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Monday, March 15, 2021

A RESPONSE TO JERRY BROWN

In response to my satirical essay, Jerry Brown observes that dermatologists do other things than removing pimples, and of course he is correct. In the discussions that followed my delivery of the paper (at Mount Holyoke College as well as at UNC Chapel Hill) a number of people protested that there is a difference between a professor’s relationship to students and a doctor’s relationship to patients. I agree completely and in order to illustrate the difference I told two stories. The first may well be apocryphal although I would like to believe it is true. The second I can attest to because I was there. Apocrypha first.


The first story concerns the great American economist Paul Samuelson who did his doctorate in the Harvard economics department. In those days, apparently, a candidate had to present himself or herself for an oral examination prior to writing the doctoral dissertation and when Samuelson sat for that exam, the committee that tested him was chaired by the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief.  The committee grilled Samuelson mercilessly for two hours and then had him leave the room so that they could deliberate about his grade. After Samuelson had closed the door behind him, so the story goes, Leontief looked around the table and then said to the members of the committee, “well, did we pass?” The story captures perfectly the academic professor’s dream of a student who is more a colleague than a pupil.

 

The second story concerns my first wife, who had a small skin problem that took us to see a distinguished plastic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. After the doctor had examined my wife and dealt with her problem, we spent a little time chatting and he told us with evident excitement about the time he spent, pro bono, at the Schriner Burn Center in Boston treating hideously burned children who had suffered second and third degree burns over large parts of their bodies. It was obvious that even though, with his most devoted ministrations, he could not turn a little child at the hospital into a Venus or Adonis, he could give them the possibility of a life. This was a man who made a very large income doing tummy tucks and breast enlargements but his real joy in life was treating those severely burned children.

 

My hope was that once I had jolted my audience out of their comfortable self-confidence by my satirical story, we could have a genuine discussion about the grotesque distortions in the allocation of educational resources in America. I am sorry to say that things did not turn out that way on the two occasions on which I delivered the paper to an academic audience.

32 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

In my experience, if one tries to "jolt an audience out of their comfortable self-confidence", one is unlikely to have a genuine discussion afterwards.

I know that Socrates somehow tried to jolt his listeners into a genuine discussion, but he was executed for that.

One is more likely to stimulate a genuine discussion, putting oneself in the place of one's listeners, addressing their prejudices and presuppositions one by one with a certain diplomacy and gentleness and then little by little leading into a proto-genuine discussion.

That being said, your text is a minor literary masterpiece and well worth reading.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Socrates was executed for supporting the regime of the 30 tyrants, not for jolting his listeners.

Eric said...

The kinds of healthcare providers that I would like to have involved in my own medical care, and in the care of my loved ones, would object not just to the Invertian healthcare model of treating only those who need care the least and who have the greatest probability of being completely cured. They would object even more to the perspective that sees the purpose of health care as being to seek solely to cure, rather than to seek to comfort. Even those in extremis with conditions for which no curative treatments are known should be offered care, even if that care just means treating them with dignity and respect and trying to make them as comfortable as possible.

Eric said...

I see parallels between the central question in "The Pimple on Adonis' Nose" and the discussion that arose in response to questions I was asking in the comments a week or so ago on the value of equality in society. There I asked, "Should the degree of civilization of a society be judged in terms of how richly the most privileged can live in the society or in terms of how richly the least well-off can live in it?"

The discussion that followed mentioned an interview Samuel Moyn had given discussing his book "Not Enough: Human rights in an Unequal World," in which the interviewer had said to Moyn: "One way of describing 'Not Enough' is that it’s a world history of how people have thought about the fair distribution of the good things in life—who should get what—and you track the shifting global focus from equality (a concern for the share of those good things enjoyed by the least fortunate with respect to the share going to the world’s most well off) to sufficiency (a concern for the share going to the least fortunate only with respect to some minimum level of provision)."

One of the major problems of the American education system that "The Pimple on Adonis' Nose" calls attention to is that our system fails at providing even a sufficient minimum in the education of all members of our society. No students should be reaching the end of their elementary and secondary school years without knowing how to read etc.

Perhaps unlike a smaller country like Invertia, a large and prosperous country like the United States can afford to have tertiary or quaternary medical centers staffed by specialists who have spent many years becoming expert at managing the rarest and most challenging cases in the land. It would not be in the interest of society as a whole for the time of those specialists to be consumed dealing with large numbers of routine cases that could be expertly managed by well-trained generalist physicians or nurses at a local primary care facility.

Similarly, a large and prosperous country can afford to have a complex educational system with some highly-selective universities (or highly-selective academic programs within universities) seeking to provide the best possible educational experiences for the best-prepared prospective students. For the society as a whole, it would be a waste of talents of the senior faculty at such premier institutions for those faculty to be consumed teaching remedial courses that well-trained and suitably motived faculty or grad students at other institutions could teach. (And on acquiring the basic skills, those previously under-prepared students would then be better positioned to benefit from the full university experience.)

But all of this presupposes that the educational system as a whole is providing an adequate minimum level of education to all the citizens.

It also presupposes that the missions of those premier institutions should include a goal of advancing knowledge of how best to educate the society as a whole, including those young adults who have finished secondary school without attaining proficiency in basic skills we would expect all adults to have acquired. So while it would be absurd to expect senior faculty in all university departments to be teaching remedial reading (or even 101 courses), the public universities should have colleges of education dedicated to both training teachers and advancing the science of education, and most university departments with major research programs should consider the communicating of their findings to the public to be an important part of their missions.

Jerry Brown said...

Well, thank you for the response Professor. I know you want to discuss the state of higher education, but I don't have much to share on that subject.

But I do have a story about going to a dermatologist. Maybe ten years ago, the skin on my hands became very 'fragile' and would tear with almost any incidental contact. And of course that is not a good thing if you also are using your hands to make a living as a carpenter.

So I got a referral to a dermatologist and man was he excited to see me and my hands. He took one look and then ran out to get a colleague to look also. Then he took pictures of my hands for a book he was writing about dermatological things. Turns out I had a very rare condition called PCT which is actually a problem in how the liver processes iron. In my case it produces a chemical byproduct that interacts with sunlight and weakens skin in the areas exposed to sunlight- like my hands. And believe it or not, the treatment for this is straight out of fourteenth century medical practice- they bleed you to remove excess iron.

Well that is my one and only dermatology story.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

And bloody good story it is, Jerry!

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Regarding the nature of the discussion, avoidance is a great defense mechanism, and it kicks into gear immediately.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

"The Pimple on Adonis's Nose" is a great read. It brings to mind a couple of other things you've written on education: one on the ideal university, and the other on your time in basic training. When I think about them together, though, I can't help but think they tend in different directions. (For example, "Pimple" seems at odds with the ideal university's recruitment process.) Am I missing a deeper unity?

- Will

Samuel Chase said...

Prof. Wolff’s reference to the rule of the Thirty Tyrants deserves some elaboration. The Thirty Tyrants were installed to rule Athens after Athens lost the Peloponnesian war with Sparta. The leader of the Thirty Tyrants was one Critias, an extremely cruel and brutal ruler, responsible for the execution of some 1500 Athenians without trial. He is sometimes referred to as “the first Robespierre.” What is particularly interesting for those who harbor hopes that education can humanize its recipients is that Critias had been a student of Socrates. The adage, “the truth will set you free” is an exaggeration, because as recent events involving Trump’s supporters and QAnon demonstrate, one can only be set free if one has the ability to recognize the truth for being the truth. Regarding the efficacy of education, and why Socrates failed to humanize Critias, education cannot remedy an inherently flawed character which is already formed before education can seek to remold it. Perhaps when Socrates was attempting to stimulate his students to think using his Socratic method, Critias was distracted by fantasizing about crushing bones and raping women.

As another aside, as recounted in the Apology, the Thirty ordered Socrates and four other Athenian citizens to bring before them for execution Leon of Salamis, an individual highly regarded for his integrity. Socrates refused to participate in the effort. However, he made no effort to warn Salamis, which suggests the limits which even those whom we revere for their strength of character place on their willingness to endanger themselves. After the Thirty were deposed, Socrates was tainted by the fact that he had been Critias’s teacher.

The limitations of the power of education to humanize has many examples, e.g., Alexander’s tutelage under Aristotle inspired him to want to spread Hellenistic civilization around the world, and Stalin studied to be a priest.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

There are other examples that suggest that the "exit from self-inflicted immaturity" is not a self-fulfilling path to a more humane future. On the contrary, the history of my country has shown that a humanistic education and a largely enlightened middle class are no guarantee against a deep fall into barbarism. With all the dialectics of enlightenment, however, it does not seem to be a solution to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Not every Critias or Robespierre or Pol Pot gets the chance to become what he perhaps always was. Conversely, there is a much higher chance that the next but one Nobel Prize winner for physics will come from the slums of Mumbai or that the greatest novelist of the 21st century will pack his school bags right now in order to stomp 6 miles on foot at minus 40 degrees through Siberia to his next school.

Samuel Chase said...

An excellent example of how education – here, American education – can fail to penetrate a closed mind:

https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2021/03/16/marjorie-taylor-greene-guam-michael-san-nicholas-nr-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/this-week-in-politics/


Samuel Chase said...

Prof. Wolff,

I have looked through every reference book I own – my World Atlas; my most recent World Almanac; my world map from Doctors Without Borders – and I can’t find Invertia anywhere. Did you make it up? Congresswoman Marjorie Greene claims it’s a foreign country and insists we should stop giving it foreign aid.

And a point of grammar. I notice you use a single “s” with an apostrophe to note the possessive, yet lately I have been seeing a lot of writers using a double “s” with an apostrophe between. I was taught to use a single “s,” but I have misplaced my Strunk and White. Has the convention changed and is one preferred over the other?

L.F. Cooper said...

@ S. Chase

I think the single "s" vs. double "s" thing is a case where either one is fine. Strunk & White say use the double "s" (and I tend to do that), but it's a matter of style (rather than grammar, imo), and if one took the time to go through some style/usage guides I think you'd end up with the position that either is ok.

Eric said...

RPW's essay doesn't mention race per se, but the constitutionality of the consideration of the racial backgrounds of applicants in US college admissions remains an area of active litigation. Despite losses in the Massachusetts District Court and the First Circuit Court, Edward Blum (whom the ACLU calls "the man who wants to kill affirmative action") and Students for Fair Admissions are trying to get the Supreme Court to review their allegation that Harvard has been unfairly penalizing Asian-American applicants based on race. They want the Court to overturn the precedent of Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which held that limited consideration of race is constitutionally permissible if race is but one of many factors considered in seeking to achieve a diverse student body and if the admissions policy is centered on an "individualized, holistic" review of each application.

In a review for The New Yorker of law professor Melvin Urofsy's book "The Affirmative Action Puzzle," Louis Menand writes:

There is a whole library on racial inequality and efforts to address it, and 'The Affirmative Action Puzzle' does not offer many novelties. But the book, just by the accumulation of sixty years’ worth of evidence, allows us to reach some useful conclusions, and the most important of these is that affirmative action worked. The federal government, with the backing of the courts, weaponized the 1964 Civil Rights Act and its legislative progeny ... and forced businesses to hire women and racial minorities.

In 1981 ... the Reagan Labor Department commissioned a report on gains in hiring among African-Americans and women. It found that between 1974 and 1980 the rate of minority employment in businesses that contracted with the federal government, and were therefore susceptible to being squeezed, rose by 20%, and the rate of employment of women rose by 15.2%. In companies that did not contract with the government, the rates were 12% and 2.2%, respectively.

This was so contrary to everything that Reagan had been saying about affirmative action that the Labor Department hired an outside consulting firm to vet its own report. When the firm returned with the news that the methods and the conclusions were valid, the Administration did the only thing it could do. It refused to release the report, thus allowing politicians to go on telling the public that affirmative action didn’t work.


On the question of whether students admitted under affirmative action policies benefit from their educations, Menand cites William Bowen's and Derek Bok's statistical analyses in "The Shape of the River" (1998), from which they concluded that race-conscious admissions policies "have been 'highly successful' in advancing educational and societal goals."

Eric said...

(I'm afraid I mistakenly clicked "Publish Your Comment" rather than "Preview" with that last post. I hope the main point comes across, despite my somewhat clumsy phrasing.)

L.F. Cooper said...

Just a footnote: the case that originally upheld the use of race as one factor in a "holistic" admissions process is the Bakke case -- Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke (1978). Though I don't really follow this, given the current makeup of SCOTUS I wouldn't be too surprised if this line of precedents from Bakke to Grutter v. Bollinger were to be overruled, perhaps using the case you mention as a vehicle (though I don't know w/o checking what the status of it is -- presumably the plaintiffs have asked the Sup Ct to take it (i.e., filed a certiorari petition) and probably SCOTUS hasn't decided yet whether to take it).

Eric said...

LF Cooper,
With a 6-3 majority (& the swing vote now in the hands of Roberts, who is decidedly against affirmative action), AND Democrats showing no real inclination to change the courts, there's no question that this Court will overturn those precedents. As you say, whether they will do it via this case remains to be seen.

I believe the status info can be found here, at ScotusBlog.

Samuel Chase said...

The most recent decision in this lawsuit was in 2019. In a 74-page decision, the Massachusetts District Court held that Harvard’s diversity program did not violate Title VI or Equal Protection. You can read the decision here:

https://d.casetext.com/api/print/document/students-for-fair-admissions-v-president-of-harvard-coll?includeHighlights=false&includeKeyPassages=false&isTwoColumn=true&concat=Students%20for%20Fair%20Admissions%20v.%20President%20of%20Harvard%20Coll.pdf


There does not seem to have been a decision by the 1st Circuit Ct. of Appeals, because the most recent appellate decision in the case was in 2015, regarding the District Court’s denial of a motion to intervene. That decision can be found here.
https://d.casetext.com/api/print/document/students-for-fair-admissions-inc-v-president-fellows-of-harvard-coll-1?includeHighlights=false&includeKeyPassages=false&isTwoColumn=true&concat=Students%20for%20Fair%20Admissions,%20Inc.%20v.%20President%20&%20Fellows%20of%20Harvard%20Coll.pdf

So, I don’t understand how the plaintiffs are seeking certiorari in the S. Ct. They cannot just leap frog over the 1st Circuit Ct. of Appeals.

LFC said...

The Wikipedia entry for Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard says that there was a First Circuit decision and that it upheld the district court (which jibes w my recollection of news reports).

LFC said...

Sorry my phone is not letting me post except through my Google account, hence the initials.

-- L.F. Cooper

LFC said...

P.s. SCOTUS Blog is an excellent place to track the status of cases but it's late here and my computer is off so I just did the quick-and-dirty thing and went to Wikipedia.

Samuel Chase said...

That second First Circuit decision does not show up on Casetext, which is a very thorough legal search engine.

I have reviewed the Mass. District Court’s 74-page decision and find something rather perplexing. All of the other prior affirmative action cases in education have involved public colleges/universities – U. of California in Bakke; U. of Michigan in Bollinger; U. of Texas in Fischer. Because they are public institutions, they are prohibited from violating the Constitution, hence the reliance on the Equal Protection Clause. However, Harvard U. is a private university. As such, it is not required to abide by the Constitution (yes, you may find this odd, but it is true.) A private university may discriminate all it wants, as does, for example, Bob Jones U., which discriminates on the basis of religion. The only consideration which constrains such discrimination is Title VI, which states that if a private university discriminates on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, it forfeits the right to receive federal funds. So it is permissible for Harvard to discriminate in order to advance diversity if it is willing to forfeit the right to receive federal funds. Given the huge endowment Harvard has from its numerous wealthy and prestigious alumni, I don’t see how this lawsuit even got off the ground, except for the desire of Harvard not to alienate public opinion or its alumni. But given that most of its alumni are moderate to liberal, the fact that Harvard favors non-Asian minorities in its admissions program, as the plaintiffs are alleging, that would seem to be a plus in the eyes of its alumni.

Eric said...

For the First Circuit ruling, maybe try here? (pdf file)

I'm not sure whether that link was formatted correctly, so if it doesn't work, try searching at
http://media.ca1.uscourts.gov/opinions/
and putting in "harvard" for the short title query term, with dates of 11/01/2020 to 11/30/2020 for the dates.

Samuel Chase said...

I finally found an article about the 1st Circuit decision. It was issued in Nov., 2020.

https://www.insidehighered.com/print/admissions/article/2020/11/16/appeals-court-backs-harvard-affirmative-action

I frankly doubt that the S. Ct. will grant certiorari, since the case does not involve any constitutional issues, as noted in my previous comment. The only issue would be if Harvard’s diversity policy violates Title VI, which, as I said, Harvard is free to do if it is willing to forfeit Title VI federal funds. Moreover, given that four of the Justices attended Harvard Law School (Breyer, Roberts, Kagan and Gorsuch), I doubt they will vote to grant certiorari. It would require all of the Yale Law School graduates (Alito, Kavanaugh, Sotomayor, and Thomas), plus Barrett to grant cert, also unlikely.

LFC said...

Well, a couple of things before I turn off the phone for the night. Harvard and some members of its faculty, esp but not only in the natural sciences and medicine and maybe engineering wd be my supposition, get significant federal funds and there is no way the univ was going to forfeit all federal funding just to avoid this lawsuit.

Second, Harvard admits fairly substantial numbers of Asian American applicants. It insists on the importance of a reasonably diverse student body, at least in terms of race and ethnic background, hence its opposition to running its admissions process in a way that it feels would diminish its ability to achieve that objective. The majority (though not unanimous by any means) sentiment among the alumni is probably that diversity in this sense is important and that the "holistic" admissions process, while not perfect bc no process can be, is working reasonably well. The strongest piece of evidence plaintiffs seems to have relates to the so-called personal scores in the admissions process and how Asian Americans were sometimes rated on that dimension, but obviously it was not enough to get the district ct or First Circuit to rule in their favor.

P.s. one thing plaintiffs have accomplished, even though they've lost so far, is to force Harvard to release a good deal of internal data, which has shown among other things that the so-called legacy preference in admissions can be fairly significant. I would favor abolishing the legacy preference, but the chances of that happening are close to zero, I would say.

LFC said...

@ S. Chase

I know you are a very experienced lawyer but the notion that Roberts and Gorsuch would not grant cert on this case because they graduated from Harvard Law School (and in Roberts's case also the College) is, frankly, absurd. If they don't vote to grant cert it won't be for that reason.

s. wallerstein said...

Why assume that people have such a iron loyalty to their alma mater?

I have a BA and MA from the same university. My parents paid for my under-graduate studies and I had a fellowship granted by the university which paid for my graduate studies, but I feel no particular loyalty to my alma mater. They did me no special favors, they provided services which were paid for.

I for one would not priorize my alma mater over my principles or over legal criteria. I don't know many people who would, although I don't know any Supreme Court justices.

s. wallerstein said...

MS,

For someone who has consistently held contrarian positions to those of almost all other regular commenters in this blog, it's weird that you should express irritation if someone, in this case myself, is contrary to your positions.

L.F. Cooper said...

@ S. Chase

First, Justice Kagan is not the former President of Harvard; she is the former Dean of Harvard Law School.

Second, what will drive the Justices in this particular case is their view of affirmative action in college admissions and whether they think this case is a good vehicle to advance their preferences on that issue. Kagan supports affirmative action and the Bakke line of cases, so she won't vote to grant cert. Thomas very strongly opposes affirmative action, so he will vote to grant cert. So will Alito probably. Roberts and Gorsuch would, I assume, like to overturn or further chip away at the Bakke line of cases but they may not think this case is a good vehicle to do that, either b.c of its focus on Title VI or some other reason. The identity of their alma maters is not going to play a major role, or really any role, here in their decision-making, I think. (That's not necessarily to say it would never play any role in any case. The Justices' educational pedigrees may have some effect on their overall worldviews, for lack of a better word, but I don't think "loyalty to alma mater" per se is much of an influence on their decision-making.)

L. F. Cooper said...

My guess would also be that they will deny cert, so our only disagreement is over what will tip the balance (or even if they'll need anything to tip the balance). Btw, I fully get your point about private vs. public universities and what flows from it. (Con Law was a long time ago, but I do remember that much.)

Of course there's another issue here, not so much a legal question as a matter of social and public policy, which is that diversity in terms of race in college admissions does not translate to a comparable diversity in terms of class or socioeconomic status. But that's a discussion prob for another time.

L.F. Cooper said...

S. Chase,

This is my last comment on this thread.

Your apparent belief that you are an expert on almost everything is somewhat annoying.

First, Harvard does not say that its (main) aim is to increase socioeconomic diversity. If that were its aim, it would do it directly. There is doubtless some effort made in that direction, but the fact remains that the undergrad class skews disproportionately toward the upper-middle and upper end of the income/wealth distribution. Ditto probably for most or all of Harvard's peer institutions.

Second, Harvard does not describe its policy as "favoring African-Americans and Latinos over Asian Americans". That's what the plaintiffs say and that may be the effect in some cases, but that's not how Harvard describes the policy. As I said earlier, Harvard admits substantial numbers of Asian Americans: go look up the breakdown of the class. Just not as many as it would if it considered only test scores and grades and not other criteria (including race/ethnicity as one of multiple factors). Anyway, the policy's goal is racial diversity not socioeconomic diversity. If they wanted the latter as a major priority, they cd do more in that direction.

Richard Kahlenberg has written in favor of class-based (as opposed to race-based) affirmative action in this context. You can look up his work.

Ok, I'm done here.

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