Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review of Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey

Daniel C. Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained has often been jokingly re-titled “Consciousness Explained Away,” since the book attempts to account for all mental phenomena in neurological terms and to discard the Cartesian subject as an illusion. Nicholas Humphrey’s Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness shares Dennett’s fundamental perspective on consciousness, although Humphrey’s poetic style also manages to communicate its author’s joy in the supposed illusion. Humphrey argues that consciousness, understood as the sense of self-awareness in experience, is essentially an echo created by continuous feedback cycles in the brain. The perception of a self, the observer of one’s sensations and actions, is ultimately only a sensory feedback loop.
Humphrey attributes this illusory theater of self to evolution. Creatures that enjoy existing have a greater commitment to continuing existence than those driven by mere instinct to live. Consciousness, then, is evolution’s way of intensifying the attachment to life. Human beings, with the most highly developed feedback loops, are “connoisseurs of consciousness,” as Humphrey describes us, who take the most intense pleasures in their perceptions. The author supports this claim by drawing on his impressive knowledge of literature, as well as philosophy and the social and physical sciences.
Although I found the book interesting, I remain unconvinced by its claims. On the subject of consciousness, I think I will have to list myself among those that Colin McGinn has described as “mysterians,” who believe that the ultimate nature of the phenomenon will always remain mysterious and cannot be solved (or explained away).  Most broadly, this is because I do not think that one can completely account for any system from inside of that system. Unable to move outside the boundaries of our own minds (at least in scientific terms), we can never trace the circumference of mind.
On the issue of consciousness as a feedback loop, I have two major concerns. The first and lesser one is that Humphrey’s description of how the loop supposedly works is highly abstract and schematic. He does not provide enough of an account of how this might happen as a matter of neurological connections within the brain. The second and greater concern is that I do not see that we can move from analyzing how something works (assuming we could) to saying what it is.
To say that consciousness is an “illusion,” moreover, strikes me as deeply problematic. There can only be an illusion if there is someone to perceive something incorrectly. The magician’s illusion depends on the presence of an audience that can be misled. But Humphrey, like Dennett, argues that the audience itself is an illusion in the Cartesian theater.
Finally, I remain skeptical of the evolutionary argument about the survival value of the pleasures of consciousness. Kierkegaard identified human consciousness with the sense of dread and a great deal of human awareness is not much fun. To the best of my knowledge, human beings are the only creatures who kill themselves out of existential despair. I can’t see much evolutionary survival value in that.
Humphrey does give some attention to anxiety, but largely writes it off as a side effect. His quotations of poetry and literary reflections, though, suggest that the view of humans as “connoisseurs of consciousness” might seem plausible to those of us in the enviable situation of modern middle class intellectuals, but it also might seem like a strange claim to many of our forebears in the long tragedy of history.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Schools as Activist Training Centers

In today’s email, I received an advertisement from Harvard University Press for their new titles in education. Among these is Meira Levinson’s No Citizen Left Behind. On first glance, this book’s advocacy of “civic education” seems to be a call for a renewed emphasis on the subject traditionally known as “civics.” The misleading blurb from the Library Journal tells us that “Levinson advocates restoring civic education.” But a closer look at the book description makes it clear that she doesn’t want to “restore” any part of the schooling of American citizens. Instead, she wants to turn public schools into centers for training activist cadres.
According to the book summary, “No Citizen Left Behind argues that students must be taught how to upend and reshape power relationships directly, through political and civic action  ... Schools should teach collective action, openly discuss the racialized dimensions of citizenship, and provoke students by engaging their passions against contemporary injustices. Students must also have frequent opportunities to take civic and political action, including within the school itself.” 
I do not question Dr. Levinson’s right to go about “upending power relationships” or to define “injustice” as she chooses or to engage in legal “collective action” with those who see things as she does. But I can think of few things more fundamentally contradictory to a free society than using the public schools to institutionalize the organization of an ideological program. That, however, is exactly what the “civic education” movement is all about.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Drugs and Credentialization

About a decade ago, a group of students in my research methods class designed a study of drug use at our university. They were not able to take a representative sample of undergraduates in the anonymous survey, but the results of their project did indicate that use was common. This did not surprise me, but I was interested to find that the most popular substances and the motivations for consuming them were different from what I, having been an undergraduate in the early 70s, would have expected. The most frequently used substance was a stimulant known as Adderall, prescribed for attention-deficit disorders. About one-third of those surveyed reported having taken this medication, and only a tiny number said they had taken it for its official purpose. Most of the survey respondents said they had used Adderall as a study drug, because it increased their concentration and enabled them to finish academic projects at the last minute. I did not ask my students if any of them had worked on the project under the influence.
I see in today’s The New York Times that the long-standing college drug of choice has become standard among highly competitive high school students. Allan Schwarz reports that secondary school students seeking an edge on the SATs or on improving the records for admission to elite, selective colleges now routinely turn to Adderall and related substances to push their scores up. Schwarz compares “study drugs” to the substances athletes sometimes use to get an advantage on the competition.
While there is some evidence that stimulants can help boost test scores, there is no suggestion that these can actually contribute to depth of understanding or to long-term educational goals. The dope is all about Grade Point Averages, SAT scores, and getting the right credentials from the right places.  To understand why education has turned into an arms race of medications, we need to think about what has happened with higher education in our nation.
On the eve of World War II, fewer than 5 percent of Americans over age 25 held college degrees. Today, that percentage has gone up to about one-third. Over this period, we have increasingly defined college as the route to upward mobility and many Americans, especially in government and academia, have come to expect that everyone should be upwardly mobile and that the best way to promote this goal is by extending higher education to as many people as possible. One of the difficulties with this effort is that the occupations that really require higher education have not kept pace with the numbers of graduates we have been cranking out of our institutions. During the 1970s, for example the percentage of people in the labor market with college degrees passed the percentage in professional and technical fields, and the gap between the two has grown wider ever since.
As college became the gateway to the supposed good life for more people, just getting the credentials became more important than any of the skills or knowledge those credentials might represent, leading students to focus ever more on the test scores and GPAs, in the process creating pressure for grade inflation and drawing attention from educational content. Through readily available loans, college administrators and government policy makers attempted to subsidize everyone’s mobility, even though opportunities were increasing only in a limited number of technical fields.  This flooded the market, so that the college diploma began to turn into an entry-level credential. In order to achieve distinction in a world in which degrees were everywhere, and obtaining a distinctive degree was widely identified as the main route to prosperity, young people came to see getting into an elite college as they way to stand out from the herd. Ironically, spreading educational opportunity more widely has only ratcheted up the competition to get ahead.
Adderall and the other test performance enhancing drugs are weapons in this intense struggle for the right kinds of credentials.
Percentages of Americans in the Labor Market with College Degrees and Percentages in Professional and Technical Occupations, 1940 to 2006-2008
Source:  Ruggles, S., Sobek, M. Alexander, T., Fitch, C. A., Goeken, R., Kelly Hall, P., King, M., & Ronnander, C. (2004)  Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor].

Monday, June 4, 2012

Remembering the Penitentes


 Anonymity covers them with grace
 as dancers define grace, reduction to form,
 curved lines throwing boundaries in space
that slip away with the motion of an arm.
They walk in file, bare backs and hooded heads
inverting normal patterns of disclosure.
Slow steps on earth, in air the knotted threads
move together in repeated measure.

The procession winds the streets. The line
 twists as it turns like their whips, magnified.
The lashes leave trails of blood along their spines,
 and along the spine of the street they leave behind.

Everything is changed. Sins become pain,
the spirit descends on the body, flesh ascends
to prayer, display provides release from shame,
offense turned inward offers up amends.

The sliding doors of the stores where the men drank
and swapped gossip yesterday are locked.
The fishing nets are folded on the bank
 at the edge of town where the outriggers are docked.
The coconut trees are undisturbed by wind:
all struggle in this scene is gathered in
these bodies and released from broken skin.                                                                  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Campus Civility Campaigns

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) discusses the spread of “civility programs” among American colleges and universities, mentioning a passage from my own university’s Code of Student Conduct.  In defense of Tulane, I’d say that our civility requirement is merely fatuous, expressing an expectation that students will “speak and act with scrupulous respect for the human dignity of others.” I don’t know how anyone could tell whether or not a student’s respect is “scrupulous,” but the vagueness of the injunction would, I hope, make violations difficult to identify and enforce. By contrast, Harvard actually asks students to sign a “kindness pledge” promising to “sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility,” and reportedly posts the names of those who have and have not signed in the entryways of residence halls.  Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis denounces this as “public shaming.”  
What’s wrong with college civility campaigns? I’m in favor of politeness and I think that learning that ad hominem arguments are fallacious is a legitimate part of an education. But moral crusades to get students to watch what they say can also further narrow the rigidly conformist intellectual culture of modern universities. And precisely because that culture is so conformist today, accusations of “incivility” and failure to be “inclusive” will inevitably be leveled mainly against those who disagree with prevailing assumptions.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Wesleyan Faces Reality

Wesleyan University has realized a basic fact of life. Someone must pay for all goods and services, including educational goods and services. Either the one who receives them pays or someone else pays on the recipient’s behalf. If the recipient does not have the funds, and cannot be realistically expected to come up with sufficient future funds to justify provision on credit, and no one else is willing or able to cover the costs,  then the goods and services just can’t be made available.
I am referring to Wesleyan President Michael Roth’s declaration that the university will no longer pursue a “need-blind” admissions policy for potential students.  Until now, an article in Inside Higher Education tells us, Wesleyan has been one of the few universities that both admit students without regard to need and promise to meet the full financial needs of all those admitted. This was clearly unrealistic, and I expect that the other institutions that offer this kind of guarantee will follow Wesleyan’s example.
Even colleges that do not follow the need-blind guarantee would do well to limit financial aid, while concentrating efforts on bringing costs down for all students. These two are related because need-based scholarships shift costs to other tuition payers, pushing up sticker prices, while loans to students pump up college price through long-term burdens on borrowers or taxpayers.
One of the more inane remarks on need blind admissions, quoted in the article, came from Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, and member of the Board of Trustees for the State University of New York. “If higher education is supposed to be a vehicle for social mobility, and the purpose is to train the next generation of leaders, and we believe that leaders should come from all spectrums of social class, then there’s a strong argument to [maintain need-blind admissions].”  One has to wonder how Dr. Ehrenburg could imagine that there are enough places at the top of our economy and society so the vast numbers of graduates we have been cranking out of our colleges can acheive "upward mobility" or where the “generation of leaders” produced by debt and vast tuition subsidies will find their followers.