The Jefferson Test

Sometimes when another person’s lifestyle choices strike me as bizarre but don’t actually affect me, I’ll just shrug and say, “Well, it passes the Jefferson test.” Usually people have no idea what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d go ahead and explain it here so that I can conveniently refer people to it when the need arises.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And that seems like an appropriately high standard to maintain before getting involved in someone else’s business. If someone has a particularly strange belief or activities, but it does me no injury, then it passes the Jefferson test, and I move on. Life is short, and goals are hard enough to reach as it is without being deterred by things that aren’t actually obstacles.

Now, I’m aware that Jefferson was a hypocrite when it came to individual liberty, that his enslavement of other people manifestly fails the Jefferson test, and his other writings confirm that he was not merely unaware of the problem because of the era in which he lived, but wrestled with it, referring to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”. That’s why if you ask me who the figures from the American Revolution are who I respect I’ll say Thomas Paine and Roger Sherman, not Jefferson. However, those gentlemen didn’t come up with this particular pithy remark, Jefferson did, so there it is.

Take The Red Pill! (Not What You Think)

My friend Kirsten Tynan recently posted the following, and I think I may have taken it a little too seriously.

You’ll take the blue pill, because you love your dog, obviously. No, wait, actually not the blue one, because you love your dog. Think for a minute about what a terrible fate “never dies” might be when “doesn’t age” and “can’t be injured” aren’t explicitly included. And even if they are, sure, everything’s fine for a few hundred million years, but then solar output sequesters enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the Earth’s crust that photosynthesis stops working. No plant life, therefore no animal life, nothing to eat ever again. But worse, after a few billion years of that the Sun engulfs the planet. And after a few billion years of living in a fusion reaction the Sun goes cold and now Fido the Undying is stuck waiting for a trillion or so years for the end of the universe… except that apparently your hapless hound will even survive either the Big Crunch or the Big Rip.

So fine, how about yellow. No need to be selfish here, because there will be enough garlic bread available to end world hunger, right? You’ll be a hero! Next to you even Norman Borlaug will seem like a slacker! Except… consider that it says “infinite”, not “as much as you want up to infinite”, so on taking that pill, suddenly the entire universe would have infinite density, meaning all of existence would become a single gigantic black hole. On the plus side, yes, that would end world hunger, but not in the way one might hope.

Green is pretty useful, though, right? If you know what people are thinking, you can amaze them, or get away with almost anything, right? Sure, until you go insane. That one doesn’t say “read minds whenever you wish” and it doesn’t say anything about distance being a limitation, so if you take this one, your existence becomes a ceaseless cacophony of billions of thoughts. They’ll need to put you in a medical coma forever just to keep you from killing yourself. (And you’d better hope no one gives your dog a blue pill!)

But hey, red sounds pretty cool. Nothing could possible go wrong with that one.

No, Google Won’t Replace Higher Education

My friend Richard Eldredge drew my attention today to a piece by Jon Miltimore at FEE called Google’s Plan to Disrupt the College Degree Is Exactly What the Higher Education Market Needs. (If you want to read it, I’ll wait.)

When I first got into IT in the mid-’90s, it was the MCSE, or “Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer” certification that was having articles like this written about it. But higher education has a remarkable capacity to absorb potential challengers, and soon enough people were taking those MCSE awards and using them as transfer credit on the way to earning a degree. Sure enough, one can already do the same thing now with Google certifications.

Don’t get me wrong, having the certification was a lot better than not having it. It was certainly a boost for the start of my career, and one more quick than finishing a four year degree. But IT certifications weren’t a complete replacement in the labor market for an academic credential in the ’90s, and they aren’t today.

Moreover, Miltimore is basing his argument on a number of misconceptions. He says, “Unlike college, Google won’t just hand you a diploma and send you away, however. The company has promised to assist graduates in their job searches, connecting them with employers such as Intel, Bank of America, Hulu, Walmart, and Best Buy.” As someone who spent time working in Career Services at a university, I can assure you that colleges and universities do this too.

He also questions the value of earning a degree. It’s true that much of higher education is wildly overpriced, and that tuition, on average, has risen far faster than inflation has. But it’s also the case that the average person with a Bachelor’s degree earns something like a million dollars more in their career than someone who doesn’t. One disregards ROI like that at one’s peril.

That said, I do think that change is coming for higher education. But I don’t think degrees are going away, I just think that more and more people will wise up to how they can be earned for a small fraction of the cost of doing it traditionally. Well endowed top tier schools will feel little pressure to change and will do so the least. (As I remarked recently, Harvard Will Be Just Fine.) But a lot of the tuition-driven middle and lower tier institutions are sitting ducks for disruption from CBE-based institutions and other innovators, both within higher education and adjacent to it. But even if many of them have to adapt to survive and others fail and are absorbed by the survivors, higher education as a whole isn’t going away. Google and the like may pressure it in some ways and enhance it in others, just as technical certifications have done for decades, but they won’t replace it.

Spirit Of The Staircase

So, this is actually a little embarrassing, but too funny not to share anyway.

In early 1998, which as of this writing is nearly a quarter of a century ago, I had this little idea that it would be fun to read The Washington Post every day and whenever one of their writers said something especially boneheaded I would write the equivalent to a letter to the editor, but on a special web site of my own for that purpose.

It’s not like I had any kind of special antipathy towards the Post, then or now. On the contrary, it’s the newspaper I read growing up, and to this day my mom subscribes to their print edition. But no one is perfect, and their coverage does tend to slant in a different direction than I do — although it’s probably a point in their favor that I’ve seen both progressives and conservatives complain about their coverage.

There were a number of reasons I never followed through, including that I was too busy with things that actually paid; that it would have required a lot of manual formatting since blogging hosts hadn’t quite hit the scene by then; and, perhaps worst of all, that I was never sure what I would call it.

So all this time, in my mental attic of boxed up ideas it’s just been filed away as “the Post thing”. And it was only today, decades later, that totally out of the blue I realized the best possible name for it would be…

The Washington Riposte

And so ends what is probably the worst case of l’esprit de l’escalier in history.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do this, especially since I’m actually busier now that I was then. But at least now if I do ever decide to become a gadfly buzzing around the nation’s newspaper of record, I finally know what I’ll call it. And yes, I did register the domain name… just in case.

Harvard Will Be Just Fine

My colleague Dave Robson over at SpiralMath clued me in to an article by Brett Goldstein called The Unbundling of Harvard Has Begun. I had quite a few thoughts about it… okay, I have quite a few disagreements with it. But while I’ll admit that I’m about to give Goldstein a pretty hard time here, please read to the end, because I’ll close with something nice.

“There’s been a growing bubble in higher education for some time, but this may be the tipping point. The cost of tuition has been rising for years, but the value hasn’t.”

There are probably good examples to use for this, but Harvard isn’t one of them, because unlike less well-endowed institutions, it has a sliding scale. The families for whom fifty grand would be a big deal aren’t actually paying that. In fact, for middle class families, Harvard will now be effectively free because their share of tuition will be zero, and their kids won’t be burning cash in Cambridge.

“Online education is in its infancy.”

No, it’s not. Even if we don’t count things like PLATO, which debuted in 1960, universities were offering courses online by the mid-’90s. A quarter century is hardly “infancy”.

“Traditional higher education (as well as commerce and politics) is built on information scarcity. You pay to get access to information in universities that is impossible to get elsewhere.”

It’s true that much of what one would learn in college can be learned online. But the issue has never been the availability of knowledge, higher education is more than “content and conversation”. Once upon a time, public libraries were heralded as “people’s colleges” because of all the information contained within. But higher education survived the the public library, and it survived the Internet, despite periodic predictions for decades that it wouldn’t. It will survive the pandemic too.

The reason it survives is that the purpose of colleges and universities is not primarily to impart knowledge, it is to verify that knowledge through the credentials that they award. This is not something easily replicated, because the higher education system has shown a knack for absorbing potential competitors to its credentialing role. Back in the ’90s, a technical certification from Microsoft called MCSE was sought after by tech workers (including yours truly) because it essentially meant a decent paying job was guaranteed. A few other certifications were similarly important.

But rather than see that as competition, colleges and universities started accepting them as the equivalent to transfer credit, and offering credit-bearing courses that prepped students to sit the MCSE and other exams. Moreover, degrees do not expire, whereas technical certifications… well, let’s just say no one today cares that I’m certified as an expert system administrator for Windows NT 4.0.

“Also last week, the federal government made moves that confirmed growing sentiment that university degrees are becoming increasingly less important for successful employment.”

This is not because of the value of a degree (or lack thereof) this is because Trump perceives academia as an enemy of his administration. And while admitting that Trump is right about something isn’t exactly my default setting, in this case he definitely is.

“Keep in mind, this is all happening against the backdrop of continuous stories of individuals achieving incredible success despite lacking a traditional college education.”

Sure, that’s always been the case. But even now, on average, those who hold degrees make dramatically more money in their careers than those who do not. Just because a law is stochastic rather than deterministic doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

“This is the transition we’re beginning to make with online education. One-to-one translations of in person lectures to Zoom isn’t how remote learning should be done. Universities will need to reimagine education for this new medium to keep up.”

One of the reasons we make the point to refer to what’s happening as “remote learning”, is that it’s so different from what instructional designers and online educators have been doing for the last quarter century. Educational technologists will be the first to agree that what happened in Spring was mostly garbage. It takes time to build things right, so we’ll see whether having had the Summer to prepare leads to a better Fall.

“As universities continue to lose their relevance, students will seek alternatives. This spells immense opportunity for startups looking to unbundle the university experience.”

Again, higher education as an industry is much more diverse than this suggests. The stereotype may be of expensive campuses with climbing walls and lazy rivers and hordes of useless administrators driving up costs, but there’s a whole category of DEAC-accredited universities that offer only the basics, by distance learning, and at prices that often underbid even community colleges. (And Californians, did you know you can go to law school for about ten grand total? Because you can.) The scenario is not higher education vs. startups, because higher education contains startups.

So, I realize all that seems like I’m taking the pigeon approach of just flying around and crapping on everything. But I promised I’d close with something conciliatory.

Goldstein also says, “I launched Social Studies (currently as a newsletter) with the idea of unbundling Social Science education from universities and applying it to business.” One might think after that list of complaints that I wouldn’t be interested in learning more about what he plans. But the truth is that I’m actually his newest subscriber.

Why? Well, obviously I wish that people jumping into the EdTech space were better informed about its history, but I’m genuinely excited about the energy that people like Goldstein bring to education with their enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. I look forward to seeing what all these Davids build from their potshots at Goliath. I expect that higher education will absorb them, or be pushed in the right direction by them, as it has by other initiatives before. But maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll win. Either way, the increase in options for students makes for exciting times in higher education.

Academic Twitter Is For The Birds

Academia is a vibrant, healthy, global community consisting of people with a variety of origins, perspectives, and goals. But generally speaking, I believe we share a commitment to building a world where educators have access to the tools and skills we need to do what is best for students, and students are empowered to reach their goals without being exploited by the giant institutions that supposedly exist to serve them.

It’s interesting, then, that so many educators create content for closed, centralized, corporate platforms whose decision makers have amply shown that they do not have the best interests of our students or ourselves at heart. Scholarly publishing is the classic example of this, in that commercial publishers need us to conduct research, write articles about it, and provide peer review, all at our own expense, and then turn around and sell the results back to us. I’ve long believed that the existence of open source platforms like Janeway or OJS only highlight how unnecessary commercial publishers truly are if only we would show the confidence to abandon them in favor of community-run alternatives.

But scholarly publishing is not the only example. In honor of Open Education Week 2020, I’d rather focus on an activity that is very popular among those in higher education that I submit is not actually in our interest: Academic Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, like most people I participate in social media. And I see the value of Twitter in its simplicity. It requires those posting to it to get to the point (not always an academic strong suit!). Through @ and # it enables easy tagging of people and ideas to draw other people, friends and strangers, into a conversation potentially of interest to them. And its mobile app means that it’s accessible nearly everywhere (“I wasn’t ignoring your conference presentation, I was live-tweeting!”).

But Twitter facilitates this rapid exchange of small ideas at the cost of control. It’s yet another centralized corporate entity that absorbs all the data it can find, agglomerating information about its users for resale to advertisers various and sundry. As the saying goes, when you use Twitter, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And along with that centralized control comes top-down decision making that means that the approach taken by its corporate executives may differ from what many people in higher education might prefer.

Fortunately, Twitter is not the only platform that enables that sort of microblogging. A few years ago, Eugen “Gargron” Rochko took the programming code of an existing open source project and developed it into a platform called Mastodon. But instead of just using that code to set up a single alternative microblogging platform, he developed Mastodon to be free and its use to be decentralized. This means that different people or organizations can run their own Mastodon network, and set their own rules for their own particular community, and yet people with an account on one network can interact with people on other networks by following those other accounts, replying to them, and liking and boosting posts they liked, just as they can on Twitter. In networking terms, this constellation of different Mastodon networks is “federated”, and the sum of them together is often referred to as the “Fediverse”.

And the Fediverse isn’t just connective tissue for different Mastodon networks. Open networks that run on other software, designed for different purposes, are part of what’s being built. One of these is called Diaspora, it works similarly to Facebook. One is called PeerTube, it works similarly to YouTube. But developers of open networks aren’t just trying to copy the functionality of existing services, for example the fine people who develop Moodle LMS are building MoodleNet, which in will allow educators to collaboratively build curricular resources and share them openly, all while interacting with the rest of the Fediverse.

By this point you may be asking if the Fediverse is so great, why haven’t we all moved there yet? The sticking point is critical mass. Twitter has enormous first mover advantage, and most people who are interested in microblogging are already there, which means if you want your posts to reach the widest possible audience (and really, who doesn’t?) then that’s the best place to be. But as Tom from MySpace can tell you, getting there early and building critical mass aren’t unassailable advantages. If we want a social media world that we control, that’s built for us and meets our needs, it’s within our grasp.

As things are now, there are plenty of interesting people already posting in the Fediverse every day, many of which are listed by interest in a directory called Trunk. There are Mastodon networks aimed at people in almost every walk of life, including ones meant for people in higher education. A few are listed below.

There’s no need to make the leap all at once, as It’s also possible both to keep participating in Twitter for now while also getting involved in the Fediverse, there’s even a free tool that lets you connect your accounts so that you only have to post in one for it to appear on both. But I think you’ll find that once you start finding like-minded people in the Fediverse, you’ll appreciate interacting with them in an open environment.

As with alternatives to commercial publishers, all it would take for us to build a successful decentralized Academic Fediverse is the will to do so. So the next move is yours: you can keep devoting your productive energy for the benefit of surveillance capitalists, but I hope you’ll join me in helping to build a better world of open social media.

Fediverse Resources

  • Join Mastodon: an easy introduction to Mastodon
  • mastodon.social: a general interest Mastodon network that is open to all
  • scholar.social: a Mastodon network meant for those in higher education
  • mastodon.oeru.org: a Mastodon network hosted by OERu, an outstanding organization that connects dozens of higher education institutions around the world to collaborate in developing and using open educational resources
  • Mastodon Twitter Crossposter: this free service allows you to automatically post your tweets to your Mastodon account, or your Mastodon posts to your Twitter account, your choice!
  • Trunk: a great way to find Fediverse accounts worth following, based on shared interests
  • My account: follow me and I’ll follow you!

Remembering Rick Sincere

Recently my dear friend Rick Sincere passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was only sixty, so it was quite a blow for him to be taken from us before his time. There are many stories I could tell to describe the sort of person he was, but perhaps the best is that of how we met and the positive effect that had on my life.

I was raised by Great Society Democrats in Arlington, Virginia, a very left-leaning area where people tend to be extremely politically aware even from a young age. When I was a teenager I remember Lloyd Bentson’s devastating slam of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate, and the next day at school we were all talking about it like normal kids in a normal town would be talking about some amazing play in the Superbowl. And as one would expect in that sort of environment, as a young person I was very much a kneejerk social democrat.

However, in 1992, I had realized even as a naive nineteen year old that Bill Clinton was pretty crooked. But I certainly wasn’t going to vote for Bush, so prior to the election I decided to consider third party alternatives. One of those was the Libertarian Party, and while in true LP fashion they ended up sending me information several weeks after the election, I became curious about this strange little party with their unparalleled commitment to civil liberties and social tolerance — which I could see was far stronger than the Democrats’ — but their then-perplexing commitment to free market economics.

Eventually, I decided to go meet one of their candidates for the Virginia state legislature and ask them to explain what I then saw as the disconnect between their stands on social issues and fiscal ones. Fortunately for me, that candidate was Rick. He was the most friendly, civil, and conversational candidate I had ever met, and his breadth of knowledge was truly impressive. Even though I was approaching him at the Arlington County Fair, a public event where he probably should have done his best to meet as many passers-by as possible, he patiently answered all of my questions and gave me many new things to think about. And from that, I came around to his way of thinking, and ended up dropping everything to work tirelessly as his campaign’s communications director. It was the start of my lifelong interest in maximizing individual freedom, and I have Rick Sincere to thank for giving me that important part of who I am.

Afterwards, we remained friends for life. I didn’t always see him frequently, but whenever I did, it was as we’d just seen each other the day before. From time to time we would help each other on various outreach or business projects, and once when I discovered he had no Thanksgiving plans he joined me and my mom, where he was, of course, the most polite and fascinating dinner guest imaginable. One of our shared interests was current events in Sub-Saharan Africa, and for several years up to his death he edited a publication affiliated with my university, called Sub-Saharan Monitor, and unsurprisingly it was our best read feature. The last time I saw him was related to this, when he invited me to attend a reception he and a colleague held a few weeks ago for the visiting president of Guinea.

His memorial service was held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. D.C., and at first I thought it was pretty funny that his family and friends would gather to remember such a great libertarian in a place named for a tax collector. But then I realized that maybe it was rather appropriate, since just as Jesus was known to associate with anyone, so too was Rick always willing to have a friendly conversation even with people with whom he disagreed. In this he was a model of civility well worth celebrating, especially now, when his shining example stands in such contrast to the spirit of the times.

So farewell, Rick. I miss you already, and I will carry you in my heart forever.

Focus On What You See

It seems that in the last few years there’s been an increase in the way that many in the media promote petty intergenerational rivalries. It started with stereotypes about Millennials being lazy, unfocused, and self-absorbed, but has since progressed to stereotypes of Baby Boomers as having selfishly destroyed the economy, using up resources, and generally leaving societal institutions of politics, media, finance, religion, etc., in a worse state than they found them. An example would be the vitriol expressed by some younger people when they find out that many senior citizens get steep discounts at many universities.

Most people leave the front door wide open when it comes to allowing ideas that they get from media to enter their ways of thinking. And sure enough, those stereotypes can be found all over social media being expressed by ordinary people, ranging from wry offhand slights all the way to the way to outrage.

Unfortunately, the problem is much more broad than just Millennials and Baby Boomers. It’s as if we’re being goaded into conflict, with collectivist ideas constantly being emitted towards us subtly and not-so-subtly that people are defined primarily by the groups to which they belong, and that each of those groups is suspect.

Consider every media message you encounter that has the effect of making you feel negatively about another group. Obviously this includes big things like age, race, national origin, religion, political affiliation, region of the country, and so forth, but it’s more insidious than that. Look at how socially acceptable it is to ridicule hipsters and vegans, not because they’re harmful, but simply because it’s an idea virus that’s spread across our culture without any real critical thinking taking place to counteract it.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a day and count all the times you come into contact with a message that, upon reflection, you can tell is meant to be divisive. Take special care to count messages that are meant to make you feel comfortable about yourself at others’ expense.

I should add that I’m not suggesting this is a pernicious conspiracy. Yes, Russian troll farms exist to stir the pot, but for the most part I think that reader and viewer attention is what sells ads, and that if you want someone’s attention, an effective way to get it and hold on to it through a commercial break is to outrage them.

Either way, given how pervasive the problem is, what’s the solution? Well, in the epic ’90s sci-fi series Babylon 5, Commander Sinclair remarks, “Ignore the propaganda. Focus on what you see.”  To do that requires retraining one’s mind to resist the collectivism of seeing people in terms of the groups to which they belong, and instead think of them first and foremost as individuals, with all the extraordinary potential variety that entails.

It takes a little practice, but after a while, not only will you have immunized yourself against these sorts of negative idea viruses, you’ll be amazed (and not a little dismayed) that most people can’t see how glaring stereotypes and generalizations are being used in a way that keeps people divided.

Why Do Senior Citizens Get University Discounts?

Recently a friend on social media has commented repeatedly and negatively about the Baby Boomer generation, and as part of this asked for my comment about the University of Minnesota’s Senior Citizen Education Program, which allows state residents 62 and older to take courses and even earn degrees for a negligible cost. It’s similar to programs nationwide, both at public and private institutions, that offer very low cost university education to senior citizens.

My friend was outraged by this: “People desperately taking classes to try to find a decent job pay upwards of $2,500 a credit, whereas entitled fucks living a life of luxury and taking classes on a whim pay $10?”

(First of all, no matter how old you are, if you’re paying upwards of $2,500 a credit for university courses, you’re making a horrible mistake. There are ways to earn a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited U.S. university for less than ten thousand dollars total. But that’s a post for another day.)

Still, it’s not like he doesn’t have a point. It’s fair to ask, if higher education for credit can be provided to senior citizens at such a low cost, why can’t it be provided to younger people at that cost, especially since they’re the ones who will benefit the most from it?

The arguments that I recall seeing for low cost university programs for seniors include:

  • Those programs generally only allow seniors to sit in a class only after all the full price students have all been accommodated. They’re basically “flying standby”, so they’re not in anyone’s way.
  • On the opposite end, at most schools courses will be cancelled if enrollment isn’t high enough. By counting those seniors, sometimes a course will run that wouldn’t have otherwise, which improves access for full price younger students, particularly in the liberal arts.
  • Schools may make up for it in the long run, as seniors who feel a connection to a college or university may bequeath more to it on their deaths than they would have paid in tuition. (This would explain why some non-public institutions offer similar programs to seniors.)

But even if all of those reasons hold water and these programs can be shown not to cost taxpayers anything, I can’t help but agree with my friend in one respect: in an era when total student loan debt in the U.S. is now over $1.5 trillion, the optics of making that same service free to those who need it the least are absolutely terrible.

So that’s my response to this specific issue. But this is just a small part of a much more broad division within society, and for more on that, click/tap here.

Fortress of Solitude

My youngest has the unfortunate habit of taking a glass upstairs for water every night and not bringing them back down in the morning. When I looked in his room a few minutes ago I said, “Noah, the very next thing you will do is take all of these glasses downstairs! There’s so much crystal in your room that it looks like the Fortress of Solitude. I’m afraid a hologram of Jor-El is going to appear!”

But he just looked at me blankly, because he had no idea what I meant. So, the moral of the story is that today I learned that I have neglected to ensure that my youngest has seen the original Superman movie from 1978, the one directed by Richard Donner that stars the late great Christopher Reeve. We will correct this at the earliest opportunity. I just hope it doesn’t inspire him to take more glasses up there rather than fewer….