I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.
So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.
The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.
Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.
Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.
There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.
According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read. Here is what the group says in a statement:
Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.
What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.
There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.
It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.
It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.
In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.
And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.
If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.
I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.
This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.
It can be dangerous to tell the truth: “There will always be One against All, one person against all others. [This is so] not because One is terribly wise and All are terribly foolish, but because the process of thinking and researching, which finally yields truth, can only be accomplished by an individual person. In its singularity or duality, one human being seeks and finds – not the truth (Lessing) –, but some truth.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Book XXIV, No. 21
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines when she was confronted with the severe and often unfair, even slanderous, public criticism launched against her and her book Eichmann in Jerusalem after its publication in 1963. The quote points to her understanding of the thinking I (as opposed to the acting We) on which she bases her moral and, partly, her political philosophy.
It is the thinking I, defined with Kant as selbstdenkend (self-thinking [“singularity”]) and an-der-Stelle-jedes-andern-denkend (i.e., in Arendt’s terms, thinking representatively or practicing the two-in-one [“duality”]). Her words also hint at an essay she published in 1967 titled “Truth and Politics,” wherein she takes up the idea that it is dangerous to tell the truth, factual truth in particular, and considers the teller of factual truth to be powerless. Logically, the All are the powerful, because they may determine what at a specific place and time is considered to be factual truth; their lies, in the guise of truth, constitute reality. Thus, it is extremely hard to fight them.
In answer to questions posed in 1963 by the journalist Samuel Grafton regarding her report on Eichmann and published only recently, Arendt states: “Once I wrote, I was bound to tell the truth as I see it.” The statement reveals that she was quite well aware of the fact that her story, i.e., the result of her own thinking and researching, was only one among others. She also realized the lack of understanding and, in many cases, of thinking and researching, on the part of her critics.
Thus, she lost any hope of being able to publicly debate her position in a “real controversy,” as she wrote to Rabbi Hertzberg (April 8, 1966). By the same token, she determined that she would not entertain her critics, as Socrates did the Athenians: “Don’t be offended at my telling you the truth.” Reminded of this quote from Plato’s Apology (31e) in a supportive letter from her friend Helen Wolff, she acknowledged the reference, but acted differently. After having made up her mind, she wrote to Mary McCarthy: “I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business.” In other words, she did not defend herself in following the motto “One against All,” which she had perceived and noted in her Denktagebuch. Rather, as announced to McCarthy, she provided an “evaluation” in the 1964 preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem and later when revising that preface for the postscript of the second English edition.
Arendt also refused to act in accordance with the old saying: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus (let there be justice, though the world perish). She writes – in the note of the Denktagebuch from which today’s quote is taken – that such acting would reveal the courage of the teller of truth “or, perhaps, his stubbornness, but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness.” Thus, she rejected an attitude known in German cultural tradition under the name of Michael Kohlhaas. A horse trader living in the 16th century, Kohlhaas became known for endlessly and in vain fighting injustice done to him (two of his horses were stolen on the order of a nobleman) and finally taking the law into his own hands by setting fire to houses in Wittenberg.
Even so, Arendt has been praised as a woman of “intellectual courage” with regard to her book on Eichmann (see Richard Bernstein’s contribution to Thinking in Dark Times).
Intellectual courage based on thinking and researching was rare in Arendt’s time and has become even rarer since then. But should Arendt therefore only matter nostalgicly? Certainly not. Her emphasis on the benefits of thinking as a solitary business still remains current. Consider, for example, the following reference to Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT and author of the recent book Alone Together. In an interview with Peter Haffner (published on July 27, 2012, in SZ Magazin), she argues that individuals who become absorbed in digital communication lose crucial components of their faculty of thinking. Turkle says (my translation): Students who spend all their time and energy on communication via SMS, Facebook, etc. “can hardly concentrate on a particular subject. They have difficulty thinking a complex idea through to its end.” No doubt, this sounds familiar to all of us who know about Hannah Arendt’s effort to promote thinking (and judging) in order to make our world more human.
To return to today’s quote: It can be dangerous to tell the truth, but thinking is dangerous too. Once in a while, not only the teller of truth but the thinking 'I' as well may find himself or herself in the position of One against All.
How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.
The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.
Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:
Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.
Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.
What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.
Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.
Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.
It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.