Thursday, June 05, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Thirteen

Previously: Part Zero ... Part Twelve

Here we continue the discussion of Cynicism in higher education, where I continue to use the charge "debase the coin of the realm" as the tool for analysis. In a previous installment I said that any statement of fact was a violent act. Allow me to pick up that idea here, since much of college consists of listening to statements of fact.

We constantly observe the world through our senses of internal and external affairs, and some of these we encode into language, as in "the cat just knocked over the vase." This entails data compression, since we don't have time to describe everything about the cat and the vase or the irrelevant features of the situation. But it's such a convenience that we may forget that it's just language, just a crude approximation of what was actually observed in that moment. If you'll allow me a neologism, I'd like to refer to compressed data as 'da'. So we pass da back and forth, decompress it internally, ignore the inevitable errors, and this becomes a high value "coin of the realm." If you tell me "the bridge is washed out ahead, but if you turn at the gas station you can get to town that way," it's useful da. However, passing falsehoods along debases this coinage, and lying is something we tell kids not to do.

A statement like "seasons are due to the fact that the Earth's axis of rotation is tilted relative to its orbital plane" require work to decompress. Much work in college is just to build up an ontology that lets a student associate new ideas in useful ways, sometimes by translating them into pictures. A movie that illustrates the principle in the sentence will be more effective than that sentence because moving pictures can directly simulate motion of the Earth and sun, and a viewer can create his or her own da from it. I assume that much of the time students don't know what we professors are talking about. It's just so much da-da, and that represents a failure to teach or learn or both.

Statements of fact that are inaccessible for technical reasons may not be threatening simply because it's a foreign language, and easily dismissed. On the other hand, much of what students learn in the humanities will challenge the way they think about the world. Religious fundamentalism running up against modern biology is an obvious example. But the critical theory that accompanies much of the humanities is more insidious, and can undermine the whole project of reasoning and knowing with a challenge from relativism. A student who internalizes this may not know what to believe by the end of it. There is something good in this idea that there is not always a single correct answer to a question, and that the process of reasoning is more valuable than any one product of it. It seems that the opposite is generally trained into students in the typical K-12 curriculum, where advancement may depend on a standardized test.

To explicate the process of deconstructing truth, allow me to re-use the example of Diogenes tossing the plucked chicken at the feet of Socrates, after the latter declared man to be a featherless biped. How does this trick work?

The Cynical method of attack in this case comprises an action that demonstrates a contradiction between the real world and the way we are told to perceive it. A modern example is found in "The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick," which I will take at face value for the purposes of this argument (feel free to debase that value). A mentally confused man confesses to brutal crimes, and becomes a celebrated serial killer. Then it turns out that he couldn't have committed the crimes he confessed to. Many people have been convicted of crimes that they didn't commit. But it seems that he willingly participated in this fiction, which makes him a fowl-flinging Cynic. The coin of the realm debased here is the operation of the justice system and media (in Sweden in this case) and its accurate representation of reality. Like most public Cynical acts, it comes at a high price.

In order to construct such an epistemological attack on a system, one needs to find categories that are incompatible and by acting produce examples that occupy both categories. For example, the conception of worker-as-machine, which is an employer's point of view, conflicts with worker-as-human, which is the employees' point of view. A worker strike is an incompatible categorization: workers who are not working, and therefore a Cynical chicken toss. Once you see the trick, other examples become obvious: art that is not art (Duchamps), slave-as-beast versus slave-as-human, animal-as-meat versus animal-as-living-creature, Earth-as-resource versus Earth-as-home.

Some of the major discoveries of the world are paradoxical category-defiers. The discoverers of the calculus used infinitesimals, which are quantities 'infinitely small but not zero.'  The only thing infinitely small can mean is zero, so this is contradictory, and yet it is exactly the idea needed to unlock differential calculus. Or the Copenhagen interpretation, in which reality acts like probability waves collapsing into real particles. Or Einstein's category-breaking conceptions of space and time (how can time operate at different rates, when time determines what a rate is?). Or the Dirac Delta, which is essentially a box that has zero width, is infinitely tall, and contains one unit of area! The Liar Paradox "this statement is false" in the hands of Russel and Turing and Gödel caused a rethinking of the fundamentals of mathematics and set logical limits on what we can know. These we should probably consign to 'cynical' rather than 'Cynical' status, since they are arguments rather than physical acts, but this may be splitting hairs.

More common than public abuse of our feathered friends is the secret use of contradicting categories for personal gain. When these become public, they may serve as inadvertent Cynical examples. For example, Slate's "Here’s the Awful 146-Word “Essay” That Earned an A- for a UNC Jock". Quote:
The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill has already been embroiled in a scandal for allowing its athletes to enroll in fake courses for easy credit. 
A university's motivation for recruiting a top athlete is different from its motivation for recruiting a top student, yet NCAA rules require that athletes also be successful students (there is no requirement the other way around). When forced to coincide for purposes of classification, the overlap "student-athletes" seems to often include examples that fit the latter but not the former category. Actually producing these examples is a Cynical act, even though it's not intended to be public (quite the opposite). There is a straightforward way to debase the coin of the realm (the meaning of college grades). Unfortunately for these Cynics, sometimes people find out make it public.

It seems that private Cynicism for gain, as opposed to public Cynicism, needs a name. I will refer to it as crypto-Cynicism, meaning hidden. The name seems appropriate, since this is a lot of what spies do, like assuming the identity of someone else, forging documents, getting people to trust them who shouldn't, or hiding a real message within an apparent one.

The examples show that Cynicism (as I have interpreted it) remains a powerful force for change, and that it doesn't come with ethical instructions. Colleges that teach the students the deepest forms of subversion, like deconstruction, relativism, critical theory, and so on (these overlap) hand over to the young minds solvents that can turn the world--and their own minds--to goo. Since becoming secular, colleges shy away from construction part, which is unfortunate. We could be more intentional about the existentialist project that should follow the deconstruction--finding a personal meaning to construct out of the goo. But aside from that, there is a more troubling question.

Perhaps what employers want is really two things: (1) a class of graduates who are smart enough to pick up new tasks of varying complexity and fill the technical and social demands of being a machine-part in an organization, and (2) a smaller cadre of crypto-Cynics who are willing to break rules in order to get ahead. If so, then the unsettling conclusion is that a two-class system is exactly what's needed. The first is trained to follow rules and keep their heads down, mastering jobs that real machines will eventually take. The second provides motivation and vision uncluttered by the norms of society, its laws, science, or even a common understanding of the world, to serve as leadership. The spectrum of this second group would range from normal humans to psychopaths and mystics, who succeed or fail depending on their environment. The contrast between these two types (1) and (2) can perhaps be seen in stories like this one from the Huffington Post: "For-Profit College Enrolls, 'Exploits' Student Who Reads at Third-grade Level" in these two quotes:
A librarian at a southern California campus of Everest College abruptly resigned last week, deeply upset that the for-profit school had admitted into its criminal justice program a 37-year-old man who appears to read at a third-grade level.  
Everest is owned by for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges, which is facing a lawsuit for fraud by the attorney general of California and is under investigation by 17 other state attorneys general and four federal agencies. [A senior administrator] at Corinthian, told me today that the campus believed it was appropriate to take a chance on admitting the student.
There's a natural fix to this particular problem: require that the leadership of the company must come from its own graduates.

[Part Fourteen]

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