With But a Single Thought

And speaking of self-fulfilling prophecies…We were speaking of them the other day in High Tension and ever since I keep bumping into them. You know how that goes, when you mention something or learn a new word and immediately afterward it’s everywhere. It’s been happening to me with that word ‘quotidian’ which I was told is a very rare, peculiar word – I keep hearing and reading it. It doesn’t seem to be all that rare. And self-fulfilling prophecy is everywhere too. There was that Robert Frank article in the NY Times a few days ago (which unfortunately has now gone into the archive and which the link generator never generated a link for, so I can’t quote from it), pointing out that first-year economics students are substantially more likely to believe that people (including economics students) are self-interested than non-economics students are. Actually ‘non-economics students’ is a hand-wave, because I don’t remember who the comparison group was. Than Xs are, it should have said. At any rate, the article was interesting, and persuasive. Many economists do seem to think that way, which makes their writing often a combination of the revelatory and the absurd. One minute one is thinking ‘Oh of course, that’s how that works,’ and the next one is thinking ‘Oh come on, that’s just not the only thing that motivates everyone!’ I’ve had that reaction in reading Frank himself, in fact. The Winner-Take-All Society and Luxury Fever. They’re very explanatory and stimulating, but they also keep leaving out huge aspects of the question, by assuming that everyone wants ‘success’ in the sense of Mo Money. But people want other things too, and sometimes even instead.

And Todd Gitlin talks about it in his Mother Jones article on David Horowitz’s campaign to get state legislatures to bean-count university faculties and their reading lists.

Academics do flock together and sometimes abuse their power. The even more intractable problem is that conformity, both the faculty’s and the students’, is self-fulfilling, lending itself to the enshrinement of the smug, the snug, and the narrow. Much of the muffling, as always, is the product of peer pressure, which is as real at liberal arts colleges as at military academies. When fundamentals go unquestioned and dissenters are intimidated, those who prevail get lazier and dumber.

Yup. But then – as Gitlin goes on to say, the answer is not to get The State (that is, the local real estate agents moonlighting as legislators) to fix the problem. The answer is to question fundamentals yourself. Not call the cops to ask fundamental questions for you, just shrug your shoulders, eat a handful of nuts or arugula for endurance, take a deep breath, and get in there and disagree with someone. Quit whining; show some backbone.

How deep is the silence? Hard to know. Much cited in conservative columns is a 2002 survey by the student newspaper at Wesleyan University, according to which a full 32 percent of the students felt “uncomfortable speaking their opinion” on the famously liberal campus. Whatever that means exactly, the pop-psych language is telling. Since when is higher education supposed to make you feel comfortable, anyway? In a largely unexamined triumph of marketplace values, college has come to be seen as a consumable product…What follows is grade inflation, epidemic cheating, scorn for a common curriculum, and an all-around supermarket attitude. Consumer choice—embrace whatever turns you on, avoid whatever turns you off—is elevated to a matter of high principle.

Exactly. It’s the ‘comfortable’ thing again. See Dictionary. You’re not supposed to feel comfortable! Plenty of time for that once you’re dead. While you’re alive you’re supposed to feel awake, alert, challenged, on the stretch.

And then there was this article about Summers and research on gender differences – which brings us around in a circle, because that was the subject of the ‘High Tension’ post. So we’re talking about the same thing here. Here:

There is a lot of tension in all this – because there are some rational, non-ostrich-like, non-fingers-in-ears, non-You Can’t Say That reasons for worry about, for instance, saying that a particular identifiable set of people may have, in however small a statistical sense, less of a given ability than another set or sets. One such reason is the self-fulfilling prophesy. The worry is that if you tell people – especially and all the more so if you tell them officially academically scientifically studies have shownically – that they are, or they belong to a group or subset of the population that is, statistically, however slightly and tail end effectly, innately less good at X, there is very often a strong tendency for the people in question to give up on X as a result. To relax their efforts, to decide it’s hopeless, to give themselves permission not to bang their heads against a wall.

And in the article:

Aronson and his colleagues have shown that many of the performance differences between men and women, and also between different races, can be erased with minor adjustments that influence test takers’ confidence. Tell a group of girls before a math exam that the test does not detect gender differences in mathematical ability and their scores increase. Tell white men before a similar exam that their scores are going to be compared to those of Asians and their scores drop simply because they think they won’t measure up. “This suggests there’s something about the testing situation itself,” Aronson says. “If there is a biological difference, then it’s one that’s awfully easy to overcome.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is both interesting in itself, and a difficult problem for questions about policy, research, and the like. It’s not as if everyone can just shut up about everything because of the self-fulfilling propecy issue. But there may be times when everyone should. Just before math class, for instance.

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