Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Learning Common Sense: tricks and false consensus?

updated 061418

AI still lacks what most 10-year-olds possess: ordinary common sense. -- Paul Allen, quoted in C Gohd "It’s Really Hard to Give AI “Common Sense” [1]

...once (AI) becomes very large, and it has thousands of units per layer and maybe hundreds of layers, then it becomes quite un-understandable. - T Jaakkola, MIT [2]

AI is useless until it learns how to explain itself. -- L James Towards Data Science[2]

"It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree." -- Baudelaire [3]
"Playing" with Deception. Many of the games adults play with even very young children work at getting them to recognize that sometimes what they see, hear, feel or remember can be misleading. Even one-year olds can be introduced to "peek-a-boo" in which they learn that the immediate disappearance brought about by covering one's eyes does not, by itself, make what they have just seen, go away.

Two-year olds can be surprised and entertained with a game called, "I caught your nose," where the adult or older, less naive child, uses curled forefinger and middle finger of one hand to gently clasp the younger's nose, moves the hand away while sliding the thumb in between the two fingers and says "I caught your nose."

I have seen such games played hundreds of times. The naive child's initial reaction is usually one of surprise -- although sometimes one of dismay or even shock -- but, as the "nose-holding" hand opens up empty and the adult says, "feel you face" the child, relieved, will smile or even laugh and invite: "Do it again."

But playing with deception most likely only works under two (among many possible other) conditions. These are that
1. the children are more or less "normal," i.e. healthy, awake, and undistracted by such things as a wet diapers or hunger and

2. the experiences of the learners bring them to develop a sense of probability concerning what they perceive in contrast to other options that might occur.
If, for example, a person playing peek-a-boo hides or, say, dons a mask, while the child is covering its eyes, the experience will likely not teach much about what is likely to happen under which circumstances. Nor will it happen if the child is developmentally too under- or overdeveloped to benefit from the interaction.[4]

Deception games in educational contexts are usually a kind of training in "normality," e.g. merely covering the eyes does not change what's "really there." Or, if something's where it should be, say, you nose on your face, then it can't also be somewhere else. This is training in what we call "common sense."

However, a sense of "normality" is different from "common sense." As children grow, they might get training in a more sophisticated, less "common," form of "common sense." For older children we might use a poem such as
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks.
Every sack had seven cats.
Every cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
One or more students hurry to do the arithmetic and come up with 2401. We "correct" them by saying that the answer is "one", because I, alone, was going to St. Ives. The teaching point is usually to get them to read more carefully.

But a more insightful student might point out that the poem does not originally indicate, "I alone was going to St. Ives." It's possible, therefore, had I already had (unmentioned) co-travelers, that at least 2402 were going to St. Ives. The original teaching point -- Read Carefully! -- fails, but is (hopefully) compensated for by the discussion of the possible assumptions and what they let us infer.

Even relatively sophisticated adults can be fooled by clever illusionists who appear to make coins disappear and, then, pull them from a spectator's ear. Trained scientists have been known to insist that they have seen individuals bend spoons without touching them. Illusionist's confederates are "seen" to get cut in half and survive the sawblade's mutilation. And elephants can disappear in a puff of smoke!

In such circumstance, however, the victims of the illusion either
1. are not able to carefully examine the surroundings of the events, for e.g. being seated in an audience; or,

2. are generally ignorant of techniques of illusion, e.g. coin-palming, or attention-distraction,
which, though employed in their present circumstances, are rare in day-to-day experience.

Of greater concern to us, perhaps, should be the abundant presence of illusionists of political and commercial enterprise armed with well-established research on psychological biases and manipulation techniques. Educational institutions have yet to catch up with, much less keep abreast of, these clever people.

Both schooling and experience, in general, work toward refining "common sense" even to the point of supplanting it with something else. But a socially important, very problematic conception of these processes is the common myth that some substantial residues of the original "common sense" remain as a substrate, so to speak, of newer learnings. The myth holds it that the residues remain not merely as individual inclinations and skills, but as widely shared, if only latent, tools all can rely on.[5]

Consider the following conversation between an employer (E) and a prospective job-holder (P):
E: P, I've brought you in, P, to ask you to run our Department of X.

P: But E, as a Y manager, I haven't had any experience really working with X!"

E: Yeah; but, you've been successful with Y. And your heart's in the right place. I feel we'll get along just fine. So when it comes to working with X, just rely on your common sense!"[6]

Whether or not we find such a conversation problematic might well depend on the kind of organization E and P will be involved in. If it is, say, a small but expanding family-owned-and-run retail operation, that is one thing. However, if it is a middle-sized medical-surgical establishment, or a large kitchen-facilities factory, other concerns arise.

As Joan Woodward [8] has long argued, there are important and complex relations between organizational structure, staff social relations, and productivity.[9]

What is Common? What Makes Sense? A typical definition of common sense from The Cambridge English Dictionary gives us:[10]
The basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.
Examples: Windsurfing is perfectly safe as long as you have/use some common sense.

Note how many terms presume anterior "definition": basic level, practical, knowledge, judgment, reasonable, perfectly, safe. But what level is "basic?" What kind of information is "knowledge?" Who does "we all?" refer to? What is "reasonable;" what is "safe?"

Our natural languages use terms that are often vague and ambiguous, highly dependent on situation. Many of our linguistic choices are based on our belief that others can understand and trust us even though we vacillate in choice of words -- not meaning "literally" what we say -- to color our speech with our own values, moods and intentions.[11] We make them functionally precise ("clear" enough) by adjusting them, ad hoc, to the contexts we use them in and in relying (perhaps, wrongly) on our assumptions of normality.

Consider the following example of an all-too typical conversation,
Harry: Snow again! It's May! I've lived here all my life and never before seen so much snow!
Jack: Uh-huh. It shows how global warming is just a fraud!"
Harry: What makes you think so?"
Jack: It's obvious to anyone who has any common sense." More snow, less warmth!

A critical claim here is "More snow, less warmth!" This is common sense to millions of people, in the U.S. at least. We may say they are mistaken, but the falsity of their premise does not necessarily affect the logic of their argument. The argument may be based on a "confusion" between the notions of "climate," a characterization of weather events over extended periods of time and with large areas of occurrence; and, "weather," states of the atmosphere, e.g. phenomena of temperature change, precipitation, etc. considered from restricted perspectives which are more likely to be experienced by individuals or smaller populations. Breadth of perspective is independent, one would think, of commonality.

When was the last time a poll was taken to ascertain which individuals living under which conditions share common agreement on the assumptions underlying the definitions of the Cambridge English Dictionary? [12]

Depending upon where they are located and how informed they are, they may well be exercising their "common sense" even though it brings them to false conclusions. Recall only how phlogiston once provided a scientifically acceptable theory of combustion. Recall, also, that despite the efforts of Lister and Pasteur, many educated people rejected bacterial action as a cause of infection.

Every linguistic transaction is a wager which may not gain "high predictive probability" by being written down in "black and white" or entered as code into a computer program. Just as arguments can be valid without being sound, so can valid arguments yield falsehoods though they rest on common sense.

To continue with similar considerations, go to The Indeterminacy of Consensus: masking ambiguity and vagueness in decision.

-- Cordially, EGR

Footnotes and References

[1] quoted in Chelsea Gohd (Futurism, 3/11/ 2018) It’s Really Hard to Give AI “Common Sense

[2] Knight, W (MIT Technology Review, 4/11/18) The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI
See also James, L Towards Data Science (2018) AI is useless until it learns how to explain itself.

[3] Baudelaire, C Intimate Journals XCIX
See also G Clabaugh & E Rozycki (1999) The Nature of Consensus

[4]"Developmentally appropriate" is one of those educational concepts that is both theoretically dense and vague as well as hard to specify a non-circular definition for. See Redden & Frederick below.[7]

[5] See Rozycki, E (2014) Common Sense, or Merely Common Hubris?

[6] See Rozycki, E (2017) Hard Practical Questions? Handle Them or Dodge Them! Here's How

[7] Redden, JP & Frederick, S (2011) Unpacking Unpacking: Greater Detail Can Reduce Perceived Likelihood Journal Of Experimental Psychology

[8] Joan Woodward, Industrial Organization. Theory and Practice. Reprint. (London: Oxford University Press, 1966)

[9] See, also Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education.

[10]The Cambridge English Dictionary on 'common sense'

[11] See Rozycki, E (2016) Three Human Dimensions of Conceptualization

[12] See Rozycki, E (2016) All Definition Ultimately Rests on Stipulation, i.e. Communal Agreement.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Nearly Overwhelming Influence of Technology: only for dumbing-down or distraction?

"Consumerism is Communism." -- Comment (circa 1960) made by a head of a Philadelphia area Chamber of Commerce president critical of the evaluations published in the magazine, Consumer Reports.[1]

Teaching Clever Folks to be Discreet. Outside the university, clever thinkers, purportedly so prized in academia, can often be tolerated only if the mouths controlled by them stay shut. This is called "discretion."

Why? Because, to begin, clever thinking may obstruct otherwise easy commercial transactions. On the still just legal side of that narrow boundary separating clever marketing from fraud, bigger profits are more easily extracted, in the short run, at least, from naïve, misinformed or confused customers. The 1960 "Consumerism is Communism" comment in the epigraph alludes to this.

But the concern that only commercial institutions fear criticism is somewhat dated. To examine a more recent rhetorical exercise on the theme that Big Business, hand-in-hand with Big Government, is crowding us all into "Communism," see How consumerism leads to "communism".

Clearly commerce is not the only area in which ignorance can be exploited. Clever folks have a habit of nosing around in various traditional realms. Our legal, religious, governmental and educational institutions all have their own dirty wash to hide. For example
a. Scientists persistently complain that much published research is sloppily done, or non-replicable, yet is still often celebrated as an important breakthrough. (See Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.)

b. Government regulatory agencies fall down in policing misrepresentation in financial transactions; or in medical exaggerations. (See
Why is the SEC Ignoring Its Greatest Asset in the Fight Against Corporate Misconduct?

c. Clergy who would impose a strict morality beyond the boundaries of their own congregations, themselves protect their confreres who indulge the vices they condemn in their flocks. (See The Catholic Bishops Lobby Against Legislation to Protect Children )

d. Lawyers and judges have colluded, for example, in facilitating incarceration of children in private prisons for payments from the proprietors. (See Pennsylvania Judge Sentenced For 28 Years For Selling Kids to the Prison System )

e. Educators and school governors have absconded with or misused monies given them in the name of reform. (See De-Regulation and Charter School Swindles)

f. Casinos prefer unthinking customers. (Why else the free drinks?) Clever players, e.g. card-counters, are ostracized and expelled from the gaming establishments. (See Local casinos use countless methods to discourage card counters.

g. Most ominous is that some institutions attempt to squelch whistleblowers or critics by adopting policies or laws that criminalize those who would reveal illegal or unethical goings-on within them. (See Silencing Whistleblowers.)

To reiterate: clever folks are tolerated only if the mouths connected to them stay shut -- or are being viewed on the Comedy Channel. Statistically, events of the types listed above may be but a small proportion of the activities of the gigantic enterprises they are found in. Happily, they still cause shock and outrage, since they are unexpected, because they are considered egregious even though they relatively small in scope.

Individual scandals of the types listed are often not paid much prolonged attention likely due to their overwhelming frequency -- there's always something new -- but also because there is little immediate issue of wealth involved. But such small misadventures will occasionally -- or always, in the supermarket tabloids -- be exaggerated as to their seriousness, especially if they make good media attractions.

Better Access to More Distraction? Perhaps it is the emphasis in our expanding culture of technology as the primary, if not the sole, hope for the future that has disemboweled our educational systems of the wisdom gleaned from traditional sources of moral, legal and educational knowledge. Or, it may just be a matter of ease of access to more entertaining options by a public generally not too interested in those issues. (We'd probably win any bet that more people play video games on a daily basis than watch The Science Channel.)

To take an optimistic perspective, easier access to information, true, false or otherwise, that new technology affords, answers an apparently vast curiosity possessed by multitudes of people enjoying ever more leisure time to indulge it. But is this accessibility making for smarter, better informed and wiser people? Recalling the concern about "teaching" clever folks to be discreet, we might well wonder how much and by whom smarter, better informed and wiser people are wanted?

All of the items on the list above involve attempts to shift authority, the recognition of trustworthiness and truth-telling, from more traditional sources to newcomers who hope to enjoy substantial gains in wealth and influence.

If we read widely -- another waning habit? -- we run across even Ph.D.'s in "hard science" disciplines engaging in intellectually ham-handed debate. For example, there is no end of quibbling as to whether brain-research bears on the question as to whether "mind" and "spirit" are separate. Similarly with the notions of "natural" and "supernatural." The participants in such arguments seem to define themselves as opponents without even checking first to see whether they mean the same thing with such words as "natural," "mind," "spirit" or "separate." Even less often do they bother to say, if they could, what kind of evidence they can offer that supposedly addresses the questions

Masking Struggles for Authority? Or Snatching For the Collection Plate? A more recent, more subtle grab for recognition is the attempt by technically trained practitioners in various "hard science" disciplines to replace older traditions as definers and arbiters of broad philosophical and religious concerns. (See Pseudo-Science: the reasonable constraints of Empiricism)

Perhaps the disregard for long-established procedures of investigation and debate are not so much oversights or sloppiness as indicators of a much more attractive pursuit, that is the purloining, the usurpation, even, of authority. But this usurped authority, not about the search for discovery or truth, but more intensely in the competition for benefits more familiar, more widely valued in our pluralistic, commodity-focussed culture: wealth and influence.

Cordially, EGR

Footnotes or References

[1] I have been unable to retrieve my original citation and its stated source either from a faded, distant memory or from the Internet. However, there is much similar to be found online using the search phrase, "consumerism is communism." -- EGR

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Promoting "Good Citizenship" Over Political Ideology, Religion & Social Class

The key consideration for the conduct of interpersonal affairs is that the activities of people can harmonize without their ideas about ends and means being in agreement – Nicholas Rescher Pluralism p.180

"Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations...entangling alliances with none." ― Thomas Jefferson
The (Assumed) Basic Agenda of the U. S. Public Schools has long been baptized "promoting good citizenship." The fundamental mission of the public schools in the multicultural, putatively democratic society of the United States of America is to forestall or ameliorate conflict between different cultural and social subgroups, quite independently of whether such conflict is morally justifiable.

Clearly, "good citizenship" is seen as the fundamental, if not sole, goal of public schooling; especially when one considers that very few people would be willing to disregard conflict among groups in order to pursue any of the other vaunted aims of public education, e.g. acculturation and skills development.

Indeed, the very possibility of the public school structure serving its functions presumes such conflicts are under control. Consider the present proliferation of posters in public schools that declare, "No Place for Hatred." (Effective? Perhaps; disregarding student and public behavior at pre-game sports rallies.)

This subordination of many of the "obvious" goals of schooling to those of "stifling conflict," "getting along" or "respect for authority" is anything but a sign of irrationality, irresoluteness, ignorance or perversity, even though honored intellectual and social goals might suffer from emphasis on good citizenship.

In a society that imposes some form of primary education on all, "public" education by default, the rock-bottom demands for order and for the recognition of easily recognized value commitments, e.g. obedience, manners, timeliness, patriotism, etc., become the only foundations for functional mass education. This is particularly the case where great variations in family income or religious commitment are prevalent and likely to be persistent.

Also, this mission of pacification has supported commercial interests to exploit the vast territorial expanses and abundant natural resources of North and South America (and the world) resulting in the development of industries and patterns of settlement that tend to stabilize expanding local and national governance systems.

Persistent warfare, in the long run, dissipates wealth and threatens the stability of governing groups. War can be fatal to commerce. Conversely, commerce has played a substantial part, historically world-wide, in restraining military ambition, whether fed for the sake of domination, ideology, wealth, or religion. (But this perspective is greatly complicated by many other factors. See Berman in references.) In time, of course, commerce itself, since it minimizes the often substantial collateral damage caused by military action, may become a preferred means of pursuing domination, ideology, wealth, or religion. (See Downs in references.)

The preceding comments, I take it, are relatively common knowledge, discussed by many, many others in far more detail and exactitude than I have taken to present here. Those comments are not intended to identify heroes or villains, or to judge either militarism or commerce to be morally better than the other. Clearly, they fail to include mention, much less detail, of the millions of human beings who have fallen victim over the centuries of human history to their processes.

Our interest here is to understand how the public schools in the United States of America have fit in with the governance and social control processes of our society by pursuing their main goal of promoting good citizenship, even to the extent of often giving little more than lip service to other worthy pursuits.

Public education has been promoted and controlled to domesticate the populations who are be compelled, either by law, custom or poverty to accept its ministrations. The standard curricula of public education reflect the mission of producing "good citizens."
a. this mission is served by policies which promote "passive valuing", i.e. some kind of esteeming which does not involve the pursuit of that which is esteemed -- typical of so-called "appreciation" courses or of values clarification classes, smatterings of much, little of depth;

b. this mission is also served by policies which gainsay any of the conditions necessary to connecting action with value, i.e. the conditions of rationality, knowledge, ability, opportunity and consistency.
Since it is active valuing, the pursuit of values, which might cause conflict where values are not shared, certain policy directions can be drawn immediately from the above formulations. (See Constricting Social Ideals: breaking the values-action link to ensure "stability.".}

Thus, a rational school policy serving the social goal of reduced conflict could well promote -- with studied disregard:
a. irrationality, by letting evanescent preferences - whether of governance, organizational or student bodies - determine study options, rather than bias toward longer term considerations. (Universities and private schools, also, do this in favoring religious, social, or disciplinary traditions over scholarship);

b. ignorance, by granting certificates of completion without adequate testing for knowledge;

c. incompetence, by giving credit for "life experience" without clear definitions of skill obtained;

d. unequal opportunity, by tracking students by family background, or inadequate funding of educational programs; or

e. inconsistency of conduct, passing grades for "effort" or to satisfy school board demands for "higher achievement: -- read "higher recorded grades."

Hardly anyone would think such aims educational. Our considerations are suggestive, however, as to the persistence of these ills despite continued exhortation to eradicate them.

Final misgivings (from the political dimension of schooling): who decides what "operable" criteria of "good citizenship" are to be? Might they not come biased by political ideology, religion & social class?

To examine these issues further, see The Desired Ideal: a Docile Citizen? Or...?

--- EGR


Harold J.Berman, Law and Revolution. The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983 (See "citizenship", throughout.)

Jacques M. Downs "American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1800-1840" The Business History Review, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Winter, 1968), pp. 418-442

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Armed Guards in Public Schools: will this prevent violence?

"Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." -- Thomas Gray, "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1742)
For in much wisdom [is] much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. -- Ecclesiastes 1:18 KJB

Did you know that there are “mental hospitals” in which are incarcerated young children, at least as young as seven years old, who have murdered other human beings? A relative of mine who for several years worked in such a hospital with homicidal children -- until he burned out -- told me that he thought that what those kids really needed was good parenting. He insisted on this even though, from time to time, he had to disarm a child who attacked him with a hastily improvised knife or club.

We all just want to be happy. But some of us are willing to sacrifice too much in pursuit of that happiness. Many people are self-lobotomizing. You find them everywhere among parents, educators and in the “helping” professions -- but frequently even in politics, business and in the military. It is just too much to bear to accept that people we love or esteem might -- lacking extreme duress -- have committed some heinous act against another human being.

Having spent more than thirty-eight years in the School District of Philadelphia (as both student and teacher), I know from direct experience and from talking with my peers that violence in schools has been around for at least that long. (However, see Violence, even in school, is not necessarily wrong.) But, like today, it was not everywhere; not even in a substantial minority of schools.

But where it was common the school had a widely known, if seldom loudly declared reputation as a hell-hole. When I was in junior high school (1954-57) teachers, administrators and local politicians knew which public schools not to send their kids to. And they pulled strings to make sure their kids could avoid them. (I was not so lucky.)

But a New Day was to dawn: The Philadelphia Inquirer of April 9, 2011 reported that city officials in education and government were considering a proposal to place armed police guards in every Philadelphia school. That would complete the circle: compulsion to incarceration. Parents would be compelled by law to send their kids to schools where there were armed guards; thus, no doubt giving the students ample experience for the penal system many were said to expect to graduate to. (The outcomes of the official considerations, if and when completed, were not given much, if any, media attention. No bleed, no lead.)

With armed guards in their school, students in Philadelphia would be able to enjoy “the prison experience” without even having had to commit a crime. The system could, for example, start budgeting for HIV prevention. (Or perhaps they might permit gangs go take over some supervisory functions, just like in many a “real” prison. See Intervention: helping, interfering or just being useless?)

We might hope the inmates, (oops! …) --- the kids — might acquire the wisdom of real prison inmates and come to understand that even armed guards can’t prevent violence in the institution so long as our educational, business and governmental “leaders” narrowly pursue their own personal interests, able to disregard in-school happenings.

For references and to examine these issues further, see School Violence, Punishment, and Justice
Do Warm Hearts and Gentle People Promote Violence? You Betcha!

--- EGR

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Desired Ideal: a Docile Citizen? Or...?

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover our impotence. -- Mohandas K. Gandhi (See Was Non-Violence Gandhi’s Ultimate Goal?)
In the many years I taught classes in ethics, both inside and out- of the university, I encountered fewer than five or so implacable pacifists. These were people who professed themselves ready to sacrifice their nearest and dearest to death by unjust, intrusive attack, when they themselves could only intervene with violent action. In every case, I would ask them how they would justify letting their loved ones perish for the sake of their own, possibly egoistic, commitments.

They would reply to the effect that they believed in an after-life in which those loved ones would find a better situation. Also, they indicated that they were not ready to pursue that train of investigation: change the topic. (But see Belief, Disbelief, Truth, Falsehood and Faith.)

Adults, parents, teachers and counseling personnel all over this great country of ours have gotten into the habit of preaching to their children or underage charges that "Violence is never the answer." Every kid, when confronted with such easy pacifism, immediately recognizes two things:
1. What they are being told is false; and,

2. Their mentors are either not serious, or out of touch with reality, or liars.

All kids have to do is listen to the radio, watch TV, or pay attention to their elders' behavior to see more than ample proof that violence, on some occasions, is very likely reasonably, the unavoidable answer. Their easy preachment against violence, a dollar-store pacifism, is just one more depressing example of a major rule of everyday adult practice: "Do as I say, not as I do."

Another preachment kids encounter regularly is that if someone hits them and they hit back, they (the original victims) have "lowered themselves to the level" of their bullies. What's this "level" nonsense? Why is physical violence lower, more reprehensible, than the psychological torture inflicted by sharp tongues spreading malevolent gossip? Do psychological torturers imagine themselves morally superior because they refrain from touching their victims? They aren't; and, no kid who can fog a mirror thinks they are.

It's hard to be a parent, or teacher, or counselor. You don't want to encourage random unconstrained physical battle. Not because it's morally inferior -- look at the many sports which are both violent and educative because contact is controlled by rules -- but because it runs risks of outcomes that outweigh any benefits to be gained in the combat. Also, kids are prone to sudden seizures of anger, which, if restrained and reflected on, can be controlled to their benefit. (See Permissible School Violence)

On the other hand, who imagines that any kid with half a brain can't recognize hypocrisy? And what does this hypocrisy teach?
a. People in authority don't really want to get involved in having to exercise -- and make public -- their weak capacity for rational or fair judgment;

b. Talk is cheap. Fast tongue exercises authority as it dodges challenge;

c. Adults (superiors, leaders, gentry) are, at best, inferior teachers or models, who don't want to get involved with kids (inferiors, followers, servants) beyond what is absolutely necessary.
Docility is valued -- is preached to be a sign of "a superior person" -- because a docile person offers little resistence to a superior's importunity, is long suffering, and, in continuing traditions of hypocrisy, undermines himself or herself morally so as to destroy any basis for resistence to exploitation.

Pacifism, which starts out with the highest, the noblest, hopes of transforming human societies to tolerance and love, when glibly practiced in the contexts of our power-ridden institutions, becomes the means by which courage and forthrightness are fed to tyranny.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Doing Violence to "Violence"

--- EGR

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Maintaining Traditions of Practical Wisdom: Not Becoming a "Fool."

Practical wisdom is not musing about how someone else in a hypothetical situation ought to act. It's about "What am I do?" -- right here and right now, with this person. A practically wise person doesn't merely speculate about what's proper; she does it.
-- Schwartz, B & Sharpe, K Practical Wisdom. The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. (2010) New York: (Penguin) Riverhead. p.7.
Ever noticed how many of the things we purchase come with assurances of "foolproof" usage? Why is that? Probably because, in order to save money, we purchase things that need assembly, or finishing of one kind or another, yet we are unlikely to have the familiarity with the objects involved to know how to avoid technical problems with them.

Those of us with a lot of schooling like to believe that having read abstruse texts and done difficult mathematics has somehow made us clever and handy when dealing with physical objects in the real world. Why waste money on completed items, or hire presumed "experts" -- likely a person with a few days instruction -- to assemble them for us, when we can do the job ourselves?

But just try, for the first time, to do any of the following:
a. digging a round hole one foot deep;
b. baking a soufflé ;
c. hammering a nail into a board;
d. assembling a small multicomputer network with peripherals.

We would do well to start off with some ancient wisdom: nothing is as easy as it looks. The few days' instruction that the kid at the hardware or electronics store gets is a few days more than we have. But, rather than take a few days to consider and prepare for what has to be done, we -- not wishing to "waste time" -- rush ahead and, if we are lucky, do a barely passable job.

If we break something, we put it back into the box and take it back to the store, telling them that "it came that way." The merchant, without objection, takes it back -- he has insurance (or warranty sales) covering such losses; and, a sale is a sale, the profit being substantial enough to cover several replacements -- for which they get credit from the manufacturer anyway. "Practical wisdom" often trumps even "honesty."

Social obligation can suppress personal virtue. Ruth Benedict in The Sword and the Chrysanthemum. (1946) Boston: Houghton, gives an example in the Japanese complaint, "I lost my virtue by fulfilling my obligations." This is offered as explaining why, in a "normal" movie plot shown to Japanese subjects of Benedict's research, a teacher shields his wealthy yet thieving mother from opprobrium, accepting the blame for the theft of school funds. This, in turn drives the teacher's wife, taking their young child with her, to commit suicide (and murder) rather than live with the familial shame. Filial piety, in some cultures, trumps many a personal consideration. (Consider the fatal feuding between the Hatfields and the McCoys.)

"Modern" cycles of short-term use and replacement, "planned obsolescence," keep much of the economy going. But if fashion, alone, can't make you "upgrade," foolishness, e.g. mechanical ignorance, or deliberate planning, even, will. (Just think of mobile phones, "finished" and sold encased in slippery glass.)

But planned obsolescence or planned fragility works not only for mobile phones, DVD players, IKEA furniture, or automobiles or houses -- "fixer-uppers" -- , but also, increasingly, for medical care, law, scientific research and education. (See Schwartz & Sharpe, cited above, throughout.) Political and market, rather than disciplinary, considerations are at work to "fool-proof" the professions.

In education, unlike in other public service professions who know better than to wash their dirty laundry in public, there are always crusading "reformers" who are quite willing to point out who the fools are: thus we have recurrent attempts at "teacher-proofing" the curriculum. (See see On The Viability Of A Curriculum Leadership Role )

The success of this approach can be judged, for example, by the fact that, despite great hoopla and hype, Teach for America has yet to take over even small minority of public schools. It is the rare dilettante who has the patience, the dedication, to pursue expertise.

Even more painful for the greater majority of Americans to contemplate is, in these early days of the 21st Century, how dilettantism, not to mention rank incompetence has undermined vital functions of our national government.

But public service professionals, themselves, tend to shy away from rigorous resistance to the inroads made by those who would dilute professional norms and judgment for the sake of easy political and economic gain.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Minimizing Politicization in Public Service Decision-Making

--- EGR