Can’t… Don’t… or Won’t

My wife just received an email from a student seeking to be a music major at the university. The student wanted to accept the scholarship that the department had offered, but wanted to know how to do so. My wife doesn’t know whether to be frustrated, amused, appalled, or enraged, if not all four. Why?

Because the letter offering the scholarship and setting forth the terms is sent in duplicate. All the student has to do is sign one copy, accepting the scholarship and its terms, and return it. Or, if the terms aren’t acceptable or the student decides to go elsewhere, rejecting the scholarship. The letter states all that precisely. This is not exactly complicated. Neither are the simple written scholarship requirements.

One of the terms that is spelled out in the scholarship letter is that to receive a Music Department scholarship, a student has to major in music. And every year there are several students who fail to follow the written requirements for their scholarship, even after being explicitly told both verbally and in writing what music department courses to take and in what order… and they lose their scholarships because they didn’t read the requirements or bother to follow directions. And there are those who register to major in other disciplines and then are shocked to learn that they don’t get a scholarship unless they major in music.

The department offers several levels of scholarships. The ones that cover all tuition for four years essentially have two major conditions: major in music, taking the requisite courses, and maintain a 3.5 grade average. Despite having high ACT/SAT scores, and good high school grades, there are always a few students who don’t seem to have read or understood those two requirements… and lose their scholarships.

Then there are the ones who try to register for courses that have pre-requisites, without having taken the earlier courses, or the ones who wait until their senior year for a course that’s only given every other year, despite the fact that this is noted in print in more than a few places. And then, of course, some administrators pressure the professors to make special accommodations. My wife doesn’t, but a few do.

All this conveys a strong impression that a great number of high school graduates don’t read, or don’t comprehend what they read… or don’t bother to. Pretty much every member of the Music Department, and any other department, has noticed this trend. Students will ask questions, such as, “What’s required for my jury [or gateway or recital]?” Seemingly not a bad question, except the requirements are listed in the syllabus and in the Voice Handbook. Students are also told the requirements verbally, and repeatedly. Did I mention that a great number of them don’t listen, either?

All of which brings up some questions: Just what aren’t these students being taught by their parents and/or their high schools about responsibility and consequences? How do so many of them get to the point of nearly legal majority without being held accountable? And why do so many colleges and universities make it even harder for professors to hold students accountable?

Over-Modeling

There’s an old saying along the lines of, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The newest version of this seems to be, if a “model” works in one setting, it works everywhere.

I’ve already railed about the inapplicability of “the business model” to education and the arts, but the “model” problem goes far beyond that. There’s also the “peer review” model, which is a mainstay of the scientific community, and I don’t have a problem with its proper use in the pursuit of better science, especially in areas where there’s hard factual evidence. But the peer review concept is also creeping into education and elsewhere… and it’s incredibly easy to abuse in situations where the background conditions and the environment differ markedly. Peer review in such areas as music, art, theatre, and dance becomes essentially a race for awards of some sort. It also distorts education, because one “sterling” piece of artwork, one concert, a high ranking in vocal or instrumental competition by one or two students – none of these reflect accurately the value or depth of the education received (or not received) by all students in a given program. Neither do tests, but legislators and administrators keep searching for “hard benchmarks,” regardless of how flawed or inapplicable they may be.

The same problem applies with cost-effectiveness models. One of the big problems with the F-35 is that it can do everything “pretty well” and very little really well, which was the result of attempting to develop a single cost-effective aircraft that could be used by all four service branches. So we have a very expensive aircraft that does nothing in a superior fashion.

In education, cost-effectiveness gets translated into “the most graduates for the lowest cost” or “the best education for “X” dollars,” neither of which is particularly effective at producing high school or college graduates who can write, think, and calculate without extensive electronic aids [which usually don’t help].

Even in business, cost-effectiveness can be over-applied. Cost-effective production of existing products, undertaken to avoid more expensive product improvement or the introduction of newer products, can be the road to bankruptcy. And sometimes, the opposite is also true; it depends on the situation.

Models and methods are tools, and just like physical tools, knowing when to use them, and when not to, is critical. But then, that requires critical thought, and not just hopping on the bandwagon of the latest and greatest new technique, model, paradigm, or the like.

Harassment and Scandal

Bill O’Reilly is now out at Fox News, following by a few months the ouster of Roger Ailes, each removal the result of the revelation of a long and continuing pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior including sexual harassment. Does such behavior, as well as the long-term retention of two such individuals by the highly conservative Fox organization, have anything to do with the political outlook of Republicans and conservatives?

Certainly, a great number of liberals think so, especially some in my own family, but are conservatives really more likely to behave badly in the sexual/gender area than are liberals?

I can name a number of liberals and Democrats who have engaged in what most would call sexual improprieties, going all the way back to President Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child out of wedlock, or Franklin Roosevelt who had several affairs while in public office, or John Kennedy, or Bill Clinton. On the Republican side, the most obvious were Warren Harding who had a fifteen year affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, Dwight Eisenhower who had a brief affair with his military driver, or Nelson Rockefeller,who had quite a few indiscretions, but the list of sexual political improprieties among national political figures is long and it includes roughly the same numbers of Republicans and Democrats. What it doesn’t include is many women [I could only find one out of more than 100 Republicans and Democrats listed for sexual crimes and improprieties], which suggests that women in power are either far less likely to engage in sexual indiscretions or less likely to be found out.

On the issue of harassment, however, conservatives and Republicans seem to do more of that, or at least they’ve been found out and charged with it more often. In addition to the Ailes and O’Reilly cases, there was Senator Bob Packwood (R-ORE) who resigned in 1995 under a threat of public senate hearings related to 10 female ex-staffers accusing him of sexual harassment. As candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination, both Donald Trump and Herman Cain were charged with sexual harassment. Clarence Thomas was also accused of sexual harassment. Then there was the Oklahoma state representative who used state funds to pay off a judgment against him for sexually harassing a staffer, or the Texas Congressman who tried to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, who had earlier been charged with sexual harassment by an employee whom he later fired, or the Wisconsin state assembly Republican majority leader who was convicted of sexual assault, or… the list is very long.

Democrats certainly aren’t blameless, starting with Teddy Kennedy, former Senator Brock Adams, Congressmen Tim Mahoney, Jim Bates, and Mel Reynolds, but the list of actual Democratic harassers is about a fourth the size and length of the list of Republican harassers.

And then I came across an interesting chart of criminal misconduct by Presidential administration. Since Richard Nixon, whose administration resulted in 76 criminal indictments, 55 convictions and 15 prison sentences for members of his administration, there have been four Republican administrations and three Democratic administrations. The Democratic administrations had three criminal indictments, one conviction, and one prison sentence. The Republican administrations had 44 criminal indictments, 34 convictions, and 19 prison sentences.

The way it seems to stack up is that political viewpoint doesn’t make much difference in terms of consensual or semi-consensual sexual indiscretions, but the Republican/conservative outlook seems to result in more abuses of power and position.

But, from what we’ve seen recently, is that really surprising? Or is it that Democrats are really better politicians and are better at sexual persuasion?

All That Different?

Because human beings don’t have chlorophyll and a few other physio-chemical adaptations, for us to survive, we need to eat either other forms of life or the products of other forms of life. We’ve bred forms of both plant and animal life to provide food for us, and we’ve become better and better at it.

But there’s an underlying assumption behind our agricultural achievements, and that assumption is that human beings are not only superior to other forms of life on earth, but that we are fundamentally different in the way we interact with our environment.

One of the early beliefs was that human beings were the only tool-users on the planet. Now, after a raft of studies over the past fifty years or so, we know that there are quite a few other species that make and use tools. While those tools are incredibly crude compared to our tools, they are tools, and for a species to make and use a tool requires a certain amount of thinking and forethought beyond blind instinct or environmentally programmed responses. We’ve also discovered that animal tool use is, at least in a number of cases, “cultural,” in that some groups of a species use tools and others don’t, or make different tools.

Then came the questions dealing with whether animals could actually think, especially in dealing with “theory of mind” matters, that is, is the ability to attribute beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc., to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Experiments with mirrors and images have shown that certain species do indeed have that ability. Crows, ravens, elephants, and certain primates behave in ways that show they are very much aware of possible differences and mental motivation and states of others of their species and sometimes, even of other species.

But what we’ve learned doesn’t stop there. For a long time, most biologists dismissed the idea that plants did anything but grow and reproduce in some fashion. In the last few decades, however, they’ve discovered that plants aren’t nearly as simple as once had been thought. Experiments have shown that plants of the same species communicate with each other, and can warn other plants about insect attacks and other changes in the environment. They can also muster defenses against certain attacks. Unhappily, at times these defenses can be fatal if the attackers also adapt, as in the case of the spruce and pine bark beetles, who are attracted to both the warning signals and pitch secreted by the trees in an effort to repel beetles.

At the same time, more and more experiments and evidence show that plants do learn and adapt to changes in their environment. An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Western Australia, Monica Gagliano, actually trained plants to grow in specific directions based on which way a fan blew.

What’s the bottom line of all this? That while human beings are currently the best tool-users and thinkers on the planet, we’re not the only ones, and that we’re not fundamentally different from the rest of life, just better at taking advantage of all other life-forms – except maybe bacteria and viruses, but that’s another blog.

Plastic Perfect

On Tuesday, I laughed, if ruefully, at one of the headlines in the local paper – “Plastic Surgery High in Utah” – especially after reading the article, in which researchers noted that Utah had one of the highest rates of cosmetic plastic surgery, especially breast implants and “tummy tucks.” The researchers did observe that plastic surgery rates are greater in areas where women’s higher education levels lag more behind that of men than the national average, and one was even bold enough to suggest that it might have something to do with the Mormon faith, and the emphasis on “female perfection.”

Might have something to do with the LDS faith? Is that an understatement! This is the state where the rate of Prozac usage by married women is the highest in the nation. This is the only state where the achievement of higher education rates by women has essentially hit a stone wall, or ceiling – call it the LDS celestial glass ceiling. And, after all, with all those women having five children and their husbands still clamoring for Barbie-doll-figures, how could women not feel pressured into having a tummy-tuck? Or certain other “enhancements”?

As I’ve noted before, I walk, with occasional short stretches of running, most mornings, and the time I set out varies by as much as two hours, but no matter what time I walk, whether it’s at 6:30 or 8:30, or occasionally later, who do I see walking and running? Women, and most of them are decades younger than I am, often pushing baby strollers of the type suited to being propelled by more than walking speeds. Gym memberships are predominantly female as well. I do see a very few men, but those few are gray or white haired, likely out there on doctor’s orders.

But bring this up among the “faithful,” just like the “holy number” of preferred children, and it’s emphatically denied, even as the cult of the plastic perfect continues to dominate the lives of young LDS women.