Nobody knows the trouble they’ve seen

by Michael Bérubé on April 13, 2010

I’m not sure why Holbo thinks he should have all the fun when it comes to libertarians and history.  Here’s <a href=””>Megan McArdle</a>, earlier today:

<blockquote>Conservatives are, not to overlabor the obvious, marginalized in the cultural elite, even though they are powerful in the political elite. (At least some of the time, anyway). Obviously there’s been an enormous amount of ink shed about why this is, but my experience of talking to people who might have liked to go to grad school or work in Hollywood, but went and did something else instead, is that it is simply hogwash when liberals earnestly assure me that the disparity exists mostly because conservatives are different, and maybe dumber. People didn’t try because they sensed that it would be both socially isolating, and professionally dangerous, to be a conservative in institutions as overwhelmingly liberal as academia and media.</blockquote>

It is indeed hard to be a conservative in American media.  One is always wondering, <i>what if I get something wrong?  About something important, like maybe a health care debate or a war?  Will I lose my job and be subject to public ridicule for the rest of my life?</i> And then there’s the question of what kind of plane to buy, which country club to join, whether to vacation in the Caribbean, central America, or the south of France.  It can be terribly socially isolating.

But that’s not why I stopped by today.  Here’s why:
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I’ve mentioned our First Year Interest Group program at Madison before. (More here). It is well-designed, and we now have a good deal of data indicating that participation in it decreases the likelihood of students dropping out, and improves their academic performance. The participants are, on average, less well prepared than the average freshman and, on average, do better in terms of GPA, time-to-completion, not dropping out, etc.

So what next? The university is committing resources to increase pretty dramatically the numbers of FIGs being offered (doubling the number of students involved over the next two years). And some of the involved faculty are interested in starting up a bi-weekly discussion during the Fall semester, to discuss instruction. As Derek Bok points out, whereas faculty members in research universities solicit, and if they are lucky get, lots of diverse and hard-to-ignore feedback on their research which they can use to improve it, they spend very little time engaged in a community of teachers trying to learn how to improve their teaching. The aim is to establish a place where we can begin to improve our teaching in the ways we try to improve our research.

I, perhaps rashly, volunteered to lead the group (well, it was my idea, so I didn’t have much choice – my task is to come up with things to read and do over the semester, and get people to do them). So, I need ideas of things to do. This is a group of people who have very little in common – very different disciplines and different schools across the university – what we have in common is just that we are teaching one course with just 20 freshmen in it. I’m quite inclined to start out with some general reading about the university and what our aims should be for students (I find that everyone who reads Our Underachieving Colleges (review still pending…) is glad they did so, but there’s also a terrific essay by Susan Engel (thanks Sabina’s Hat) in College Success: What It Means and How to Make It Happen on what makes for good college teaching) but I want to get onto more concrete exercises pretty soon. One suggestion (from Susan Engel, whom I just emailed on the basis of her essay) was setting up sessions so that we actually teach one another things (not necessarily something we are teaching the students, but how to bake a cake, or something like that) and discuss how we do it. I’d really welcome more suggestions of reading and activities, either from people who have done this sort of thing before and know what has worked (and what hasn’t) or from people just think they have something useful to add. Please don’t feel inhibited from making suggestions because you are not a faculty member – I am roughly 100% confident that we have things to learn from other professions and non-professions (one of the most useful discussions I’ve had about teaching was with a U.S. Marine who spent several years leading a unit teaching fighter pilots).

Having made one non-libertarian-related post, I can now say, with a good conscience, that Bryan Caplan has responded to his critics. It is a wonder to behold.

I will make two notes. (No doubt you yourself will come to have your own favorite moments.) First, a lot of the trouble here obviously rotates around the issue of systematic social oppression. Caplan barrels straight through like so: “there’s a fundamental human right to non-violently pressure and refuse to associate with others.” That hardly speaks to real concerns about violence. But beyond that Caplan doesn’t notice that, even if he’s right about this fundamental human right, he’s no longer even defending the proposition that women were more free in the 1880’s, never mind successfully defending it. He’s defending the proposition that there is a fundamental right, which can be exercised, systematically, to make women much less free, that was better protected in the 1880’s. So if women value this libertarian right more than freedom, they might rationally prefer that sort of society. But even so, they should hardly regard themselves as more free, for enjoying this right. Rather, they should regard themselves as (rationally) sacrificing liberty, a lesser value, for love of libertarianism, a higher value and separate jar of pickles altogether

J.S. Mill had some things to say on the subject. From On Liberty:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

It is possible to object – I take it Caplan would – that limiting people’s rights to ‘act the tyrant’ in a collective, social sense, is illegitimate. But that is not to say that Mill is wrong about the ‘fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply’ bits. He obviously isn’t.

Now of course Caplan does dispute the ‘fewer means of escape’ bit, and in the most delightful way. “Market forces have a strong tendency to weed out discrimination.” It’s like the old cartoon with the two economists. “Hey look, $20.” “If that were really there, someone would have found it by now.” In this case: “Hey look, oppressed women in 1880.” Post title writes itself. As a method of doing empirical history, this leaves a lot to be desired, I should think.

Swallow Me Whole

by John Holbo on April 13, 2010

Man does not live by making fun of Bryan Caplan’s attempts to argue that women were freer in 1880 alone! Therefore, I see fit to mention that I really liked Nate Powell’s graphic novel Swallow Me Whole. You can check out the preview here – and even buy the book! (Or from Amazon, but cheaper from the publisher in this case.)

Right. Sortakinda spoilers (but not really) under the fold. [click to continue…]