Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Defense of Academia

In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.

Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times  caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, Kristof brings forward a common complaint these days that academia is insular and increasingly irrelevant. I mention this problem as reason for starting this blog, and I think it's worth noting that the insularity of academia is something that academics worry about much more than the general public.

Academics -- being driven people with high standards for themselves -- want to have it both ways. They want to be part of an intellectual elite, but they also want to be relevant to all. This is a tension that is written into the university life, and it's something that everyone in academia has to struggle with and make their peace with. Some are more comfortable with the elite end of things; others with the educational and "public service" aspect of intellectual work. My suspicion is that this tension is a productive one -- less a problem to be solved once and for all, and more an animating and productive sort of tension.

Individually, academics may struggle with these questions, but their temperaments eventually resolve it for them one way or another. Those who are educators at heart drift to the educational side. They end up writing more blogs, more editorials, engaging in more activism and land at smaller institutions where undergraduate education is central to the academic mission. Those who are intellectuals at heart end up at the big universities and spend most of their energy and time writing for top journals whose audience is a small group of elites. Then, there are a few rare souls who have the temperament, time, and talent to bridge the gap between these two sorts of academics and also the gulf between academia and a larger public world that likes to refer to itself as "the real world." These are the few that get to have it both ways -- probably at large personal cost.

Having left academia and returned to at least a real world if not the real world (my present job as academic dean of a high school asks me to communicate with all sorts of people with all sorts of educational backgrounds), I feel like I have something real to say about the gulf between academia and this "real world."

First: I find the work that I did while in my PhD program and then later as a professional philosopher to be extremely useful outside of academia. The qualities that make a good academic are useful in all kinds of contexts -- to trust in reasons, to listen to argument, to make distinctions, to disagree civilly, to write carefully. I lean on these capacities every day.

Second, I want to say that the work I did over the nine years I spent in a university philosophy department felt to me like it was fundamentally real and valuable in itself. While I decided not to spend my whole life as a professional philosopher, I was hugely enriched by spending a good chunk of my life doing this sort of work in a time when I was still growing as a young adult. I also allow myself to believe that I made a small contribution during those nine years to something I really believe in.

Yes, this experience was narrow and at times felt distant from certain realities. But, the ivory tower epithet has always struck me as a bit odd because it seems to me that the specialized careers we all lead in contemporary life subject us all fairly equally to a certain isolation and narrowness of perspective. Academics hope to speak out of their isolation towards public values -- thereby exposing themselves to the ivory tower critique -- but to my mind the attempt is virtuous, even if it so often fails. In a society of specialization we all ought to feel some anxiety about the reality of our worlds.

Finally, I just want to say that the pace and place of academic life, with its large blocks of time, its architecture that encourages interaction, the intensity of its push to think hard and well, and its care and concern for young people did not arise accidentally. It is the result of hard work and generous support of people from within and outside its walls. It's not a perfect world, but our world -- this real and fractured and hardly aware world --is more perfect because academia exists: fundamentally flawed, fragile, and necessary.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Promoting Belief in a Clean Sport: a look at the results of the letsrun clean/dirty poll

Recently letsrun.com carried out an interesting experiment. The polled their readers as to their perceptions of who in the sport was "clean" and who was "dirty." You can read the results of their poll here as well as an interesting explanation of why they decided to do this polling. Their explanation makes good sense to me: they state clearly that the results of the poll do not tell us whether someone used PEDs; they only tell us about a specific community's beliefs about who is clean and who is dirty.

What can we do with this information? Quite a bit, it turns out. We can look at the relationships between class, race, nationality, and beliefs about performance-enhancing drugs. We see that as a community we do have some degree of bias in these areas, but we also see that while these biases affect individuals; on the aggregate the beliefs of the community as a whole is not fundamentally skewed by any of these factors. Letsrun.com notes that the most important bias affecting the data is "familiarity bias." Those athletes we are most familiar with are the athletes we are least likely to hold in suspicion.

The most surprising aspect of the data to me was the percentage of voters who thought that athletes were clean. Except for known dopers (say, the East German athletes of the '80s or the Chinese women of the mid-90s), relatively small percentages of fans thought that world record holders were dirty. Take a runner like Daniel Komen, who in 1996 at the height of the EPO era, ran perhaps the most incredible distance performance ever seen. Only 39% of voters believe that Daniel Komen used performance enhancing drugs -- yet you can see underneath the youtube video that the comments are dominated by discussion of PEDs.

This data is surprising because I thought that as a community we were more cynical than the numbers show. To explain this, perhaps we can draw an analogy between beliefs around PED use and beliefs in high schools and middle schools about the use of recreational drug and alcohol. Studies have shown that high school students use drugs and alcohol at rates far beneath what those same students believe is happening in their school. In other words, high schoolers have far healthier attitudes towards the use of drugs and alcohol than they believe they have. One of the most successful drug and alcohol non-profits, Freedom from Chemical Dependency capitalizes on this difference, noting that if actual attitudes towards drug and alcohol replace mythologies about use, then peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol could be drastically diminished. They call this approach the "social norms" approach, and it's worth reading about.

Likewise, it is possible that as a community, track and field fans are more likely to believe that "everyone dopes"-- just as high schoolers believe "everyone drinks"-- but that as individuals, we are much more likely to be nuanced and evidence-based in our analysis. In fact, I think that the letsrun.com polls show just this: that track and field fans do not generally hold the view that to reach the top levels of the sport, it is necessary to dope. As individuals, in the privacy of our homes, we believe the sport is healthier than we do when we participate in public discussion.

What does this mean for the actual use of PEDs? I think that letsrun.com has done a service for us through this poll because they have shown athletes that if they do things the right way, a vast majority of fans will believe that they are running their times clean. They have also showed fans that if we choose not to be cynical, we are not alone in that choice -- and that in reality, despite appearances to the contrary, the dominant social norm in the community of track and field fans is not to believe that every amazing performance is the result of cheating. The numbers show that while there will always be people who question every performance, there are many more who are willing to believe.

In short, I find the data encouraging, and I hope that it motivates fans and athletes to continue to believe that incredible performance without PED use is possible, that a clean sport is possible, and that if we adopt an attitude of cynicism and disbelief, we are in the minority. The data shows that hope for a clean sport is not only possible, but a majority opinion. While this hope does not mean that we will have -- or do have -- a clean sport, I do not think it is meaningless. It ought to reinforce belief in our better selves and reduce our cynicism. An adjustment of our social norms can allow us to re-animate work on behalf of a clean sport and remind us that we are not alone in the fight.
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