Troll Havens: The Worse Angels of our Nature

Many teachers know what the general public does not know: that at some schools the kind of abusive, assaultive and violent language used by internet trolls is faced by those teachers daily in real time in their real lives. Of course, they get the online treatment too, but I was put graphically in mind of the live problem by reading an article passed to me from an Australian magazine. Language and insults I had never even heard in my teens are now part of ordinary daily student-teacher “discourse” at school. And the assault is often accompanied by battery. Comments that should be actionable at law are routinely made by students—and by their parents! And the offenders are not shown the door after this kind of abuse.

A friend reports the same kind of problem in many U.S. schools.  A professional acquaintance, the principal of an urban school in the U.S., reports being assaulted, having her car keyed, and having to deal with “hundreds of fights a year.” The principal is regularly savaged verbally by parents, though they have not yet beaten her up. This is a middle school.

The principal also reports that she wants to fire teachers who don’t do their job, but I would like to know what a teacher’s job is in a place where he or she is called a “fucking pedophile” or a “cocksucker” or a “motherfucker” with impunity by his or her students. These are live trolls, not “virtual,” and they are in your face. (By the way: the student who called his teacher a “cocksucker” was the son of a couple of highly placed diplomatic personnel. The apple seems to have fallen far from the tree.)

According to one study, the job of a teacher in such conditions is to survive without a collapse in health, usually by becoming radically detached from work; for it turns out that teachers, according to this study, are dead last among “callings” in quality of their working environment and in relations with their “supervisors.” Of course it is possible that teachers in such circumstances are “ineffective,” but it is time to consider the possibility that the entire ecology of some schools and districts is poisonous to education, and that this failure may be the fault of more than, or other than, the teachers.

The old saw is that a teacher must be an educator, a therapist, a social worker, a confessor, a counselor, an arbitrator, and a peacemaker.  Now, someone is suggesting that social work at schools should be done by an actual social worker. The problem with this revelation of good sense is that with the budgets most school districts have, there won’t be enough money for more than a token program—like bringing Off! to a locust plague.

But there may be more. These postings have argued again and again that one of the requisites of effective education is that the school should be a functional community, or part of one. In a dysfunctional community, or in the absence of a community, what a social worker does may simply not be enough. Nor will branded simulacra of community be enough.

Talk of trolls, actual or virtual, suggests a viciousness that community values work against: you don’t call someone you respect or care for a “cocksucker.” In a true community, as my political philosophy professor used to say, you don’t beat your mother for beer money. You don’t slug, knife, libel, slander or curse your teacher, or you children’s teacher.

But the plague I am talking about is not a Biblical one of locusts or frogs or blood. It is a social one, or perhaps political. It is found in places with ineffective or absent political and social institutions. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature locates it in places that lack institutions and rational principles of life that are effective against violence. In its worst form, it was called by Thomas Hobbes “the war of all against all.” It is the (un)natural habitat of the troll.


A Reprieve from What?

Shortly after my last posting I read an article in The New York Times: “Education Secretary Allows Reprieve on Test-Based Teacher Ratings.” The last time I checked, a reprieve was the postponement of an execution or sentence. That implies, of course, a crime. The truth is that a VAMmed teacher would not even have it as good as a criminal. A conviction of crime must result from evidence of and testimony to criminal behavior, but VAMs are statistical phantoms, and only tenuously connected to behavior of any kind. What is more, a criminal has the benefit of due process of law, but a teacher would suffer termination with no judgment at all.

The reporter says the “reprieve” resulted from recognition of the “enormous pressure” teachers are under. The prospect of arbitrary ruin does tend to have that effect, but I suspect there is more behind the “reprieve” than sudden compassion. Once the VAM meat-grinder is turned on and the expected hecatombs ensue, no sensible person will touch a VAM-linked teaching job. Imagine what that will do for the faculty room and the classroom!

Of course it is possible that the rottenness of these “metrics” is finally becoming apparent to the people at the Department of Education and the Gates Foundation, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to call things by their proper names. (See my last posting.) A whole other ethos governs much of those institutions’ discourse on “education.”


A New Kind of Hat Trick

One contemporary Chinese philosopher says that Western philosophy searches for The Truth but Chinese philosophy searches for The Way. That is a nice four-word distinction, and Americans whose only acquaintance with Confucius is through “Confucius say” jokes would find a lot to ponder by looking through the Analects. For example, the story goes[1] that a royal emissary asked Confucius what was the first thing a ruler must do. His reply: “What is necessary is to make sure that everything is called by its proper name[2].” He then went on to expound a chain of causation arising from the failure to do so, whose final dire but perhaps hyperbolic effect is that “the people do not know how to move hand or foot.”

Incapacitation by bad language is of course one of the main things Orwell warned against in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He argued further[3] that bad language makes bad politics—or was it the other way around? His interest in the problem of rotten language was that of his “ordinary persona,” who is plain-thinking, plain-spoken, and practical.

Another take on the problem of rotten language is more strictly philosophical. I refer to Harry Frankfurt’s[4] wonderful little book On Bullshit. Its thesis is that unlike the “pure” liar, who cares enough for the truth to go against it deliberately, the BSer is indifferent to truth, particularly if it makes him look bad, rocks his boat, or loses him money. Instead, the BSer simply says what will protect him, advance him, or promote things in which he has a stake, regardless of their truth or falsity. Frankfurt advances a careful argument culminating[5] in the claim that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

The British came up with a nice term for someone who achieves three of some feat: a “hat trick.” Well,  Arne Duncan and his RAce to the Top (RAT) have outdone themselves and scored a baloney hat trick. In it, things are not called by their proper names, bad politics gives rise to bad language (and the other way around), and the old barnyard epithet becomes a precise description.

[1] Analects, 13.3

[2] The Chinese word zhengming is sometimes translated as “rectification of names,” but that does not work very well in English.

[3] In “Politics and the English Language”

[4] Frankfurt is Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the Institute for advanced Studies, Princeton.

[5] p. 61


Thinking Against the Grain

The bulk of today’s posting is written by a former student, now 19, who returned after his first year at university to conduct a colloquium in philosophy-reading over the summer holiday for a group of students in grades 10, 11 and 12. He addresses the students in a concluding email. I am taking it exactly as written, omitting introductory and concluding paragraphs aimed at this summer’s particular situation. The rest has a wider application partly for its own sake, but partly because it runs so refreshingly counter to much of what passes for justification of study and learning. There is nothing here about national security audits or “value added,” though it is valuable and should make anyone who reads it feel a bit more secure in his or her humanity. (My title for this posting comes from the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s essay collections, and so it seems doubly apposite, given the writer’s admiration for Berlin.)

…I thought I should write a few words to wrap things up, as an attempt to look back at the past few weeks and make something of it. Looking back, I guess the most important question to ask is: why read philosophy? Let me try to explain what I have discovered from my own experience, and how I think this should influence the way we approach philosophical literature.

First (as Christopher was telling me yesterday), philosophy helps us to understand people. Some parts of philosophy are explicitly about people, and help us to reflect upon the way we treat ourselves and others. ‘He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.’ ‘Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it.’ Despite all the criticism Mill receives for endorsing a moral theory that does not prioritize intrinsic human worth (unlike Kantian ethics), I think his book On Liberty is, ironically, a classic tribute to human dignity.

Reading philosophy is also a way to get to know some truly exceptional individuals, the authors. In On Liberty and Utilitarianism, I see a torn person, trying his best to stay faithful to the legacy of his dead father (James Mill), yet irresistibly drawn to a far more complex and, in my opinion, more wonderful philosophy of the ends of life. While reading The Social Contract, I marvel at how Rousseau, a person with such a remarkable vision of the ideal state, could have been so unsuccessful at preventing his own personal life from falling into ruins.

But not only does philosophy describe human beings in general, and certain individuals in particular, it also invites us to behold the entire history of humankind. In ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Isaiah Berlin plays the role of the narrator, as he tells how Kantian philosophy descended into Stalinist horrors. ‘What can have led to so strange a reversal—the transformation of Kant’s severe individualism into something close to a pure totalitarian doctrine on the part of thinkers some of whom claimed to be his disciples?’ he laments. I can almost hear J. R. R. Tolkien continuing: ‘If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred…’[1]

Of course, philosophy is not just about people, it is also about ideas. Ideas can be misleading, but it is equally easy to be lost in a vacuum of ideas. The latter seems to be the problem for many of us today: what ideas are we passionate about? Maybe you want to continue Rousseau’s quest for the ideal state, or maybe you seek a more practical vision for Hong Kong in particular. Perhaps, like young Marx, you want to change the way we view and relate to our work. Or maybe, like Isaiah Berlin, you think moral problems cannot be solved using technological solutions, so instead of changing institutions, you want to change people’s hearts. (Or maybe you just aren’t interested in ideas. If so, I doubt you would have come to these seminars, but in good pluralistic spirit, I think it’s perfectly fine.)…

Finally, philosophy teaches us how to think, and how to be a good philosopher. Above all, a philosopher must be humble. Hume writes that ‘ a man is guilty of unpardonable arrogance who concludes, because an argument has escaped his own investigation, that therefore it does not really exist.’ In light of what Hume goes on to show, I think philosophers should be prepared to admit not only the limits of their investigations, but in also the limits of rational investigation per se: some truths are simply impossible to demonstrate by logical argument.

What does all this mean for the way we read philosophy?

Read the original texts, and take your time. A philosophical classic is like a novel: you must appreciate it, muse over it, and relate to it. And I challenge you to engage personally with the ideas in the books and to decide what you think about them, whether your conclusion is that you agree, disagree, agree in part, or are simply uninterested. Do not be too quick to criticize, and always remember that many theories may not be fully correct, but may still contain part of the truth. Most importantly, remember that philosophy is the love of wisdom; you will miss something very important if you read with your head, but not with your heart.

[1] [As this student might be expected to know, for his IB Extended Essay on Tolkien gained full marks]


Appetite for Learning

Two weeks ago I wrote about some of the difficulties of learning to teach well. I ended with what I hoped would not be an afterthought: that students must also learn to become teachable. After all, as Barzun says, “Each individual must cure his or her own ignorance.” Earlier this week I had an email from my former colleague who taught a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge[1], reflecting on the teaching and learning of math.

We agree that appetites for learning tend to be discovered, awakened, and fed rather than instilled, though of course there are exceptions. But we also agree that there are forms of “appetite suppression” that one can learn or become acculturated to. Maybe an analogy is in order.

One of history’s greatest prodigies of eating and drinking must have been King Louis XIV. The Duke of St.-Simon and Nancy Mitford both reported his astounding appetite. His typical dinner, says Mitford, was “composed of four plates of different soups, a whole pheasant and a whole partridge or chicken or duck…stuffed with truffles, a huge quantity of salad, some mutton, two good slices of ham, a dish of pastry, raw fruit, compotes and preserves[2].” He was healthy enough even with his appetite to have reigned for seventy-two years, but his wife said that if she had eaten half as much as he, she would have been dead in a week. Clearly he did not need encouragement to eat a lot. Two contrasts suggest themselves: the person who naturally “eats like a bird,” and the kind of socialite Tom Wolfe calls a “social X-ray,” made skeletal by constant dieting in order to exemplify the Duchess of Windsor’s saying that “you can never be too rich or too thin.” In between lies the person with a typical appetite.

The analogous students are the budding Wranglers, who are ravenous and cannot get enough to study, the students who have little taste for x or y, and the typical student who can manage to finish his homework and sometimes even to ask for seconds. But the student analogous to the “social X-ray” is the one who is certain that having a life means indulging in a kind of intellectual anorexia.

My friend reports that a colleague of his had accepted the rightness of having discussion groups in math class, much like the knots of Exeter students around the Harkness table. A lot of good it did him! As soon as the desks were rearranged for working foursomes, the students would begin conversing about their extracurricular lives, gossip, etc., some of them even taking out snacks to eat as if at a café (“all carrots and salads and nutrition bars…”). “He did everything you are supposed to do, and most of the kids couldn’t care less, and it was an honors course.” Something is terribly wrong here: at the same school where a future Wrangler was studying, whole table-loads of students had for all practical purposes rejected the imperative to take trouble to learn seriously, even when they might have been able to.

It won’t do any good to harp on what the teacher does in the kitchen for a classroom of anorectics.

[1] This year’s Senior Wrangler, the top student in Cambridge’s famously difficult Mathematical Tripos program, is an 18-year-old called Arran Fernandez, who received the British equivalent of a high-school diploma at age 5. He was home-schooled, but my former colleague’s budding wiz studied math at high school (a little) and in university courses (a lot) before going to Cambridge. He received his high-school diploma at the usual age.

[2] If you are curious to see what Louis XIV’s dinner was like, follow this link to a 1966 movie by Roberto Rossellini called La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV, and advance the indicator to 1:17:00. Sorry: no subtitles, but the dish everyone bows to is “the King’s Meat” as it makes its progress from the kitchen to the royal table in a procession.