. To me, rapid measurement and change is part of “teaching with authenticity and authority.”

A couple other notes:

1) In some ways, teaching is a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger economy and what’s being rewarded right now: innovation, rapid responses to changing circumstances, attention to detail, and a willingness to do whatever is needed at a particular time, without resorting to tradition or past ideas that might have no authority in the present.

2) I’ve have witnessed numerous teachers and other quasi authority figures demanding “respect” or some equally dubious homage for their “position,” rather than because they’ve earned it. That sort of thing is bogus, has always been bogus, and always will be bogus, yet it continues anyway, and it’s the sort of thing I want to avoid.

3) Life decides whether what you’re doing is effective or not. So I’m not as worried about catching cheaters and so forth; their real judge is the market, and the market is infinitely harsher and infinitely more demanding than I am. If they can pass market tests without learning how to read and write, then that’s their affair. But by choosing to avoid, to the extent they can, knowledge, they’re going to make the market tests that much harder when those tests arrive, as they do for virtually everyone save those who are cosseted by such mammoth wealth they can lead lives of shocking indolence and, to my mind, tedium, which sounds like much greater punishment than I could possibly mete out, even were I inclined to do so. Sometimes I explicitly connect classes to the larger world. I’m not sure those connections are successful, but they are present.

Why “How Universities Work” and other essays

Someone wrote to say: “I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write your article on how universities work. As someone who didn’t have the advantage of a college experience it was really eye opening. Universities have always been sort of a black box to me” (link added). Which made me think about why I wrote it and several related essays; the obvious, topmost reason is because I know I have an essay to write when I explain the same concept or constellation or concepts several times to different people asking similar questions. When that happens—and it often does with students—I know that I should save myself some effort and write a complete answer I can point others to. Plus, if more than a couple students are curious about the same basic issues, I also know other people will be interested too. But there are also deeper reasons.

The further I go, the more I realize how much of official education is actually cultural and bound by all kinds of finicky little pieces of knowledge that no one or almost no one takes the time to really explain; people are simply left to figure them out on their own, or fail to figure them out and suffer for it. This preference may further explain why I like many of Paul Graham’s essays so much: they illuminate the stuff that a lot of knowledgeable people eventually intuit but then don’t bother to try making explicit to others. So at times I work in the Grahamian style, trying to make explicit what I’ve figured out, or what I think I’ve figured out.

I think my impetus in writing essays and novels is actually quite similar: I write the things I wish someone else had written, so that I could read them. Alas, no one else has, so I’m left to do it myself.

Why these assignment sheets: The world isn't going to be a routine place, and writing projects shouldn't be either

Phil Bowermaster writes:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

Bowermaster is describing on a macro scale what I try to do a micro scale with the papers I assign to students. The important part of my assignment sheets for freshman composition papers are only two paragraphs long, and students sometimes find them frustrating, but I do them this way because the world is headed in a direction that offers less direction and more power to do the right or wrong thing. Here’s an example of an assignment sheet:

Purpose: To explain and interpret a possible message or messages suggested by a) a text or texts we have read for class, b) a text or texts in Writing as Revision, or c) a book of your own choosing. If you write on a book of your own, you must clear your selection with me first. Your goal should be persuade readers of your interpretation using the texts studied and outside reading material.

You should construct a thesis that is specific and defensible and then explicate it through points, illustrations, and explanation. See Chapters 8 and 9 of A Student’s Guide To First-Year Writing for more information on the nature of textual analysis.

That’s it. Students can read more about the assignment if they want to, and they have a lot of freedom in picking a topic. Students often want more direction, which I give to some extent, but I don’t give step-by-step instructions because a) step-by-step instructions yield boring papers and b) in their real-life writing, the real challenge isn’t the writing. It’s the deciding what to write about and how to write once you’ve decided to start. The writing assignment often isn’t given; the writing assignment is made.

It’s a big leap to go from “write-a-good-paper” assignment sheets to conceptualizing “a job [as] something that we each have to create.” Maybe too big a leap. But the thinking and rationale behind my decision is clear: jobs that can be easily codified and described as a series of steps—jobs that are easily explained, in other words—are increasingly going away, either to off-shoring or automation. The ones that persist will be the ones that don’t exist now because no one has thought to do them. But a lot of school still appears to consists of a person in front of the room saying, “Follow these steps,” having the students follow the steps, and then moving on.

That model isn’t totally wrong—you can’t create something from nothing—but maybe we should more often be saying, “Here’s the kind of thing you should be doing. What steps should you take? How should you take them? Do something and then come talk to me about it.” That kind of model might be more time consuming and less easily planned, and I wouldn’t want to use it in every hour of every day. Many basic skills still need to be taught along the lines or “This is how you use a comma,” or “this is how an array works.” But we should be collectively moving towards saying, “Here are some constraints. Show me you can think. Show me you can make something from this.” And class isn’t totally devoid of support: unlike the real world, class has mandatory drafts due, lots of discussion about what makes strong writing strong, and the chance to see other people’s work. The imposed, artificial deadlines are particularly important. It’s not like I hand out assignment sheets and shove students out to sea, to flounder or float completely on their own.

Still, from what I can see, the world is increasingly rewarding adaptability and flexibility. I don’t see that trend changing; if anything, it seems likely to accelerate. If schools are going to (collectively) do a better job, they probably need to work on learning how to teach adaptability in the process of teaching subject-specific material. Offering the kinds of assignments I do is a microscopically small step in that direct, but big changes usually consist of a series of small steps. The assignments are one such step. This post is another.

In “A Welcome Call to Greatness,” John Hagel discusses That Used to Be Us, a book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum that discusses what Hagel calls “creative creators” – “people who do their nonroutine work in distinctively nonroutine ways.” And that’s what I’m trying to do above: train students into being able to do nonroutine writing of a sort that will be distinctive, interesting, and well-done, but without a great deal of obvious managerial oversight from someone else. Great writing seldom springs from someone micromanaging: it springs from discussions, ideas, unexpected metaphors, connections, seeing old things in new ways, and form a plenitude of other places that can’t be easily described.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Paul Graham says:

Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

He’s right. The most challenging writing most of my students will do isn’t even going to have the opportunity for someone else to micromanage it. The writing will increasingly be online. It will increasingly be their own decision to write or not write. As Penelope Trunk says, it will increasingly be essential for a good career. It won’t be routine. As I said above, routine work that can be codified and described in a series of steps will be exported to the lowest bidder. Valuable work will be the work nobody has dreamt up. Jobs will be “something that we each have to create.” I’m sure a lot of people will be unhappy with the change, but the secular forces moving in this direction look too great to be overcome by any individual. You surf the waves life and society throws at you, or you fall off the board and struggle. The worst cases never get back on the board and drown. I want students to have the best possible shot at staying on the board, and that means learning they can’t assume someone else is going to create a job—or an assignment—for them. They have to learn to do it themselves. They need to be creative. As Hagel quotes Mandelbaum and Friedman as saying, “Continuous innovation is not a luxury anymore – it is becoming a necessity.” I worry that too few students are getting the message.

I think of some of my friends who are unemployed, and when I ask them what they do all day, they say they spend time searching for a job, hanging out, watching TV. To me, this is crazy. If I were unemployed, I’d be writing, or learning Python, or posting on Craigslist with offers to work doing whatever I can imagine doing. The last thing I’d be doing is watching TV. In other words, I’d be doing something similar to what I’m doing now, even when I am employed: building skills, trying new things, and not merely sitting around waiting for good things to come to me. They won’t. Good things are the things one makes. Most of my employed friends seem to get this on some level, or have found their way into protected niches like teaching or nursing. I wonder if my unemployed friends had teachers and professors who forced them to think for themselves, or if they had teachers and professors who were content to hand them well-defined assignments that didn’t require much thinking about the “how” instead of the “what.”

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