Tag Archives: Harvard University

Academic Freedom vs Academic Justice

English: Protesting academics in 2006 at UKZN

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Sandra Y.L. Korn has proposed dispensing with academic freedom in favor of academic justice. Korn begins by presenting the example of Harvard psychology Professor Richard Hernstein’s 1971 article for Atlantic Monthly. In this article, Hernstein endorsed the view that intelligence is primarily hereditary and linked to race. Hernstein was attacked for this view, but defended himself and was defended by others via appeals to academic freedom. Korn seems to agree with Hernstein that the attacks against him infringed on academic freedom. However, Korn proposes that academic justice is more important than academic freedom.

Korn makes use of the American Association of University Professors view of academic freedom: “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” However, Korn regards the “liberal obsession” with this freedom as misplaced.

Korn’s first argument seems to be as follows. Korn notes that there is not “full freedom” in research and publication. As Korn correctly notes, which proposals get funded and which papers get published is largely a matter of academic politics. Korn then notes that no academic question is free from the realities of politics. From this, Korn draws a conditional conclusion: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

It might be suspected that there is a false dilemma lurking here: either there is full academic freedom or restricting it on political values is acceptable. There is not full academic freedom. Therefore restricting it on political values is acceptable. The reason why this would be a false dilemma is that there is a considerable range of options between full academic freedom (which seems to be complete freedom) and such restrictions. As such, one could accept the obvious truth that there is not full (complete) freedom while also legitimately rejecting that academic freedom should be restricted on the proposed grounds.

To use the obvious analogy to general freedom of expression, the fact that people do not possess full freedom of expression (after all, there are limits on expression) does not entail that politically based restrictions should thus be accepted. After all, there are many alternatives between full freedom and the specific restrictions being proposed.

To be fair to Korn, no such false dilemma might exist. Instead, Korn might be reasoning that because the reality is such that political values restrict academic expression it follows that adding additional restrictions is not problematic. To re-use the analogy to general free expression, the reasoning would that since there are already limits on free expression, more restrictions are acceptable. This could be seen as a common practice fallacy, but perhaps it could be justified by showing that the additional restrictions are warranted. Sorting this out requires considering what Korn is proposing.

In place of the academic freedom standard, Korn proposes “a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”

While Korn claims that this is a more rigorous standard, it merely seems to be more restrictive. There is also the rather obvious problem of presenting an account of what it is for research to promote or justify oppression in a way that is rigorous and, more importantly, accurate. After all, “oppression” gets thrown around with some abandon in academic contexts and can be a rather vague notion. In order to decide what is allowed and what is not, Korn proposes that students, faculty and workers should organize in order to “to make our universities look as we want them to do.” While that sounds somewhat democratic, there is still the rather important concern about what standards will be used.

While there are paradigm cases (like the institutionalized racism of pre-civil rights America), people do use the term “oppression” to refer to what merely offends them. In fact, Korn makes reference to the offensiveness of a person’s comment as grounds for removing a professor from a faculty position.

The obvious danger is that the vagueness of this principle could be used to suppress and oppress research that vocal or influential people find offensive. There is also the obvious concern that such a principle would yield a political hammer with which to beat down those who present dissenting or unpopular views. For example, suppose a researcher finds legitimate evidence that sexual orientation is strongly influenced by choice and is accused of engaging research that promotes oppression because her research runs counter to an accepted view among certain people. As another example, imagine a faculty member who holds conservative views that some might find offensive, such as the view that people should work for their government support. This person could be seen as promoting oppression of the poor and thus be justly restricted by this principle.

Interestingly, Korn does present an example of a case in which a Harvard faculty member was asked not to return on the basis of objections against remarks that had been made. This would seem to indicate that Korn’s proposal might not be needed. After all, if academic freedom does not provide protection against being removed or restricted on these grounds, then there would seem to be little or no need to put in place a new principle. To use an analogy, if people can already be silenced for offensive speech, there is no need to restrict freedom of speech with a new principle—it is already restricted. At least at Harvard.

In closing, I am certainly in favor of justice and even more in favor of what is morally good. As such, I do endorse holding people morally accountable for their actions and statements. However, I do oppose restrictions on academic freedom for the same reason I oppose restrictions on the general freedom of expression (which I have written about elsewhere). In the case of academic freedom, what should matter is whether the research is properly conducted and whether or not the claims are well-supported. To explicitly adopt a principle for deciding what is allowed and what is not based on ideological views would, as history shows, have a chilling effect on research and academics. While the academic system is far from perfect, flawed research and false claims do get sorted out—at least fairly often. Adding in a political test would not seem to help with reaching the goal of truth.

As far as when academic freedom should be restricted, I also go with my general view of freedom of expression: when an action creates enough actual harm to warrant limiting the freedom. So, merely offending people is not enough to warrant restrictions—even if people are very offended. Actually threatening people or engaging in falsification of research results would be rather different matters and obviously not protected by academic freedom.

As such, I am opposed to Korn’s modest proposal to impose more political restrictions on academic freedom. As Korn notes, there are already many restrictions in place—and there seem to be no compelling reasons to add more.


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Automatic Grading

When I learned that EdX had developed software that would instantly grade written work, my first reaction was one of skepticism. After all, while

The Turing Test (Doctor Who)

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spell-checkers work well and grammar checkers work sort of well, it seems unlikely that software could properly evaluate written work. My second reaction was that of hope-after all, I grind through hundreds of papers each year and automating that task would make my job much easier. This lead to my third reaction, namely worry regarding the implications of such software.

While my knowledge of programming is mostly obsolete, I do know enough about artificial intelligence to know that the current technology is most likely not up to the task of properly grading written work such as essays. After all, while checking such things as spelling and grammar can be automated relatively easily, properly assessing a written work would seem to require robust language comprehension-something that existing artificial intelligence can not do. Interestingly, in a letter about animals, Descartes argues that purely mechanical systems cannot engage in true language. While he was writing about animals, his view also applied to automatons and would now apply to computers. While Descartes might be proven wrong someday, I would suspect that day has yet to arrive.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to take my view to be certain. After all, I am not an expert on artificial intelligence and perhaps EdX has made an exceptional break through in the field. Naturally, the rational approach is to consider what the experts have to say about the matter and to consider the available evidence.

One expert who has been critical of such software is Les Perelman. In a detailed paper, he does a careful analysis of the effectiveness of the grading software. While the paper is somewhat technical, it does make a compelling case against the claim that such grading software is effective. In any case, readers can review the paper and assess his reasoning and evidence. Perelman is also well known for crafting nonsense that receives high marks from grading software. That this occurs is hardly surprising. After all, the grading software is obviously not actually capable of comprehending the essay-it is merely running it through a series of programmed evaluations and someone who knows how specific software works can create nonsense essays that a human reader would recognize as nonsense yet pass the programmed evaluations with flying colors. This sort of thing could be seen as a variation on the Turing test: being able to properly grade a written essay and distinguish it from cleverly crafted nonsense would be a passing mark for the software/hardware.

In regards to the matter of hope, the idea of automatic essay grading is appealing. Like many professors at teaching schools, I grade hundreds of essays each year. Unlike many professors, I get the graded work back to the students within a few days.  In most cases, I am sad to say, students merely look at the grade and ignore the feedback and comments. As such, an automatic grader would reduce my workload dramatically, allowing me more time to handle my usual 6-9 committees, being the unit facilitator and so on.

Also, I believe the software might encourage students to write more drafts. My students have to wait about 15-30 minutes for me to review a draft during my office hours or as long as a day if they drop the paper off at the end of the day. But, if a student could get instant feedback, they would have more time to revise the paper and hence might be more likely to do so. Or perhaps not.

As might be imagined, not all professors have my rapid turnaround time on drafts and papers (my students alway seem shocked when they get their work back so quickly). In such cases, automatic grading would be even more useful-rather than waiting days, weeks or even months a student could get instant feedback. There is also the fact that some professors do not provide any feedback beyond a grade on the work. If the software provide more than that, it could be rather useful to the students. There is also the practical point that even not-so-great software could still be better than the evaluation provided by some professors.

Of course, the usefulness of the software is contingent on how well it actually works. If it can be gamed by nonsense or does not actually assess the essays properly, then it would be little more than a gimmick. That said, even if it was limited in functionality, it could still prove useful. For example, I already use Blackboard’s Safeassign to check papers for plagiarism. While it does yield false positives and can miss some cases of plagiarism, it is still a useful tool. As such, the grading software might also serve as a useful tool for drafts and for a preliminary evaluation. However, I am still skeptical about the ability of software to assess written work properly.

My final response was concern about the implications of the software. While it might be suspected that I would be worried that such software could put me out of a job, that is not my main worry. While I would obviously not want to be unemployed because I was replaced by some code, I am well aware of the nature of technological advance and that automation can make certain jobs obsolete. If a program could do my job as well as me, it would be unreasonable of me to insist that I be kept on the payroll just because firing me would be bad for me personally. After all, the university is not there to give me a job.

My main concern is not that I would be replaced by an automatic equivalent or better (that is being replaced because the task no longer requires a human), my main concern is that I would be replaced by something inferior for the main purpose of saving money. In more general terms, my worry is not that progress will make the professorship obsolete, but that the grading software will be used to cut costs by providing students with something inferior (most likely without informing students of this fact).

It might be countered that such grading software could be combined with the massive online courses and thus produce fully automated education factories that could provide education to people who could otherwise not afford it. To use an analogy, the old model for universities would be a fine (or less fine) restaurant with chefs and the new model would be the fast food joint with food technicians.

I will admit that this does have considerable appeal. After all, bringing education to people at a low cost would have numerous advantages, such as allowing people who could otherwise not afford education to be able to acquire it.

Of course, there is still the obvious concern that the software would be used to sell an inferior product at the price of the premium product and also the concern that education could become a degree mill in which students just click their way to a diploma.

Having been in higher education for quite some time I can attest to the desire to make education more like a business. Being able to automate education like a factory would certainly be appealing to some (such as certain politicians and the folks who would sell or license the software and hardware). As might be expected, while I do believe that certain things can be automated (like grading T/F tests), education does not seem well suited to the factory model.

Another obvious concern is that automated education might not democratize education by allowing everyone low-cost access to higher education. It might very well create an even more extreme inequality than exists today. That is, the premier institutions would have human professors providing high quality education while the other schools, such as state schools, would have automated classes providing education to the masses.  While this sounds like a science-fiction scenario, it is actually well within the realm of possibility. I can attest, from my own experience, the push to standardize and automate education and the education factory is not many steps away from the model being strongly pushed today. This is not to say that the education factory will arrive soon or even at all. But it is likely enough that it is worth being concerned about.

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Proving Heaven

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

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I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.

Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.

One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.

While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.

One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.

A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.

The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.

Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him.  Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.

Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.

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