Share jobs, have productive hobbies

We in the modern West have vocations and avocations, and they get in each other’s way. They don’t have to, and they probably shouldn’t. Instead of having a few people working themselves to death while others are out of work, we could spread out that workload. We would lift people out of unemployment and give the currently employed a chance to pursue their passions — writing, art, sports, etc — many of which have a positive impact on society as a whole.

Perhaps I’m not alone in thinking this way:

Bertrand Russell, in his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” offered a positive view of “idleness” and leisure, lamenting “the modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.” He also argued that “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” If we reduced our workday to four hours, he suggested, we would have the leisure time to think and reflect on every topic, especially the social injustices around us and the manipulations of the state.

via Reclaiming the Power of Play – NYTimes.com.

The value of a four-year college

Three weeks into my symbolic logic class, I realized I didn’t belong.

It certainly seemed like a good idea to take it. I was a philosophy major, and I had aced logic. Loved it. Breezed through it.

I slowly realized that my classmates were all math majors and engineers. Somehow, word had gotten out that this was essentially a math class masquerading as a philosophy class that they could take to fill that social sciences requirement.

The professor would stop, apologize and talk very slowly when he mentioned something philosophical. “OK, this is what Immanuel Kant said about logic — that’s Kant, K … A … N … T.” Then he surveyed the class to make sure we all were familiar with mathematical induction. A couple of us said we weren’t.

Really?

So here it is:

\forall P.\,[[P(0) \land \forall (k \in \mathbb{N}).\,[P(k) \Rightarrow P(k+1)]] \Rightarrow \forall (n \in \mathbb{N}).\,P(n)]

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been there. But it was too late to drop the class. I had to muddle through, knowing I had as much chance of getting correct answers as Chris Farley on a Japanese game show in that SNL sketch that was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise awful season.

farley

I somehow made it out of there with a C+, which was either divine intervention or a “gentleman’s C.”

So when people question the worth of a four-year residential college experience, I sometimes look back upon this class and wonder what I gained from the experience. Did my advisers and the Duke course catalog fail me? Should I have known better? Or was it good for me in the long run?

Perhaps I would’ve been better prepared if I had taken another class. But after acing calculus in high school, I placed into Calculus II at Duke. My instructor struggled with English, and he didn’t take us through all the material that wound up on the exam. Got a C in that one, too.

The same semester I struggled with symbolic logic, I followed some advisers’ recommendations and took philosophy of law. I wasn’t officially pre-law — at Duke, you didn’t really declare such a thing — but I was taking classes that would, in the view of the pre-law advice folks, prepare me for law school. I was cruising to a B or B+ in that class until I spent all my time at the end of the semester trying to teach myself enough symbolic logic to pass that class. I wound up with a B-.

So these classes pretty much stopped my late surge to graduate cum laude. Yes, I was close, despite all those nasty classes and my ill-advised decision to take an art history class that met right after my PE class. I somehow finished just above the middle of my class. Perhaps it was because I was sober.

(Friday night, in fact, I thought of the supposedly mandatory “alcohol survival” session attended by me and tens of my freshman classmates, as if I needed tips on dealing with the effects of the wine at church. I was thinking of it because I was in a supposedly mandatory coaches’ meeting, along with at least 20% of the other coaches. I never learn.)

The bigger impact of that philosophy of law class, though, was that it convinced me not to go to law school. I was bored to tears.

In retrospect, law would’ve been a better career for me than journalism. But I was lucky that things worked out to some extent. I’ve been to four Olympics and a Women’s World Cup. I’ve met famous people and even befriended a couple of them. And I met terrific co-workers, one of whom I married. That might not have happened had I gone to law school or, as the music faculty would’ve loved, gone to grad school in music, where I was making good grades and getting pegged as the next PDQ Bach. (He’s kind of the Weird Al of classical.)

I should say Duke didn’t really help me, career-wise. The university launched a Career Center during my time there, and I duly stopped by to talk about my decision to go into journalism.

So I’m planning to send clips out to various newspapers.

Oh … great! Yeah … um … that sounds like a good idea.

Thanks, dude.

Late in my senior year, when I realized I had no employment lined up and had been passed up a couple of internships, I learned that some information on journalism careers was stored in the political science department. A small box of index cards had contact information that, in the pre-Web days, was not otherwise available. Great.

So I’d have to say Duke let me down on several levels. But I have to take some of the blame myself. I was perfectly content to take an intellectual buffet.

To some extent, that should be encouraged. Young adults need some freedom to explore.

But I wonder if universities have erred too far toward freedom. Maybe a few more classes should be required, not just the horrid writing course Duke requires in the first semester. (That was my lowest grade — C-. The next semester, I purposefully forgot everything that grad student tried to tell me, went back to my old writing style and made an A in an English seminar. I still think I should dedicate one of my books to that teacher.)

Duke science majors made fun of some of classes like “Chemistry and Society,” a chemistry class geared toward humanities and social science majors. But I took that class, and it was terrific. I got a broad overview, not the details you get in the general chemistry classes. Besides — we all did chemistry in high school. Once you get past that, there’s little reason to put future engineers and future political scientists in the same class.

Meanwhile, math and science majors fulfilled their “social science” obligation in the aforementioned symbolic logic, a math class with a philosophy label.

And responsibility for such things really does fall back onto the school. I had no way of knowing I’d be beating my head against the wall in symbolic logic. I should’ve been told statistics would be much more practical than a second semester of calculus.

I can’t say any class is a total waste of time. I like to think of my education as “batting weights for the brain.” Wrestling with difficult concepts and abstractions can make the typical day-to-day work problems seem simple by comparison.

But a few more practicalities wouldn’t hurt. Maybe offer more broad survey courses to fill field of study requirements — a general history of philosophy rather than something specific, economics for personal and political literacy rather than future policy wonks.

Short of a curriculum overhaul, let’s get back to the question I’ve danced around long enough: Was it worth it?

Yes.

Even with today’s technology, what else would I do? Stay at home for another couple of years and take classes online?

College is supposed to broaden the mind. You meet people who are a little different. You explore. You try new things, and they don’t have to be alcohol-related.

Before I went to Duke, I had never met a gay person (that I knew of — in retrospect, yes I had) or a Muslim. I had stereotypes that needed deflating.

I met great people — and learned how to deal with some obnoxious ones. I tested my intellectual limits. I had the best journalistic experience of my life, running a good daily newspaper with smart people I both loved and couldn’t stand (sometimes the same people).

In this day and age, where people hide behind anonymous online personas and fail to relate to each other, shouldn’t more people have this sort of experience.

So let’s fix the advising and maybe the curriculum. Let’s make it affordable. Maybe encourage exchanges for one year so people can diversify their experiences.

And move “symbolic logic” to the math department. Doesn’t matter if Kant and company had interesting thoughts on it. Greek philosophers invented a lot of mathematical concepts, too. Must have had a good college experience. They had togas, after all.

Jason Biggs, Challenger and coping with tragedy through humor

You may have heard Jason Biggs, associated with either American Pie by people my age or Orange is the New Black by those a little younger, got in a bit of trouble for a tweet about the Malaysia Airlines downing.

Biggs joked, “Anyone wanna buy my Malaysian Airlines frequent flier miles?”

Bad taste? Compare with a punchline everyone of my generation knew:

Need Another Seven Astronauts.

Remember the joke? It was viral before “viral” was a big thing. We had no Internet, but this joke and many more somehow spread after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 killed seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.

That was how we coped. A sense of humor has long been our psychic defense against a tragedy we cannot prevent.

So what’s changed? Why is Biggs so vilified?

Is it because these jokes were always tasteless, and it’s only with today’s social media tools that the response can come so quickly? Or are we more sensitive these days.

Why we believe utter crap

Are we doomed to believe things that are demonstrably false?

Brendan Nyhan (Dukie!) has devoted much of his career to fighting falsehoods, and he is depressed by a three-year study he conducted to try change beliefs on vaccination:

The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.

Oh dear. That’s not good.

The theory is that one’s sense of self is threatened if you’re confronted with the idea that you’re wrong. So here’s the clever but difficult solution: Make people believe they’ve arrived at the correct answer on their own.

Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.

So yelling at people that “the grownups are talking” might not work.

At least, not immediately. But I’m a little more optimistic than that. From my own experience, I can think of things I used to argue that I now know to be false — creationism, the infinite superiority of prog rock to pop music, etc. — and I can see how my beliefs changed not in one argument but over a period of time.

And experience forces us to change as well. I recently chatted with a high school friend who worries that I’ve been corrupted by being around all these media and government types. Not so, I said. I’m the same person I was in high school. But my experiences have changed me.

It’s simple common sense. If you’ve never met any Muslims or gay people, you’re more likely to harbor prejudice than you are after you meet them. If you’ve never seen any hard-working poor people, it’s easier to scapegoat them as lazy leeches. If you’ve never met any charitable Christians, it’s easy to stereotype them based on the snake-oil salesmen who dominate the airwaves.

But are some people hard-wired to resist such change? That’s what this piece on right-wing thought and “psychological origins of political ideology argues.

Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions—openness: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people—and conservatives score higher on conscientiousness: the desire for order, structure, and stability.

I’m still skeptical. I know too many “liberals” who like “order, structure and stability” — that’s what Europe’s socialized programs offer, after all.

But I do firmly believe people are ingrained with certain fears. And today’s propagandists are all too good at exploiting them. That’s why people believe their freedoms are being taken away by the slightest measure of gun control. Or that Putin is going to go marching through Europe after he gobbles up Ukraine. Or that “genetic modification” is going to turn their produce into radioactive carcinogens.

So I think the next level of research is this: How do you counter propaganda? Censoring Fox News and Jenny McCarthy won’t do it. It has to be something that works to assuage those fears.

Update: I checked out Brendan Nyhan’s Twitter feed and found something I had to add:

But the evidence suggests the Tea Party, like my ninth-grade belief in creationism, is burning itself out.

No one ever went broke underestimating the panicky nature of the public

The ever-intriguing Philosophers’ Mail thinks we should engage our inner Stoic and tune out the fear-mongering media from time to time.

News outlets love to make us, their audiences, agitated, frightened and bothered a lot of the time, that’s how they make their money – and yet all of us have an even greater responsibility to ourselves to try to remain resilient and calm.

via Chaos and war in the Ukraine; you will survive or if not, will die quickly | Philosophers’ Mail.

Granted, we journalists would probably go broke if we followed this advice, though maybe we could fill the void with “10 Musicians Who Led Double Lives” or something.