Tag Archives: Florida

Better than the Truth

: Fountain of Youth Park.

: Fountain of Youth Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While my adopted state of Florida has many interesting tales, perhaps the most famous is the story of Juan Ponce de León’s quest to find the fountain of youth. As the name suggests, this enchanted fountain was supposed to grant eternal life to those who drank of (or bathed in) its waters.

While the fountain of youth is regarded as a mere myth, it turns out that the story about Juan Ponce de León’s quest is also a fiction. And not just a fiction—a slander.

In 1511, or so the new history goes, Ponce was forced to resign his post as governor of Puerto Rico. King Ferdinand offered Ponce an opportunity: if he could find Bimini, it would be his. That, and not the fountain of youth, was the object of his quest. In support of this, J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida, claims that the documents of the time make no mention of a fountain of youth. According to Francis, a fellow named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés disliked Ponce, most likely because of the political struggle in Puerto Rico.  Oviedo wrote a tale in his Historia general y natural de las Indias claiming that Ponce was tricked by the natives into searching for the fountain of youth.

This fictional “history” stuck (rather like the arrow that killed Ponce) and has become a world-wide legend. Not surprisingly, my adopted state is happy to cash in on this tale—there is even a well at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park that is rather popular with tourists. There is considerable irony in the fact that a tale intended to slander Ponce as a fool has given him a form of ongoing life—his fame is due mostly to this fiction. Given the success of the story, it might be suspected that this is a case where the fiction is better than the truth. While this is but one example, it does raise a general philosophical matter regarding truth and fiction.

From a moral and historical standpoint, the easy and obvious answer to the general question of whether a good fiction is better than a truth is “no.”  After all, a fiction of this sort is a lie and there are the usual stock moral arguments as to why lying is generally wrong. In this specific case, there is also the fact (if the story is true) that Oviedo slandered Ponce from malice—which certainly seems morally wrong.

In the case of history, the proper end is the truth—as Aristotle said, it is the function of the historian to relate what happened. In contrast, it is the function of the poet to relate what may happen. As such, for the moral philosopher and the honest historian, no fiction is better than the truth. But, of course, these are not the only legitimate perspectives on the matter.

Since the story of Ponce and the fountain of youth is a fiction, it is not unreasonable to also consider it in the context of aesthetics—that is, its value as a story. While Oviedo intended for his story to be taken as true, he can be considered an artist (in this case, a writer of fiction and the father of the myth). Looked at as a work of fiction, the story does relate what may happen—after all, it certainly seems possible for a person to quest for something that does not exist. To use an example from the same time, Orellana and Pizarro went searching for the legendary city of El Dorado (unless, of course, this is just another fiction).

While it might seem a bit odd to take a lie as art, the connection between the untrue and art is well-established. In the Poetics, Aristotle notes how “Homer has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully” and he regards such skillful lies as a legitimate part of art. Oscar Wilde, in his “New Aesthetics” presents as his fourth doctrine that “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art.” A little reflection does show that they are correct—at least in the case of fiction. After all, fiction is untrue by definition, yet is clearly a form of art. When an actor plays Hamlet and says the lines, he pours forth lie after lie. The Chronicles of Narnia are also untrue—there is no Narnia, there is no Aslan and the characters are made up. Likewise for even mundane fiction, such as Moby Dick. As such, being untrue—or even a lie in the strict sense of the term, does not disqualify a work from being art.

Looked at as a work of art, the story of the fountain of youth certainly seems better than the truth. While the true story of Ponce is certainly not a bad tale (a journey of exploration ending in death from a wound suffered in battle), the story of a quest for the fountain of youth has certainly proven to be the better tale. This is not to say that the truth of the matter should be ignored, just that the fiction would seem to be quite acceptable as a beautiful, untrue thing.


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Spinoza, Self Help and Agency

The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness.  Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.

Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.

As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.

While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.

Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge.  Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.

According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.

This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem.  It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.

This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).

In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.

There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.

The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.

Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.

The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will.  I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.

Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.

Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.


Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons).  They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.

If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.

Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.

As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly.  As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.

Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.

Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.

That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.


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Should Confederate Veterans be Honored as Veterans?

Yet another interesting controversy has arisen in my adopted state of Florida. Three Confederate veterans, who fought against the United States of America, have been nominated for admission to Florida’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The purpose of the hall is to honor “those military veterans who, through their works and lives during or after military service, have made a significant contribution to the State of Florida.”

The three nominees are David Lang, Samuel Pasco and Edward A. Perry. Perry was Florida’s governor from 1885 to 1889; Pasco was a U.S. senator. Lang assisted in creating what became the Florida National Guard. As such, they did make significant contributions to Florida. The main legal question is whether or not they qualify as veterans. Since Florida was in rebellion (in defense of slaver) against the United States there is also a moral question of whether or not they should be considered veterans.

The state of Florida and the US federal government have very similar definitions of “veteran.” For Florida, a veteran is a person who served in the active military and received an honorable discharge. The federal definition states that “The term ‘veteran’ means a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released therefrom under conditions other than dishonorable.” The law also defines “Armed Forces” as the “United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.” The reserves are also included as being in the armed forces.

According to Mike Prendergast, the executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the three nominees in question do not qualify because the applications to the hall did not indicate that the men served in the armed forces of the United States of America. Interestingly, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam takes the view that “If you’re throwing these guys out on a technicality, that’s just dumb.”

Presumably, Putnam regards the fact that the men served in the Confederate army and took up arms against the United States as a technicality. This seems to be rather more than a mere technicality. After all, the honor seems to be reserved for veterans as defined by the relevant laws. As such, being Confederate veterans would seem to no more qualify the men for the hall than being a veteran of the German or Japanese army in WWII would qualify someone who moved to Florida and did great things for the state. There is also the moral argument about enrolling people who fought against the United States into this hall. Fighting in defense of slavery and against the lawful government of the United States would seem to be morally problematic in regards to the veteran part of the honor.

One counter to the legal argument is that Confederate soldiers were granted (mostly symbolic) pensions about 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Confederate veterans can also be buried in a special Confederate section of Arlington National Cemetery. These facts do push the door to a legal and moral argument open a crack. In regards to the legal argument, it could be contended that Confederate veterans have been treated, in some ways, as veterans. As such, one might argue, this should be extended to the Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

The obvious response is that these concessions to the Confederate veterans do not suffice to classify Confederate veterans as veterans of the United States. As such, they would not be qualified for the hall. There is also the moral counter that soldiers who fought against the United States should not be honored as veterans of the United States. After all, one would not honor veterans of other militaries that have fought against the United States.

It could also be argued that since the states that made up the Confederacy joined the United States, the veterans of the Confederacy would, as citizens, become United States’ veterans. Of course, the same logic would seem to apply to parts of the United States that were assimilated from other nations, such as Mexico, the lands of the Iroquois, and the lands of Apache and so on. As such, perhaps Sitting Bull would qualify as a veteran under this sort of reasoning. Perhaps this could be countered by contending that the south left and then rejoined, so it is not becoming part of the United States that has the desired effect but rejoining after a rebellion.

Another possible argument is to contend that the Veterans’ Hall of Fame is a Florida hall and, as such, just requires that the veterans be Florida veterans. In the Civil War units were, in general, connected to a specific state (such the 1st Maine). As such, if the men in question served in a Florida unit that fought against the United States, they would be Florida veterans but not United States veterans. Using this option would, of course, require that the requirements for the hall not include that a nominee be a veteran of the United States military and presumably it could not be connected to the United States VA since that agency is only responsible for veterans of the United States armed forces and not veterans who served other nations.

In regards to the moral concerns of honoring, as veterans, men who fought against the United States and in defense of slavery, it could be claimed that the war was not about slavery. The obvious problem with this is that the war was, in fact, fought to preserve slavery. The southern states made this abundantly clear. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech and made this quite clear when he said “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

It could, of course, be argued that not every soldier fighting for the South was fighting to defend slavery. After all, just like today, most of the people fighting in wars are not the people who set policy or benefit from these policies. These men could have gone to war not to protect the institution of slavery, but because they were duped by the slave holders. Or because they wanted to defend their state from “northern aggression.” Or some other morally acceptable reason. That is, it could be claimed that these men were fighting for something other than the explicit purpose of the Confederacy, namely the preservation of slavery. Since this is not impossible, it could be claimed that the men should be given the benefit of the doubt and be honored for fighting against the United States and then doing significant things for Florida.

In any case, this matter is rather interesting and I am looking forward to seeing my adopted state mocked once again on the Daily Show. And, just maybe, Al Sharpton will show up to say some things.


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Gun Violence & Mental Illness, Again

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 20, 2014 Myron May allegedly shot three people on the FSU campus in Tallahassee, Florida. He was shot to death after allegedly firing at the police. I did not know May, but I do know people who did—that is the sort of place Tallahassee is: if you don’t know someone, you know someone who does.

While the wounding of the three people was terrible, May can be seen as the fourth victim. I did know that May had been a cross-country runner, that he had graduated from FSU and then had gone on to law school. During most of his life, May seemed to be the last person who would hurt anyone else—he was well regarded and interested in doing good for the community. But, at some point, his mind apparently spiraled down into the darkness—he showed signs of mental illness that culminated in his death on the campus he loved.

Due to the terrible regularity of gun violence in the United States, I have nothing new to say about the usual issues relating to guns. However, I will address some important issues relating to mental illness in the United States.

As I learned many shootings ago, a person can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when he presents an imminent danger. One practical impact of this high threshold is that authorities often cannot act until someone has actually acted and then it can be too late.

It can be argued that the threshold should be lower so that a person can be helped before he engages in violence. The practical challenge is determining the extent to which a person presents a danger to himself or others. The moral challenge is justifying lowering the threshold.

A plausible way to justify this is by use of a utilitarian argument: helping someone with mental issues before he commits violence will help prevent such acts of violence. That said, there is a moral concern with allowing authorities to use its compulsive power on someone because he might do something despite a lack of adequate evidence that he intends to take a harmful actions.

It could be countered that certain mental issues are adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in harmful behavior, even though she has done nothing to reach the imminent danger threshold.

This is certainly appealing. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of an illness arising, then it is sensible to treat that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.

An obvious objection is that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. A reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is usually only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this. To use another analogy, some forms of mental illness can be seen as analogous to highly infectious diseases. The analogy would not be to claim that mental illness can be caught, but that an infected person presents a serious risk to others and, likewise, a person with a certain sort of mental illness can also present a serious risk to others. Provided that there is adequate evidence of the danger, then the state can be warranted in acting against the individual’s will. The practical challenge is determining what conditions warrant acting.

One practical concern is that mental health science is behind the physical health sciences and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. Because of this, predictions made using mental health science will tend to be of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state on such a tenuous foundation would be morally problematic. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.

A counter to this is to argue that preventing another mass shooting is worth the price of denying people their freedom. An obvious worry is that without clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.

It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have a certain sort of mental issue. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.

However, it seems that normal people would have reason to worry. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression). There is also the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in people being subject to coercion without real justification.

In light of these considerations, I do recommend that we reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. However, this reconsideration needs to involve carefully considered guidelines and should be focused on helping people rather than merely locking them away in the hopes of protecting others.

The situation at FSU also illustrated another point of moral concern: while May was apparently justly shot by the police after allegedly firing on them, the officers only viable response was lethal in nature. While police do have some less-than-lethal options like Tasers and nightsticks, these options are usually not viable against a person actively shooting at an officer from a distance. There have been some efforts to produce less-than-lethal options that are as or nearly effective as guns, but these options have not proven successful and police have generally not adopted them.

From a moral perspective, it would clearly be preferable if officers had better less-than-lethal options. In the case of May’s situation, if he had been rendered unable to act rather than shot to death, he might have been able to benefit from medical help and return to a normal life. In the case of criminals who are not suffering from mental illness, it would still seem morally preferable to be able to effective subdue them without shooting them. As such, there is a good moral reason to develop an effective less-than-lethal weapon.

It is also important to note that such a weapon would need to be effective enough to morally justify its use in place of a gun. After all, the police should not be expected to use a weapon that is not adequately effective—this would put them and the public in unjustified danger. Such a weapon could be less effective than a gun and still be acceptable, but there is clearly an important question in regards to how effective the weapon would need to be. In practical terms, of course, there is the question of whether or not such a weapon is even possible. After all, while something like the stun setting on a Star Trek phaser would be ideal, it is likely to always just be science fiction.


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Assessment, Metrics & Rankings

Having been in academics for quite some time, I have seen fads come, go and stick. A recent fad is the obsession with assessment. As with many such things, assessment arrived with various acronyms and buzz words. Those more cynical than I would say that all acronyms of administrative origin (AAO) amount to B.S. But I would not say such a thing. I do, however, have some concern with the obsession with assessment.

One obvious point of concern was succinctly put by a fellow philosopher: “you don’t fatten the pig by weighing it.” The criticism behind this homespun remark is that time spent on assessment is time that is taken away from the actual core function of education, namely education. At the K-12 level, the burden of assessment and evaluation has become quite onerous. At the higher education level, the burden is not as great—but considerable time is spent on such matters.

One reply to this concern is that assessment is valuable and necessary: if the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of education is not assessed, then there would be no way of knowing what is working and what is not. The obvious counter to this is that educators did quite well in assessing their efforts before the rise of modern assessment and it has yet to be shown that these efforts have actually improved education.

Another obvious concern is that in addition to the time spent by faculty on assessment, a bureaucracy of assessment has been created. Some schools have entire offices devoted to assessment complete with staff and administrators. While only the hard-hearted would begrudge someone employment in these tough times, the toughness of the times should dictate that funding is spent on core functions rather than assessing core functions.

The reply to this is to argue that the assessment is more valuable than the alternative. That is, that funding an assessment office is more important to serving the core mission of the university than more faculty or lower tuition would be. This is, of course, something that would need to be proven.

Another common concern is that assessment is part of the micromanagement of public education being imposed by state legislatures (often by the very same people who speak loudly about getting government off peoples’ backs and protecting businesses from government regulation). This, some critics contend, is all part of a campaign to intentionally discredit and damage public education so as to allow the expansion of for-profit education.

The reply to this is that the state legislature has the right to insist that schools provide evidence that the (ever-decreasing) public money is being well spent. If the legislatures did show true concern for the quality of education and were devoted to public education, this reply would have merit.

Predating the current assessment fad is a much older concern with rankings. Recently I heard a piece on NPR about how Florida’s Board of Governors (the folks who run public education) is pushing Florida public universities to become top ranked schools. There are quite a few rankings, ranging from US News & World Report’s rankings to those of Kiplinger’s. Each of these has a different metric. For example, Kiplinger’s rankings are based on financial assessment. While it is certainly desirable to be well ranked, it is rather ironic that Florida’s public universities are being pushed to rise in the ranks at the same time that the state legislature and governor have consistently cut funding and proven generally hostile to public education. One unfortunate aspect of the ranking obsession is that Florida has adopted a performance based funding system in which the top schools get extra funding while the lower ranked schools get funding cut. Since the schools are competing with each other, some of the schools will end up lower ranked no matter how well they do—so some schools will get cuts, no matter what. This seems to be an odd approach: insisting on improvement while systematically making it harder and harder to improve.

This is also a problem with assessment. To return to that in the closing of this essay, a standard feature of assessment is that the results of the previous assessment must be applied to improve each academic program. That is, there is an assumption of perpetual improvement. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, there is typically no money available for faculty salary increases. As such, the result is that faculty are supposed to better each year, but get paid less (since inflation and the cost of living increase reduces the value of the salary). As such, the system is such that perpetual improvement of faculty and schools is demanded, but there are no incentives or rewards—other than not getting fired or being the school to get the most cuts. Interestingly, the folks imposing this system are the same folks who tend to claim that taxation and government impositions kill the success of business. That is, if businesses have less money and are regulated too much by the state, then it will be bad. Apparently this view does not extend to education. But there might be an ironic hope: education is being “businessified” and perhaps once the transformation is complete, the universities will get the love showered on corporations.

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kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

Florida State University College of Motion Pic...

Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:


Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.


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Getting High for Higher Education

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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Open Carry Protests

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have noted in my other essays on guns, I grew up in what most would regard as a gun culture. I learned to shoot as soon as I could handle a firearm and have been shooting ever since. I am comfortable around guns (but not too comfortable—complacency leads to accidents) and around armed people. This is due to years of hunting and also due to the fact that my family participated in the revolutionary war re-enactments that were popular in the 1970s. As such, I grew up spending some of my summers around plenty of armed folks and even participated in several mock battles. As such, I am certainly not an anti-gun person. That said, I do have some concerns about the current trend in open carry protests.

While the exact legal details vary, open carry is when a person is (obviously enough) carrying a firearm openly. This is in contrast with concealed carry—when a person is hiding her weapon from sight, typically under concealing clothing. Most states require that a person get a concealed weapons permit to legally carry a concealed firearm and often prohibit open carry in many circumstances (hunting being an obvious exception). Some states allow those with concealed weapon permits to openly carry a fire arm. Some states do not. Complicating matters even more is that local laws can vary considerably, even within the same state. For example, some cities have bans against carrying loaded weapons within city limits. As another example, Florida resident Doug Varrieur was featured on the Colbert Report for (legally) having an open air shooting range in his residential neighborhood.

In an interesting form of civil disobedience, some gun owners have started engaging in open carry protests. That is, they openly carry their guns to protest a gun law or gun related matter that they regard as unjust. For example, gun owners in San Antonio recently engaged in an open carry protest after a man was tased and arrested for openly carrying a loaded rifle in city limits. Other open carry protestors have taken to openly carrying their guns when patronizing businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops. Some businesses, such as Chipotle, Sonic, Starbucks and Wendy’s have asked protestors to not openly carry weapons in their businesses, sparking some outrage from some protestors. As another example, some gun owners favor what has been called “constitutional carry” that would allow gun owners to openly carry guns without any license and stage open carry protests in support of this proposal.

What is very interesting is that the NRA has been critical of open carry protests conducted in restaurants and home improvement stores. The organization has even gone so far as to call such protests “weird.” The NRA also noted that “using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” One reason for this approach is practical—the NRA is aware that these open carry protests can frighten people and thus have a negative impact on the NRA’s efforts in regards to achieving its goals. Some of those supporting open carry have condemned the NRA for this chastisement and some have even expressed the view that the NRA is not sufficiently pro-gun. The NRA thus finds itself in a situation parallel to that of the Republican Party, namely being pulled towards extreme positions and being criticized for not being extreme enough. While I disagree with the NRA on many issues, I do agree with them in this matter: using guns in this way seems to be a bit less than sensible and it also seems counterproductive in that it will tend to scare more people than it wins over. That said, I do have some sympathy for the protestors.

As I mentioned above, I grew up in “the gun culture” and I actually totally get the appeal of being able to walk down the street packing iron and swinging heat. Of course, this is purely emotional and, as such, is hardly the basis for a considered position on the issue.

Some of my concerns are practical. One is, as also noted by the NRA, that people openly carrying guns in a Starbucks or Home Depot will tend to scare people and this could lead to unfortunate situations in which a protestor is mistaken as someone who has come to engage in a mass shooting. I freely admit that if I were to see someone coming into a restaurant openly carrying an AR-15, my first thought would be “this guy could be here to try to kill us all…” Until I heard of open carry protests, that would have been my only thought—and I would be calling 911 and working on a plan to kill him as quickly as possible should it come to that. After all, as the NRA notes, walking into a restaurant or store openly carrying a weapon is weird, not sensible and likely to frighten people—or trigger a potential shooter response. And I say this a person who grew up with guns.

Another concern is that armed people wandering about in a crowded store or restaurant can be a recipe for disaster. While most gun owners know how to safely handle weapons and would hopefully not walk into a business openly carrying a loaded weapon, it is easy enough to imagine someone forgetting to properly check her gun (or even intentionally loading it) and having a terrible accident occur. I am actually a bit surprised that this has not happened yet.

On the one hand, I think there are legitimate grounds for such protests. The obvious legal ground is the 1st Amendment and the obvious moral ground is the moral right of citizens to engage in peaceful protests against laws and actions they regard as unjust.

Interestingly enough, if gun owners intentionally violated open carry laws in order to protest them and did not engage in violent resistance when arrested, they would be acting within the tradition of civil disobedience first advocated by Henry David Thoreau. Given the moral pedigree of civil disobedience, this would seem to be moral acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy (though some might regard the goal as ethically problematic).

On the other hand, the use of guns in the protests is a point of moral concern. On the face of it, it might be tempting to regard such protests as forms of bullying or threat making. After all, a gun is an instrument of violence and carrying it openly can easily be seen as expressing an intention to coerce or threaten. To some, armed people “occupying” a business or gathered in front of a police station would be seen not as an act of protest but as an act of intimidation—the message being “I have a gun…so give me what I want.” Citizens do not have the moral right to use the tools of threats and intimidation against other citizens and, as such, this would seem to indicate that such protests are morally wrong. This, of course, assumes that the protests are actually intended to intimidate or coerce.

However, it is worth considering that a threat might be implicit in many forms of legitimate protests—although the presence of guns would seem to make the threat rather less implicit. It is also worth noting that the protest is about guns—so the presence of guns would seem to be relevant, on par with people advocating legalizing marijuana bringing marijuana to their protests against marijuana laws they regard as unjust. Of course, a gun is rather more coercive than a joint.

My considered view is that open carry protests are, if safely conducted, morally legitimate protests and that they could be a form of civil disobedience (the irony of this is not lost on me). However, I do have the above mentioned concerns: the safety issues, the view that such protests are actually counterproductive to the avowed causes, and the clear potential that such protests could be legitimately regarded as acts of coercion rather than acts of protest.

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Performance Based Funding

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.


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Gainful Employment & Education

For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Since education is rather expensive, it seems reasonable for a student to expect a return on her investment. Given that the taxpayers often contribute to the education of students, it also makes sense that they also receive a return on their investment.

As it now stands, the return on the student’s investment is supposed to be a job that is proportional to the cost of education. Roughly put, a student should be able to reasonably work out of her school debt with the job that education is supposed to get her. In terms of the return on the taxpayer’s investment, the return is similar: the students funded by the taxpayers are supposed to get jobs and repay the investment through the taxes they pay. The student becomes the taxpayer, thus enabling the next generation of students to also become taxpayers.

Because the cost of education is so high these days, it is natural for some folks to place their hopes in the free market. The ideal is that for-profit schools will provide a high quality product (education that leads to a job) at a lower cost than the (supposedly) bloated state and traditional private schools. As might be suspected, the ideal is rather different from the real.

While state schools obviously receive state funds, the for-profit schools receive massive federal support—about $26 billion per year in grants and loans. Unfortunately, this money seems to be ill-spent: 20% of the for-profit school students default on student loans within three years of entering the repayment period. About half of all student loan defaulters went to such for-profit schools, although these schools make up 13% of the student population. The estimate is that about half of the loans funneled through students to the for-profit schools will be lost to default, which is hardly a good investment.

One of the main reasons a student defaults on loans (though not the only one) is financial hardship. As might be imagined, not earning an adequate paycheck is a clear way to end up in such hardship. While there are over 2,000 programs where the students had load debt but who paychecks were not adequate to keep them above the poverty line, 90% of these programs are at for-profit schools. As such, these schools seem to be a bad investment for both taxpayers and students. While public and traditional private schools do account for the other 10% that need to be addressed, they are quite clearly a better investment for taxpayers and students. This is not to say that such schools do not need improvement—but it is to say that the current for-profit model in not the solution.

There have been some attempts, such as those in 2011, to impose regulations aimed at addressing the predatory exploitation of students (and taxpayers) by institutions. Not surprisingly, these were countered by the well paid lobbyists working at the behest of the for-profits.

Interestingly, some states are pushing hard for performance based funding for public institutions. For example, my adopted state of Florida has seen the Republican dominated state legislature engage in what some might regard as micro-managing of education. In any case, we are been transitioned to a performance based model in which funding is linked to achieving goals set by the state. Naturally, for-profit schools are not impacted by this since they are private institutions. As such, the current trajectory seems to be for state schools to be state regulated in accordance with performance measures while the for-profit schools enjoy unfettered access to the federal largesse.

Some might suspect that the performance based funding approach being taken towards public universities and colleges is cover for reducing funding even more. This seems reasonable since one of the main effects has been to cut funding for some state schools (such as my own). It is also the case that the approach is designed to shift funding to schools that have more political influence—which is supported by looking at where the money goes.

It might also be suspected that the performance based funding is also designed to harm public schools and push students towards the for-profit schools. These schools typically enjoy excellent political connections and certainly would benefit from reduced public education opportunities. Of course, the profits of such schools come largely at the expense of students and taxpayers—they are thus well-subsidized by the state in a new twist on the old corporate welfare system.  Shockingly enough, there is little conservative rage at this wasteful socialism and these welfare queens.


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