Friday, August 13, 2010

Not So Great Expectations

Byron passes along a study published in the AEI Outlook Series which examines the amount of time students in postsecondary schools devote to studying compared to the amount of time their predecessors in the fifties and sixties spent. The results are discouraging if not surprising. Whereas in 1961 students devoted on average about 24 hours a week to his or her books. Today that figure is 14 hours.

The authors of the paper, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks consider a number of possible reasons for this decline all of which are plausible, but there are a couple of reasons, one they discuss and one they don't, that I think are surely among the top three or four factors exerting the most influence on students' study habits. Babcock and Marks say this about the first of these:

"A nonaggression pact exists between many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual nonaggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other." Consistent with this explanation, recent evidence suggests that student evaluations of instructors (which exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s) create perverse incentives: "easier" instructors receive higher student evaluations, and a given instructor in a given course receives higher ratings during terms when he or she requires less or grades more leniently. Because students appear to put in less effort when grading is more lenient, grade inflation may have contributed to the decline. Perhaps it is not surprising that effort standards have fallen. We are hard-pressed to name any reliable, noninternal reward that instructors receive for maintaining high standards--and the penalties for doing so are clear.

I think the fear of a bad evaluation by students is one of the chief forces causing instructors to be less demanding. It's not just that there's a concern that bad evaluations will affect tenure or pay or teaching assignments, though there is that, but also that many professors want to be popular. There's a certain amount of ego satisfaction in being rated a popular professor and having students want to take your classes and fawn over you. Rigorous profs, however, are often not very popular. They may be respected but given the choice of taking a course with a tough prof and taking the same class with a less demanding instructor, students will take the easier way out. It's human nature, I suppose, but it can lead to a gradual wearing down of the standards of the more difficult prof.

The second possible explanation, one the authors didn't consider in much detail, is that in their rush to fill their classrooms with bodies schools are eager to appear more congenial to more students which means that they accept weaker students who should not be going to school at all. Schools compete with each other for students, they're eager to appear well-disposed to minorities, they diversify their programs offering degrees for non-traditional students who work full-time jobs and have families, all of which exerts powerful pressure to lower standards to accommodate these folk and to enable them to "succeed."

Perhaps a third reason is that the modern work place has evolved to the point where many employers don't much care what an applicant studied in college. They're only concerned that he/she be educable so they can teach and train the person to perform the job they want done. Thus the pressure to excel in school is diminished. One only need do well enough to be awarded a diploma, and in a healthy job market something will be available to the graduate.

Now that the job market is no longer so healthy it'll be interesting to see whether this has an effect on the seriousness with which students approach their academic work.


Why So Much Hate?

When I was a callow undergrad in the mid-sixties my lefty profs delighted in smearing conservatives as "haters," pointing to Joseph McCarthy and, inexplicably, Barry Goldwater as though the mere mention of these bogeymen proved their point. They also cited bigots like George Wallace and Bull Connor to press home their case, despite the fact that neither of these men were ideological conservatives and both were, in fact, Democrats. Nevertheless, the charge of "hater" stuck and conservatives spent the next thirty years or more trying to shed the odious label their opponents had successfully pinned to their back.

The left is still at it today, of course, trying to stigmatize anyone with whom they disagree as a racist, sexist, or bigot, but the charge lacks the adhesive power it once had. One reason why is that it's obvious to anyone paying attention that the lion's share of hatred in today's political discourse is on the left. Lefties, or at least many of them, seem genetically predisposed to say and think the ugliest things about those who refuse to accept their view of the world and the internet has exposed this malignancy in their character for all the world to see.

In a recent column Dennis Prager reflects on this sickness and offers some reasons for it. He begins his piece with this:

Perhaps the most telling of the recent revelations of the liberal/left Journalist, a list consisting of about 400 major liberal/left journalists, is the depth of their hatred of conservatives. That they would consult with one another in order to protect candidate and then President Obama and in order to hurt Republicans is unfortunate and ugly. But what is jolting is the hatred of conservatives, as exemplified by the e-mail from an NPR reporter expressing her wish to personally see Rush Limbaugh die a painful death -- and the apparent absence of any objection from the other liberal journalists.

Every one of us on the right has seen this hatred. I am not referring to leftist bloggers or to anonymous extreme comments by angry leftists on conservative blogs -- such things exist on the right as well -- but to mainstream elite liberal journalists. There is simply nothing analogous among elite conservative journalists. Yes, nearly all conservatives believe that the left is leading America to ruin. But while there is plenty of conservative anger over this fact, there is little or nothing on the right to match the left's hatred of conservative individuals. Would mainstream conservative journalists e-mail one another wishes to be present while Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi or Michael Moore dies slowly and painfully of a heart attack?

From Karl Marx to today, the Left has always hated people on the Right, not merely differed or been angry with them.

The question is: why?

Prager is not talking about average people who write nasty letters to the paper - although I think what he says applies just as much to them. Rather, he's talking about those in leadership on both the left and right, who shape the opinions of the rest of us. He's talking about journalists, major bloggers, media personalities, etc. With these in mind he goes on to elaborate on three possible answers to his question.

One possibility that Prager doesn't mention, though, is this: Many people on the left, if not most of them, are secularists; most on the right are not. A person who takes his religious faith seriously will be constrained by it to blunt the sharper edges of his political rhetoric. He'll tend to feel guilty if he allows himself to succumb to the temptation to be mean-spirited or hateful. No such constraints exist among secularists, however. Some may find such sentiments personally distasteful and avoid them, but for many secularists what's right is whatever works. If vile speech packs a punch, if it intimidates one's opponent, if it turns public opinion against one's opponent then not only is there nothing wrong with vile speech, but it's actually the right thing to do.

Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, are violating their deepest beliefs when they say or act hatefully. They're behaving inconsistently with the faith they profess. Secular liberals, on the other hand, are acting inconsistently with nothing when they allow the temptation to engage in vituperative discourse to get the better of them. They're violating no fundamental principle and have nothing to feel guilty about.

Given that state of affairs which group can be expected to more often indulge the hateful emotions Prager talks about?