Writing Without Facts is Like Building a House without Nails

When my older son was in elementary school, our district was in the midst of creating a Gifted and Talented program. At the time, we had a person who had spent years working to create a program that was based on research, data, and best practices. Unfortunately, we also had a person working to create a program that was based on anecdotal evidence, feelings, and politics.

Despite our best intentions, my wife and I wound up involved in the discussion. As a new parent and a person who loved research, I gathered data, read articles, and wrote a mini research paper in preparation for a public “forum” to discuss the kind of program we should create.  After sitting politely and listening to the ramblings of various plans that rewarded kids for being rich or plans that focused on social skills, plans that relied on emotion, platitudes, and cliches, we presented facts. Data. Research that included longitudinal studies of children. Neuroscience. We interpreted the data and made an argument based on those facts. Throughout the research and the writing, there was no doubt someone might reach a different conclusion or create a different kind of plan. That’s critical thinking. That’s debate. That’s also okay.

“Well,” I was told, “we just have a different philosophy about education.”

“Thinking something is true and hoping you are right isn’t a philosophy. It’s a guess. This,” I announced holding up my information, “is a philosophy grounded in concrete particulars and factual evidence. I’ve shown you my proof, now you show me yours.”

Things got worse from there. I’m told tears were shed. 

What’s notable about that event from so long ago isn’t that our school district created a terrible GT program, but how readily a room full of power brokers willingly ignored factual evidence in favor of emotional appeals. There are, just so we’re clear, a variety of ways to create a GT program and there are even some really good arguments one could make against ever creating a GT program at all. None of them were made that day.

That shouldn’t be surprising, though, because we’ve been witnessing over the last few years a slow war on facts and knowledge.

We have, instead, fallen in love with analysis and commentary that exists independently of actual knowledge. We would rather listen to Bill O’Reilly or Sara Palin tell us what to think about evolution than listen to a scientist who has verifiable and reproducible data.

Admittedly, I’m no real fan of hierarchies or charts that simplify understanding and learning, but I think we can all agree that knowledge and recall is the easiest and “lowest” realm of any learning taxonomy. Things like analysis, synthesis, and creativity are on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

We also know, both cognitively and practically, that practice makes the master. In sports, repetition creates muscle memory and efficiency. In education, memorization creates muscle memory and efficiency. Want to get better at multiplication. Multiply. A lot. And then multiple some more. Does it mean you understand the complex relationship between numbers and multiples? No. Is it very much fun? No. But, bored or not, you can still multiply. 

The base knowledge matters because it allows us to have information at our finger tips both for our own arguments and to help us judge the arguments of others. 

We can’t, and this seems awfully important to me, offer analysis without the facts. Unfortunately, we are raising a generation of students who have bought into the idea that rote memorization and classes that employ the drill and kill teaching method are not engaging or interesting. Many of my colleagues argue we don’t need to lecture or teach facts because students can look information up. We should, they argue, focus on comprehension and context. Teachers should be facilitators, classroom managers who help students find information. 

Picture me gagging and rolling my eyes.

When my students ask why they have to know the authors of various works, memorize definitions of terms, or even know how to spell correctly, I tell them they are establishing a mental discipline that will help them later in life. Words, grammar, facts, I tell them, are like nails and screws. You can’t build a house without them. Your essays depend on concrete information that has some basis in fact. Without those things, you are just leaning sentences against each other hoping they stand up.

As educators, even at the college level, we have a duty to provide knowledge to our students. Doing so isn’t demeaning or childish. Providing terms, demanding that students learn particular historical dates, and requiring they read and recite information from stories, emphasizes the value we place on knowledge and we help students understand those are things that we find important. We give value to that information.

They also give students the base upon which to build critical thinking. Without the fact, we aren’t thinking critically, we are just mouthing off. 

The narrator of Teju Cole’s fine 2011 novel Open City tells us he has a “suspicion that there was a mood in the society that pushed people more toward snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an unscientific mood; to the old problem of mass innumeracy, it seemed to me, was being added a more general inability to assess evidence. This made brisk business for those whose specialty was in the promising of immediate solutions: politicians, or priests of the various religions.”

Our goal as educators, it seems to me, is to help our students move beyond snap judgments by demanding evidence so we can avoid those people lurking on the edges of truth, making promises that are too often disconnected from reality.

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Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

Nicholas Kristoff used his Feb. 15 Sunday Review op-ed piece to offer a clarion call to college professors to stop cloistering themselves like medieval monks, because we need you! Kristoff’s argument, simply put, is that too many academics have abandoned the public arena in favor of specialized fields and “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” 

Kristoff admits that American anti-intellectualism plays a role in marginalizing some of our sharpest minds. Everyone from Rick Santorum to White Goodman willingly, and at times aggressively, looks down on those who go around “philosophizing.” Heck, drive down almost any highway in the state of Texas and you will see at least one bumper sticker telling you “My son beat up your honor student.” One of my own blog posts about writing was once dismissed as “academic,” and, presumably, a waste of that reader’s precious time. I’m guessing he didn’t become a faithful follower. 

But, Kristoff tells us, the real problem is within the academy itself. Sociology is “dominated by the left” and “dismissed by the right.” Too many fields, he tells us, have abandoned “area studies” in favor of specialists “who know little that is practical about the world.” For example, he lets us know, scholars were the most oblivious to the rising waters of the Arab Spring. Presumably, Kristoff is claiming they are a bunch of eggheads who spent all their time relying on quantitative numbers and theoretical constructs and forgot the Arab world is full of actual human beings. Of course, their research was probably funded by grants from organizations or politicians looking for data and best practices.

I’ll willingly admit that I have some sympathy for Kristoff’s argument. Too many college professors, the best minds of many generations, do lock themselves in the ivory tower and avoid the public spotlight. Many of them, dare I say most of them, restrict their intellectual conversations to the classroom while studiously avoiding “casting pearls through Facebook and Twitter.”

Even though we all know Facebook is the ideal place to engage in philosophical discussions: just ask my friend who went crazy bonkers protecting the Duck Commanders’ right to hate on the gays and blacks. Twitter provides an even better venue for complex conversations about power structures and human behavior. If we focus on the political disc (oops. That’s 140 characters. Did I shape any behavior?)

In what might be considered irony by some of those cloistered monks, the Sunday Editorial article, “The New College Campus,” points out that administrative employees on American college campuses are growing at the same rate as adjunct professors.

Essentially, according to the Sunday New York Times, the only things not growing on college campuses are full-time professors and the public influence of the few who are left.

What Kristoff also fails to mention, of course, is that our last bastion of publicly funded intellectuals is dying a slow, painful death.

Or, at least, being attacked on a daily basis.

Education and teaching has increasingly become about efficiency, learning outcomes, assessment, and other quantifiable numbers and theoretical constructs. Even our egghead in chief, President Obama (a law professor, no less as Kristoff notes) is seeking an educational accountability funding bill that will do everything it can to reduce colleges to factories that output products. For schools that can’t produce them fast enough, whether the consumer wants to graduate or not, we’ll cut them from the small public teat still exists.

In the meantime, Governors across America are creating $10,000 degrees, moving classes into the online environment, and pushing programs to measure competence (because, really, we should all be striving for competence as our highest level of achievement, right?). Kristoff himself points to the avenues open to us to spread our message more efficiently.

All the while, we cut full-time faculty and hire administrators to count and measure the beans, build climbing walls, and increase class sizes. Boards of Regents (or Boards of Governors depending on where you live) are made of business people with no higher ed experience and Chancellors are increasingly ex-politicians who are as qualified to run a university as Max Baucus is to be ambassador to China.

Too many of these people, not surprisingly, miss the point of educational and intellectual discourse completely.

Last year, retiring Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance told the Texas Tribune that he thinks “all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.”

We research Shakespeare’s 13th play, Dr. Hance, because we are seeking to understand the autobiography of the human soul. 

Richard D. Altick writes in The Art of Literary Research that “Literature, then, is an eloquent artistic document . . . whatever the practical uses of history may be, one of the marks of civilized man is his absorbed interest in the emotional and intellectual adventures of earlier generations.” We can’t mark that absorbed interest with quantifiable data, pie charts, and practical assessments.

We publish in our own journals because even Dr. Hance, a man tasked with running one of the most underrated college systems in America, doesn’t value that research. Many of us avoid public discourse because our voices are obscured and lost in the cacophony of voices within the maelstrom of ideology dominating social media. It is, quite frankly, hard to get a word in edgewise and not get a sore throat trying.

More important, though, Mr. Kristoff, is that ideas take time, develop slowly, and with a complexity that can’t really exist in a MOOC, a 15 minute video, or a format that encourages clicking on the “Like” button.

They also can’t be pushed out like an advertisement for Lands End or a Nigerian scam artist selling shares of his dead uncle’s estate. 

Ideas and intellectual discourse require give and take, conversation, reflection, and revision. Our philosophizers, those folks purveying the wisdom Mr. Kristoff says he values, are hard at work on college campuses already. Instead of asking them to speak louder, maybe his next call should be for people to start listening more closely.

Just Because It’s Efficient Doesn’t Mean It’s Effective

An adulterer, I told my students the other day, is simply a person who commits adultery. The word provides a description of a person who performs a particular act but it does not imply, state, or define a value.

We were discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” a short story in which Calixta has a brief sexual encounter with Alcee. The storm of the title works as a metaphor for their hot, torrid moment of passion, an event that offers Calixta her “birthrite.” She and Alcee are happily married both before the affair and after. In fact, her husband Bobinot and her son are riding out the storm at the local store where he has bought her a can of shrimps. She loves her husband, her son, and the gift Alcee has given her in equal measure it seems.

She is, we all agreed, an adulterer. As with most great writers, though, Chopin asks us to read carefully and consider the circumstances before we pass moral or ethical judgement. In other words, like most great literature, we have to recognize that morality and ethics are social constructs that we impose on language, actions, and people. Adultery, then, is only good or bad after we make a judgement and we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of treating things as absolutes simply because they exist. We might still feel compelled to condemn her act as immoral, I told my students, but we also must recognize that her adultery provides her with something that her marriage can’t. Her husband brings her a can of shrimp; Alcee gives her her birth rite. I love shrimp as much as the next person, but I think there’s a pretty clear difference in the two gifts. Language and meaning, Chopin reminds us, is a little more complex than simply parroting age old morality.

Thou shalt not kill, for instance. Unless it’s in the name of country. Unless someone is attacking your family. Unless you need food. Like adultery, the morality and ethics of killing is determined in the historical and contextual moment. The rightness or wrongness of a term, in essence, exists independently of the term itself. You might, I tell my students, still decide that Calixta is an unrepentant whore who will burn in hell, but you aren’t going to do so by being intellectually lazy and disregarding all the information leading up to the act itself.

I fear, much like my students who assume Calixta is evil simply because she commits adultery, that educationally we are consistently making the reverse mistake when it comes to technology. We create wired classes, fill back packs with laptops and IPads, push students into online environments, and imagine a day when massive open online classes provide access to all.

We do this because we have somehow decided that technology is good because it makes us more efficient. Access to information has become equated with understanding.

Yet, we don’t really know if any of these formats, bells and whistles, or pedagogical approaches actually help students learn or even if they make us more efficient. Matt Richtel, in his 2011 New York Times article, noted that “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” M.O. Thirunarayanan goes even further, arguing that using “untested technological tools in classrooms is unethical” (firewalled unfortunately). Larry Cuban agrees that the use of untested technology is unwise, although he rejects the idea that these approaches are unethical, noting that most new teaching tools throughout history were untested before they went into the classroom. Buying and “deploying new technologies . . . .without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic,” he concedes.

Even so, we press on because, ostensibly, we have begun automatically tying values to terms without, as Cuban writes, “capturing the complexity” of the problem.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I enjoy and appreciate carrying around my smart phone. I have almost 3,000 songs on an sd card smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and I can access the Oxford English Dictionary 24 hours a day virtually anywhere in the world. I enjoy writing on a computer, watching tv on my 36 inch tv, and binge viewing shows streamed via Netflix. I also like indoor toilets, central air and heat, and escalators.

But I’m also pretty sure none of those things have actually made me better at much of anything. Sure, having an indoor toilet keeps my backside warm on a cold night when nature calls, but I’m not any better at expelling waste than I would be without one. Likewise, having a computer has allowed me to produce and share more writing, but there is no real evidence that the computer has actually made me a better writer. I can just produce more bad writing quicker.

I can say that my students are not better writers today than they were 17 years ago before they had computer access 24/7. My best writers are still really good, and my worst writers are still incomprehensible. I refuse to speculate on the impact of indoor toilets on their defecation.

In much the same way, we might note that technology can change the way we approach information, but there is not really any evidence that technology is actually helping us improve the way we learn or teach. I’m currently in a smart room. I’ve got projectors, computers, blue tooth, and all the stereo system I ever need. Hell, if they had red teeth and yellow teeth technology, we’d probably have those in the classroom also. None of those things helped us discuss Calixta’s adultery.

If a professor has a power point slide projected wirelessly from his IPad but no one learns is he actually teaching?

Certainly, we have created an efficient way to send information out into the world but we probably need to stop imagining that efficiency and effectiveness are the same thing. Technology is really just a tool. Let’s try and avoid giving it meaning before we’ve established it’s value.

Instead of Reforming Higher Ed, Let’s Just Reform Our Expectations

About once a week or so, I ask my students to write for five minutes, telling me what terms and ideas they’ve mastered and what they still don’t understand about the course material. It’s a nice little exercise because the first half makes me feel good about myself and the second half tells me what issues we need to revisit. After we review the trouble spots the next class, I follow up by asking the students to tell me what they can do to improve their performance in the class. I like this question even more than the first two because it reminds the students they bear a significant responsibility for their own learning, something they need to hear more often in college.

What is notable about the responses are the number of students who tell me they haven’t been reading the material, haven’t studied, or need to improve their attendance. Each semester, I hear inventive excuses (“I’m still transitioning to the 8 am class time” is my current favorite) and students who think that owning up to their own incompetence or laziness is somehow noble and excuses them from taking care of their business. (“I’ve just been really, really busy lately with my other classes so I know it’s my fault I’m not doing well in here.” Trust me, I tell them, I wasn’t blaming myself for your F.)

While the excuses change each semester, the simple reality is that in any class I teach, about 25% of the students are poorly prepared on any given day of class. By the end of the semester, I will lose around 10% of the students to either apathy, withdrawal, or failure. These numbers have been the same for 17 years and I suspect they will remain about the same for the next 17 years.

Understand that I’m not interested in blaming students or attacking them, but I think we need to accept some inevitable realities when we talk about educational reform at the university level.

First and foremost, we must recognize that some students don’t like school, will never like school, and we should stop expecting them to like school.

Exhibit A might be the student who wrote “You tell me” to my question about what he might do to improve his performance in the class. He added that “I’m not trying to be rude, but” he’d been in school for 6 years, hadn’t had a good experience in college, and just wanted to graduate. I looked him up. He had a 2.019 GPA.

Exhibit B might be the student who told me during a student conference that he really likes to work with his hands and has a difficult time sitting still, reading book chapters, and focusing during exams. He was failing every class at the time we met.

And, by the way, that’s okay. (Not liking school. The whole failing thing was problematic.)

I don’t like working on cars. Or framing houses. Or running electrical wire. Or biology. If I went home tomorrow and told my wife I was quitting my job so I could go work at Tom’s Tire World, she’d probably wonder if I’d been playing with the kid’s glue sticks. Again.

Generally, these kinds of students aren’t being rude or disrespectful. They have other things they want to do with their life but they are in college because everyone keeps telling them they have to be here if they want to get a good job and make money, further evidence we really need a national conversation on the difference between correlation and causation.

Quite honestly, I’ve had those same kinds of kids for 17 years, and I suspect I will have them for the next 17 years.

The ugly reality is that no amount of educational reform will change the fact that some kids like college, some kids are willing to endure college, and some kids don’t belong in college.

I fully realize that the current political push to “reform” higher education is being driven by the out-sized debt saddling too many college graduates (and non-graduates). That debt is, as many “reformers” point out, caused by rising tuition prices and graduates with no demonstrable gains in skills and critical thinking abilities.

In other words, at the heart of calls for reform is a sense that students aren’t getting their money’s worth.

Of course, tuition isn’t technically rising: schools have simply been forced to pass more and more of the actual costs of higher education on to what our legislators and administrators call our “consumers.” As Jordan Weissmann pointed out last March, deeper budget cuts . . . generally correlate with bigger tuition increases. In essence, states have made a conscious decision to pass more of the cost of higher education on to students and parents. In the great state of Texas, our legislature decided to deregulate tuition, allowing in essence, state schools to work on a free market principle and then, as often happens when unqualified people make poor decisions, they were shocked when universities started charging enough money to keep the lights on and compete in the open market for “consumers.”

Trust me when I say that I fully agree that the explosion of apartment-style dorms, climbing walls, more and more student life personnel, turf on inter-mural fields, and student leisure pools is ridiculous. I’m ethically offended by faculty members who inflate grades, even though I fully understand the impulse to disregard strict grading standards in an environment where students are consumers, empowered by evaluations, and willing to litigate since “they pay our salaries.” At some schools, retention is just another word for everyone gets an A.

But, in our defense, more and more students choose a school based on those kinds of amenities and if states require that we generate our own income by attracting consumers, we must attract consumers. Eighteen year olds aren’t choosing colleges because of the number of PhDs teaching freshman composition classes.  The problem, as others have argued so much more eloquently than me, is that education is not a commodity or a consumer product.

If I go to The Palm every day and order $200 worth of food I never eat, charge the meal to my credit card, and then find myself saddled with $10,000 in debt even though I’m still hungry, no one blames The Palm. Nor should we.

I trust you are all smart enough to see the analogy I’m creating here and wondering why we keep blaming universities if students are sitting at the table and not eating.

The problem with higher education isn’t necessarily higher education. Certainly, we should always be looking for better ways to teach, research, and serve. Universities should explore opportunities to be more effective and offer the best education possible.

But America didn’t create the greatest system of higher education in the world by expecting that every student who enrolled in a university would pass and graduate.

We developed a great system because we realized that the ability to dedicate yourself to four years of higher education showed the kind of discipline necessary for certain types of employment. At one point, we also had enough common sense as a country to realize that not all jobs required four years of higher education because different people had different talents and skills. Most importantly, some jobs require experiential knowledge and some require the kind of “book learning” we offer when you sit in the classroom. Both of those things are valuable and necessary parts of the American economy.

Please understand that I’m not proposing we limit access to higher education. Throw open the doors. Hell, tear the doors off the jambs as far as I’m concerned. I would love if my university were an open access school that provided as many opportunities as possible to interested and engaged students. Heck, let the unengaged and unsure ones in also. I’m fine if they want to take us for a test spin.

But stop blaming the professor if the student is stays disengaged and uninterested.

But most important, let’s stop telling every student in America that college is the only path to a successful and profitable career.

Instead, next time we talk about higher education reform, let’s consider reforming our expectations instead of universities.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)