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I wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in 2000, arguing for reform of the private school system, based on the assumption that it was impossible to abolish them (I still think it unlikely, and am quite curious what will end up in the manifesto). If you feel like reading it, here it is.

Congratulations to Gina, whose book Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor was published early in the summer (but I waited to say anything till fall, when I thought people would be more receptive).[1]

Here’s a very rough account of what the book’s about: Women and men do unequal amounts of domestic and caring labor, and this inequality contributes to unequal outcomes between men and women in their careers. This is the ‘gendered division of labor’. But are the inequalities, or the processes generating them, unjust? And, if so, should the government act to change anything?

Here’s the problem: No laws enforce the gendered division of labor; and while women face some discrimination in the labor market, most of the gendered division of labor seems to be explained, immediately, by people’s choices which are, in turn, responsive to influential social norms. We – liberals who believe in democracy and freedom – presume that people should be free to act on their own judgments, and are uneasy about government intervention that would attempt to change the social norms. This commitment is captured by the popular idea that, for the most part, the government should stay out of people’s personal lives – and that appears to include things like how members of a household decide to divide up the time doing the dishes, looking after a child, or caring for an ailing parent.

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Making participation count.

by Harry on September 5, 2019

Here’s my latest piece at ACUE, this time on class participation, what it is, how to make it happen, and why we probably shouldn’t grade it (if you read it it says that we shouldn’t grade it, but I doubt that’s true in all circumstances). Here’s a taster:

Unfamiliar with the practice [of grading participation] I started asking faculty why they graded participation and what they counted. The standard response was that you have to grade it, “otherwise students won’t talk.”

I was skeptical. Whereas we can provide students with a reasonable understanding of what is required when writing an essay, taking a test, setting up an experiment, or making a presentation, participation is vaguer. But let’s assume that participation is, as colleagues tended to say, speaking in class—an action that is, in principle, readily observable and gradable. A number of problems arise.

The first problem is obvious: It’s not just talking, but talking productively, that we care about. Saying things that are interesting and useful to the conversation is a sign of good participation; saying things that are off-topic is a sign of bad participation. If we’re going to grade students’ talking, we should focus on quality, not quantity.

Students need to know this. But once they do, some feel pressure to impress you with correct or pat comments. In setting expectations, it’s hard to overstate that quality includes getting things wrong—for good reason. As a recent graduate wrote to me, “One thing I’m especially grateful for: I’m more willing to risk getting things wrong in discussion and writing than I used to be because you made it clear in class that making mistakes is part of engaging rigorously with philosophy and not something to fear. That seems obvious now, but it wasn’t always.”

Lord Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on September 4, 2019

Its Lord Vivian Stanshall Day today, an international moving feast in which we celebrate the great man. It really should have been on the day that Boris Johnson became PM, but those of us in Viv-land were too blinded by the surrealism of the Tory electorate to respond. And, anyway, it doesn’t really matter because, in our hearts, every day is Viv Stanshall Day. At least, that’s how its been seeming for a while now. Here he is with The Young Ones (btw I endured (well, that was my dad’s word for it) a dreadful, Viv-worthy, youth production of Summer Holiday in the summer, in which my niece managed to shine as an overactive surreal narrator), and.. well in an ad for Ruddles which has to be seen to be believed.


by Harry on September 4, 2019

Its the first day of class for me. Both my classes this semester are small—20 or fewer—and in such classes I always begin the first several classes with icebreakers so that they get used to talking in front of the group and learn each others names. A good icebreaker is brief (I allow 5-7 minutes for the whole round)—so it must be pretty easy to come up with a quick answer—but revealing (because I want them to get to know each other). I have a small collection of them. Here’s a sample: please add more if you have them!

Name a novel you haven’t read that you think you should have read
Name a novel you have read that you think the rest of us should avoid reading
What would your choice be for a final meal?
Name a song or singer or band that you are embarrassed that you like [1]
If you had been raised in a different country which one would it have been?
Of the 50 states, which is the one you are least interested in visiting?
If you had to rely on a past England cricket captain to get your country out of the mess it is in, which one would it be? [2]

[1] Surprising how often Justin Beiber and the Jonas Brothers turn up here, both of whom seem entirely un-embarrassing to me. Someone usually mentions Taylor Swift, enabling me to reveal that I have seen her live.
[2] This one has a right answer, but I don’t know what it is—Brearley or Jardine, I imagine. Unless your country is Albania, of course, in which case it’s obviously Fry.[3]

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The missing question

by Harry on August 30, 2019

Yesterday’s All Things Considered story about Brexit was a remarkably insidious piece of journalism. Their man in Albion visited the town with the highest Brexit vote in Britain (a ‘namesake’ of Boston Mass: the fact that they have the same name is, no doubt, a remarkable accident), managed to find a woman who voted for Brexit, and asked her what she thought of the Prime Minister’s decision to restrict the sovereignty of the elected parliament (not the way he put it). She was enthused “If that’s what it takes…then so be it”: Brexit has to be done and dusted because we’ve got to ‘slow and control” immigration. She freely admitted that Brexit would be bad for the economy, and he asked if she cared that it will be bad for her business. It as already been bad for her business, which relies on EU migrant labor, but that is something she was, nobly, willing to put up with. But what she was willing to put up with in order to slow and control immigration is entirely uninteresting. The question he didn’t ask was how she justified wrecking other people’s businesses and the businesses that other people who are worse off than she is work for. Next time, please present her with some remainers who are going to lose their livelihoods because of Brexit, or the non-trivial number of remainers who will lose their lives because the health service is understaffed (or just badly staffed) and ask her to justify the costs she is trying to impose on them. (Brilliantly, when I looked for the story to link to, I got an ad for an interview with the repulsive James Dyson).

A tie would have been good enough

by Harry on August 27, 2019

When Leach was facing, with 2 to win, the tie was gone. If he was out, Australia would win. If he scored 2, England would win. And if he scored 1, Stokes would score the winning runs. But, from the point of view of the Ashes, a tie was as good as a win: either way England has to win more of the subsequent 2 matches than Australia: if Australia win one, or both are drawn, Australia keep the Ashes.

I tried to describe the scale of Stokes’s feat to someone who had no knowledge of cricket. Unfortunately, she proved to be completely ignorant of all sports, a remarkable accomplishment, but one that left me at a complete loss for analogies (I was going to reach for tennis, but even then—winning from 2 sets down and 5 games down in the third set doesn’t really capture it).

Lots of young people have said that this was the greatest innings ever, better even than Jessop at the Oval, or Botham at Headingley, and that this was a greater victory than Headingley 1981. But they weren’t born at the time and have only seen highlights of 1981, so what do they know? Even those of us who are old didn’t see Jessop in 1903, but we did watch Headingley ‘81 with the same stunned disbelief as we watched Headingley ‘19. Maybe, just maybe, Jessop’s innings matched this one. But those of us who saw Headingley ‘81 and Headingley ‘19, albeit on telly, surely agree that the youngsters are right.

What nobody has talked about is Watson and Bailey’s draw. If any of our readers witnessed Sunday’s game, and Watson and Bailey, please let us know how they compare. If you google “Watson and Bailey” from my location, you get a hairstylist in California.

On twitter, in response to a request from Ben Stokes, specsavers agreed to provide Jack Leach with a lifetime supply of eyeglasses.

Advice for new college students

by Harry on August 20, 2019

A couple of years ago the Midwest conference of the Junior State of America asked me to be their keynote speaker. I still have no idea at all why they invited me – it seemed and still seems rather unlikely. I stupidly agreed, and then agonized about what to talk about. The organizers suggested talking about how I got to where I am, but, although there are parts of how I got to where I am that are quite interesting, where I am is not interesting at all. Then, mercifully, the Thursday before the talk two of my students brought one of their friends to meet me in my office. (You can tell how exciting their lives must be!) And they told me to tell her my tips for how to get the most out of college. I was put on the spot and tried, desperately, to remember what my tips are. Fortunately, I did remember. And then I thought, oh, actually, I could talk on Saturday about how to get the most out of college. It’s something I know something about, and that would actually be useful to audience!

Since it is the time of year that some of our readers in the northern hemisphere are getting ready to welcome students to college (I am teaching a small first-year class, which I only do once every three years), and other readers are getting ready to send their kids off to college and, conceivably, one or two readers are getting ready to go off to college themselves, I thought I’d excerpt the part of the talk where I actually give the advice. About 2/3rds of the talk was about what the point of going to college is and I’ll skip most of that, but just say that the point that I gave them was to learn knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions that will enable them to make a better contribution to the good of all of us; and to enjoy that learning itself. I know going to college has other purposes, but these are the ones that get neglected by the college recruiters, and school counsellors, and movies, that shape their ambitions about college.

Here goes with the concrete advice:
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Best moment of the academic year

by Harry on August 19, 2019

I invite other teachers or students to submit their own best moment of the academic year past. Mine was this.

A small class—just 17 students. They had read Amia Srinivasan’s “Does anyone have the right to sex?”. Some of them hated it, because they thought (wrongly) that it expressed sympathy with incels. Others were more intrigued. During the discussion I made reference, as she does, to political lesbians, and as I was saying the word it occurred to me that they might not know what it meant. So I asked them what it meant. The blank faces indicated that none of them had looked it up, which I pointed out (I knew they’d all read the piece). So I asked them to guess, and several made wild guesses. The one who got closest was very uneasy in saying it, I think because he worried that he was being politically incorrect. I finally told them what it meant. Several of them looked concerned, wondering what they ought to think about this. A few knew that I am perfectly capable of making things up to bamboozle them. After an interminable 2 seconds of silence, though, one young woman hit the table, and cried, very loudly: “That’s AWESOME! Good for THEM!”. Her face had that look that a baby’s face gets when it has its first taste of chocolate.

Who do I think I am?

by Harry on August 7, 2019

I can’t remember whether I have plugged this before—I suspect I have—but the radio version of Mark Steel’s autobiographical one-man show, Who Do I Think I Am?, is available on Sounds for the next 17 days. It is just brilliant. Its the story of Steel’s search for his adoptive mother, which involves so many twists, turns, and bizarre coincidences that at various points you think he must have added this or that (surely the details about the Socialist Party of Great Britain???) for effect but… no, its all, bizarrely, true. Mainly its hilarious, but it is also, in parts, serious and very poignant. If you have one hour to spare in the next 17 days, this is how to spend it, even if (maybe especially if) you have no idea who Mark Steel is.

Apparently cancelling all student debt under Sanders’s plan would cost $1.6 trillion, and would be funded by a wealth tax. $1.6 trillion is a lot of money. Sara Goldrick-Rab gently says: “There’s a piece of me that has seen how widespread the pain is, including among people you might say are financially fine. But there’s a piece of me that knows what the pot looks like, and says, ‘That’s not the best use of the money’”.

Think about other uses: There are about 100,000 public (k-12) schools in the US. I’ve tried dividing $1.6 trillion by 100,000 several times now and every time I do it the answer is $16 million (I find math using ‘billions’ and ‘trillions’ difficult, because the words have different meanings in UK and American English, and I’m not always confident which language my head is in. So maybe I’m off?) $1.6 trillion could endow every public school in the country with, or give a one-off capital grant of, an average of $16 million. An average endowment of $16 million per school would yield $800,000 in additional spending per school in perpetuity. Another way of thinking about this. There are 51 million public school children. $1.6 trillion yields about $31k per student. Create an endowment and you can spend $1.5k more per student in public schools than we currently do. Forever.

(Co-incidentally, if the government did spend $1.5k more per student per year in public schools, that would almost bring government spending per-student per year in k-12 up to the level of government spending per-student per-year in higher education!)

Another way of thinking about it. Sanders’ main spending proposal in k-12 is tripling Title One spending (Federal funds that go to schools with low income children in them). Title One spending is currently around $14 billion. (He adds $1 billion for magnet schools and unspecified amounts for universal free school meals, and for a few other things, which I’ll leave aside). Divide 1.6 trillion by 14 billion and you see that he’s proposing to spend 100 years of current Title One funding on a one-off cancellation of student debt. He could quadruple title one spending for 100 years instead. Or quintuple it for 50 years. Or sextuple it for 25 years. He’s proposing to spend 50 times more just on relieving student debt than to increase annual Federal spending in k-12.

Or: restrict your concern to access to higher education. $1.6 trillion would pay the current Pell Grant budget for 50 years. Another way of putting this: Endow the Pell Grant program with $1.6 trillion, and that pays for Pell Grants at 2.5 times the current rate. Forever.

Some defenders say that debt forgiveness would be good for the economy.

Student debt forgiveness would also help stimulate economic growth by freeing borrowers to buy homes and improve their credit, while primarily benefiting racial minorities, according to Steinbaum and researchers at the Levy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Omar, who has student debt, said in a statement that the plan would “unleash billions of dollars in economic growth.”

If the point of the plan is reducing debt loads, rather than being about education, why is the plan specific to college loan debt? People who didn’t go to college have debt too: and have worse earning prospects. Is there some evidence that cancelling student debt (a good deal of which is held by high earners) is better for the economy than cancelling other kinds of debt. Or just lowering the costs of living for low income families by, for example, enabling them to purchase new and efficient automobiles that have lower running costs than older cars that they currently buy because they are cheaper? $1.6 trillion would buy $53 million Chevy Volts, reducing automobile running costs for 53 million low income families. Or one could address the massive wealth gap between African Americans and whites by biting the reparations bullet: a mortgage down payment of $34k for every single African-American would increase dramatically home ownership among African Americans. Or whatever.

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Tactical Voting

by Harry on June 19, 2019

In the very unlikely event that you, a CT reader, will have a vote in deciding the United Kingdom’s next Prime Minister, and haven’t made up your mind, you could do worse than listening to various of the candidates discussing ‘political thinking’ with Nick Robinson. I don’t listen to the Today programme, and have no other real exposure to Robinson, and, in general, dislike the underlying premise of Political Thinking that looking at people’s childhood and youth tells you something useful about their political thinking. What is good about the podcast is Robinson’s other premise which is basically that in the long form interview it is very hard for politicians to disguise who they are. A typical pattern—Dominic Raab, Steve Baker and Esther McVey all comform—is that they start out seeming reasonable and perfectly decent but end up seeming either nuts (Baker), poisonous (McVey) or both (Raab). [Of course, plenty of interviewees (eg David Lidington, Stella Creasey, David Gauke) end up seeming exactly as they did at the beginning—smart, serious, decent]. It is no accident, as Robinson knows, that the most likely future PM has not yet chosen to appear on the show.

Anyway, down to business. There was talk at the second stage of the vote that the repulsive Johnson’s campaign might “lend” votes to Hunt so that Boris would face him rather than someone else in the run-off among the members, thus giving him an easier time than he might have against another contender. Simon Cotton on twitter says:

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Strangers on a Train

by Harry on June 12, 2019

I didn’t really know Charlotte: she was one of several women who seemed to flock around my quite eccentric friend Chris – several of whom I think had unrequited romantic interest in him. We were all 19, toward the end of the first year of college. One bright Monday afternoon in June 1983, after returning from lectures, I bumped into Charlotte (not one with a romantic interest) sitting with another Chris acolyte, Samantha, who had always struck me as rather dull, and cheerily asked how they were doing.

Samantha, it turned out, was not at all dull: she was dropping out of college, and had committed to working her way round the world on a sailboat with some unknown family. Sounded terrifying to me. As for Charlotte – well, according to Samantha “She’s not doing well at all. She needs to talk to someone, and not me. Do you have a couple of hours to talk to her?”. As you can imagine, coming from two people I had talked with for a total of about 10 minutes hitherto, this was bemusing, so I turned to Charlotte who confirmed the need to talk, and implored me to go for a walk with her.

Bedford College was beautiful – a large Victorian building that could have been a not very posh private school, sheltered in the Inner Circle of Regents Park. You could walk out of the grounds, into the park, and talk for hours, barely hearing the traffic at all. So we did, and Charlotte told me her story.

She was very, very, upset. Bedford was the first choice for a few students drawn to London but with a taste for comfort. But for most, I think, it was second choice to one or another Oxbridge college. I suspect Charlotte was in the latter camp, and, like many of the women (though few of the men) had a boyfriend from school – they’d been together I think at the Grammar school, not the Cathedral school, in Stourbridge—who had got to their first choice. Hers was at one of the Oxford colleges that you’d heard of if you knew the system, but not if you didn’t. She routinely visited him for the weekend: the previous Friday was no exception. Maybe the most shocking part of the story for me – and I suspect this says a lot about both my naivete and my political outlook – was the first part: he wasn’t there, so she let herself into his room and started tidying it and making his bed. It really had never occurred to me that girlfriends might deliver such a service, and, frankly, I was assaulted by its unfeminist character. She was nonplussed by my disapproval, but was keen to get to the next part.

“Making his bed I discovered that he had been having sex with another girl”

“How did you know that?”. At this point, perhaps she was thinking she should have chosen a less dull-witted confessor (though, I have to say, I am 99% certain that the one person in the college more clueless than I was our eccentric mutual friend, Chris).

“Well, you know. I found incontrovertible proof. Among the bedclothes”. I was still puzzled, but didn’t let on.

It turned out that Steve, the boyfriend, had been having sex with an American student whom he knew through their political group at Oxford. Subsequently, I have to say, I met the woman to whom I’ve now been married for 27 years in a political group, but at the time I was sufficiently puritanical to disapprove of meeting romantic partners through politics. Though, if I had been more approving of that, I still would still have balked at the organization in question: they were members of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I was somewhat more outraged with his behavior to her than his being a member of OUCA: I’m even now quite pleased with myself that I didn’t even hint that how much I disapproved of someone having a Tory boyfriend, and focused entirely on his treatment of her. He, of course, shrugged off the sex as a one-night stand at first, but over the course of the weekend it became ever clearer that in fact they’d been having it off for weeks. (Yes, the weekend: she had stayed all weekend, and had only returned to London for lectures that very morning). But this was June, and, as the boyfriend pointed out, the American girl was only there for the year: she’d be leaving early in July, so there was really nothing to worry about. They could continue as usual.

I’d never really had this sort of conversation before. I did a lot of listening, expressed a lot of sympathy, and, where appropriate, outrage. We walked the whole time, side by side, so we didn’t look at each other a lot. Now I’m old, and am very comfortable hearing people’s distressed stories, and am good at making people feel at ease when they are sobbing; at the time I had no such skill. I’m sure that I helped, but suspect that pretty much anyone with a sympathetic ear would have been as much good for her.

And then… nothing. I don’t mean that badly, but no-one had phones, and our paths didn’t cross naturally, and she went home at the end of June: then, in October, her course had been moved to Royal Holloway College (with which most of Bedford College was merging), while I was left at Bedford.

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Roy Orbison and Judith Thomson

by Harry on June 7, 2019

To oldster’s dismay I casually referred to a story about Roy Orbison that I relate in class without actually relating it. So… here it is.

In her paper A Defence of Abortion Judith Thomson makes an argument that “the right to life”, although everyone as it, should not be interpreted as involving either the right not to be killed, or the right to the bare minimum needed to sustain life. Her argument against the latter is a thought experiment. Suppose that I am dying, on the East Coast, and the only – literally the only – thing that will cure me would be the cool touch of Henry Fonda’s hand on my fevered brow. That would be the bare minimum needed to sustain my life, but I, clearly, have no right to it. It would be lovely of HF to fly from the West Coast and save me, but he is doing nothing wrong by staying put – he is not obliged to save me, so I have no right to the bare minimum needed to sustain my life.

What does this have to do with Roy Orbison? Well, this is a story I remember from my teens. A girl of about my age was in a coma in a hospital in Scotland. The coma lasted a long time, and it got into the press, which also reported that she was a Roy Orbison fan (this is why it stuck in my head – it seemed so odd to be a Roy Orbison fan then whereas, now, it seems entirely normal). It was one of those news stories which persisted, and you’d get updates about how she was doing. Anyway, the story is that Roy Orbison (whose own life was, itself, replete with tragedies) got wind of the situation, and made a cassette tape in which he personally talked to her and played some of his songs. And, as I remember it, the girl came out of the coma very soon after her parents started playing her the tape. Of course, we don’t know that Roy Orbison’s voice was the bare minimum needed to sustain her life, nor did Roy Orbison actually cross the channel to save her; but it helps students to think that the example isn’t quite as fanciful as it seems.

Inconveniently I didn’t cut the story out of a newspaper and put it in a scrapbook because I didn’t, for some reason, anticipate that it would serve me well as a way of rendering a thought experiment more real and intuitive. (When teaching Singer for the third time I remembered suddenly that I once saved a toddler from drowning, albeit rather inadvertently and at an age barely older than the toddler myself). In fact I think I got the final part of the story from a TV news report, so couldn’t have cut it out anyway. I’ve gone to very modest lengths to verify the story, and I can’t (I tell the students that, too—conceivably, I suppose, it is a figment of my imagination but that seems very, very unlikely).

And… I often tease them about the fact that they don’t know who Roy Orbison is. But, every time I teach it, by the end of the class someone has told me that they have become a fan.

A team working on developing a short handbook for professors about how to manage TAs – this being, like so many other teaching-related matters, something we have little training and guidance in – asked me to come up with a few comments to start of the process. Below the fold are the initial thoughts which, with your help, I can revise to provide them with a starting point. Please comment away as you see fit – most of you have either managed, or been, or had, TAs, and have some sort of insight into what goes well and what goes badly, and what might be good advice for the professors who supervise them.

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