More on Bryan Caplan’s “The Magic of Education”

Bryan Caplan was nice enough to retweet my previous blog post on his article, “The Magic of Education,” even though I bashed him, so I thought I should spend some more time on the topic with perhaps a bit more nuance and explain where I agree with him. (Geeze, I even made fun of his glasses.) I became paranoid that I wasn’t very nice when a spam tweet accused me of a “childish rejoinder.”  That spam bot really made me think.

First, I agree with Caplan that the signalling model is real and probably valued by institutions and corporations more so than any other view of education. Caplan writes:

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job.  When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker.  What precisely did he study?  What did he learn how to do?  Mere details.  As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

This is similar to the “college as sorting process” theory I’ve written about here. It seems like a useful, if expensive process to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, but overlooks the success of prominent drop-outs and non-conformists. It’s also a system set up for industrial era mentalities and skill sets.

Second, Caplan is right to point out that not enough educators give thought to the “magic” portion of teaching. How do student learn? How do student develop, grow, and become critical thinkers. It obviously doesn’t happen by swallowing and regurgitating information alone. Nor can it be transmitted via smart vibes or just hanging around really smart people. What is learning and how does it actually happen? Furthermore, is the university system the best way to make this happen?

Well, I don’t know the answer, but I’m not willing to admit that I believe in magic. I refuse to accept that my only choices are a) Learning is a magical process we can’t quantify or corral, or b) There is no such thing as magic, only a cash-driven star-on machine, ala Sylvester McMonkey McBean (a story that is really about the education system). This is a false dilemma and creates a straw man, to use non-Latin names for common logical fallacies.

I’ll write about this some other time, but one key can be found in the work of Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan (who doesn’t live in the “real world,” I know) and his theory of adult development, seen here:

Learning, to me, is all about seeing subjects as objects. Bringing perspectives into our awareness and putting them all out on the table, so to speak. This is a long-hand way to say “critical thinking,” which is the capacity to make our previously-held subjective viewpoints objectively known so we can compare them to others and expand our consciousness to include as many perspectives as possible. The ultimate goal is to change the consciousness of students so they may be open, flexible, complex, subtle, and, hopefully, more creative thinkers.

This is all very abstract, but I do believe you can chart it, measure it, harness it, and teach it.

Bryan Caplan Needs to Get Out More

Bryan Caplan, who often presents himself as the paragon of reason and reasonableness, has written an incredibly illogical article about education called “The Magic of Education.” Here, Caplan uses “magic” as a shorthand for “things he doesn’t understand.” This is a common trick for self-proclaimed reason-meisters to dismiss anything that involves more complexity than a land-line poll as “woo woo.” Caplan mocks his own profession (he’s an Economics professor, but I bet you guessed that based on his glasses) by describing how he thinks unenlightened teachers view the education process:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

This is, of course, a huge straw man argument. Obviously no one (except the insane) over the age of 8 believes in magic. By using this term, Caplan creates a slam dunk argument for himself. To disagree with him is to believe in fairies, the power of crystals, and auras. This is lazy.

He also complains that academics don’t live in the real world (more on this later), but that isn’t Caplan’s problem at all. He needs to get out of his department more and run his articles past the Philosophy Department in order to correct his soft thinking. (This is not to mention that most economic theories have more in common with magic than does traditional pedagogical thinking.)

Here is Caplan’s biggest philosophical error, and it’s based on such a terribly trite bit of rhetoric, we might suggest he head over to the English Department after visiting the logicians. It’s that tired line that some kind of “real world” exists, its outward circumference becoming visible just as College Street begins its ascent up the hill toward the glistening ivory tower where absent-minded, bearded, sandal-wearing gnomes frollick in the  clouds and pass around 300-page dissertations on the anti-agrarian symbolism of Joyce’s use of the semi-colon in Ulysses. (Okay, some of that is true.)

Here, Caplan is free to leave fantasy land and explore the real world of any office setting. (NBC’s The Office, to many people I know, is not a farce, but a striking bit of realism. Many doctors have also told me that Scrubs is the most realistic depiction of hospitals television has ever seen.) This is not to mention the proliferation of magical thinking found in Anywhere, USA. Does Caplan honestly think that harder-working, more reasonable people will be found if we simply hop over the brick walls of the academy and mingle among the “commoners,” you know, the residents of the real world?

What a silly, stupid distinction. It crumbles upon the slightest questioning. Is an over-worked adjunct with two kids and a freelance job in the real world or the fake world? Is a lazy, frequently unemployed construction worker who believes in Voodoo in the real world or the fake world? What if he jogs a few blocks to the local college? What if he takes one class on campus? What if he straddles the property line of the campus while holding Chaucer in one hand and the National Enquirer in the other?

If there is no magic occurring in Bryan Caplan’s classroom, it’s probably his fault.

Siri Can’t Read: The False Metaphysics of the Singularity

Siri can’t read.

Google isn’t thinking.

Technology doesn’t want anything.

The internet doesn’t connect humans.

Networks don’t learn.

Technology is not good.

Technology is not bad.


These are all necessary corrections, given the anthropomorphic language used by techno-philosophers. Supporters of such theories as the Singularity seem unaware that their worldviews are built on metaphysics as much as physics. (After all, Atoms are immortal; Adams are not.) And while, as I’ve noted here, advances in artificial intelligence may challenge our human-centric notions of consciousness, we seem much too eager to describe the internet and advanced networks in terms that degrade human consciousness and creativity, as if sentience were merely an algorithm.

My Sweet Lord: Comparative Religious Literature as Social Corrective

Here’s the best live version of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the inspiration for the title of my lecture below:

The genius of this song is that it combines Hare Krishna-style chanting with American call-and-response gospel/R&B (via his ripping off the Chiffons) and turns it into something new and exciting.
I recorded this lecture a couple of years ago for a World Literature 1 course. I mostly discuss the stunning synchronicity between two literary masterpieces, The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita:

If you go back far enough, there is no distinction between literature and scripture. There are many reasons for this, but I’ll save that for some other time. If you open up Volume A of The Norton Anthology of Literature you’ll find stories and poems from the Old Testament, sacred Egyptian and Sumerian traditions, The Bhagavad Gita, and so on. Whenever I teach World Lit 1, I like to pair readings from across cultures and time periods so that students can see the similarities and differences.
One thing I’ve noticed is that The Book of Job and The Bhagavad Gita have the same core message. I thought of this today after reading about Kentucky Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams accusing his opponent of being anti-Christian for attending a Hindu ceremony. I’ve posted the above lecture as a correction.
Two very important books in these respective religions have the same basic message, regardless of what we might think of it. If David Williams really thinks his religion is true and that Hindus are just weird, polytheistic sinners, so be it. He is, however, ignoring the obvious similarities that cut across cultures.

Meditation—Not Just for Hippies Anymore (How New Science is Redefining an Ancient Practice)

Remember that classic scene from An Officer and a Gentleman where the
drill sergeant played by Louis Gossett, Jr. screams “Now drop and give
me thirty minutes of silent breathing!”

Okay, that didn’t happen. Not yet anyway.

I’m not talking about Richard Gere financing some digitally-altered
Buddhist version of the film. But don’t be surprised if new research
funded by the Department of Defense forces Hollywood to change one of
its most cherished movie sequences: the basic training montage. In the
future, expect to see soldiers not just marching and running through
obstacle courses, but also meditating.

According to a study in the January 2011 issue of Cognitive and
Behavioral Practice,  U.S. Marines given mindfulness meditation
training prior to deployment had lower levels of stress. The study
suggests that meditation might improve soldier readiness and serve as
early prevention against PTSD.

You can already hear two objections from rival camps in the culture
wars: “Has the military gone soft?” and “Has meditation sold out to
the Man?”

Both questions depict stereotypes of meditation, as either a feckless
act of navel-gazing, or a spiritual practice steeped in non-violence.
However, current scientific research, including over 1000 published
studies, paints a third portrait. The empirical evidence reveals
meditation to be a healing agent that improves the functionality of
brain systems. The practice is neither selfish nor self-transcending.
Instead, it is an exercise in consciousness-management that can be
employed for better results at any task.

Furthermore, because researchers have linked the effects of meditation
to brain function and structure, the source of meditation’s power is
physiological, not metaphysical. In the spirit of Occam’s Razor, if
meditation can be explained through science, there is no need to
credit spiritual intervention.

But if meditation is not a spiritual exercise, what is it? First, to
borrow a phrase from The Journal for the American Medical Association,
meditation is an “inner technology” that supports “optimal health.” In
2008, JAMA reviewed 52 exemplar studies and concluded that
“cultivating a more mindful way of being is associated with less
emotional distress, more positive states of mind, and better quality
of life,” in addition to improvements in “the brain, the autonomic
nervous system, stress hormones, the immune system, and health
behaviors, including eating, sleeping, and substance use.” In part,
meditation is a supplement from the natural store, but one that
actually works.

This meditation pill is no placebo either, at least according to
neuroimaging studies (i.e. “brain scans”) linking meditation to
positive changes in the brain. In a UCLA study from 2009, MRI data on
44 long-term meditators revealed “significantly larger gray matter
volumes” in areas of the brain “implicated in emotional regulation and
response control.”  The study concluded that this explains
“meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive
emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.”
Other brain scan studies have documented beneficial changes to the
pre-frontal lobe, the immune system, and the Default Mode Network, a
brain function that can be responsible for distracting chatter in the
brains of patients suffering from depression and anxiety. These new
maps of the brain are hard evidence of meditation’s capacity to
refurbish the necessary structural support for a healthier brain.

The notion of meditation as a healing agent is echoed in psychological
literature as well, including a 2010 meta-analytic study in The
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology which reviewed available
research on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Program. The article concluded that “mindfulness-based therapy is a
promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems in
clinical populations.” In Buddhism, a main goal of meditation is
becoming one with a Buddha-nature that eludes the limited, personal
ego. But in the psychological literature, meditation is about
restoring a damaged ego. Instead of serving as a vehicle for
transcending the wheel of suffering, meditation fixes the wheel to run
more smoothly.

But meditation is not just for fixing the broken; it can also improve
the functioning of healthy brains, providing basic mental training,
perhaps making it a good fit for the military after all. By focusing
on broad-based skills (attention, emotional management, metacognition)
that underlie all human activity, meditation can make deep, positive
changes to the human brain and improve performance in a wide-range of
fields. (In other words, it is the
anti-No Child Left Behind.)

Renowned neuroscience researcher Richard Davidson has described
meditation as “process-specific learning,” the opposite of
content-based learning. His analysis undermines the depiction of
meditation as an act of indulgence, leisure, or relaxation. Instead,
meditation is exercise, self-maintenance, or an act of
consciousness-tuning. It is just as much a waste of time as running 30
minutes on a treadmill. Neither gets you anywhere in the short term,
but both might make you perform better in that afternoon meeting.

We don’t often think of meditation as contributing to real-world
performance. Perhaps because meditation is done with eyes closed, and
frequently on weekend retreats or in monasteries removed from the
world, we tend to associate it with escape from reality. But as MRI
data from a 2011 study in NeuroImage shows, meditation cuts down on
“mind-wander” and strengthens your brain’s Central Executive Network.
(How’s that for sounding practical?) The CEN lights up when we’re
focused on complex cognitive tasks, i.e. getting things done.

Far from engaging in escapism, a meditator closes his or her eyes to
stare down the distractions of the inner world and train them by
exercising attentional skills and discernment. These are skills that
can assist someone in solving equations, divvying up tasks to members
of a team, or working through difficult emotions in interpersonal
conflicts. Meditation is a proven method for clearing and organizing
your desk before starting your day.

Put crudely, meditation is not just for New Age hippies and
hermit-monks; it is for anyone interested in a better brain, whether
that brain is performing surgery, administering day care, or
negotiating a tense exchange at a military check point. And given the
growing body of scientific evidence in support of meditation, the path
to improvement need not begin or end at a monastery. If consciousness
emerges from the brain, we should look there first for explanations
about meditation. Any spiritual claims come second.