Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Demise of the Academy

My Trotskyist friends are big on material conditions. By this they mean the underlying forces influencing any social change or social movement. For Marxists, such material causes are inevitably economic. Famously, they interpret everything through a class conflict lens, and will often refer to the historical relationship of forces, or the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

So a lot of this is gibberish, but the underlying idea is true. Important social phenomena are indeed caused by important changes in the material facts of life. These, of course, need not only be economic, but can also be biological and sexual. They can even be psychological--economists have long recognized the importance of expectations in causing economic events.

So what’s causing the demise of the academy? It’s not just that professors are a bunch of pointy-headed nitwits--though that is certainly true. And it’s not just the hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go agenda, though that definitely hasn’t helped any. No--the reasons ultimately are economic and sexual. The other phenomena are a symptom of the academy’s dysfunction, not a cause.

Three key causes of academic decline are ultimately technological in origin--automation, disintermediation, and democratization.

The first item refers to disruptive pedagogy. This includes on-line learning, such as MOOCs, computer-aided instruction, such as Rosetta Stone, and computerized instructional aids, such as automated grading. The net result of all these technologies is to make higher education cheaper. It partially overcomes Baumol’s disease by increasing the productivity of the faculty.

But unlike all the hype, none of these technologies threaten higher education at its core. At some level, education depends on person-to-person interactions. While new technologies will eliminate a lot of professors’ jobs, there’s no way they’ll become completely obsolete.

It will, however, change what professors teach. We may distinguish between articulated knowledge and tacit knowledge. Articulated knowledge is the stuff you can put in words. It shows up in textbooks, on Wikipedia, and in on-line courses. Mathematics is the ultimate in articulated knowledge--everything can be reduced to words, numbers and symbols. Some form of computerized instruction will soon replace almost all mathematics professors. To a lesser degree the same is true in many STEM disciplines.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is stuff that can’t be put into words. Pronouncing Chinese nouns is a good example--the only way you’ll learn that is by imitation. Descriptions such as put your tongue on the top of your mouth simply won’t get you very far. Learning Chinese fluently ultimately requires that you spend time in China imitating native speakers.

A lot of what you learn in college is tacit knowledge, especially in the arts and humanities. There will always be jobs for human professors in those fields. So the hype around pedagogical technologies is, in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated.

The second way technology threatens college life is through disintermediation. Disintermediation means that it will no longer be one-stop shopping anymore. The college as a single location where students buy everything from their calculus class to their gym memberships will disappear. Rather, each of those items will be purchased a la carte from whatever provider offers the best value. Calculus, for example, will be delivered on-line from The Calculus Company. (That’s a company I’d like to found--it would teach nothing but calculus in all it’s variations for students at all levels.) Housing and athletics will be run by similarly specialist companies. The college will be reduced to housing those classes that are best taught in person.

The third term--democratization--destroys the university’s monopoly on scholarship. The Internet makes information available to anybody. It allows people without credentials (horrors!) to do valuable work in whatever discipline they want. This blog comments on Louis Proyect’s blog--he is a good example. The man is a good historian, despite having neither the credential nor the academic rank. He can do this because he no longer needs access to a physical library. Most of the sources available to “professional” historians are now available to anybody at a very modest cost.

Much of the dispute about climate change isn’t really about the climate. It’s more about who has authority to speak on behalf of “science”. Blogs such as Skeptical Science stoutly defend the professoriate--if you don’t have a tenured position at an official university, you have no standing to say anything about science. On the other side, bloggers like Stephen McIntyre weigh in aggressively, even without credentials.

The credentialists will ultimately lose this argument, and with them so will the academy. With scholarship so easily dispersed to the four winds, both students and taxpayers are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay for it to happen on college campuses. Outside of the most elite institutions, the research mission of colleges and universities will disappear. Scholarship in fields such as literature, history, and philosophy will become avocations, curated by public intellectuals (such as Mr. Proyect) who establish themselves as experts.

The college will be hollowed out, teaching only courses that require capital investment, such as chemistry labs.

So I think most higher education institutions will disappear, though that process may take decades. (After all, the Post Office is still around.) The material conditions for its demise are in place, and nothing our academic friends do will change that fact.

Still, they’re doing a really good job of hastening the inevitable. Our professor friends are engaging in remarkably stupid activities.

The prime example is the crusade against sexual harassment. The claim is that female college students are sexually assaulted way in excess of the regular populations. (1 in 5 is the obviously bogus statistic floating around.) To remedy this “tragedy”, illiberal rules and laws are being implemented, all of which are almost certainly unconstitutional. The most egregious is the new law in California (summarized as “yes means yes”) which makes it impossible for men to defend themselves against a sexual assault charge, as even defenders of the law admit.

It all began with a Dear Colleague letter from the federal Department of Education, “suggesting” that campuses should use a preponderance of the evidence standard in adjudicating sexual disputes. This means that men are tried and convicted (in a civil sense) of heinous crimes without due process.

So I support these new sexual assault laws. I oppose the academy in all its nefarious forms, and anything that destroys its credibility is something to be celebrated. Men will be even less likely to attend college than before. (And when they leave, so will the women.) Those that do are more likely to be filing lawsuits against their campuses, assisting them in bankruptcy. My campus is spending a fortune in policing--we have more cops per square foot than any city in America. And all for the sake of defending us against (mostly) non-existent crimes.

The professoriate is trying to help the Democratic Party with its war against women meme. Instead, they’re simply hastening their own doom.

Down with the academy!

Further Reading:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Trotskyists Down on the Farm

I respond to an article appearing in Counterpunch, written by Carmello Ruiz-Marrero, entitled Toward the Agro-Police State. That title is over-the-top. The content is succinctly represented by the sub-heading: "You'll need an iPad if you want to be a farmer."


Mr. Ruiz-Marrero reports that Monsanto is buying some small technology companies, none for more than a billion dollars. (For comparison, Monsanto is capitalized at around $18 billion, and Apple Computer at over $500 billion.) The first company is The Climate Corporation. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero quotes from their mission statement:
The Climate Corporation aims to help farmers around the world protect and improve their farming operations with uniquely powerful software and insurance products. The company’s proprietary technology platform combines hyper-local weather monitoring, agronomic data modeling, and high-resolution weather simulations to deliver, a solution that helps farmers improve their profits by making better informed operating and financing decisions, and Total Weather Insurance, an insurance offering that pays farmers automatically for bad weather that may impact their profits.
Farmers are more likely to earn money and less likely to lose it. Consumers will get cheaper prices. The environment benefits because fewer resources are wasted. It's hard to find fault with this. What's Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's problem?

It gets worse.
In 2012 Monsanto bought a similar company, Precision Planting, for $210 million. The biotech behemoth was after the company’s FieldView platform, a hardware/software package that monitors the performance of farm machinery and pretty much tells the farmer how to do everything, determining even the spacing between crop rows.
Yet another evil plot to make food cheaper and better, using fewer chemicals while wasting less land and water. These awful capitalists! What will they think of next?

Mr. Ruiz-Marrero lays out the benefits of this new technology rather clearly.
Welcome to the brave new world of precision farming, in which every farmer will need a wifi connection and an iPad. Precision ag, as it is often called, is the collective name of a series of new agricultural data and crop monitoring technologies. The alleged benefits of these new techno packages include increased yields, better information for decision making in the farm, reduction in the use and overuse of agrochemicals and fertilizer, and increased profits. It relies on cutting edge technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, wireless internet, portable computers, high-speed data processing, and global positioning (GPS).
Again, I still fail to see the problem. How can he possibly be against any of this?

I'll summarize his complaint in bullet points.
  • It employs military technology, specifically drone aircraft. The connection is to Big Data in the cloud. The farmer will be cut out of the loop. Further, data will be readily available to adjudicate patent violations or lawsuits.
  • Farmers will be deskilled. There will be a "loss of local farm knowledge and the erosion of farmer's rights." (Though probably with less erosion of the farmer's land.)
  • On the other hand, many farmers in Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's native Puerto Rico are illiterate. Only 14% have college degrees. Deskilling notwithstanding, they won't be able to cope with the intellectual demands of wifi and robotic drones.
  • Adopting this new technology, at the low end, costs  $1,000,000, $100,000, $20,000. Frankly, that's just not a lot of money--not even for a family farm. A farmer without that much capital has a title: subsistence farmer. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's fears that farmers will be forced into debt seems unwarranted.
But the main problem is all this benefits the wealthy. Only rich people will be able to buy the wholesome, freshly-grown, organic vegetables at the local farmer's market. The rest of us shlubs will be stuck with cheap frankenfoods, plastics on a stalk. But Mr. Ruiz-Marrero surely exaggerates the difference. There are no nutritional differences between so-called "organic" foods and their GM analogs. In a few cases there may be a taste difference, notably with tomatoes. Personally, I think the "organic" label is just advertising hype and I refuse to buy the stuff.

Cheaper food is better than expensive food. Farming that uses fewer resources is better than farming that wastes resources. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero has got his priorities all wrong.

Louis Proyect contributed his two-cents with a post here. Revealingly, it's an ad hominem attack on a journalist rather than any kind of reasoned argument. On science issues (where Mr. Proyect is resoundingly ignorant) that appears to be the best he can do. The Pulitzer-winning reporter, Amy Harmon, apparently has the moral backbone of a dead rat, what defending GM foods as she does. Mr. Proyect delivers the laugh line:
Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism...
The irony is that Mr. Proyect is himself a quasi-creationist, denying as he does the overwhelming evidence of evolution on human behavior.

Of course it's not necessary to believe lock-step in everything that so-called "scientists" say. I myself take partial issue with the so-called "consensus" on global warming. There may be good non-scientific reasons to reject evolution. But Mr. Proyect can't have it both ways--that the "consensus" is always true except when he disagrees with it.

But, since he's in awe of science, here's the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on GM foods.
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
I agree with this. If all the bad things that the anti-GM movement predicted were true, they would have happened by now. In the meantime, over two trillion GM meals have been served, with no evidence either of bad health or environmental destruction.

Misters Proyect and Ruiz-Marrero need to find themselves some new windmills to slay.

Further Reading: