Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Irony of Good Intentions

Okay, I'll admit it: Kung Fu Panda is one of my new favorite movies. We must have rented the thing five times (for a buck each from the Redbox) before I broke down and bought a used copy. The best scene is the "noodles; don't noodles" monologue, but the self-defeating attempt to prevent disaster prefaced by "one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it" line is pertinent to more than just incarcerated cats.

Viz: Suppose, to present an archetype, one really, really wanted to achieve some thing. I'll call it S, just to show that math types don't always pick X.

In order to achieve S, we set up some kind of machinery or processes, we take actions and lay plans--sometimes even in the other order. At the end of the day we very thoroughly ensure--because of the very attention we are paying to the problem--that the opposite of S is achieved. To be pedantic, we'll call the opposite ~S, and a(*) the "attempt to achieve" function, so:

a(S) => ~S

The fact that we have a word devoted to this idea (irony) shows that it's not uncommon. Maybe it's also because we tend to find it funny if the tax auditor gets audited or the plumber's sink leaks. It's not so funny in other circumstances. Often, unintended consequences are the cause of mischief. A couple of examples:
  • Kudzu: (source: Wikipedia) "From 1935 to the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the Southeastern United States to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion as above. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it widely for many years.

    It was subsequently discovered that the Southeastern US has near-perfect conditions for kudzu to grow out of control — hot, humid summers, frequent rainfall, temperate winters with few hard freezes (kudzu cannot tolerate low freezing temperatures that bring the frost line down through its entire root system, a rare occurrence in this region), and no natural predators. As such, the once-promoted plant was named a pest weed by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1953."

  • A programming shop wanted programmers to pay more attention to fixing bugs, so they gave rewards for each bug found. The number of bugs found rose quickly, but the paying out of lots of reward money didn't make the code get any better. (Programmers can create bugs even more easily than fix them). [I read this a looong time ago in a programming magazine.]

  • A state began taxing trucks based on the number of axles it had, as a fair way of generating revenue to fix roads: bigger trucks pay more. This caused shippers to use trucks with fewer axles, putting more pressure on each tire, which caused the roads to degrade faster. [I read this in The Economist, I think, several years ago.]
I believe that we can create a simple recipe for creating irony. It goes like this:
  1. Find some complex S
  2. Work really hard at theorizing about S and simplify it to S'
  3. Solve S' using the low-complexity model you built
  4. Eventually realize that S' isn't S
  5. Further conclude that a(S') => ~S
  6. (optional) change your name and move to Alaska
We can create an endless supply of B-grade Hollywood scripts using this formula. To wit:
Dr. Zeus thinks he can solve a flu pandemic by releasing a custom-built virus that inoculates the populate via a common cold vector. But it mutates into a deadly scourge instead.
Okay, that was fairly depressing. Moving on to higher education and assessment...

From the 2008 publication "New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability" from CHEA/AAC&U:
Each college and university should gather evidence about how well students in various programs are achieving learning goals across the curriculum and about the ability of its graduates to succeed in a challenging and rapidly changing world. The evidence gathered through this process should be used by each institution and its faculty to develop coherent, effective strategies for educational improvement.
This is a desire that has been amplified by the Department of Education as well as regional accreditors. What is described in the quote above is S. The next inevitable stop is S'. Quoting again from the same document:
Accrediting organizations should likewise evaluate institutions by their performance in accord with institutional goals and develop consistent strategies for summarizing and making public their findings.
I'm sure you noticed the switch there from learning outcomes to summarized findings. We humans have a big thing for simplifying stuff that's just too messy to deal with on its own terms. Why have five hundred numbers when one will do? So: simplify and standardize. That's how we create manageable, nominally comparable data, and theorize our way down to S'.

There are high expectations for S. For liberal arts schools, S includes stuff like higher order thinking skills, effective communications, maybe some teamwork and global understanding (AAC&U LEAP) and so forth. This is rather inconvenient, however, for the mass production of sterilized metrics. Complex and standardized are like fish and bicycle, to abuse an expression. The only way to reduce complex data down to a few bytes is to squeeze all the complexity out of it. You can put it in a factor analysis Squish-o-Matic and crank out a principle component, or cook it down to a bland grand average of goop, or apply a fancy economic model and juice it into a parameter with a Greek name. It's all the same. It's the difference between a vine-ripe tomato you take from your garden and one of those pink pasty things from the grocery aisle that look like they came out of a sci-fi movie.

So if S is a well-rounded graduate, S' is a square one. They both have approximately the same area, so we can fool ourselves if we squint. Still, it could turn out right, couldn't it? If we try really hard to apply a(S'), shouldn't we get close to S?

Really, I've been unfair. For most of the things we do in life, we approximate our goal with something simpler and try to reach it. If we spent all our time on the details, we'd never get our taxes done. Simplification is necessary in order to make tasks doable. For lots of cases, a(S') gets you close enough to S. Not everything is ironic.

So the serious question is: can we standardize stuff like critical thinking and creative writing and so on, without losing the essence of the thing? To me, the answer is obviously not. The whole point of complex thinking is the complexity. I've argued ad nauseum on that topic before, and I won't repeat those arguments this morning, but let's say that the standard of proof ought to be very high. Exceptional claims merit exceptional evidence, as the saying goes.

Worst case is that the data-compressed S' is a grotesque caricature of S, and that by amplifying S' through our efforts, we produce only shadows of what it is we're really after. In detail, here it is:
  1. We want to create broad-minded critical thinking graduates, our S
  2. It's hard to define S, let alone assess it, so there's pressure to substitute an assessment of S'--the ability to take a standardized test. It has some face validity, so the top administrators are convinced.
  3. Having settled on S', we work really hard to train students for the content of the test so we'll look good to the public and the accreditors, a(S')
  4. At the end, we've drilled our students on the importance of test-taking at the expense of improving S.
That would be ironic and sad.

Here's another possible example. In yesterday's InsideHigherEd "Wannabe U" author Gaye Tuchman is quoted as saying:
Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train.
I'm not sure that traditional universities see it that way (certainly not mine), but the for-profits probably do. That's why they launch online nursing degrees and not online philosophy degrees. But this isn't their fault either--they just respond to the market. So the irony derives from the perceptions of the customer:
  1. I want at good job when I graduate college. That's my S.
  2. I'll never find a job as a dance major, so I better study something vocational. This becomes S'.
  3. a(S') leads to the loss of opportunity to have the broad-based education useful at the higher levels of management.
I've made some assumptions here, but I have two bits of evidence. First, we had a meeting last week with executives from a large company. We were talking about internships and such, and it became clear from the conversation that all of the half dozen administrators saw the value of liberal arts degrees. Most of the IT hires didn't have IT training in college, for example, they just drifted into it because of interest. The takeaway for me was two-fold: first, general thinking and communications skills really are valuable, and second, attitude and approach to problem solving are just as important as training.

The second bit of evidence comes from research I quoted the other day in "Is General Education Worth It?". It shows that liberal arts degrees really are valuable in a monetary sense. Note that I also argue in that post that if S = {good thinking and communication skills} then our traditional general education may not be the way to achieve it.

If you combine the danger of simplifying a(S) => a(S') with the foibles of human decision-making I wrote about last time, it's a good assumption that administrators of all stripes will continue to provide us with examples of ironic a(S) => ~S. And interestingly, the higher the level of the administrator, the more pressure there is to approximate S with S', and the less assiduously the side effects will be judged, I conjecture. Allow me to name this conjecture after my historian friend Bob.
Robert's Rule of Disorder: The more powerful a decision-making apparatus is, the more likely it is to produce ironic results.
At this point, I could riff on the damaging influence of theory and ideology, which guarantee that S - S' is large, but I'll leave that for another day. I'm anxious to try out my new shortcut to work.


  1. How did the shortcut work out?

    So, you've deduced the existence of the Irony Engine, eh?


    Interesting the think about the capacity of individuals to maintain a high order of understanding of the components of their responsibility. It seems that as administrators (like me) take on more (R)esponsibility, we necessarily dilute our once intimate (or unreasonably confident) knowledge of those things we manage. Those things become more numerous, or more costly to mis-manage. The former situation is the one we call having a lot of plates in the air. The second is more akin to having a few angry nukes in the air. In any event, as R gets bigger, often based on the faith of colleagues who admired our ability to manage R-n, we either have to find more capacity to manage more (or more difficult) things, or to manage them less directly... that is to say without as much direct involvement, which is what we call delegating to R-n colleagues.

    Were these delegattos to supply us with the full spectrum of their understanding of the status of the delegated things, it would defeat the purpose of delegating. So the administrator and their delegatto (or delegatta) scheme up a shorthand to let the administrator know which of the Fundemental Managed States the delegated thing is in. The delegatto/a reports these broad statii:

    On Target = "I just started working here last week and am discovering that there are delegated things. Everything looks OK from my angle. Everything is under control."

    Under Control = "The delegated things are acting up, Boss, but I'll take responsibility if things become dicey."

    Dicey = "The delegated things are out of control, Boss, but I saw something on Star Trek that I'll try. If that doesn't work, we may need to meet."

    Need to meet = "I've lost control of the delegated things. Others have noticed and I just got an attractive job offer from W*lmart. I'm giving my two weeks' notice."

    Two weeks' notice: The amount of time the delegatto commits to training up a new delegatto on the status of their delegated things. Often, this coincides with a request to use untaken vacation days. Including the last day party, and gossiping about what bad shape the delegated things are in and how nice the new job will be, actual training is about 2 hours. Managed poorly, this state of affairs can rapidly lead to the administrator's state of R-R.

    The administrator who either has a large capacity for details, or who repeatedly manages the "Two Weeks' Notice" state of delegated things well will go far in his or her career.

  2. JUS, hehe, there wasn't really a shortcut today, of course--that was just the ironic send-off. I've learned my lesson on those:

    Wife: It looks like we're driving back into the city
    Me: No, it can't be. I turned south on 51.
    (a few minutes later)
    Wife: See...the skyscrapers are getting bigger.
    Me: (in total denial) The road will turn any minute here, and we'll head back south.

    I still haven't lived that one down.

    As for the delegattos, the trick is obviously to hire good people and get out of their way. I've had some painful experiences (as it sounds like you have) getting to that point, though. I didn't even get two days when my one and only database admin quit on one job. I still have nightmares...

  3. Anonymous1:53 PM

    >>Gaye Tuchman is quoted as saying:

    >> Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with >>intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; >>and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to >>prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train.

    Uh-huhn. She probably thinks Universities have become "too corporate." I used to love to tell students that universities were not only the first corporations, the entire concept of incorporation was invented in order to create universities. The first corporation was the U. of Bologna created by, who else? His Holiness the Pope! hey, he can turn a cracker into the body of Christ, so why not turn a bunch of students into a single body called a "university"? By the way, the U. of Paris, incorporated a few decades later, was a corpus of professors and not of students, which, as it turned out, worked much better for reasons I can explain only with a glass of scotch in my hands.

    But your friend, Gaye, also thinks that colleges and universities were placed for cogitation rather than professional training, which of course is twaddle. The reason they existed was to train clergy, lawyers, and doctors. Only in the famouse booghewah century--the nineteenth--did the notorious booghewazie send their sons to universities in order to pick up a patina of kulcher (pace: Ezra Pound.) Of course, the teachers' colleges, mining schools, engineering colleges, and agricultural colleges were to train professionals in their respective fields. They were quickly enfolded into universities for reasons of efficiency.

    So, I guess your correspondent Gaye, really prefers the concept of college as a finishing school and leisure spa for the boys and girls with trust funds, which places like Williams and Mt. Holyoke (not to mention Princeton and Dartmouth, etc. ) were, and I suppose, still are. But even the Ivy's still offered training for engineers, physicians, teachers, and the like.

    Just my two cents worth.