Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Tyranny of Merit

I'm reading a book by the same name as my caption here, by Michael Sandel. Now I discover that critiques of merit are a cottage industry in the Ivy League. How ironic, right?

I remember feeling distressed at how many Ivy Leaguers Obama appointed to his government. Now I know why. It's a relief. It's also a relief to have some affirmation about my difficulty hating Trumpsters. I mean I guess I've hated on them rhetorically, but in the flesh I rather like the ones I meet. 

I wonder what we have in common? 

In my own desultory educational career (actually now that I think about it, in my career generally) I've spent most of my time in the study of education. I've spent most of my work life in educational institutions as well. Sometimes study and work have been combined. 

I've always felt at vague odds with the conventional wisdom. When it was about the economic payback of education, I was skeptical. I rather thought that education followed rather than led economic growth. I found casuistry in the statistical reasoning finding for the other direction.

I hardly think that schooling is necessary to learn to read, and once tried to argue that reading had and has more to do with mass publishing than with school. Of course when I was headmaster of a school for gifted kids, I had misgivings about the whole concept of and proper approach to giftedness. 

I want to know gifted relative to what. Making money? Reading complex literature? Doing math? How about plumbing, or carpentry or any number of other skills?

No, we believe in something like general intelligence. And we believe that this relates to school somehow. And we think that school relates to education.

Of course I've also felt that as disciplines are elaborated and narrowed and adopt a highly specialized vocabulary which is exclusive of those without advanced education, I have also concluded that this process creates such highly specialized knowledge that it can't be called education at all. You can have almost nothing to say, or really stupid things to say, when you venture out from your specialization. Even when your specialty is political philosophy. 

In this case, I can't say that about Sandel. He seems rather more broadly educated. Maybe that's because I'm tending to agree with him.

I might wish to claim that I have an unusually broad education. I would say that because my education includes much that isn't or can't be taught in school. I am literate in Chinese, in carpentry, electricity, auto, marine and motorcycle mechanics, computer network engineering, and of course troubleshooting generally. This apparently qualifies me for very little in the way of remunerative work. 

Or maybe I just undervalue myself. Not enough self esteem. Too self-effacing. In fact, much of the time, I come off as just too smart. Too unlikely for whatever it is that I might apply for. Granted that I only apply when and if I'm desperate. I feel lucky to have stayed alive this long, considering how often I'm desperate and without prospects. That's not to mention how many times I've nearly bit the dust. I'd say I pull through as often by sheer luck and by dint of wit. 

But who knows? 

I try to find hope in these troubled times when everything seems as though it's falling apart. The wrong people are making the decisions, and they're making all the wrong decisions.

So, OK, maybe just like my little school did, our educational institutions are starting to fail. Maybe COVID will push many many of them over the edge. Could that possibly be a good thing? All this online teaching could easily lead to a more just-in-time form of education, where you learn what you need to know when and as you need it. Maybe the badges you might get could add up to an actual credential? In the end?

Sandel seems to want the institutions of democracy - the leadership in a democratic republic - to be more broadly representative of the population at large. He doesn't think that moral questions are susceptible to technocratic resolution. I have to say that I mostly agree with him.

I wonder how this necessary pivot will come about? 

Well, I know how it will come about. I have knowledge about the future. 

The trouble with knowledge about the future is that it's really hard to communicate. Scientific knowledge can amount to knowledge about the future in the sense that if something is demonstrably true, then knowledge about that new truth will inform the future. My knowledge is like that. I just don't have any way to communicate what I know. 

The only thing I can think to do is to keep on keeping on up here un my "public" notebook. I know I need to learn to systematize. I need to order my understanding and to provide experimental proof. I guess. But the only proofs I can come up with require a change of mind, and so far I don't change too many people's' minds. The basics of our beliefs - short of about God, of course - are so well established and commonly shared that to differ with them can only be called crazy.

I'm not talking about global warming. I'm talking about base level reality. Yes indeedy, I'm saying that I occupy a different reality than you do. I mean, of course I occupy yours and I play by its rules for the most part. But I know that this reality is not long for the world. That's because I have this future knowledge.

I mean what is knowledge if it doesn't cover the future. Scientific knowledge is about predictions, after all, no matter how minute. Now matter how minute by minute. No matter that scientific knowledge is virtually guaranteed to be superceded for so long as we continue to occupy this particular episteme. For so long as we don't feel the prison walls closing in. 

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