Tag Archives: Wade Maki

Views From the Middle

by Wade Maki

Kearney-NEThis fall I had the privilege of speaking at a multi-day symposium on free market health care at the University of Nebraska Kearney. Kearney is a small college town in the middle of the Great Plains. Being from a small town in the upper Midwest there was a lot of familiarity such as the friendly people and predominance of pickup trucks. However, the experience of the Great Plains with its big sky and near lack of trees was a new experience. As my host joked, if you ever find yourself in a zombie apocalypse head to Kearney where you can see them coming for miles!

One of the most striking things flying into Kearney was just how much of the land is farmland. Corn is the crop, and with prices holding up the region didn’t experience the recession the way most of the country did. Everywhere I went there were brand new trucks reflective of how well things were doing. True to form, the humble Midwest farmers I met would only say “we’re doing O.K.” when they were clearly in good times.

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I met a great many students in my days at Kearney. Some attended the symposium, others were in classes that I visited, and a few I met when we had leftover food to share. For all my difficulty as an instructor keeping students attention I only needed to say “anyone want some free food” and suddenly I was the center of attention.

The symposium consisted of speakers and panels from diverse areas as hospital directors, lawyers, and a philosopher (yours truly). The audience consisted mostly of students many of whom were very concerned with the Affordable Care Act which is also known as “Obamacare” (which is true in that he does care).

One of the most powerful ideas expressed by the students was a sincere concern that they were being forced into paying for the health care of others. This of course isn’t new as it is the basis of social security, welfare, and medicare. However, I found their attitudes very familiar as I was a college student in 1993 when President Clinton was pushing his version of health care often called “Hillarycare” (which was true too since she did care). Hearing students complain about having to pay for others care was a mirror of my own feelings back in 1993.

ObamavilleThen as now students find themselves confronted with a conflict between two very Midwestern ideals: The “live and let live” independence and the “we’re all in it together” belief in community. These ideas are not unique to the Midwest but have particular attraction there because when your neighbor may be a mile or more away everyone gets used to having more freedom and responsibility for themselves which doesn’t lend itself to being forced into anything including a health insurance plan. At the same time there is a recognition of being in it together that we need to work together (be it to survive harsh weather, wild animals, drought, or the lack of anyone else to help when we need it).

While there are other factors in play and perhaps better ways to explain it, there is a real tension between two things most of us value in the health care law. The students do see themselves as part of a community that takes care of its members while also as a free individual that shouldn’t be forced to help anyone. We might boil this down to, “well if something bad happens to a neighbor I will choose to help out but don’t tell me I have to help!”

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

View of a park in Kearney with the town surrounded by cornfields nearby.

Perhaps the best way to see the health care issue is a conflict not of values but of methods. Students want access to affordable quality care but they are skeptical of legal requirements. There was recognition of the problems in the health care market (limited suppliers, no price information until after purchase, no quality comparison information, and no ability to say no when you need care). Each of these factors makes health care a different market than for example a smartphone (where you know the price, features, can compare phones, have different providers to choose from, and can go without a phone). Just as students saw the problems of the market they also saw perils of government (political decisions, dominance of special interests, collusion with big companies, the entrenchment of ineffective programs, and no ability for the individual to opt out).

All in all I learned a lot in my days interacting with students in Kearney. Perhaps most of all how much hasn’t changed. Students don’t like being told what to do, they do want to help others, and  most of all free food is awesome.

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

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No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

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This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

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Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

Deleting the “Human” Factor

by Wade Maki

History is often divided into ages based upon a particular trend. The age of reason, age of invention, enlightenment, information and industrialization are but a few examples. Some ages are known for conflicts, others for prosperity. As we are 12 years into the 21st century, I’m noticing a trend that may make this the century we delete the human factor from decisions.

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“I’m still here! Turn the lights back on!”

This summer my department was moved into new offices. Of course they are not new so much as new to us with some recent updates and fresh paint. One of the first things we noticed was how the traditional light switches were replaced with motion light sensors to automatically turn the lights on when we enter and off when we are not around. One might be tempted to see this as motivated by convenience, but one would be wrong. The idea here is to save energy (ergo money) by removing the human factor from the equation. Humans tend to leave lights on and so the automatic sensor is there to handle things without having to rely on flawed human judgment. Even though the motion sensor must use some additional power, it has been determined that the sensor will be more efficient than people. As with anything new the bugs haven’t been worked out such as the daily tendency for the sensor to turn off my light when I read, work on my computer, or just sit mostly still for awhile. Thus, I must pause in the dark and wave my arms in the air to get the sensor to turn my light back on. True to the trend of deleting the human factor there is no way for me to override the sensor.

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We’ve all been here.

This summer I made several airline flights to conferences and events. At every airport where I used the restroom I found a similar trend of removing the human factor from the equation. Want soap? Put your hand here and the sensor will decide how much to give you. Want water? Hold your hands here and a pre-determined amount of water will flow. Want a paper towel? Wave your hands and a predetermined (always too small amount) of paper will be dispensed. The goal, as with my light sensor, is to remove my decision from the equation in the name of efficient use of energy, water, paper and soap. Why this became of interest was that in one of the airports most of the sensors had apparently stopped working leaving only a couple of sinks operational. If you’ve ever seen a busy airport restroom this was quite a sight to watch as dozens of people were dumbfounded (they waved their hands in vain but no soap or water came). You see, as with my light switch, the ability for an actual human being to turn on the water or pump the soap had been removed rendering the sinks non-functional.

The trend then is for small groups of humans (committees I’m guessing) to decide that in the name of efficiency, safety, or some other good purpose, systems should be designed to remove human decision-making entirely. Lest you think that it stops at switches and faucets please know that Google is close to perfecting the self-driving car. As anyone who drives around others knows, the machines can’t possibly do it worse… can they? I suspect this is only the beginning of a century long trend of deleting the human factor.

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Self-driving Google car

If this trend continues what will life in 2099 look like? My life will be managed by devices that wake me up, remind me where to go and what to do, perhaps even when to shower (and for how long). My car will drive me where I need to go. Manual driving will be too risky to allow, but drinking and riding while on your phone is perfectly okay. My refrigerator will know what’s inside and order anything I need from the store, which may deliver it (or have my car add a grocery stop to my commute). In addition to managing my life, my devices will track and report my activities to ensure public safety (this is already occurring and will continue to expand). I could go on, but it is enough to note how some of these things we can see coming by 2099 and others are almost here already.

Of this trend most will ask the wrong questions. Most will ask “how does this make life more efficient and convenient?” Some will ask “what are the costs to us by this loss of control?” In both cases there will be important points on each side to be weighed. However, perhaps the most important question we should ask is “how does removing humans from decisions change us?” Who will we become when we make fewer decisions and cede more control to machines (and to those who program them)? By comparison we know how using cell phones has resulted in a generation that no longer remembers numbers and has forgotten many social amenities. What will life be like 2099? I can give you a rough sketch of this future. Who will people be in 2099? That, may be a much more disconcerting question.

Who is on First: Ambiguous and Loaded Language

By Wade Maki

“Who is on first? Yes, he is.” The classic comedy bit plays on ambiguity in language.  In this case the ambiguity is just the unfortunate result of the situation (people named “Who” and “What” are difficult to talk about).  A great many problems are caused by ambiguous language in which two or more meanings may be found in the same wording. Vast amounts of philosophical disputes revolve around language disputes. What exactly did you mean by X?

Do you believe in God? This seems a simple question, but what does it mean to “believe” in something? Does belief entail: that it is true, that it is likely true, that it is possibly true, that I just hope it true, or even that I just want to be true? The word is unclear and any question involving it invites answers aimed at one of these standards leaving great possibility for confusion between questioner and answerer.

Sometimes ambiguous language is just the unintended result of vague expression. In other cases it results from careless expression. As evidence, here is how a team of students recently reported on a conflict between two companies:

“Throughout the process, this firm created monetary problems for their company explaining why they decided not to provide their services to them.”

While the team knew to what the words “this, their, they, and them,” applied, there was no way for the reader to decipher this meaning given that there were at least two subjects that each word could refer to.

In other cases ambiguous language is a deliberate tool to deceive. Examples from politics and advertising are numerous where, by design, language is selected because it has dual meanings one, which is technically true, and the other which isn’t true but the speaker hopes the listener will accept as true. President Clinton’s famous legal defense about perjury included the curious claim “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. You know language is in trouble when “is” becomes ambiguous.

Rather than focus on political ambiguity in language, a subject deserving of its own post, consider how advertisers utilize it. Below are two labels from the same product line called “ecosense” (in two shades of green). When you see this what do you think of? Once you’ve answered the question read the small print at the bottom. Then look at the second version, which represents the updated advertising language. Notice how they changed the small print to be even more ambiguous than the first.

What is going on with these ads is called “greenwashing” whereby an attempt is made to convey an environmental product when, in fact, it is not an environmental product. In the examples above the advertiser plays on both the ambiguity of the phrase “ecosense” and of the color green. The eco in ecosense could mean ecological and/or economical just as the green could mean environmentally friendly and/or affordable. As the small print indicates in the first ad (which was the original label) only the economical portions are true.  However, since the product would sell better if people thought it was environmental this original small print was altered to be more ambiguous. Now it tells you that ecosense means economical sense it leaves an open question as to the environmental impact of the product. People who don’t read the small print (a significant number) would reasonably conclude that the product was environmentally friendly and even those who read the second label may reach that same conclusion.

Thus far the examples have involved language which could have two or more meanings. There is another form of ambiguity in language where meanings are smuggled into language without actually being said.  What comes to mind when I tell you Jones is an environmentalist? For many people the word itself brings with it images of hippies, tree huggers, people diving atop whales to save them from harpoons, Prius owners, or a host of other behaviors. As a result a lot of people say “I’m not an environmentalist” before adding, “but I care about the environment.” This is as logical as the woman who says: “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”

Confusions in such cases come not from the words themselves, but from outside ideas the listener associates with the words. Thus, most conservatives don’t call themselves “environmentalists” as that says SUV burning, un-showered,  neo-hippie. Instead, conservatives are more likely to use the term “conservationist”.  What is the difference? Not a whole lot if you only look at the words and know that both seek to protect parks, air, water, and nature.  Of course the term conservationist also carries additional connotations to some listeners such as, in full Teddy Roosevelt tradition, enjoying nature by using an elephant gun to blow away every creature in the natural world for the trophy wall.

A lot of conflict, confusion, and deception occurs because of ambiguity in either the meaning of language or the smuggling in of additional notions. What one person says can be innocent to one listener but racist/homophobic/offensive to others. The solution isn’t easy. Being aware of ambiguity and smuggled notions goes a long way, but not far enough. If you were running for president and want to protect parks, air, water, and nature what word do you use? If environmentalist and conservationist each scare a third of America what word do you use? This helps explain the tortured use of language in politics.

Medici: Money, Murder, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and More!

By Wade Maki

Early in the 15th century an ex-pirate enters a small shop in Florence. A visit to the shop is not his goal. In the back of the shop is a small family bank from which the ex-pirate hopes to gain a large loan. The man running the bank, Giovonni de’Medici, grants the loan. The ex-pirate uses the money to fund a new career in the church and within a few years he becomes Pope John XXIII. As a reward the Medici become the bankers to the church expanding Medici Bank’s reach across Europe.

Giovonni represents a successful business career. Of course, during this time in Florence business, family, and politics (including murder) were all interconnected. To promote and protect the family, more than just money was needed. To rise in social standing without noble blood required a different display than business success. The Medici began to fund the arts making themselves patrons of the Renaissance.

Giovonni’s son, Cosimo, had the luxury of a classical education in literature and philosophy. He also grew up in the banking business. Cosimo continued to run the bank, fund the arts, and collect classical texts which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Medici became patrons to the architect Brunelleschi who would create the largest dome in the Christian world. In addition, Cosimo commissioned works from many artists such as Lippi, Donatello, Michelozzo and Gozzoli.  The Medici even took in a young boy and raised him with their own children because of his artistic aptitude. That boy was Michelangelo.

Santa Maria del Fiore - Brunelleshi

Late in the 15th century, Lorenzo de’Medici, known as “the Magnificent”, would go on to run the city of Florence and commission work from Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. All of the Medici successes, the Renaissance they helped create was not appreciated by all. In 1492 Lorenzo was murdered and the family driven out by religious fundamentalists who then held a “bonfire of the vanities” to publicly incinerate classical “pagan” literature and non-Christian artistic works.

Birth of Venus – Botticelli

Exiled from Florence, Lorenzo’s son Giovonni, a cardinal in the church, sought to reclaim Florence, which had become a republic. Giovonni found the Pope sympathetic and with papal support raised an army to march on Florence. One of the young advisors to the republic arranged a citizen army to defend the city. This defense would not succeed, as Giovonni’s tactics were so brutal (massacring an entire village) that the leaders of the republic surrendered rather than risk a more violent end. The young advisor who led the resistance to Giovonni de’Medici was arrested, tortured, and exiled. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli who went on to write a book, The Prince, dedicated to the Medici in the hopes of regaining a government job. This did not earn him a job, but the book has made him one of the most infamous political writers in history.

Macchiavelli

After retaking the city, Giovonni went on to become Pope Leo X by 1513. His financial mismanagement of church funds led to the selling of papal indulgences (you simply paid for a document forgiving various sins). Pope Leo’s actions caused a little known German priest to protest church corruption. The Priest’s name was Martin Luther who started a little thing called the Protestant Reformation (maybe you’ve heard of it).

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

During this period, Medici patronage allowed Michelangelo to complete the statue of David (which was damaged during an anti-Medici revolt in the city), paint the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgment (which included nude people, who the church had another artist paint undergarments on the exposed genitals).

The Last Judgment – Michelangelo

Other Medici ruled Florence as Duke, became Popes, and one even went on to rule France as Queen (with a belief in the writings of Nostradamus). In the 16th century the Medici hired a tutor who taught three generations of Medici students. The tutor was especially skilled in science and astronomy. His name was Galileo and he remained with the Medici until the Pope sent the Inquisition after him for writing that the earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could save Galileo from the Papal Inquisition.

We often talk about interconnectedness and complexity within the human experience. This is reflected well in the lives of the Medici. Their motivations were very human. They desired wealth, power, and status and found business, religion, and the arts useful methods to achieve those ends. They also had a sincere appreciation for history, philosophy, and the arts—especially for the classics—which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were greedy bankers, ruthless rulers, corrupt Popes, patrons of the arts, promoters of science, preservers of culture and essential to the Renaissance. All of these things connect to a single family within a 200 year period. It doesn’t get much more human than that.