Entries in education (3)


Thoughts on "Victimhood Culture"

This article in the Atlantic has been making the rounds recently, commenting on a recent scholarly paper (sadly paywalled) on the theory of microagression. Some things that struck me about the piece:

1. It’s strange that most of the commentary on the article acts as if Campbell and Manning (the authors) are dispassionate sociologists, when they clearly have a dog in the fight. They’re charactering past cultures in terms of virtues those cultures nominally value, then don’t even try to identify what virtue the modern culture they disparage is reaching for. It might be accurate to speak of a “solidarity culture”, where the way to respond to a slight is to encourage mass opprobrium, and shibboleths and linguistic norms that demonstrate in-group identity are of paramount importance.

2. It’s really strange that the Atlantic article comments extensively on a blog post from nearly two years ago. Sure, the blog has “microaggressions” in the title, but the Oberlin Microaggresions Tumblr was active from February to September 2013. Despite the title, the stuff it started off cataloging doesn’t exactly fit the bill. (The point of microaggressions is that stuff that’s not overtly aggressive can still be grating, not that it may be ambiguous to what extent an overtly awful person is being a troll.)

3. That blog starts out as a discussion of really overt racism, continues with posts that are a mix of overt racism and the sort of thing actually meant by “microaggressions”, then ends with an angry rant by a Hispanic student who tells a white student to “leave the soccer team” for daring to speak a word of Spanish, mocks their attempt to apologize, and asserts that they “take up to [sic] much space”. The blog ends at that point, with no explanation why. Probably whoever was running the blog moved on to other things, but it would fit the narrative arc to say that last post was some sort of culmination of the state of racial discourse at Oberlin, at which point students decided to never write about that subject, or possibly any subject, ever again. (At the very least, such a narrative would make fine fodder for an Atlantic article.)

4. The article notes:

If “dignity culture” is characterized by a reticence to involve third parties in minor disputes, an argument could be made that many black and brown people are denied its benefits. In a city like New York during the stop-and-frisk era, minorities were stopped by police because other people in their community, aggrieved by minor quality-of-life issues like loitering or sitting on stoops or squeegee men, successfully appealed to third-parties to intervene by arguing that what may seem like small annoyances were actually burdensome and victimizing when aggregated.

To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name?

If you already have political power, it is easy to be dignified. Simply appeal to the law only for serious matters, once your culture has successfully set the definition of what is “serious”. Anything not serious can be easily ignored.

5. Were the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s a product of “dignity culture” or “victimhood culture”? Those protests neither “exercised covert avoidance” nor “sought only to restore harmony without passing judgment”. They appealed for political support against something other than “the most serious of offenses”. Was that an example of “toleration and negotiation”, or a “complaint”, aimed at winning the political support of third parties?

6. A Megan McArdle piece on the same article notes (of duels):

The seconds, the formalities, the extended opportunities for apology, raise the cost of fighting, lower the cost of not doing so, and thereby mitigate the appalling violence to which honor cultures are prone. Unless victim culture can find similar stopping mechanisms, it will collapse into the bloodless version of the endless blood-feuds that made us seek alternatives to honor cultures in the first place.

“Bloodless” is still more than enough to ruin lives, of course. And even when overt violence has been relegated to the margins, any sufficiently big mob is enough to give a violent fringe plenty of motive force.

7. The Atlantic article links to a post by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote a book called The Coddling of the American Mind. In the page on his site where he talks about critical response to the book, he writes:

The New Republic: The trigger warning myth, by Aaron Hanlon. This is a thoughtful essay about the sensitivities needed to lead a seminar class through difficult material. His main point is that TWs are not a form of censorship. I agree. He argues that sometimes guidance is needed beforehand. I agree with that too. I just think its very bad for students to call it a “trigger warning,” or to do anything to convey to students the expectation that they will be warned about… everything.

So you want to write a book about how annoying liberals are, but lack any substantial disagreement. Nothing to do but get into a knock-down drag-out fight about linguistic norms.

8. “Political correctness has gone too far” has gone too far. Well, that’s the joke. More accurate would be: “Political correctness has gone too far” has not gone anywhere.


On Grades and Unschooling

During my long public school career, I didn’t think much about the structure of public school.  The reasons for this are not exactly flattering for me.  I viewed school as the “one thing” I was good at (though that was not actually true), and I used my focus on academics to avoid paying attention to many of my problems.  If I wanted to do one thing dramatically different with my academic career, that would have been skipping grades, but I didn’t pursue that with any sort of determination, since I was happy to take the path of least resistance.

It wasn’t until college that I began to think about the issue seriously.  I came at it initially from the subject of grades.  I was obsessed with grades during my primary school career (obsessed with getting grades that were just barely good enough to be called “perfect” by some carefully chosen definition (e.g. 90%, “an A”); I told you this wasn’t flattering for me), and that got worse and worse until high school.  When I entered college, I resolved to not look at my grades for any class.

The college I went to was new and we took pride in being “innovative”.  But Olin’s grading system was strikingly conventional.  Evidently, the issue of grading came up during the school’s design process.  A substantial discussion led to a rough consensus favoring a very minimal “Pass/Fail/Excellence” grading system.  But the result was a temporary compromise on letter grades without +/- gradations, followed by a wholesale adoption of the conventional grading system.

The thing is, in my view, the conventional grading system is glaringly flawed.  There’s ample psychological research showing that rewards produce a lasting decrease in intrinsic motivation, long-term recall of information, and lateral thinking, and that to the extent that “good grades” are perceived as desirable, they produce the same effect.  Grades are also only minimally useful as feedback.  They’re not very useful in comparing students from different classes, much less different institutions.  (Concerns about “grade inflation” get some of that, but talk about focusing on the mote and missing the beam!)  To some extent, grades measure how well students conform to the idiosyncratic preferences of individual professors.

In other words, pretty much anything that puts grades less in the spotlight is a win in terms of the nominal goals of academia.

(Another point that would be particularly worrying for Moldbug:  To the extent that people change their behavior for the sake of grades while not believing that “good grades” are inherently worthwhile, that could serve as the insufficient justification that would make any ideological content contained in the lessons far more persuasive than it would otherwise be.  Also worth keeping that effect in mind when people emphasize how useful grades are to graduate schools and employers.)

So grades are interesting for a few reasons:

  1. It’s an example of academia pursuing a policy that doesn’t fit well the the nominal goals of academia.
  2. It’s a policy that promotes things that are very much not the overt goal of academic idealists (rote memorization, obedience, tolerance of pointless tasks, ideological conformity).
  3. It’s an example of academia conforming to an (in my opinion) obviously broken status quo because no one wants to take the cost of defecting first.

And as it turns out, there’s a movement that would apply those three points to many (if not all) of the structural features of the entire “education system”.

The Unschooling movement is heavily influenced by the teacher and educational philosopher John Taylor Gatto.  A good introduction to his view is the essay Against Schooling, originally published in Harper’s Magazine in September 2003.  This one is hard to excerpt, read the whole thing.  But here’s my attempt at extracting the kernel of it:

Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. […]

In the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford’s School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant’s friend and correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration:   “Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

It’s perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don’t bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to “be careful what you say,” even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

One frequent observation of mine is this:

Idea #5: A naive compromise between ideologies can produce worse results than a coherent implementation of either’s favored policy.

But naive compromises are often politically expedient, so they happen anyways.

To put it more cynically, liberals (especially) love half-measures.  (I’m not immune to this, myself.)

Gatto essentially agrees with Moldbug about the purpose of the schools, but Gatto’s description of the present state of affairs misses something crucial when he overstates his case:

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

1) To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. [emphasis mine]

But I’d say that view of the goals of the education system is in fact not totally wrong, which is what makes it pernicious.  Public schools do teach some about critical thinking, analyzing primary sources, the scientific method, distinguishing fact from opinion and so on.  To the extent that schooling is “education” (to some extent it is) and a diploma is (economically) valuable, schools convince people that education is valuable.  “Good people” believe that education is valuable.  Actually, I do believe that statement if taken at face value: Good people do (correctly) believe that education is valuable.  Convincing someone to agree with a true statement on a technicality, however, does not make them better people in any meaningful sense.

A strategy of “make education a good investment and people will realize it’s intrinsically valuable on its own” also starts having some serious problems when there’s a mismatch between the educational system and the economy.  I’ve read a lot of talk recently about a “higher education bubble” and of a mismatch between the education system and the “21st century economy”.  The former has some talk of unschoolers (it uses the term “edupunks”).  Unfortunately for unschoolers (and for reactionaries like Moldbug), the dominant force among education reformers seems to be the neoconservative/neoliberal/”free market” types (need a better name for that faction, and that probably deserves another post).  Their favored solution, charter schools, is the usual mix of privatized profits and socialized costs.  Charter schools may be more willing to be “innovative”, but I wouldn’t expect them to solve the problems above or defect from educational norms, no matter how counter-productive, when defecting first is costly.

(I wish I had a better way to wrap things up here.  I still need to read more Gatto and Holt and Illich and Llewellyn.  I want to know more about how compulsory education (in particular, as opposed to public education in general) took off—not just what interests that might work well for, but how it was argued and implemented politically.  I read and would recommend Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook to parents, adolescents, and those interested in unschooling.)


How I Got Pwned

While perusing Moldbug’s blog, I came across an essay titled How Dawkins Got Pwned (links to all parts of that in this index).  The essay is a response to the book The God Delusion, in which Richard Dawkins argues that religion is a parasitic meme complex centering on one central flaw, an irrational belief in the existence of a god (or gods) and the further belief that one can know god’s will.  In the book, Dawkins claims to believe in “Einsteinian [or Spinozan] religion”, which is non-theistic (or trivially pantheistic).  As Dawkins describes:

Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”

Moldbug argues that Dawkins is mistaken in thinking that ditching “the God delusion” brings him into the realm of pure rationality.  Rather, Dawkins is a follower of the progressive tradition, which in Moldbug’s view is basically a liberal sect of Christianity that has jettisoned a few bits of theological baggage:

So: Professor Dawkins is an atheist. But - as his writing makes plain - atheism is not the only theme in his personal kernel. Professor Dawkins believes in many other things. He labels the tradition to which he subscribes as Einsteinian religion. Since no one else has used this label, he is entitled to define Einsteinian religion - perhaps we can just call it Einsteinism - as whatever he wants. And he has.

My observation is that Einsteinism exhibits many synapomorphies with Christianity. For example, it appears that Professor Dawkins believes in the fair distribution of goods, the futility of violence, the universal brotherhood of man, and the reification of community. These might be labeled as the themes of Rawlsianism, pacifism, fraternism and communalism.  [ed: Taking for granted for now that Moldbug’s assertion that Dawkins holds these specific beliefs is correct.  It certainly seems that he believes something along those lines.]


My belief is that Professor Dawkins is not just a Christian atheist. He is a Protestant atheist. And he is not just a Protestant atheist. He is a Calvinist atheist. And he is not just a Calvinist atheist. He is an Anglo-Calvinist atheist. In other words, he can be also be described as a Puritan atheist, a Dissenter atheist, a Nonconformist atheist, an Evangelical atheist, etc, etc.

Moldbug, throughout his blog, often refers to this liberal-Christian progressive tradition as “Universalism”, due to, among other things, its relation to Unitarian Universalism.

Now, as it happens, one of my major influences is a sermon by a Unitarian UniversalistAbout Richard Dawkins.  The sermon is in response to an essay Dawkins wrote entitled Is Science a Religion?  (For the sake of chronology, note that these was published in 1997, The God Delusion in 2006.)  In that essay, Dawkins argues that science has “many of religion’s virtues, […] none of its vices”.  He asserts: “Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops.”  Before reading the sermon, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Dawkins, and insisted that I was by no means religious.  After reading the sermon, I still thought that Dawkins was technically correct on whether science is a religion per se, but missing a more significant point.  And I would have hardly quibbled with the assertion that I was a Universalist (even though that long predates my awareness of Moldbug’s use of the term).

The sermon, which I found via a search for the titular question, argues:

Dawkins complains that religion bears no relationship to this way of approaching human knowledge and understanding. The line with which he opens the second paragraph of his article is: Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of religion.

Is that, in fact, what faith is? Oh, I agree with him that this notion of faith is a major feature of bad religion. However, in science, would we let the common understanding of science of the populace at large define what the enterprise of science shall be? Of course not. Yet we have done precisely this with religion and Dawkins buys into it hook, line and sinker. […]


For Dawkins, the notion that science is a religion is unacceptable because he has bought the narrow and wrong popular notion of what religion is about. […]

In other words, if Dawkins was aware of (Unitarian) Universalism, he’d understand the religious nature of his belief system!

Let’s bring this back to Moldbug.  First Rev. Young:

Dawkins goes on in the article to rehearse, among other things, what it would be like if all religious education were done from the point of view of science. It’s an interesting section of the article because what he is essentially doing is rehearsing the Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, as if somehow this never had occurred to anybody before. […]


Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.

Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I’ve already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world’s religions.


When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don’t think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy.

In fact, Moldbug argues, just this sort of “religious education” is a big part of how Universalism thrives (we’re back to that first link again):

Fundamentalist Christianity - I prefer the term “salvationism,” because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all “fundamentalist” sects - certainly matches some of the above descriptions. […]

In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past - for example, Catholicism before the Reformation - its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. […]  [emphasis mine]

Given that America enforces a separation of church and state that excludes explicitly theological ideas from the public educational system, a meme complex that includes most of the religious beliefs of many teachers minus any religious beliefs that are explicitly theological has a huge advantage in transmission.  Liberal religious sects are far more likely to generate that sort of meme complex for several reasons:

  1. Liberals are willing to revise philosophical frameworks piece-wise.  Hence liberal religions are more likely to be coherent piece-wise as opposed to all-or-nothing, so they’re easier to revise further.
  2. Actually revising a religious meme complex is the sort of thing that’s more likely to occur in the mind of a liberal.  The whole point of being a conservative is not to revise your traditional beliefs.
  3. Conservative emphasis on liturgical traditions makes it harder to separate theology from anything else.

So while I’m not so quick to buy that liberalism (up to and including the basic concepts of democracy) is a bad idea that leads to complete bureaucratic stagnation, anarcho-tyranny, or worse, I can see Moldbug’s point on the transmission aspect.  It’s extremely plausible that many of the religious ideas from mainstream American Protestantism are transmitted frequently and effectively by the public school system.

Of course, my initial reaction to that agreement was, “so what?”  But I would think that, wouldn’t I.

After all, the process that Moldbug argues happened to Dawkins certainly happened to me.  I had little trouble (though the process took some time) discarding the liturgical elements of Judaism, a process undoubtedly made easier by that fact that my parents, despite their membership in a Conservative synagogue, had beliefs which more closely matched with the Reform movement (which Moldbug would describe as “Protestant Judaism”, mere theological window-dressing away from secular “Universalism”, and I myself described as “the Unitarian Universalists of Judaism”, years before I’d heard of Moldbug).  But the same anti-religious-bias intellectual defenses, quite easily inflamed by Christian “salvationism” or Jewish fundamentalism, were (as far as I can tell) barely activated at all when learning about the causes of the American Revolution.  Or singing “Simple Gifts” in music class.

As Moldbug puts it in part of his Open Letter, imagining an optical device that makes the theological atheological and vice-versa:

[…] More to the point, it [the First Amendment] does not say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, until that religion manages to sneak God under the carpet, at which point go ahead, dudes.” Rather, the obvious spirit of the law is that Congress shall be neutral with respect to the theological disputes of its citizens, such as that described by Professor Hayes. Um, has it been?


In the Fundamentalens, Harvard and Stanford and Yale are fundamentalist seminaries. It may not be official, but there is no doubt about it at all. They emit Jesus-freak codewords, secret Mormon handshakes, and miscellaneous Bible baloney the way a baby emits fermented milk. Meanwhile, Bob Jones and Oral Roberts and Patrick Henry are diverse, progressive, socially and environmentally conscious centers of learning - their entire freshman class lines up to sing “Imagine” every morning.

Would it creep you out, dear open-minded progressive, to live in this country?

Imagine a Harvard that, as the Harvard of old, primarily emitted Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers.  Imagine that these graduates, as graduates of the Harvard of today, went by the scores into government and NGOs and the educational system.  (And what applies to Harvard generalizes pretty well to Princeton, Yale…)  Such ministers are scrupulously careful about leaving out the god-talk when performing their secular jobs, of course.

Now, modern Harvard is not (for the most part) training ministers, and I assure you the world in that imagining is nothing like the real one.  But what an odd afterimage the Fundamentalens leaves on the back of your retina!  Especially when you look at the public schools.

(This post is reaching Moldbuggian length (note: actually not even close), so I’ll leave it there for now and pick up this thread at a later time.  And hopefully move this blog back away from being the All Moldbug All the Time channel.  But anything that’s taking up far too much of my mental time is an excellent candidate for discussion here.)