Children with less education than their parents

In most developed countries, education builds from generation to generation: Adults often have more education than their parents, and they expect their children will be better-educated still — or at least they expect their children won’t slip behind. But data released today from the OECD shows this isn’t happening…


From Vox The surprising truth about downward mobility in US higher education by

The Cult of TED Harms Lectures

For a brief moment I am pleased with myself: I have managed to think of yet another snappy title for my next talk. But part of me always raises the question: Was it too snappy? Am I trying too hard? Should I really be entertaining?

The question as to whether a lecture should be entertaining is a thorny one. If I am boring then I shall send my audience to sleep and nothing will be learned. But if I am entertaining then all that will be remembered is a moderately funny guy talking about something to do with copyright. Everything is balance.

It wasn’t always this way. Audiences, even academic audiences, have begun to expect to be challenged less than before. The skill of sitting and listening actively for hours is disappearing rapidly. Some try to blame it on our gadgets – but I don’t think that’s right. The gadgets are simply the symptom of what is wrong. It is because we are bored that we reach for our gadgets, not the other way around.

The problem is that audiences have begun to believe that the pinnacle of lecturing is something close to the TED talk. It’s a pithy 15 minutes with “take homes” and “solutions” to real live “problems”. Where those who are presented as suffering from a problem are almost immediately presented with a happy solution. It’s basically a sit-com where all the worlds problems must be resolved in between some neatly packaged marketing (preferably barely noticeable product placement).

The love of TED (and its ilk) is almost universal but there are some interesting detractors on the horizon. I really like the brutal comment from Nassim Taleb in Black Swan, where he describes TED as the “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

Or what about Benjamin Bratton’s anti-TED TED talk which questions “why the bright futures of so many TED talks don’t come true?”, Benjamin Bratton rips the concept and organization apart:

“TED of course stands for ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design.’ To me, TED stands for ‘Middle-brow, Megachurch Infotainment’.

Thomas Frank wrote an article in Salon entitled TED Talks Are Lying To You where he argued that TED is basically an example of the repetition of norms of the attempt to sell the dream of monetizing creativity.

In Why I’m not a TEDx Speaker Frank Swain addresses primarily the economic issues of TED. His beef is that they despite charging around $6000 dollars the speakers are unpayed and so are many of the auxiliary staff.  His criticism is that their idea is not novel (talking on stage) and what they essentially do is brand other peoples ideas as theirs. Not stealing, but branding. “And within that manifesto, TED pushes the philosophy that there is value in ideas, but not value in delivering them.”

Returning to Bratton he wrote We need to talk about TED in about the problem with TED’s oversimplification of issues:

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think.

Of course there is a place for the entertainment of TEDs but the problem is that their underlying philosophy must not be questioned by anyone. What we end up with is a system that does not question the content but is immediately prepared to belittle a talk that is not “kick-ass” or “mind-blowing”. With TED entertainment is king, criticism is seen as small-minded bitterness and the business model is self-congratulatory. This is what cults are like. Martin Robbins The Trouble With TED Talks describes it as a cult-like phenomenon and realizes why it is the way it is:

Ultimately, the TED phenomenon only makes sense when you realise that it’s all about the audience. TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable; to give them the impression that they’re part of an elite group making the world a better place. People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite. That intelligence is optional, and you need to be rich and well-connected to get into the conferences and the exclusive fringe parties and events that accompany them, simply adds to the irresistible allure. TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’.

And far away from the epicenter, everyday lecturers are pressured into being entertaining for fear of not living up to the nonsensical goals created by an organization that is not about education. University students expect entertainment and are less than happy when they have their values or ideas challenged. They have seen the TED, they want their ego’s stroked and opinions valued over any dry facts that are presented.

Instead of lusting after TED, universities should do what they have always done best: Apply critical thinking, ask annoying hard questions and reward rigor and method over entertainment and customer satisfaction.

This University is Not a Handbag

Paul Campos wrote a thought provoking article comparing universities to luxury handbags using Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption”, the article begins:

If you happen to have $31,500 lying around, you could buy a Louis Vuitton PM Showgirl handbag. Or you could spend almost exactly the same sum to pay for one year’s worth of tuition (not including room and board) at an average American four-year private college.

He presents an interesting argument that the whole point of college degrees is that they are, like luxury handbags, valuable because they are unattainable for most of us. In addition to this they are important by signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good. See? Just like that ludicrously expensive handbag.

half skater half worker by Wrote CC BY

He gives an example from his own university:

The law school at which I teach provides a particularly striking example of this inversion of the normal laws of supply and demand. The school’s annual tuition increased from less than $5,000 in 1997 to more than $31,000 in 2011. This represented a 348 percent increase in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars… but the law school’s applications actually skyrocketed, from 1,846 in 1997 to 3,175 in 2011.

This is fascinating. But is it really correct? I’m sure the numbers are correct but is the interpretation (higher costs = more desirable) really true for academia? Take, for instance, Sweden. There are no tuition fees at Swedish universities so the ability to make them exclusive by price does not factor in to the equation. Often little or no additional social status is given to those who have studied at university. Swedish Statistics Yearbook of Educational Statistics (2012) has a table on page 270. The number of university entrants by sex and university/higher education institution in 2000/2001 was 72 118 and in 2009/2010 was 108 852. So despite the price of education remaining at zero the desirability of university education is on the increase. Or at least the number of people starting in university is increasing.

So if it isn’t about conspicuous consumption then what is it all about? There are several possible answers to this question. While I do like Campos argument about luxury and desirability. It doesn’t ring entirely true – maybe it’s specific to the US – or maybe there are other factors as to why higher education is desirable.

One obvious question is the number of young people. Are there simply more of them around? This should also be taken together with the question of whether there are acceptable jobs for young people to chose today? Is college “the only way out” because there is nothing else to do? In addition to this there is the expectations of peers and family – do more people expect young adults to go to college?

This latter point is connected to the parental expectations. If a parent has been to college then it is unsurprising that they would want their children to go to college. They have, after all, probably a positive experience of college. There is a myth that a college degree leads to education (a must see in this topic is Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms)

Along with this is the growing demand from employers that entry level employees have degrees. And not to forget the social explanations. In particular the struggle of most groups not to be working class and the ways in which the squeezed middle class struggles to maintain status markers. This last group may be the closest to the luxury handbag group, but the rest seem to fit uncomfortably in the bag.

This post naturally cannot answer the question in a nice and easy manner but I feel that it is an important topic for everyone in academia to ponder on. Why are we all here? Of course the professors are not there for the same reason as the students, but it is important that the overlap of reasons is wide enough to encompass each parts needs.

Can we have some Bildung, please?

The Germanic languages are filled with several words packed with historical context and culture that makes them virtually untranslatable (schadenfreude, angst, blitzkrieg, doppelgänger, ersatz).

So while the British are boastfully proud of their bad weather they don’t have a word like the Swedish “Uppehållsväder” which describes a surprising lull between rainstorms. It’s a word for the absence of falling rain.

Among the more interesting words is “bildning” which comes from the German word “bildung” and is described by Wikipedia as:

…refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation.  This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual’s mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society…

On one level there is an element of education so a person of bildung is a person who is educated but it cannot be confused with education as that would be too simplistic. So how on earth should I translate this term?

There are several terms that seem to be used almost as synonyms liberal education, liberal arts, lifelong learning, adult or civic education, folk education (which stems from another Germanic term Folkbildning). The problem is that all these terms have odd connotations which drag the term in “wrong” directions:

The prefix Liberal brings to mind studies of classics and while this naturally can play a part it is hardly necessary today to have read Homer to be considered a person of bildung.

Lifelong learning may have the unfortunate associations with some form of refresher course necessary to enable people to remain relevant in some context.

Adult education feels like its all about getting people back into the job market after being made redundant. It smacks of re-education.

And any use of the prefix Folk raises pictures of some form of arts and crafts movement or carries the unnecessary connections with folk art or folk singing.

So the problem remains: Can we really discuss that of which we have no name? Is the mind controlled by the word? (sapir whorf hypothesis) or it may be that the word we use is not be so important – just the fact that we point towards the concept shows the importance of bildung.

No matter what I am still stuck attempting to explain bildung briefly and elegantly in a text. And without the word the concept is clumsy: Any tips?

Killing humanites: A rage against the machine

Its painful to admit, but it seems that my own University of Göteborg (GU) is anti-humanities. Last year GU axed nine languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Dutch, Polish, Slovenian and Czech). This year they added Italian, Russian, Greek and Old Church Slavonic.

Surely this is no real big thing you may argue – many universities are killing the humanities and besides what’s the loss of dropping Old Church Slavonic? Well first off I would like to begin with an emotional argument by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” When we begin to cut, we will cut to the bone and bleed to death.

But more importantly the thoughts that the humanities are unnecessary, or even more stupidly, unprofitable is so obviously foolish that it pains me to see when it is used as an argument.

What are universities for? Most seem to think that they are there to get people jobs. A strange illusion but quite prevalent, the problem is that we have no idea what will be needed in the future so designing universities for this purpose is obviously silly.

But don’t take my ineloquent word for it. Listen to the humorous and thoughtful Ken Robinson (author of The Element: How finding your passion changes everything)

There is an additional problem by streamline, focusing on core competencies and cutting the fat – it’s that we create armies of reasonably identical people who have the same backgrounds and thoughts. And from this we expect them to be innovative and new-thinking. Seriously, could you believe that??

The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum develops these arguments in her wonderful and thoughtful book: Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

But please don’t get the impression that all of Sweden is a wasteland of real thought and culture. There are several deep and interesting researchers and thinkers. Specifically, I would like to point to the shining example of Ola Wikander, a fantastic example of a young scholar he has eight books (his own and translations) ranging from Canaanite myths to popularizing theories and developments of language. His focus is the epitome of “useless” humanities research (seriously its even called  dead languages). But in reality his works affects more people than a whole pile of average MBAs… Yet, he is the odd one.

The problem is that the MBA’s – with their incredible lack of knowledge – believe that they can create more by eliminating that which is not attractive to everyone. Popularity is the order of the day. Unfortunately the MBA’s are the ones who are running the universities right now. Hopefully, this will change before we have pushed our mental gene pool to the point of extinction. In the meantime my university just became a tad more irrelevant, less competitive and more redundant. Thanks guys! How efficiently you create our demise.

In the meantime, while the mental gene pool at my university shrinks, all we can do is rage against the machine.

Challenging the YouTube Copyright School

Last week YouTube announced that it had launched an animated film entitled the YouTube Copyright School. The problematic thing is that YouTube begins by recognizing that copyright is complex and that education is needed

Because copyright law can be complicated, education is critical to ensure that our users understand the rules and continue to play by them. That’s why today we’re releasing a new tutorial on copyright and a redesigned copyright help center. We’re also making two changes to our copyright process to be sure that our users understand the rules, and that users who abide by those rules can remain active on the site.

They then release a film portraying a simplistic view of copyright – the complex needs to be explained not simplified or banalized. They also have disabled the comments section – this is their view, enough said, no discussion.

But that does not prevent discussion (as they should well know) criticism was swift – for example Leonhard over at Governance across borders writes

The background for this crazy/disturbing/awkward “Copyright School” is a change in YouTube’s copyright infringement policies. As repeatedly discussed on this blog (e.g. “This Post is Available in Your Country“) and described by fellow workshop participant Domen Bajde (see “Private Negotiation of Public Goods: Collateral Damage(s)“), users who posted three videos containing (seemingly) infringing content to YouTube have not only lost those videos but all of their videos: their account was deleted.

The problem is not only the one-sided view they present, or even their attempts to suppress discussion but also the control of content YouTube exerts is only loosely based on copyright. Their system of removal and criticism of content is highly biased against “amateurs”.

Yesterday Public Knowledge announced the Public Knowledge “Copyright School” Video Challenge!

In an attempt to educate its users about copyright law, YouTube has debuted “Copyright School,” a video that explains why videos are removed from YouTube. While “Copyright School” does a great job of telling you what you can’t do with copyrighted content, it does a very poor job of telling you what you can do with copyrighted content–namely, remix, reuse and repurpose it without permission from the rightsholder as allowed under the doctirine of fair use. So here’s our challenge to you: can you make a better video than YouTube that explains both what you can and can’t do with copyrighted content? Watch the video above (and read the official rules) to find out how you can win $1000 and have your video featured on the Public Knowledge website!*


My top 20 non-fiction

OK, so I should be writing but I needs a break and this seems like a worthwhile attempt at procrastination…

Every time someone dares to create a canon they are naturally shot down. But at the same time I really want to list the 20  non-fiction books a well rounded person should read. A list like this can never be complete and I would really appreciate any and all tips on books which should be included:

Richard DawkinsThe Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for evolution

Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion

Bill BrysonA Short History of Nearly Everything

Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

Karen ArmstrongA History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

David BollierSilent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth

George MonbiotBring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice

George MonbiotThe Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order

John PilgerFreedom Next Time

Fredrick SchauerFree Speech: A philosophical inquiry

Rupert SmithThe Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World

John GribbinScience: A History 1543-2001

Vandana ShivaWater Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit

Vandana ShivaProtect or Plunder?: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights

Ronald DworkinTaking Rights Seriously

Neil PostmanTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Okakura KakuzoThe Book of Tea

Amartya SenThe Idea of Justice

Peter SingerAnimal Liberation

John Stuart MillOn Liberty

Free Knowledge

Let me begin by admitting that I really cannot stand working out to music. It bores me to no end. Particularly if I am running, if the wrong song shows up I just lose the will to jog.

Sad as I am I really enjoy listening to lectures while working out. Sad I know. That’s why I really become happy when I find more free courses online. This happiness increased when I came across 250 new course online (via PhilosophyBytes)  after browsing a few minutes I was already downloading:

  • HannibaliTunes – Patrick Hunt, Stanford.
  • Introduction to NonviolenceiTunesStream Audio and Video – Michael Nagler, UC Berkeley
  • GlobalizationiTunesFeedMP3s – Robert Acker, UC Berkeley
  • European Civilization, 1648-1945 – iTunes – YouTube – Download Course – John Merriman, Yale
  • The Roman EmpireiTunesFeedMP3s – Isabelle Pafford, UC Berkeley
  • Theories of Law and SocietyiTunesFeed – David Lieberman, UC Berkeley
  • History of InformationiTunesFeed – Paul Duguid, UC Berkeley

Fixing leaky legal systems

Too much of the Swedish legal education system is all about learning the law as it is. Attempting to develop a social consciousness about the way in which the law should be is almost frowned upon. This is important if the goal of law school is to produce skilled legal workers (in Swedish I would have used the word hantverkare). This however degrades the ability and importance of the law professional to the level of plumber, electrician or doctor. This last sentence is not meant in any way to degrade the knowledge necessary in these professions but refers to the way in which they approach and resolve problems.

The doctor, plumber, electrician and lawyer see a problem and apply the tools of the trade to fix it. And this is an important task in society. When your boiler is leaking it is important that you can call a plumber who arrives and resolves the issue without re-interpreting the way in which your house is built. But, (you knew that there would be at least one but…) between leaks the plumbers education should have encouraged him or her to think about how and why pipes, houses and people interact.

The ability to fix direct problems should not mean that these professions cannot evolve and challenge the established set of knowledge. The plumber, doctor and electrician all have the ability to change the way in which their professions understand their own work situation. The Swedish legal education system does not promote this kind of critical thinking.

For critical legal thought we must leave the cold Norse climate and look to the Anglo-American legal system. Sure, there are legal systems which promote critical thinking but not as much as the Anglo-American system. And sure, not all Anglo-American lawyers think critically – which is good since sometimes you need a lawyer to be, just a lawyer.

There are a multitude of examples, courses, books, scholars and whole schools of thought to promote critical legal thought or social legal theory. But one of the more enjoyable must be cross between law and literature which provides a mix of deep thought, social criticism and comic relief all in the academic format (not an easy task).

Take for example this article I just came across by Kimberlianne Podlas of the University of North Carolina: Homerus Lex: Investigating American Legal Culture Through the Lens of The Simpsons. (Seton Hall Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law 93, 2007). From the abstract:

The Simpsons is not merely the most successful cartoon in history (and seen in more than 70 countries), but a pop culture chronicle that uses satire to explore a variety of social issues. No subject is immune from its scrutiny, and the law is no different. Though not traditional law programming, The Simpsons includes some of television’s most profound depictions of the legal system, regularly referencing statutes, private settlements, and trials. Accordingly, it is important to understand what its legally-tinged themes communicate about the value of the legal system.
Embracing a socio-anthropological perspective, this paper studies the function, role, and ideology of law in Springfield, the hometown of the Simpson family. Rather than critiquing a few memorable episodes, it employs ethnographic analysis. Hence, it considers every episode of the first eight seasons, systematically recording each “instance” of law, organizing these into themes, and analyzing them with an eye toward understanding the values and operation of law.
Though politicians and media often present a pessimistic view of the legal system, where litigation is out of control and law impedes common sense justice, The Simpsons depicts a system that is just and beneficial to society. The Simpsons may satirize situations prompting legal action, it upholds the value of law in maintaining a civil society and being a tool that citizens use to right wrongs and make them whole.

This is not legal plumbing, this teaching in such a way as to encourge legal criticism and independent thought. No matter what the conclusions of the article, its very existance shows that law schools are capable of producing more than competent hantverkare who can be called to fix leaks.

The importance of failure

Via Boing Boing I came across J.K. Rowling’s Commencement Address at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association. Her address was entitled The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination (online with video here).

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

We focus much too often on success, believing that it will teach us something we study success. Unfortunately we are too quick to ignore failure, despite the fact that failure would probably teach us more. Even on a personal level failure teaches us more than success. We learn more from unpleasantness.

Photo: band – failure is not an option by Leo Reynolds (CC by-nc-sa)