Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Death; Bullying Still Irrelevant

In light of the subject of my post yesterday, it’s truly remarkable that I happened to click onto this NY Daily News’ story about Monday’s shooting at a school in Chardon, OH. One paragraph below a picture of the shooter, T.J. Lane being ushered into the back of a vehicle in cuffs, the author writes, “Prosecutors on Tuesday described Lane, 17, as ‘someone who’s not well,’ and rejected claims the violence stemmed from him being bullied.” Since I’d practically just gotten through criticizing the irresponsible overuse of the term “bullying,” my first reaction to that line was, naturally, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

This is two egregious applications of the same media buzzword on two consecutive days, one extraneously denied as a factor in a young girl’s death, and the other extraneously denied as a factor in a teenage boy’s commission of murder. I really hope that my having read both of these stories is coincidence, and not a result of the media being so saturated with the bullying narrative that it’s this easy to find awful examples of its misapplication.

So the prosecutors in the Lane case rejected claims of bullying? I find it interesting that the author points that out but makes no note of from whom those claims came in the first place. Was it other students? Lane himself? His parents or his teachers? Was it a contingent of the public that has no connection to the case but has heard a lot from the media about the spectacular effects of some bullying epidemic? Or did the media itself float that assertion to prosecutors so they would have reason to print the denial?

Wherever the claim came from, it points to the fact that the media obsession with the concept of bullying has led at least some segment of society to readily jump upon bullying as the easiest explanation of virtually any problem among children or teens. The obsession didn’t seem quite so endemic yesterday, but when the same buzzword is presented as the most likely cause of both victimization and victimhood, there’s a good chance that the narrative has a really pervasive influence.

The farther the term reaches in absence of evidence for the appropriateness of its use, the less meaning that term retains. If bullying was initially seen as the probable cause for a girl being killed yesterday, but today it was seen as the initial probable cause for a boy killing his classmates, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that the explanatory use of the concept is arbitrary. If it can work in either direction, why didn’t UPI say yesterday that there was no evidence that Joanna Ramos was attacked because she was bullying the other girl? Why didn’t the Daily News ask defense attorneys whether Lane had targeted the three dead students because they were the victims of his bullying?

Unless the media can explain to me some nuanced justification that they’ve applied, I’m going to assume that in one case the story was already focused on Ramos and in the other case it was already focused on Lane, and the author of each piece had to leverage the bullying buzzword in somehow.

I understand the need that many people have to make sense of tragedy, and these narratives help people to do that more quickly and easily. But the same narratives compel people to make sense of tragedy inaccurately and incompletely. The media’s enablement of the impulse to grab the most uniform explanations and the let the stories lay does no one any good. In fact, the news media has a responsibility to discourage those impulses and to provide us with information that is thorough, accurate, and relevant, even if it complicates our understanding of the world.

I suppose I should give credit to each of these articles for actually dispelling the bullying claim, but the fact remains that there was no reason to raise it in the first place. Doing so just serves to tie these and other such stories together in a very tenuous way. That just muddles our collective understanding of these events as what they are – separate, distinct, but equivalently awful tragedies.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

UPI Exploits Death Again - This Time it's a Little Girl

I’m quick to grow painfully tired of media buzzwords. Their overuse tends to strip them of all legitimate meaning. It takes a small-scale breaking point for the public to realize this in individual cases, but it will take a major breaking point for the media to recognize the counterproductive effects of their attention-seeking repetition.

I’ve noticed this recently with the word “bullying.” Frequently, when there are stories about children or teenagers who were victims of violence, harassment, or suicide, or who were subject to practically any interactions on the internet, the news media leverages in some sort of comment about bullying, seemingly in an effort to give unifying context to virtually every such story. That wouldn’t be objectionable, but it seems to me that “bullying” is a descriptive term that we apply to a situation only after we’ve identified it as such. If a child is being systematically harassed by a person or group of people, we say that he’s being bullied because that’s simply what the word means.

But that’s not the way the media uses it. Instead, they tend to talk about bullying like it is some kind of disease, which has a very specific set of symptoms and can be identified at any stage in its life cycle by a trained professional. Indeed, the disease corollary may be quite intentional, designed to make modern bullying seem less like an ordinary phenomenon and more like an epidemic, and thus something about which to feel a certain sense of panic. Applying it as a buzzword reframes bullying so that it’s no longer a term that concisely identifies a set of similar situations; instead it is the situation.

Never has the manipulative use of the term been clearer than in the UPI news brief about the death of ten year-old Joanna Ramos after a fight at a Southern California elementary school. The article summarizes the story in a few brief paragraphs, explaining that she and another girl had fought, that she suffered blunt force trauma that resulted in a blood clot in her brain, that her death has been ruled a homicide and that prosecutors have yet to determine whether charges will be filed. Then, after all the details of the actual case have been conclusively stated, UPI adds this as a concluding sentence: “There have been no allegations that Ramos was being bullied, KTLA reported Friday.”

If there have been no such allegations, then why on Earth is that relevant to the tragic story of a young girl being killed? Does her being or not being bullied affect the seriousness of the loss? Does it make her any more or less dead? Does it make the girl with whom she fought any more or less guilty of manslaughter? The only reason there ever could be for pointing out the absence of a particular charge or connection is if that piece of information would have been relevant. In this case, it just isn’t. It might have mattered, for the sake of complete coverage, if the girl was being bullied, but there’s no need to specifically dispel that possibility every time a child is killed. To do so is to suggest that bullying is typically a precursor to death among children and that the absence of bullying in this case is anomalous and therefore noteworthy.

Again, I’m sure that’s intentional. Actual relevance is the only legitimate reason for addressing the absence of allegations, but the media has reasons for that behavior that aren’t legitimate. If it’s a chance to leverage in a buzzword that they think their audience is expecting, that’s evidently good enough for them.

Bullying is a problem. It’s always been a problem. Using it as this catchall term in the media, though, cheapens that problem. It broadens awareness of the issue to the point of obfuscating recognition of actual instances of it. Isolated acts of violence constitute their own problem. And using a girl’s death from such an act in order to push your narrow media narrative is cheap, tactless and unethical. But considering that UPI is the same outlet that exploited Andrew Embiricos’ death back in December, cheap, tactless and unethical is evidently par for the course for them. They don’t set the overall media narratives, though. Everybody’s culpable for that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Existential Questions and the Hiring Process

I’m doing some consulting work that has required me to look over some academic materials regarding hiring procedures. This has gone a long way towards reminding me of my personal distaste for formulaic assessment of human worth. Is this symptomatic of the computer age? Are we subjugating even character judgments to algorithms and statistical analysis, in lieu of personal judgment?

In the past, when I’ve taken personality tests and questionnaires as part of the process of applying for run-of-the-mill jobs, I’ve bristled at the notion that my answers to a series of seemingly disconnected questions was trusted as a means of gauging my work ethic, attitude, or personal character. Such experiences also constituted some of the first instances of my feeling cheated by my own ethics, as I worried that interviews and positions tended to go to people who were willing to lie favorably about themselves. I even asked an employer once if their assessments took this into account. Her somewhat sympathetic response was to tell me that the entire thing was handled by an outside company – a fact which I think makes my point even more clearly. Not only are hiring decisions often not made face-to-face, they’re often not made in the same building or within the same professional framework as the prospective job.

The research I’ve lately done on the topic vindicates my concerns at least slightly. Written tests that seek to gauge professional virtue do include a scatter of questions that are designed to judge the honesty of the applicants by encouraging brownnosers to select unreasonably optimistic answers. Still, I think these sorts of tricks are sufficiently obvious that if you’re both dishonest and a careful reader you’ll have no problem exploiting the system despite being a seriously flawed applicant.

My problem with these kinds of practices is that they evidently try to generate a rather nuanced understanding of another person, of the sort that would usually be derived from days or months of interaction with him. And they try to do it at a significant remove, in perhaps as little as a half an hour. Perhaps the best example of this hubris from the materials I’ve been reading is the biographical information blank. As a hiring technique it is apparently almost a century old, though I am not personally familiar with it. It strives to correlate information about the potential employee’s background with indicators of his potential success with the company.

If I were to face the questions associated with this hiring practice, I would feel even more immediately and egregiously misrepresented than I have already felt in the presence of “honesty and integrity tests” or “personality and interest inventories.” I may be unique in this, but I find myself uncomfortable with practically any answer I can give to such quizzes, because there is at least some degree of vagueness behind most questions. Anything that asks me to rank my response to a statement on a scale of one to five prompts a lot of hand-wringing as I try to determine whether to round up or down or how to interpret what would really characterize neutrality on an issue.

One would think this wouldn’t be an issue with a biographical questionnaire, which asks for straightforward short-answer responses to direct questions. But some of the examples that I’ve encountered suggest that my overly analytical nature would make even this distressingly complicated. When it’s printed on paper and I have no opportunity to discuss interpretation with the asker, a question such as “at what age did you leave home?” prompts me to silently wonder what is meant by leaving home. Does going to college count if you remained a dependent of your parents? If a person stayed for several months with a nearby friend and then returned to his family, would that count as having left home? And additionally I wonder, what correlation is such information supposed to have with job performance? But at least that curiosity doesn’t affect how an individual would answer the question.

However, in the case of the question, “How large was the town/city in which you lived as a child?” I feel as though there should be an established standard for how to answer the question if the responses of different people are being judged against one another. It’s easy to answer that question, but it’s pretty likely that different people are going to have different concepts of comparative size. What confuses me about these methods of analysis is the question of how much exposition is needed. I feel like reviewers would want these things to be brief and easily digestible, but I also feel like if they’re supposed to genuinely represent a person’s background they can’t be.

But maybe I’m just insane. I can’t imagine that a lot of other people look at questions like “did you ever build a model airplane that flew?” and think to themselves, what constitutes flying? How much distance does it have to cover relative to its size for it to be considered a successful flight? Also, if it was assembled from a kit, does that count as building it? Is there any way to weight the two scenarios against each other?

I imagine answering to “were sports a big part of your childhood?” and I say, define “big.” Also, define “sports.” And “childhood.” The question doesn’t use the word “playing,” so if a person watched a lot of sports on television, would he get to answer in the affirmative? Is miniature golf as much a sport as football? For the purposes of the question, is late adolescence childhood? If I was heavily involved in martial arts training between the ages of eight and nine, and then again between thirteen and seventeen, does that count?

“Do you play any musical instruments?” Well, how much practice does an applicant have to say yes to this one? What if it’s just the kazoo? Is playing a musical instrument indicative of suitability for the job? It seems to me that even in the case of biographical information an applicant can manipulate the evaluation in his favor by bending the truth to make himself look more impressive than he is. That, however, would never be my impulse. When I face things like this, I need to make myself look as much like myself as possible.

Certainly, I need to reach a personal breaking point after which I’ll be able to let go of some measure of my obsessive need for precision. (I’m not sure precisely what measure of that need I need to get rid of.) But at the same time, I think my neurosis has something worthwhile to say about these types of evaluations, and the powerful elements of society need to reach a breaking point after which they no longer arrogantly think that a person’s background or overall character can be determined from a series of multiple choice questions and short answers. No matter how sophisticated our business literature or computer algorithms, they can’t reproduce acquaintanceship, interpretation, or understanding.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Tragedy of the Modern Library

I try to listen to A Prairie Home Companion each Saturday evening, in large part because, despite being politically and socially liberal, I am personally quite conservative and prone to nostalgia and wistfulness for a purer experience of things that it seems I was denied by the unrelenting progress of history. This week’s broadcast featured an episode in the adventures of Ruth Harrison, reference librarian, a character who is rather similar in that regard. She is educated, non-combative, socially permissive, but often silently critical of people’s tastes and a widespread loss of noble ideals.

In this latest episode she editorialized for a moment in conversation with her twenty-eight year-old intern, Trent (not the other one, Brent, who is thirty-seven) after he had helped a patron find a thriller that showcased truly heinous crimes. Miss Harrison, voiced by the highly talented Sue Scott, commented: “In library school we were taught that the role of the library is to educate, to uplift, not to cater to every whim.” I didn’t even go to library school, but I have always had the same image of libraries.

On hearing that line of dialogue, I thought of the last couple of trips I have taken to the Central Library in the City of Buffalo. It has come a long way from the libraries that were so domestically familiar to me throughout elementary and high school. These days, when you walk around a library, you find that the stacks are deserted but that a sea of people stretches throughout the computer banks. On an occasion when I lost my internet connection, I had to carry my laptop to the library in order to borrow its wireless connection for a day. Doing so made me feel sort of cheap and disloyal, and it also gave me an opportunity to occasionally observe the behavior of the other patrons, which in turn made me feel worse.

I noticed a middle aged couple sharing a long game of solitaire on one computer. Elsewhere, a man about my age was watching Youtube. My eyes have passed over various computer screens each time I’ve been back there, and I find that these are extremely commonplace activities. Many different kinds of games are played in the Buffalo library – first-person shooters, adventure games, bejeweled and similar puzzles. A significant portion of the library patronage these days, perhaps the majority, is evidently poor people who have no access to such entertainment at home and utilize the library for the idle passage of time instead.

Oh, to be poor but also have such free time or the means of transportation to frequent the region’s most expansive library! I understand not reading because you simply don’t have the time amidst your exhausting and low-paying work, and I understand having little access to either books or technology, particularly in a town where everything is so spread-out. But here the people I’ve seen at the library have the opportunity to beautifully enrich their lives with the information and artistry that surrounds them in a variety of media, and they choose to play dull games. It is a tragedy that libraries are used this way, that they are little more than the low-rent internet cafes and LAN parties of the twenty-first century.

Even if people ventured away from the computers, I find that the most prominently featured books aren’t all that much better. I want to believe that there are a few librarians who work in that building and react to the public much as does Ruth Harrison, diligently pointing them towards the popular fiction with easily digestible plots and few themes, then lamenting that she could have recommended Hemmingway or Faulkner. I’ve found that those sorts of lamentations often meet with comments along the lines of, “Hey, anything that gets kids reading.” That’s not the least bit persuasive to me. The mere act of allowing one’s brain to process typewritten words doesn’t in and of itself make for a richer intellectual experience than other alternatives. Is a child really better off reading Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown than watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on DVD or listening closely to a Brahms symphony?

The sentiment of “as long as they’re reading” speaks to what I think is the underlying misconception that drives the degradation of libraries and of collective appreciation of art and literature. It also speaks to the difficulty that we face in reversing the trend. I resent what libraries have become, but I see no way of changing them back into grand temples of information and culture. In order to draw in the public and avoid closure, they have to provide the type of access that people want. And as a matter of principle, anything that qualifies as information or culture should have a place there, regardless of its intrinsic quality. So it’s not as if there is any cause for libraries to restrict people from being able to use them in such frivolous ways. But so long as easy escapism can be found there, the public will surely continue to gravitate toward it.

We need a collective breaking point to overturn the misconception, which drives both trends, that a greater quantity of information is effectively the same as a greater quality. I’m inclined to think that libraries think they are providing an adequate public service and that the public thinks it is adequately utilizing that service simply because, between the books and the high-speed internet, there’s a lot of information that’s directly accessible to the entire public. It doesn’t seem to matter how it’s utilized. But the danger to libraries is the danger to all of society – that as everything comes to be more and more at our fingertips, we will grow increasingly complacent about it and let the petty distractions dominate our attention. Since everything else is still there, such allowances seem to come at the expense of nothing, but in fact they come at the expense of our very minds.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Simplistic Thinking from Educated People: Arne Duncan

Every time a representative of the government goes on the television or radio to talk about higher education, my blood boils a little at my recognition of the simple-mindedness that governs policy in that area. On last night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s guest was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At the very end of the portion of the interview that went to air (the entire thing is available in three parts on the web), Duncan made the most indefensibly black-and-white assessment of the outcomes of education that I have yet encountered.
First, though, he pointed out that the United States is now ranked 16th in number of college graduates, whereas a generation ago it was in first place. He further explained that our rate of graduation hasn’t fallen, but has leveled off, allowing fifteen other countries to surpass us. Now, after a good deal of research, I’ve found that different reports come to different conclusions on the exact ranking, and they base those rankings on different criteria applied to different countries, so I can’t pin down exactly which countries beat out the US on this subject, or even whether Duncan is quite correct with his statistics. But it’s certainly the case that we’re far from the top, and some countries can be pretty conclusively identified as exceeding us in provision of tertiary education.
Duncan’s point is apparently that our achievement of benchmark standards for secondary education is insufficient to prepare students for college and university. I’ll eagerly agree that that’s true, but it is unhelpfully presumptuous to assume that that’s the only important factor contributing to low levels of higher education attainment. What of the steadily climbing costs of college tuition and the dearth of public funds to compensate for the out-of-pocket expense for students and parents? Might that not hold back some perfectly capable students from actually obtaining the education that they’re intellectually, but not financially, suited for?
Among countries in the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development, the United States is 29th out of 34 in terms of how much funding for educational institutions comes from public funds. Not only is this situation accepted by US society, it is lauded by some elements thereof. Private institutional dominance of tertiary education, and indeed of all segments of society, increases competition and improves outcomes, they say. But with the US ranking somewhere around 16th in educational attainment, it’s clearly not working that way. In fact, among the nations that are fairly reliably ranked well ahead of the US on this point, many are classed as those nations that conservative Americans tend to envision as socialist hellscapes.
Several Northern European countries are variously placed in lead positions on the list, including Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands. What’s more, an Economic Policy Institute study of the affordability and accessibility of higher education in various countries concludes that “Finland and the Netherlands should be models for the international community” when it comes to both of these factors.
The correlation between cost and completion rates is not overwhelming, but it is sufficient that it needs to be explored as a factor, rather than being discounted among the ongoing repetition of the claim that if kids are smarter, they’ll always do better. There are other factors, and to deny that is to accept such unforgivably single-minded approaches to solving our problems as will only worsen some aspects of the situation. It’s not just that we’re failing at educating our children, though certainly we are doing that. It’s also that we’re failing to provide our children with suitable opportunities, access, and incentives.
Duncan seems to be under the mistaken impression that the problem underlying our trend of slipping behind the rest of the post-industrial world is just that students are failing at an alarming rate. But it’s not just dropouts that account for the low completion rate; the US ranks behind most of the OECD countries in terms of actual enrollment in higher education. And that fact is specifically ascribed in part to rising costs. That should be fairly obvious, especially to a Harvard-trained economist like Arne Duncan. As opportunity costs rise, the rational motivation for people to invest in something goes down.
The response to this would probably – nay, certainly – be that the opportunity costs of not attending college are unquantifiably higher than the material costs of attending. To that I would offer the simple challenge: prove it. The claim is repeated in the media constantly, always asserted, always assumed, but never adequately proven. And it would be one thing if the assertion was just that, on average, people with higher education backgrounds tend to do better than those without them. But that’s not what representatives of the administration say. Instead, they spread the hideously uncritical idea that if you get a college degree you are guaranteed success, and if you don’t get one you are guaranteed failure.
Do you think I’m mischaracterizing their claims? Arne Duncan said it on the Daily Show: “We have a million young people dropping out of school every year. A million. There are no jobs. None. They are guaranteed poverty and social failure.”
Guaranteed, he says. That there are any guarantees in life is an odious and socially detrimental lie. Virtually nobody would argue that people aren’t better off overall if they’re educated. For my part, I think that education is the most important thing that a person can pursue in life, though I am careful to emphasize that there are different ways of pursuing education, some far less expensive than others, and that education can serve a variety of ends, from vocational training to living a richer, fuller life of poverty. But the universal economic benefit of higher education is a baseless assertion so long as there are other explanations for a portion of the correlation between education and earnings, and other alternatives as to how hiring and job training might take place.
Now, Arne Duncan wasn’t very specific when he said “a million students dropping out.” If he was referring to students who drop out of high school, sure, they have their work seriously cut out for them if they want to be materially or socially successful. However, I’d still consider it irresponsibly closed-minded to say that both poverty and social failure are absolute guarantees for every child who has dropped out of high school in recent years.
Even working at a fast food restaurant can eventually allow a person to make a living wage, as long as he or she doesn’t rush to have children or otherwise climb into a hole that can’t be escaped through years of earnest work and eagerly sought promotions. What’s more, I’ve known people who’ve dropped out of high school and then obtained GEDs earlier than when they would have theoretically graduated. Hell, my ex-girlfriend never finished high school, and she leapt easily from job to job, quitting without notice and being hired for positions with higher pay, more responsibilities, and better titles, all at a time when I, with my fancy NYU degree, couldn’t so much as secure an interview for anything more than an eight dollar per hour retail job. Some people are just lucky; some just aren’t.
Regardless, I don’t think Duncan was referring to high school dropouts. The only statistics that I could find on short notice were from the 2004-05 school year, at which time 540,382 students dropped out of school between grades nine and twelve. Unless that number has doubled in seven years, I think Duncan was referring to any student who has dropped out at any level, primary, secondary, or tertiary. If so, some of the Americans who have been guaranteed poverty and social failure according to Arne Duncan include billionaires Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren, Dean Kamen, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as a pretty extensive list of other highly successful individuals in a variety of fields.
This repetition of a shockingly simplistic set of talking points about higher education has got to stop. Is learning good? Chirst, yes! That part is perfectly simple. But it’s not a purely economic good, and to whatever extent it does improve your income potential, that’s not the only factor. There is something to be said for the influence of social connections, environment, work ethic, opportunity, investment capital, employer bias, and plain old luck. Amidst all of that, what I want to see happen is that kids start going to school not because they want to make money, but because they want to learn. Is it really too much to ask that we encourage education on those grounds, rather than trying to deceive every young person into pursuing something that he’s not interested in and at which he’s no good?