Random Thoughts about Things I Read Today

I was going to spend today writing about dual credit, but I got bored and spent my time reading various articles online.

  1. Justin Peters gives the Bill O’Reilly story the “no-spin” explanation it deserves in “The All-Spin Zone: Bill O’Reilly’s long career of transforming B.S. into “common Read Tweetssense.” Like so many other things lately, too many of us underestimate the appeal of Fox News and it’s television hosts, Peters says. O’Reilly speaks to an aged viewership who appreciates strong opinions and paternalistic “straight talk:” Correctness is less important than certainty and, Peters argues, gives rise to Trump’s successful presidential election. I agree. As the world gets more complex, people want to believe the solutions are simple and easy. “Elites” like Obama and Clinton bloviated, spun, and obfuscated. O’Reilly, for his faithful viewers, cut through all that BS for common sense solutions. Watching O’Reilly, for me, was always a bit like watching a talking WWE episode, but I’m thankful for O’Reilly’s career because he gave us the Colbert Report.   Interestingly, commentators like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have an out-sized influence based on the actual number of viewers and listeners. (FYI–if you don’t follow ratings, the NBC Nightly News has about 10 million viewers a day.) Any post about O’Reilly also needs a shout-out to the advertisers who pulled their ads as a way to stop supporting a many accused of such abusive behavior. Of course, I’m sure the sting of unemployment is soothed by his $25 million pay out.
  2. After spending time reading about Bill O’Reilly this morning and then sitting in an hour and a half meeting, I read (with a great deal of longing) Forbes “The Best Places to Retire in 2017.” The mind and body are willing, the 403B isn’t. I’m looking forward to reading about Forbes best places to retire in 2037. That’s painful to write. I’ve reached a point in life, though, were retirement becomes this actual thing instead of some abstract concept in the long-away future. I particularly like that the list seems to privilege college towns and lower cost housing. Retirement isn’t just about money (thank goodness). Keeping costs down, having easy access to medical services, and living someplace with low cost entertainment matters.
  3. The Texas Senate has advanced a bill to gut the top 10% rule. These types of bills pop up every couple of years. For those of you outside the great state of Texas, years ago the state mandated that state institutions automatically admit any student who finished in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. The idea was to create diversity at public institutions without requiring race-based admissions. Using high school standing takes into account the impact race and economics has on ACT/SAT performance and rewards good students from bad high schools with automatic admission to a state institution. Of course, both the U of Texas and Texas A&M have waivers. For those of us at mid-sized regional universities, gutting the top 10% rule would help as those students who weren’t admitted to UT or A&M would be forced to go with plan B and attend less expensive, high quality regional universities. Works for me. I’m weary of our state representatives writing bills and higher ed policies based on what works at UT and A&M and forgetting the other colleges in the state. The current budget proposed anywhere from 4% to a 10% cut for higher ed, cuts that some of smaller schools can’t absorb. In 2001, the state portion of higher ed funding was 65% and students paid 35%. Today, those numbers are reversed, even as our legislators tell us they want more graduates. We’ve done more with less for so long, I fear we’re about to do less with almost nothing.
  4. If you have a chance, read Adrianne Jeffries’ “How Google Eats A Business Whole.” After, try not to get worried that we’re giving our entire lives over to machines that will control knowledge and truth. Reminisce about the good old days when Bill O’Reilly was around to tell you what to think. If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ The Circle (read a great review here and an old blog of mine here), check it out. His novel (spoiler alert!) is about how social media has infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life. (Hopefully, the movie will live up to the novel.) Jeffries’ dos a nice job, unintentionally, of showing exactly why it’s so difficult to teach research skills to students these days. Who are the experts? How do you trust data? Where is truth (or truthiness for any Colbert fans out there)? As importantly, we probably need to start paying more attention to the way social media, information aggregate sites, and invasive data purveyors shape ideas and impact business. In the meantime, I wonder what google has to say about dual credit?

 

 

 

 

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.

I Can Hang Up Without Uncle Sam’s Help

The wireless phone is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the world’s great inventions. Back when many of us were kids, we consistently tested the laws of physics, uncoiling that phone cord to the outer limits of physical possibility, hoping, praying even, for every inch and that the small plastic connector would hold long enough to make our secretive, teen-age plans or to express our undying love and commitment to that week’s love our life without our parent’s hearing us. We were electronically tethered by a kind of communicative umbilical cord: parents, brothers and sisters, and your crazy Uncle Joe who visited every Thanksgiving, listened in, offered advice, added commentary, or made little kissing noises at the worst possible times. We were veritable oral prisoners, maneuvering cords into hallways and under door frames, performing acts of flexibility that might make a contortionist envious, as we struggled to move outside our family’s auditory zone.

Shout out to Terri Pall and George Sweigert for giving us the cordless phone. They saved teenagers across the world embarrassment, angst, and future back problems from lying on the floor talking on the phone by their closed bedroom door.

And, more importantly, they saved parents from having to listen to the mindless, meaningless conversations our children have with their friends. I’m more than happy to let my kids go to their rooms, outside on the back porch, out to the car–anyplace so that I don’t have to listen to two teenagers have a conversation. If Dante were alive, there would be a special place in the Inferno where sinners were trapped listening to “dude,” “like,” and “whatever.” For eternity.

Unfortunately, though, I now have to listen to equally mindless conversations by people whose lives mean absolutely nothing to me as I walk down the street, sit in a restaurant, walk the grocery aisles, and, after the FAA ruled cell phones are safe in flight, perhaps on airplanes.

Sure, I care that your mother has never appreciated you, your boss is a uncaring jerk, or you can’t decide which toilet paper to buy. Feel free, I say, to share your foibles with the world. I especially like it when you get so wrapped up in your conversation you take longer in the check out line because, of course, I have no place else to be and your life is oh, so important to me.

Listening to your conversation in the grocery store (or at Lowes or the mall or simply walking down the sidewalk) is, though, part of the cost of a free and open society. If, for some odd reason, HEB or Best Buy gets over run with cell phone users who impede my ability to go deeper in debt, I can go someplace else to buy milk, electronics, or other equally unaffordable things.

Because, last time I checked, I am free to shop where I want.

More importantly, stores are free to decide if or when people use cell phones while shopping. McDonalds might think its fine, but the Malibu Kitchen and Gourmet Country Market won’t let you order until you turn off the cell phone.

And, surprisingly enough, they can make that decision without any help from the government.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, I’m no fan of shopping on Thanksgiving day, but Walmart has every right in the world to participate and contribute to America’s seemingly endless appetite for avarice, greed, and unbridled capitalism. In much the same way, Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A can stay closed Thanksgiving day or Sunday or any other day of the week.

If I don’t like those policies, I don’t have to shop there. There are plenty of businesses willing to separate me from my dollar bills. Heck, I still don’t buy Exxon gas because of their unconscionable, irresponsible response to the Valdez oil spill, and I avoid Walmart because their hiring practices are, to put it mildly, questionable at best. Sure, I might pay a little more for Susie’s first bike but it’s my money and I’ll spend it where I want. You do the same. Don’t like Starbuck’s liberal, pinko free trade coffee policies? Get your Peppermint Mocha Frappuchino someplace else.

One of the great things about America is that I can develop whatever illogical, contradictory economic morality I so desire.

And one of those desires would be to never, ever, in a million years, fly on a plane that allowed people to talk on cell phones in flight.

But just because I don’t want it, Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Dianne Feinstein, doesn’t mean we need the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act to ban in-flight phone calls. Let’s forget for a moment the horror we should all feel that Congress wants to legislate courtesy of any kind and skip the irony of a self-professed small government Republican proposing legislation with a big government Democrat, and remember that if airlines, travelers, and passengers are all troubled “over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight,” then United, American Airlines, and any other airline can simply choose not to allow talking on cell phones in their planes.

Certainly, we’re all very happy the FAA has banned weapons, cigarettes, and 8 ounce bottles of shampoo since these all constitute a health hazard and a danger to other passengers. We can’t have terrorists with full, bouncy, and healthy hair after all.

If, though, American Airlines decides to let Chatty Cathy talk on her phone in flight from New York to Seattle, I (and this might shock some folks) don’t have to buy a ticket on American Airlines. I can let my wallet do the talking for me and fly with a different airline.

Left to their own devices, airlines might develop a variety of options for passengers: no talk seats, free talk sections, buffer aisles near the exits, or even talk free flights. In the meantime, while I’m tickled pink that Congress seems to have found some semblance of bi-partisanship, I don’t need Uncle Sam’s help hanging up the phone. And neither does anyone else.

Sitting in the Fish Bowl

According to the latest Career Builder survey, 43% of employers have not hired someone because of photos, comments, or outright lies listed on social media sites. About 50% of the respondents listed Inappropriate photos and information posted about drugs and drinking as the worst infractions. Only 28% of the respondents listed discriminatory comments about race, gender, etc as a reason to not hire someone.

Because, of course, getting liquored up on the weekend is far worse for business than posting racist or misogynist rants.

I will admit that as the father of two sons with facebook, twitter, instagram, and god knows what other outlets for free expression I have my concerns. According to a survey by Burlingame’s Jobvite, 42% of employers form positive or negative feelings based on social networks sites and 94% of recruiting and HR people are out there trolling the web looking for reasons to give candidates a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Essentially, social network sites have become part of an extended job application.

The good news is that soon enough I won’t have to monitor their social media. Geo Listening, a new startup that scans “posts across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other online services, searching for certain keywords and location information that would tie a person to the school community. Relevant data is then presented in a daily report to school officials.” For now, Geo Listening is confining their intrusion, er, monitoring, to schools that hire their services.

It’s not a violation of privacy, the company says, because they simply collect and process publicly available information.

Technically, of course, the company is correct. Mining available, publicly posted data is not a violation of privacy. As we see above, employers are already on that bandwagon.

However, I’m also, for lack of a better word, creeped out that a public school has decided that mining (trolling is more like it) social media sites is a valuable use of public dollars. Why, I must ask, is it okay for the principle to monitor my son’s facebook account when that same principle has absolutely no right to follow my son to McDonalds and spy on him?

Let me willingly admit that I find the cultural shift to posting private, personal information problematic. We have become a culture willing (and able) to trumpet our “self” as worth posting and publicizing. There is something incredibly egotistical about feeling compelled to share your intimate moments or your day to day moments with the world. Not only are you yelling “Look at Me,” you are also assuming you are worth looking at.

As with any other behavior, I’m more than willing to also admit that we must be held accountable for our behavior.

But, I’m also bothered that hiring managers and school districts have started using social media as hammer with which to punish posters. Yes–posting drunken photos of yourself kissing a cow on the backside says something about you but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t make a good bank teller.

Likewise, trolling student postings for key words that might indicate emotional issues seems like a good idea, unless, of course, you have teenagers. Then you realize emotional instability is teen age life.

What bothers me the most, though, is the slow erosion of civil liberties in the name of safety and security. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate what bothers me the most. Like the argument supporting the NSA’s attack on our privacy in the name of fighting terror, supporters of companies like Geo Listening will tell us that we have nothing to fear if we are not guilty.

But we do have something to fear. When we recognize that unnamed authorities are monitoring our behavior, we both consciously and subconsciously change. When our public behavior becomes a matter of public record for which we are always held accountable, I can only imagine a growing trend to uniformity and safeness. Worse yet, it’s a short step from deciding that pictures of alcohol make a person not eligible for a job to deciding that one’s religion or politics cross some imaginary line.

In essence, this invasion threatens not just my civil liberties but my unique identity. More important, that public self I’m crafting via social media is part of my personal space independent of my office space. I fully understand losing a job or earning a reprimand if I’m on my work computer or representing the company. Doing teguila shots on the bosses desk is a bad idea even if I don’t post pictures to Instagram.

There’s a point, then, where companies like Geo Listening, and the schools that hire them, aren’t just tapping in and hearing my conversations. They are trying to shape my conversation.

And, that, at the end of the day, is a far bigger threat than me kissing my neighbor’s cat while smoking a joint.

 

Cheaters Never Win, but They Do Go To Harvard

The big news coming out of Harvard this week is that their incoming group of first year students is more interested in cheating than having sex. What’s the point of cheating on homework if you don’t use the extra free-time doing something fun? Youth is wasted on the young.

Those of us who have spent time in higher ed are in no way surprised that our current generation of students plays fast and loose with their classroom responsibilities. We’ve known for years that more and more students arrive in our hallowed halls willing to cheat.

We might, in our older and grumpier moments, simply blame technology. The influx of computers and the internet has certainly made cutting and pasting much easier. Students have access to vast amounts of information. Chances are there isn’t an algebra problem known to man (and woman) that google hasn’t already considered.

While some critics of higher ed are more than willing to point their judgmental fingers at colleges and professors, arguing that universities are prone to fibbing to get higher rankings and our students are simply modeling our behavior, the Harvard survey shows the students are arriving on campus already willing to cheat.

But it’s also worth offering up a slight defense of our incoming class of ne’er do wells. We should acknowledge that cheaters (and their pants) have been around as long as liars (and their burning pants). In other words, the 21st century doesn’t hold a monopoly on unethical behavior.

Certainly, the data shows that cheating in universities today is far worse than it was in the 1940s.  Over the last 60 years or so, the number of self-reported acts of dishonesty have increased.  Of course, comparing the campus climate in 2013 to the 1940s is about as useful as comparing driving habits from the same time periods. I’m going to go out on a limb and claim the goals, purpose, and pressures at the pre-World War II, pre-Korea, pre-Vietnam university were a tad bit different than they might be today.

I definitely don’t want to excuse dishonesty, but I do want us (as educators, parents, and citizens) to recognize that as the social pressure to “get an education” increases, we see a corresponding willingness to cheat. We should also note that the pressure to succeed at the university is brought to bear not just by universities and parents. Employers are increasingly requiring college degrees for positions that, quite frankly, not need college degrees.

Why, we might, ask do students cheat? Because the cost of failure has become so high. Scores on standardized tests, too often, have become gateways to a better (or worse) world. Simply put, culturally we have turned education into a task one must complete that may or may not be useful. The degree has become more important than the journey itself. We have equated not completing college to failure, even though the majority of Americans don’t have college degrees and they are quite often successful.

When I first started teaching English Composition, our first essay assignment was always about the purpose of higher education. Is our goal, I asked, to provide training and skills or are we here to engage in the epistemological journey of self-discovery? Increasingly, my students resent classes that don’t “apply” to their major, but who can blame them. We bombard them with learning objectives and focus on assessments and accountability. We have reduced the number of hours required to get a degree from 130 to 120 and we focus on pathways to completion and competency-based education. They are, in fact, modeling our cultural values regarding education.

Yet, we also know that thinking critically isn’t measured by filling in the blanks. Classical education concerns itself with hows and whys. Answers are often fluid. Truth, meaning, and even language are fields of play where complexity reigns. Not knowing is an important part of understanding.

But none of those things are practical. Or fast. Or measurable. Or multiple choice.

And too often, culturally, not important. Instead, we spend our money and our time on standardized tests that pretend to measure a student’s intellectual ability. We tie that score, the bubbles filled in correctly, to Ivory Tower access and we reward students who master the practical. All you have to do is eliminate 75% of the choices and your future awaits.

I don’t intend to hold students blameless. My own classes include strict academic honesty policies, but I’ve also come to realize I must spend time teaching academic integrity and reminding students that learning at an institution of higher learning involves more than simply demonstrating a specific skill. We can, and must, teach both the hows and the whys, but we must also remind our students the why (or the why not) is the more important of the two.

But it’s an uphill battle. After all, those kids who cheated did get into Harvard.

Hustle Beats Talent Unless Talent Hustles

One of the things I love about Washington Nationals outfielder  Bryce Harper is his hustle. Like Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Craig Biggio, and other great ball players from the past, Harper plays the game at 100 miles an hour, recognizing that his talent and the privilege of wearing a big league uniform carries certain responsibilities.

I’m not a professional coach and I don’t even play one on t.v. but I have coached various baseball teams and given private lessons off and on for about 10 years. When I talk to kids about the game at the beginning of the season, Harper is exactly the kind of player I talk about not, I tell them, because he’s talented with gifts most of us dream about, but because he recognizes that hustle beats talent unless talent hustles.

The goal, I tell the kids I coach, is to play the game to the best of your ability. But, and I try hard to avoid looking at that one kid who can’t (as my dad used to say) hit his butt with both hands, some of us aren’t very good. We can get better if we work hard, but that takes practice and time. And more practice. And more time. For some of you, I do look at them now, you won’t get better until next year. Or the year after. And some of you might want to start practicing the trumpet. Or the oboe. Or your writing. Or walking and chewing gum at the same time. (I don’t really say that last one but it’s tempting.)

But the one thing that doesn’t take time or practice is hustle. Every kid, every coach, every person can work hard on every pitch and we can always give 100%. You might strike out or make an error but I will never get mad if you are trying as hard as you can.

But you have to remember that you play like you practice. Life isn’t filled with important at bats and crucial pitches every day but the people who succeed are the ones who prepare and practice for that moment when things matter the most.  They put themselves in a position to succeed.

This, I say in my wisest voice, is a lesson you can take with you anywhere. You might not be a math whiz or have a facility with language, but nothing stops you from working hard and getting better. You might not ever be Einstein of Joan Didion, but you can avoid being Lloyd Christmas or Frank Drebin (they completely miss the references of course).

We have been lucky in our house that both our sons have taken this speech to heart. It’s possible, of course, that their primary goal is to simply avoid hearing me drone on and on and they realize hustling beats dad’s lecture but who cares, right? As a parent, I don’t usually care why they do something right, I’m just happy to take credit for it.

It’s also true that I stopped coaching my son about two years ago. Don’t get me wrong–I’m still there with the free advice and (despite what he might think) I still know more about baseball than him, but I also recognize that part of growing as an athlete is learning how to be coachable.

Good athletes, I tell him, have to be confident enough to know they will succeed but humble enough to listen to coaches teach them how to play.

Teenagers, though (or at least my teenage sons), find it hard to be humble enough to listen to dad. So I’ve pawned him off on someone else.

Either way, our boys have a great work ethic (unless it involves household chores) and I’ve never had to remind them to work hard in practice.

I also know, from my years working with 8-16 year old baseball players that most of the kids stopped listening to my opening practice speech sometime after I said Bryce and before I finished Harper.

But kids do learn by doing.

I finish my beginning of the year speech about practice by telling the kids that we will work on skills and we will practice hard. We will hustle and do everything we do with intensity because (if they have been listening) doing so in practice ensures they will do so in a game.

If we don’t, we will run or do work on our core. But I assure them, whatever we do won’t be very much fun. (I do hold out the carrot, also. Working hard might earn a wiffle ball game or hitting water balloons one practice.)

And I’m a man of my word. The first time someone stops hustling in practice, everything stops and the lesson begins. We might not get better but my players always get in shape.

And now that I have their attention, I remind them that no matter how good they might be, someone out there is better. And working hard. Because he knows that hustle beats talent unless talent hustles.

If the Shoes Fit, You Should Try On Another Pair

walkmileshoesAfter extensive and careful research, I have concluded that I’m right.

About everything.

Not that I really needed the 17 websites, 1 news channel, 3 politicians, 938 Facebook likes, and 4 twitter feeds but they certainly make it easier to confirm what I already know. And I have references now.

It goes without saying, of course, that my references are better than yours.

I realize that you might have a different opinion, but I should point out that your sources are biased and your rhetoric politicized. I’m fair and balanced. You, on the other hand, are prejudiced and askew. Perhaps even unhinged.

At least that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

Except too many of us keep sticking to our story and forgetting the wide-array of opinions and information that exists. Worse yet, we are becoming increasingly prone to confirmation bias, and we use our easy access to information as a way to surround ourselves with like-minded voices. The internet and cable television allows us to never be wrong again. But if none of us are ever wrong, how can anyone ever be right?

As I’ve noted in other posts, the irony of our information age is that we seem to understand less and less because we can exist day to day in filtered bubbles of our own creation.

We have managed, somehow in our 24 hour news cycle, to turn truth into a contact sport. I’m waiting for the reality tv show that pits news anchors in a death match. Winner gets to cherry pick the facts for us all. Sean Hannity vs. Keith Olbermann at 11:00: A report on the IRS investigation follows (as soon as they clean the arena). Meghan Kelly and Rachel Maddow inside the ring in a no-holds barred match. Winner gets to tell us if the IRS scandal was presidential over-reach or a mistake by local agents.

But the problem extends beyond just the information we process and the ability to homogenize data. A willingness to work across differences is, often, predicated on an ability to empathize with those with whom we disagree. Empathy, for those who aren’t up to date on Psychology 101, involves understanding someone else because you have been there. Such a thing differs from sympathy, the ability to acknowledge someone’s hardship and offer solace, in that empathy requires a shared experience.

We don’t have an information problem in America; we have an empathy problem.

We have, it seems, lost our ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and imagine the world from any other perspective. Perhaps we all just fear germs and potential athlete’s foot, but I suspect our biggest issue is the false sense of certainty we are able to create in our lives.

In other words, with so much information at our fingertips, we have lost the ability not to know something. We have traded the mysteries of unknowing with web browsing and instantaneous information.

“I don’t know” is not really an acceptable phrase anymore.

But not knowing, or at least not being able to fact check on demand, forces us to listen to other people and consider their point of view. We can argue larger ideas and philosophical points without getting bogged down in data or dates. Perhaps, as Rep. Jim McDermott reminds us, the IRS scandal isn’t about who was investigated and is really about what kinds of speech the government will subsidize with tax breaks?

Not knowing forces us to think more deeply about issues and make connections with past experiences and anecdotal evidence. We must rely on our experience and the experiences of others. We open our minds to hear precisely because we realize no one else knows either. There is a collective sense that we are developing a narrative of the event or the moment. We are, proverbially, all in it together.

And then we might do the difficult work of slogging through articles or making our way to the library, accidentally reading something without knowing whether the author agrees or disagrees with us. We listen to the radio and hear the various reports and ideas without knowing author’s bias.

Don’t get me wrong. Facts matter and I want us to pay attention to facts and data.I tell my students they should decide what they think they think and then do the necessary research to find all the reasons they are wrong. Too many of us spend all day research all the reasons we aren’t wrong.

But, I also wish we could impose some sort of delay switch on commentary about any given event. It might work like that 5 second delay on television, except it would be a two week delay. The news could report the IRS office in Cincinnati investigated various Tea Party groups, but Bill O’ Reilly can’t comment for 14 days. (And that crazy guy on Facebook has to wait 21 days no matter what happens.)

Let the rest of us talk first. Let us absorb the information before you tell us what to think.

But don’t worry, I’ll eventually show you the error of your ways.

 

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.)

FiveThirtyEight

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.)