Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

I believe this is one of those conversations that people can have only in college… specifically, as undergraduates. It must have been the mounting pressure of final exams, because within a three-hour time frame, just over five-pages of single-spaced text was produced.

A big thank you goes out to Ted Gonder for providing a voice of reason over the discussion.

Names have been obfuscated to protect the innocent and/or quixotic.

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Patrick Ip ‎posted

“Never, ever, for the rest of your careers, hire someone who had a GPA of 4.0. Ever. Because the definition of a 4.0 is that this person buys the act; they don’t screw around. Tommy Jefferson, Al Hamilton, and Georgie Washington, they were screwing around. This was a dinky doo-dippy country and they said, let’s go after that George dude. Now that was not smart. If they had 4.0 grade point averages, they would not have started this revolution.” -Tom Peters Continue reading “Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?”

On College, Critical Thought, Cattle, and Baking

I’m not afraid of expressing my misgivings with the “education” I’m receiving at the #4 ranked institution in America. UChicago possesses a certain self-righteous rhetoric pertaining to its general, or Core, curriculum. Founded in the constructivist school of learning theory, the Core’s teaching methodology consists of reading “primary-source” text documents and leading students, like cattle through the slaughterhouse chute, to the captive bolt of stunning revelation. Unfortunately, unlike a slaughterhouse, where livestock are funneled one by one to their end through hard-walled chutes, the texts are deployed thematically and without guidance. This fosters “critical thinking” skills, enabling students to draw connections between sources toward a prevailing image—not theory—of the time.

In UChicago’s Civilization courses, students are given texts and encouraged to make assertions about overarching historical themes. Without the benefit of a critical, theoretical framework any assertions made skitter across the trite surface of the vast intellectual sea.

I approached my professor today and asked why there isn’t more structure in the class, why mention of larger theoretical frameworks is verboten, why whenever I try to probe deeper in class discussion she stares at me as she calls on another person. Why, when I “zoom in” argumentatively the natural inclination is to deflect and remove conversation to the rarefied atmosphere of platitude and placate me with a vaguely patronizing, “A poignant observation about the corporate nature of the Catholic church, but let’s shift the focus to how women are presented… B—, why don’t you go?” B— answers. “They are portrayed, as you say, ‘to be bad.'” Astute.

Please, professor, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you. I am sure you too are frustrated with the somewhat constrained nature of the course, with its “learning objectives” and whatnot. You and I could carp on and on about our shared frustrations at the lowest-common-denominator level of intellectual rigor prerequisite of a Core class, that this like all of ’em are rendered passable even for say, um… the more desultory among us, to be nice about it. I imagine we’d cackle together, laughing at our self-conceptions of our inflated noetic badassery… In some alternate reality, professor, we might be afforded this opportunity, but instead you smiled wistfully, squinting, and said:

“We are trying to teach you how to think. Imagine it this way: we could give you all the instructions for baking a cake, or we could give you the required ingredients and you do it for yourself. We want to empower you, so you can bake that cake.”

There are a couple of sticky issues to address. This statement predetermines that cakes are the goal, and necessarily means that someone measured out the ingredients for a cake, laid them out, and assumed that some unsuspecting person would come along, see the spread, and ineluctably conclude that a cake is in order. Punishment is meted out to those who bake biscuits or cookies or transcend the whole category of baked-goods altogether and instead mix water, sugar, yeast and some flour to distill alcohol, which might be then flavored with vanilla or whatever flavor was intended for the cake.
Those who bake cakes, no matter how lumpy, soupy, squishy, or dense, are commended for baking a cake; because we’re all good postmodern cognitive relativists here, we can’t criticize the craftsmanship of the cake. Cake soup is but an interpretation of cake, and all interpretations, due to their subjective nature, are inherently valid… provided, of course, that they are interpretations of cake. Biscuits and grain alcohol, no matter how well-executed are not cake: you, hapless baker or distiller, fail the test.

It isn’t the biscuit-maker’s fault he didn’t bake a cake when he was given ingredients and told to make the most of them. Without instruction, he can neither be held accountable for his product or the quality thereof. I understand that given an infinite number of tries, some random, novice baker will execute one hell of a cake, but given finite ingredients and some hinting, winking burlesque show of the pinnacle of the cake form, a novice is still a novice.

The best bakers trained with the best bakers. At the kernel level, it disturbs me that undergraduates are doomed to hapless experimentation to autogenously construct the properties of a given set of flour, eggs, sugar, water, etc. and condemned for looking in a cookbook to ascertain some method by which they might come together, some technique: an artistry. That two years of my four are spent in classes teaching me to cherrypick quotes to support baseless, absurd theses, how to render and construe and augment the absurdity of said theses, how “context” “frames” “the lens” of the “text,” how to disbelieve everything, how to laugh at claims of absolute truth—at base, how to intimate, interpolate, and extrapolate bothers me. We are taught to stir and pour when we are smart enough to bake. The details can be figured out along the way, and with the help of a skilled, involved instructor.

En masse we students are funneled toward one moment, a bolt to order the brain, but our handlers failed in one capacity. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal-welfare and autism advocate, intuited that animals being led to slaughter know “what’s up,” they knew viscerally what lay around the next turn. At some basic level, they were aware of the machine’s cogs’ turning.

I demand the same sort of recognition by our professors for all UChicago students. We know what the curriculum is trying to do, and this self-consciousness hinders its ultimate transformative goals. Because of Grandin’s work, meat processing facilities now implement long, undulating passageways through which cows blithely wander to their doom. They don’t need cattle prods. If I were unaware that just around the bend lay frustration, emptiness, and disappointment at the waste of my academic journey, I’d be less recalcitrant. I too would walk blithely. I’d be bovine. I am. But for now you’ll take me kicking and screaming, rhetorically of course.

MAT > (ACT = SAT)!

For the readers of this blog that know me personally, the following sentence will elicit a “Jason would do something like this,” response. Faced with the prospect of a 7-hour overnight flight from Toronto to London, I did what any logical individual might do; the previous day, I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble and picked up a book of “Extremely Challenging Vocabulary for the GRE” and a test-prep book for one of the most notoriously difficult standardized tests in existence: the Miller Analogies Test.

Consisting of 120 multiple-choice analogies in a number of different fields, from mathematics and philosophy to art and history to natural- and physical sciences to “nonsemantic” curveballs (Moor : _____ :: Room : Pin; Nip. Moor is Room spelled backward = Nip w/r/t Pin) to be completed in 60 minutes. Only 100 of the 120 questions are actually scored (20 are “experimental” beta-tests), and test-takers aren’t aware of which ones are not counted. Through a scoring mechanism in place since the 1990s, the test is scored out of 800, with the median being 400. Having no “Experimental” versus “Active” listed alongside answers, I used the old scoring method of using the “Raw Score”, which is out of 100 with a 50=median, modified such that Raw Score = (Total Score / Number of Tests Taken) * (100/120).

To up the ante even further, I decided it might make a neat experiment to measure my performance over a multiple-test marathon. So, in one brain-aching four hour session I worked through 480 analogies and was left with almost 40 minutes to spare. After dinner, a cup of coffee, and watching half of a BBC documentary I tallied my correct answers and scored myself.

Any performance on the exam above two standard deviations from the median is just a number. This is also my opinion of IQ. After a certain point, it’s just a pissing contest. What does it say about me that I asserted Keats : India :: Conrad : Congo but wasn’t able to see that Nip so clearly corresponds to Pin? What value is knowing Aristotle : Alexander :: Martin : Hannah?

This summer, my goal was to undergo the process of “overclocking” my brain. I moved farther out on the rarefaction curve that is mastery of obscure vocabulary. I learned the meanings of “Noesis” and “Sybarite” and realized I’m a combination of the two: the latter whose vice and extravagance is the former. Without the high levels of cortisol that inhibit the development of long-term memory during the academic year, I consumed, processed, and found meaning within well over a dozen books and countless more articles and blog posts, all in the quietude of humming conditioned air on hot summer’s days—not in the pre-finals adrenaline-fueled overstuffing. A post-finals brain, like another overstuffed organ, foie gras, seeks nothing more than to sear and brown on a skillet.

I did not “learn” much this summer. There was little information that presented itself as novel; my focus was instead to draw connections between the disparate subjects that form the body of what I can claim to know.

The MAT is not as viscously difficult as it’s made out to be. About 20% of the facts are beyond the ken of a bright high school student. There aren’t any questions involving terribly exotic vocabulary, or extremely obscure historical figures; any person who passed a rigorous broad-based college preparatory curriculum will find themselves fully “prepared” for the MAT. The test’s difficulty arises from having to recognize a general rule in the given Set 1 and extrapolate the rule through the “known” variable of Set 2 to complete the analogy. It’s harder than it sounds, despite being incredibly intuitive. Most children are drilled on analogies through elementary school, but the pedagogical focus shifts toward convincingly interpolating “meaning” into an extrapolated Theme or Thesis which may or may not actually exist within the single work being analyzed.

Through retrograding my thought processes to that simple “find and apply the rule” mantra instilled in young students prepping for state-mandated performance testing, I came upon an insight I’d never expected: that the MAT succeeds where the ACT/SAT Industrial Complex fails spectacularly; here is a test both of how much one knows and how well one can apply a priori knowledge to solve a problem. It’s about the Critical Thinking Abilities that ACT/SAT so ardently insist they test for, except, unlike the current standards in Standardized Testing, one cannot “game” the MAT. There are no nifty tricks for regurgitating reflexively what’s presented in the Critical Reading sections, there is no uniform pool of 1500 words from which vocabulary questions are drawn, nor are there cutesy conflations of popular culture and vague references to characters from The Classics and really pitiful attempts at wit and social commentary to boost one’s twenty-five minute long essay. There is no Critical Response on the MAT: it doesn’t mess around.

There are no perfect scores to happily report in tittering high school parents’ newsletters. “That’s real swell, Mrs. ____, that Timmy got a 36 on his ACT, and I’m real’ sure East Coast University will be better for his presence, but…” thousands of really well-prepared kids get perfect scores on the ACT. A raw score of 61 (I believe) qualifies Timmy for Mensa. Mensa claims to accept those in the rightmost 5% of the Gaussian curve. A raw score of 98-99 qualifies Timmy for the Mega Society, a high IQ society for which roughly 1 in 1 million people qualify. It is theoretically impossible to score 100s consistently (n > 5). If one scores 33-35 consistently on the ACT, the 36 might have just been a fluke.

In an almost comically competitive world of college applications, where standard outperformance of peer cohorts is the standard to which applicants are measured, might it be time to cut through the “Critical Thinking Testing Paradigm” currently in place and put ridiculously high ACT/SAT scores into perspective? Is it so difficult for people to realize that this high performance can be attributed to pricey prep courses that exclude the disadvantaged, or to amphetamines bought on the sly, or to plain dumb luck, as much as to possession of actual critical thinking skills? Will I be surprised to hear someday of an applicant to an undergraduate program submitting a score report for an exam relevant to graduate school? No.

One important consideration regards the fragile self-esteems of America’s young people, the ones enrolled in enrichment activities since the age of three, ones told by Tech Bubble-millionaire parents that they can achieve what they want to achieve. We can imagine a scene in a kitchen involving a mailed MAT score report: “But Momma, how will I ever get into college with a 61/100? I mean, that’s, like, a D-.”