Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Damore, Diversity, and Disruption at PSU

I held my breath as the protesters stood up and began their walk-out. “Please, let it be peaceful,” I said to myself. In the weeks leading up to the event, we had received threats of violence. One person on social media said he would bring explosives. The university administration found the threats credible enough to send a team of armed campus police to patrol the lecture hall. As the protesters neared the exit, a woman suddenly lunged for the audio equipment, pulled leads out indiscriminately, and knocked some of the equipment to the floor. The microphones stopped working. Another protester shoved a student volunteer into the door.

What caused this extreme reaction?

Ex-Google engineer James Damore had been invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on diversity, held at Portland State University on February 17. As I had previously written in the Wall Street Journal, we were anticipating controversy. After the incident, however, the disruption and violent misconduct were downplayed. Willamette Week, a left-wing alternative newspaper, was dismissive: “[The Freethinkers] expected controversy. They warned of violence. None arrived.” Perhaps not the kind of violence that had been threatened, but there was intentional “criminal mischief,” hundreds of dollars in property damage, and unnecessary disruption lasting just over four minutes (not the 30 seconds the Willamette Week incorrectly reported).

Event organizers sought and obtained national media attention by claiming that the panel had been subjected to violent threats.

I belong to Freethinkers of PSU, the skeptic student group that organized the event and was responsible for inviting Damore. To correct the record, we didn’t warn of violence; those who threatened us did that. The paper’s scornful editorial surprised me, particularly given the timing of the event. Only days earlier the nation had learned that the Florida school shooter’s violent social media threats hadn’t been taken seriously. We weren’t about to take any unnecessary chances and nor were the campus police. Organizing a student event to discuss any topic — including diversity — should not be a safety hazard. In the present climate, however, security measures have become a regrettable necessity.

A protest campaign to hoard free tickets claimed more than half the seats, suppressing turnout. Nevertheless, surrounded by officers and protected by an entourage of private security, James Damore spoke to an audience of 270 people. He was joined on the panel by former Evergreen State professors Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, PSU philosophy professor Peter Boghossian, and critic of third wave intersectional feminism Helen Pluckrose.

Explaining what had moved him to write the “Google memo,” Damore said that he found the analyses of the company’s sex disparity, offered during a conference on diversity and inclusion, to be unsatisfactory. “They went through these different things, like microaggressions and unconscious bias, and said that is why we only have 20 percent women,” he recalled.

After the conference, Google solicited feedback from staff. Damore obliged with a ten page document entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo-Chamber,” in which he argued that sex differences on average may help explain the male/female disparity at the company. He also offered suggestions about how the workplace environment could change to appeal to more women. But when his memo was leaked to the press and published, it was stripped of important nuance and links to supporting data, and Damore was viciously mischaracterized as a misogynist and a racist.

“James argues, accurately, that there are differences between men and women,” evolutionary biologist Heather Heying said during the panel discussion. “This is a strange position to be in, to be arguing for something that is so universally and widely accepted in biology. . .You can be irritated by a lot of truths, but taking offense,” — here, Heying paused as hecklers shouted and began to walk out — “is a response that is a rejection of reality.”

A non-student protester then yanked the cables from the sound system and shoved the equipment to the ground, breaking an antenna. She was promptly detained by police. “[Damore’s] a piece of shit!” she screamed as she was issued a citation for criminal mischief in the second degree. “Even the women in there have been brainwashed!” Another protester stated: “Nazis are not welcome in civil society.”

Undeterred, Peter Boghossian said to the audience: “Fringe elements of society do not have the right to hold you hostage.” The speakers pressed on in spite of the disruption. First Boghossian and then Heying stood and projected their voices to the back of the auditorium. “If your belief system cannot stand up to scrutiny,” Heying told me later, “it is weak, and attacking those who say so will not change that fact.” Fortunately, the sound was restored just over four minutes later.

Heying explained how variation is distributed in the sexes. “Male and female aren’t a binary but they are strongly bimodal,” she said. “We cannot change what may be true at a societal level unless we understand why things are true.”

Helen Pluckrose added that denying the existence of sex differences may paradoxically help confirm sexist attitudes. “If we are assuming that the choices men make are the ultimate, best, absolute choices, [then] we are making men the default humans,” she said. “The areas that women dominate — healthcare, education, psychology, publishing — these are all hugely influential areas on society.”

In his closing remarks, Damore said that he doesn’t regret writing the memo but conceded that using technical language from psychology literature made his writing more susceptible to misinterpretation. “There are definitely still issues of discrimination happening in many sectors,” Damore said. “[But] men and women tend to approach the workplace differently so maybe if we changed the workplace then we could actually solve the problem.”

The discussion was followed by a Q&A. A PSU alumna from the women’s studies department complained that the stage-to-audience dynamic presented an intimidating power imbalance. “You guys are high [up]. You have microphones. We don’t,” she said. “This is perpetuating the status quo in the hierarchy.” Boghossian invited her to join him at his next (stageless) panel on intersectionality the following Monday. She didn’t come.

After the event, police and security escorted the speakers out of a back entrance. I caught up with them and asked for their reactions. Helen Pluckrose recalled what one of the police officers had told her: “So why are you so radical and extreme and dangerous that I have to escort you off campus? You seemed very reasonable to me.” She still doesn’t have an answer.

Reflecting on the evening’s events, the panelists discussed how they didn’t recognize the picture of themselves that the protesters were painting. “The mob acts against a fiction of its own creation,” Bret Weinstein told me.


In the battle for a deeply divided Britain, universities are now the front line

The Prime Minister has announced a year-long review into university funding. This followed Damian Hinds, in his first big outing as Education Secretary, saying that some courses may soon cost more than others.

From the noise around the issue, it seems, in the favoured phrase of indecisive politicians playing for time, that every option is on the table. A small cut in tuition fees; a big cut; a hypothecated tax; or a change in the interest rate paid on student debts or the level at which repayments begin. And that’s just the financing. The review will also consider types of degrees, their length, and the role of technology in delivering them.

In her speech, Theresa May did nod to the fact that, for some young people, university is not the best option. Vocational training or going straight into a job might be better. But the force of her argument, and the focus of the review, is how to make university more affordable.

It follows Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, which helped prove that if you want to activate a particular group of voters, addressing a major resentment is usually an effective way to go. Of course, the Labour leader does also believe in the principle of free education.

Corbyn’s policy and Hinds’s review – and to a lesser extent, May’s speech – are predicated on one of the great unspoken assumptions of postwar Britain, which is that sending ever more pupils to university is a noble social goal. I don’t for the purposes of this column take a view on whether that is correct. I do think it necessary to understand the origins and consequences of this pedagogical evolution.

In his seminal collection of 1928, Sceptical Essays, my hero, Bertrand Russell, wrote: “The interest of the state in education is very recent. It did not exist in antiquity or the Middle Ages.” As the state has become more involved in education, not least through taxes, so the principle function of the academy has mutated – from culture to economics.

In The Idea of a University (1854), Cardinal John Henry Newman said higher education was “a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it.” The ancient aim of university was mainly to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. Now, it is to increase returns in a competitive job market.

Over lunch last Friday, I discussed this with Jo Johnson, easily one of the most impressive brains in Conservative ranks and, until January, universities minister. He endorsed the looser grip a moneyed few now have on the sector. Between the Robbins Report of 1963 and the Dearing Report of 1997 – which both made recommendations for higher education – the number of students at university went from 200,000 to 1.6 million. It is now higher still.

We are living with the consequences. Of the two “masses” that reshaped postwar Britain, mass immigration gets the headlines, partly because we can see it. Mass higher education is less noted. But the key dividing line in British politics now is not left-right, open-closed, or rural-urban. It is graduate vs non-graduate. And the rapid decline in the status of non-graduate jobs explains much of our current climate.

With Brexit – as with Donald Trump in the US – the biggest predictor of voting behaviour was level of education. Look at the electoral map: the Remain vote and the Labour vote is now basically London plus the university towns. In the last election, even Canterbury – Canterbury! – voted Labour.

And why should graduates vote left, aside from their youth? The idea that Brexit or Trump voters are stupid is patronising rubbish. Graduates are more likely to have acquired the confidence and connections to negotiate a hyper-competitive global economy; be more comfortable with mobility, often having left their roots; and have mixed with people from various backgrounds, gaining a socially liberal disposition.

Viewed in this light, Momentum can be seen as a graduate-populist phenomenon. Populism is the practice of pitting the people against the elites, presuming the former have a single will, and inculcating a sense of betrayal among them. Momentum helps to express the betrayal felt by a generation of debt-laden graduates whose housing and job prospects are worse than their parents’.

History suggests that when the educated masses feel their future has been stolen, revolutions happen. In Britain, the silent evolution of our university sector, motivated by a noble egalitarianism, has perhaps unleashed something we are only just beginning to comprehend.


Australia: 'Growth mindset' just another platitude

We’re constantly told schools should go beyond literacy and numeracy, and instead focus on ‘21st century learning’ to educate ‘creative’ kids and prepare them for ‘jobs of the future’.

Basically, this is code for trying to get better student results without actually doing the hard yards in literacy and numeracy.

There is no silver bullet which magically makes kids get better grades. The best way to help students be prepared for the 21st century is to ensure they leave school good readers, fluent writers, and competent in maths. These are the fundamental skills people will always need to be successful.

Unfortunately, many people still don’t understand this. The NSW government’s recent submission to the ‘Gonski 2.0’ review called for less testing in schools in order to reduce student stress, and a focus on ‘non-cognitive skills’ and encouraging students to have a ‘growth mindset’.

Tests are necessary to find out if students are actually learning and to identify which students need more help. Furthermore, a recent OECD study found there is no link between student anxiety and frequency of testing. No one likes doing tests, but that doesn’t mean they’re generally harmful to mental health.

And focussing on ‘non-cognitive skills’ and creativity in school puts the cart before the horse. You need to master the fundamentals of a subject before you can be creative, and too many kids leave school without those fundamentals. Generic creativity or critical-thinking skills are practically impossible to teach or assess.

The truth is there is only a limited amount schools can teach. Consider the ‘growth mindset’ idea. A ‘growth mindset’ is having the positive attitude that if you work hard you will get better at whatever you are trying to do. But, while we want students to have a positive outlook like this, there is little evidence schools have the ability to instil this into students. This is primarily a role for parents.

Schools shouldn’t waste time and resources trying to achieve things they aren’t capable of doing. They should focus on their core purpose: giving students excellent literacy and numeracy skills.


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