Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New President Interview -- Part 36 What is stupidity? Part 1

New President Interview -- Part 36
What is stupidity?  Part 1

Q:  Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but I am not so certain about the universe.”[1] It seems that Einstein was not able to solve the problem of too much stupidity.  What is stupidity and why is it so wide spread?  

A: The word, “stupidity” is emotionally charged.  People are quick to say “stupid” and call others “stupid.”  Stupid is not the same as foolish.  Stupidity is not the same as ignorance.

The educational goals of the College include teaching a body of knowledge that the student can use in the next step in the learning process.  At some point we stop being concerned about the facts (read data) and become more concerned with the analysis of information.  The best test questions do not require students to repeat lectures or what is in the reading, but rather require the students to take those facts and synthetize them into new knowledge.  All knowledge is derived from experience. It may be personal experience but more often knowledge is based on the recorded experience of others (i.e. reading or viewing). One could have a lot of knowledge and not know how to apply the knowledge in the real world.

Wisdom is the use and application of knowledge to a strategic advantage. Wisdom is the result of thinking, analysis and use of experience to meet the challenge of a new situation.  Stupidity is not applying knowledge to the situation at hand.  However, wisdom and stupidity are on a continuum. They are both based on outsider perception.  If you take an action that observer “A” thinks is stupid and the action has positive results, observer “A” is proved wrong.  Your action may have been creative, risky, and challenging but as long as the result is positive it is not viewed in the as stupid.

In classes and situations that teach clinical skills, students rely on the experience and wisdom of others so that actions can be done quickly without the need for new analysis.  This also applies to team activities.  One practices skills and actions so that in a real situation we know the roles of the team members and can predict what each member will do.

For example, here is brief list of what is done to treat lacerations.  The class would teach the nursing students the steps to follow, when analysis is done, and when a list of procedures is done.  Each step below will have routine questions and actions to enable a decision to be made for the next action.  For example, the patient will be expected to give a relevant health history to make sure the treatment will not make matters worse.  Prepared kits will be used for treatments so that the medical provider will not need to search for the individual items.

  1. Assess wound and patient.  Determine the extent of the injury and the affected parts of the body.  Rule out trauma.  Is wound contaminated with dirt or other foreign bodies?  If internal damage is present, follow another list of procedures. 
  1. Clean wound.  Access the best method based on the type of wound and injury. 
  1. Close wound.  Access best method of closure i.e. dressing only, sutures, adhesive strips, surgery, etc.  
  1. Instruct patient in post-treatment care.

Decisions based on wisdom ensure a positive outcome.  If the nurse forgot the ask about drug allergies and administered the wrong medication, that is stupidity.  If the health care provider didn’t have the right tool to treat an unusual situation, the creative use of items at hand is warranted.  In another time and place that action may be considered stupid or foolish.  In other words, stupidity may be situational or only in the eyes of the observers, not the actors.

This aspect of situational stupidity is one reason stupidity is so wide spread.  I picked a health related situation because a wrong decision would affect the healing of the patient.  In the business world the wounds are more difficult to access and cure.  Intelligent people are not immune from stupidity and foolishness.  They do not always follow what they have learned.  So called smart people think their actions are too smart for rules, protocols, and procedures.  However, there is a fuzzy line separating creativity and genius from foolishness and stupidity.

Smart people may think they are too smart for the rules to apply to them.  For example, since the teenage mind has not fully formed, they may perform actions that are reckless, dangerous, and/or foolish. They think that they are invincible.  One of the signs of maturity is the way people are able to separate diversionary activities and necessary activities.  Mature people know how to separate play and work.

Q: What does the college do to reduce stupidity?

One of the main missions of the College and academia in general is spread knowledge and hopefully lead students to wisdom.  It is hard.  For example, this week a student felt she had been mistreated. She completed a nurse assistant certificate program two years ago, but failed her license exam.  She wanted to return to school to study in the registered nursing program.  Some courses needed to be repeated because they were too old.  She registered for the courses, but she did not attend most of the sessions and received a failing grade the classes.  She claimed that she was mistreated by the professor and the nursing program.  She complained to the teacher and dean.  Eventually the complaint came to the president’s office and I supported what the teacher and dean already told her. This is an example of stupidity because she failed to learn from her experience.  The wise thing for the student to do should have been examine herself to figure out how she could demonstrate academic responsibility.  The College has tutors and counselors who could help her.

We try to teach students how to make decisions based on knowledge and facts.  Some students require more help than others.

Asking directions is not a sign of stupidity.  Ignoring directions and expecting positive results is stupid.  For example, signs are placed to guide visitors and regulars to the correct places.  Sometimes the creators of the signs didn’t make the best instructions or did not place needed signs and people need to ask for help.  Once they get the help, it is stupid not to follow directions.  If the person giving the directions says to go right and points right, it is stupid to turn around and go the wrong direction.  If the sign is not clear, we have to change the sign.

People also need to recognize their own physical limitations.  A student walked up two flights of stairs and was clearly not in good physical condition. The student was so out of breath that she couldn’t talk for more than five minutes. When informed where the elevators are located, the student answered, “I know about the elevators.  I just wanted to prove I’m Supergirl.”  This student didn’t understand her limitations and gave an answer that was not very mature.  (Analysis of maturity was based on the nature and tone of her delivery.  A comic or sarcastic remark would have been delivered differently.)

Q: One of the missions of education that you mention often is that we teach independent and critical thinking and encourage life-long learning. What is your opinion of the Texas GOP 2012 party’s platform concerning education?  The platform says: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) … critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”[2]
How does this platform fit into your definition of stupidity?

A: This platform was the product of ill-informed party members.  The Texas party platform is reviewed every two years and approved plank by plank (item by item).  There is no vote for approval of the document as a whole.  Historically the platform has provided more material for political commentators than for those running for office. The document is unenforceable and is largely ignored.  The plank concerning education does not appear in the 2016 version, but other foolish planks are included such as, “we support defunding and abolishing the departments or agencies of the Internal Revenue Service, Education, Energy…”  I suppose they expect everyone to live together in peace and not need any revenue, education, or energy.

Most of the items on the GOP plank have little connection to research evidence or even common sense (sechel in Yiddish).  Scientific evidence is the prime basis of learning.  Everyone starts life as a scientist performing hundreds of experiments to learn about the world.  Experiments performed at an early age teach children what to avoid, what is dangerous, how to be cautious and what to welcome and enjoy.  For example, a child learns to generalize that all stoves could be hot and approaching them requires caution.  

If an item in the plank made a suggestion based on research, that would be ok even if not everyone agrees. Items that are based on faulty or non-existent evidence are either stupid or foolish.  A political party cannot just say, “no,” without proposing a positive and better solution.
Rote learning or memorization based learning does not teach students how to learn and adapt to new situation.  In some ways it is the difference between training and education.  Critical thinking skills are essential for education; rote learning may be the same as training.  Understanding causality is part of the scientific method and lead one on the road to wisdom.

Q: Is there a correlation between intelligence and wisdom?  In other words, do intelligent people act foolishly?

A:  There are multiple kinds of intelligence[3] including intellectual-logical, personal, linguistic, personal, and kinesthetic.  That discussion is best left for another article.    Smart people sometimes act foolishly and stupidly because they have not integrated their intelligence across all disciplines.  A truly integrated intelligent person would recognize a what they know and what they don’t know.  They would attack an unfamiliar situation with knowledge seeking behaviors.   

“Smart” people may act foolishly because they don’t understand the rules of knowledge seeking. Failure to follow an information seeking strategy is a cognitive fallacy.   In their thinking they are “too smart” to do so.  These people tend to act foolishly through the commission of one or more of five cognitive fallacies:

(1) Unrealistic optimism. They believe that they are so smart that they can do whatever they want and not worry about it; 

(2) Egocentrism. They focus on themselves while ignoring their responsibilities to others.  They are concerned only with what benefits them; 

(3) Omniscience. They believe they know everything, instead of knowing what they know and seeking what they don’t know; 

(4) Omnipotence. They believe they can do whatever they want because they are all-powerful; and 

(5) Invulnerability. They believe that they will get away with whatever they do, no matter how inappropriate, dangerous, or irresponsible it may be.

Some of these “smart” people are just young and naïve.  With enough trips around the sun they will learn the patterns of the world and how they fit into the divine order of the universe.  They will outgrow their naivety and grow in wisdom.[4] 

The antidote to foolishness is to learn how to integrate knowledge.  This is called wisdom. Wise people are able to apply their intelligence and creativity toward a common good. They learn to balance their own personal interests, the interests of those around them, and the interests of the community and state. They learn to balance long and short term goals.  They learn values and the big picture and how they shape new environments and situations. They creatively solve problems. We lead students toward wisdom, but we don’t teach wisdom.

Q> We are out of time for this interview.  The next part will continue the study of stupidity with questions based on a study on conception of stupidity based on observations and will discuss “Dumbth” Thank you very much.


Allen, Steve.  “Dumbth” : the lost art of thinking. Revised edition.  Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books, 1998.  Steve Allen (1921-2000) was a talk show host and comedian, who wrote 50 books and more than 8500 songs.  This book was written because of his daily frustration dealing with dumb behaviors.  He coined the word “dumbth” for these situations which show a lack of thinking.

Balazs Aczel, Bence Palfi, Zoltan Kekecs. "What is stupid? : People's conception of unintelligent behavior." Intelligence  Volume 53, November–December 2015, Pages 51–58.

Huzar, Tim.  “Neoliberalism, Democracy and the Library as a Radically Inclusive Space” 2014. Retrieved July 17 2016 from: http://library.ifla.org/835/1/200-huzar-en.pdf

Ramsey, Ross. “Analysis: Texas Republicans, in Their Own Words” Texas Tribune, May 15, 2016.  https://www.texastribune.org/2016/05/15/analysis-texas-republicans-their-own-words/ .  The Republican Party of Texas 2016 Platform may be found here: https://static.texastribune.org/media/documents/rpt-platform-2016.pdf  None of the comments posted had anything other than distain for the planks of the platform.  Some called the GOP various words meaning crazy and insane. Retrieved on July 17, 2016.

Ryan, Patti, and Lisa Sloniowski. "The Public Academic Library: Friction in the Teflon Funnel.” Eds. Higgins, Shana, and Lua Gregory. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2013. Pages 275-296. Print.  Retrieved on July 17, 2016 from Toronto, Ontario, Canada : York Space of York University : http://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10315/26285/publicacademiclibrary.pdf?sequence=3

[1] Bite-Size Einstein edited by Jerry Mayer and John P. Holms. New York: St. Martin's, 1996, page 38.

[3] See the works of Howard Gardner such as his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences or his 2006 book Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice.

[4] On the door to my office is posted “Enter to grow in wisdom.”  This is why I used this picture for the beginning of this article. This saying, originally donated by the class of 1890, is copied from Dexter Gate on the campus of Harvard University on Massachusetts Avenue.  The message as you leave states, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”  For more information, visit: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2008/6/3/enter-to-grow-in-wisdom-span/

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

New President Interview -- Part 35 Ethics and Academia

New President Interview -- Part 35
Ethics and Academia

Q:  This is season for new college graduates to search for jobs.  Some were lucky to find jobs before graduation, but others are still struggling to find something appropriate. Many students are faced with entry level positions that require 1-2 years of experience.  Employers complain that many students graduate without critical thinking skills, research and analysis skills, and a lack of moral compass.

What is the role of the College in teaching morals and ethics?

A:  This is a question that has been on the agenda of colleges and universities since the beginnings of the university.  In 1986 Dr. Norman Lamm in an address to Yeshiva University that was later printed in the New Times[1] challenged universities to teach ethics and offer moral guidance.  In the days when some colleges were “gentleman’s clubs” for the rich, moral guidance and learning for the sake of learning (i.e. knowledge without an immediate practical purpose) were major parts of the curriculum.  Dr. Lamm writes that 50 years ago (i.e. 1930’s) colleges were the special stewards of the wisdom of a good life, truth, goodness, beauty, and the value of investigating thought.  Creative writing teaches among other skills, how to contemplate life.  Philosophy teaches the value of pure thought.

While many professions have codes of ethics, these ethical codes are not part of the undergraduate curriculum. In the 1960’s the moral mission of higher education was equated with imperialism. Today the moral or ethical component education is part of critical thinking skills that employers want.

The 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts[2] includes the following in Chapter V.

Section II. The Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humour, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.

Wisdom and knowledge are on the same level as virtue.  Arts and science are connected to humanity, hard work, sincerity and charity.  According to this Constitution a graduate is not wise unless he understands and internalizes that which makes us human. The challenge with teaching morals and ethics is that in society today there is a lot of ignorance and hatred. People would have a hard time understanding the great good that ethics presents.  Movements exist today to delegitimize a democratic country that are based on hatred hiding behind an excuse of “human rights violation.”    Scientific proof is supposed show us the “truth.” But too often people fail to understand the moral component of proof.[3]

Q: Are students becoming moral illiterates?

Without a moral or ethical compass, students can fall prey to predators, liars and half-baked rhetoric.  The goal of teaching critical thinking is to enable graduates to have the ability to understand the world tomorrow in a way that we could not imagine today. They should be able to analyze new situations and come up with reasonable solutions.   As educators we have to not only believe in the superiority of education as opposed to ignorance, but also live this belief in words and actions.  Reason, investigation, and planning should push aside impulse and temporary fixes.  We must live and teach integrity over cheating; discipline over quick fixes; patience over impulse, thinking and planning over laissez-faire.  A moral compass helps students to better cope with life experiences.  

Dr. Lamm says that pushing moral education to the churches or synagogue does not work because the very students who need a moral education are not going to the religious institutions.  Morality is much more than going to church, prayer, or listening to sermons.  Moral education is learning the natural laws of right and wrong.  Natural (or divine) laws transcend human laws.  A legislative body could pass a law making an act legal, but that does not make it right or just.  The existence of the soul and the divine do not overrule or condemn scientific knowledge.

As I have mentioned before knowledge comes before wisdom. Knowledge grows and ripens into wisdom.   Wisdom is the strategic use of the knowledge of the facts to meet the challenge.  It does not matter whether you believe in the creation story of the Bible that says human beings are the reason for creation.    Creating human beings who are viable, productive members of society is the reason education was created.  Respect for the human spirit and a love for learning should be among the goals of higher education.

Q:  Why should love of learning be a goal of higher education?  What is your definition of the human spirit?

A:  Love of learning is one of the most important reasons we became educators. We have to transmit the belief that learning is a life-long activity.  Sometimes I have to remind our faculty of this.  They need to change and adapt to new challenges and knowledge.  The College encourages professional development and individual scholarship.  While we don’t have a requirement to publish, we encourage publishing in academic and professional publications.  We encourage writing articles in print and electronic publications that support our values of education, knowledge, and wisdom.
The human spirit is that which elevates us above the animal instincts and impulsive behaviors.  Thinking, planning, and analysis are human spirit activities.  Sleeping and survival eating are part of the animal in us.

These are lofty goals.  We have lost track of the idea that higher education has place in the goal of the society.  People have lost confidence in the government so much that they embrace “outsider” candidates who claim they can turn around the government and make it “work” for the citizens.

Q: What are the societal goals of higher education?

A:  We are answering to the almighty dollar.  Some colleges invent programs that could be tuition cash “cows.”  They accept foreign students just because they can pay full tuition.  Every decision is based on economics rather than looking at the academy as a repository of culture and a hot bed of thinking and creativity.  Budgeting does take a large amount of my attention and I don’t want the college to lose money, but we can’t forget why we exist in the first place.

In an article published in Harvard Magazine in 2010  by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry R. Lewis[4] the authors agree with the ideas of Dr. Lamm, but they add the concept of civil responsibility. They state that moral philosophy was an important part of the education in pre-Civil War universities.  By the end of the 19th century this required subject was rarely offered.  Social science was separated from social work. Science pushed aside moral and religious education.  For example Jewish or Christian studies were taught from a cultural point of view rather than a religious or moral viewpoint except at religious institutions.  Condliffe and Lagemann propose that every course reflect on social and political issues and raise questions concerning society.  Science courses could include discussions on human welfare and how the academic material fits into the destiny of society and the greater world.
Discussions on morality and what kinds of citizens we want living in our community should be part of the academic atmosphere so that we have fewer scoundrels or faculty members who need discipline after shooting off their mouths before the brain starts working. 

Q:  Let’s take a couple of steps back to reality. Is the college really at the point where the social contract is part of its academic fiber?

A: It is very hard to separate economic pressures from the dream college goals that I mention above.  The idea of a social contract with the community and the college is an idea that is being rediscovered in academia.  The framers of the Massachusetts constitution recognized the importance in 1780, but today people want too many instant rewards. Dr. Lamm made his proposals in 1986 and I only recently learned about them.  May be no one is listening?  I listen to reports about the teachers unions, the public schools, and the state government and hear nothing about civic education, moral education, or social contract with the schools.  None of these groups talk publically about making better citizens. School boards threaten to fire teachers over test scores.  States threaten to measure school success over test scores. But no one repeats the words from Massachusetts, “inculcate the principles of humanity…”

In a way TV and instant answers on the Internet have interfered with learning. Scholarship is slow and tedious.  Some lessons take time to sink in.  I have to remind the faculty of reasons we exist.  Proprietary schools, i.e. profit making higher education, remove the aspects of being the keepers of culture and developers innovation.  The concentrate on training students to get a first job.

We have limited resources. I can communicate.  I can plan, but I can not create time.  I can balance the budget and hopefully allocate resources to further the missions of the college.   I can only change my own part of the world.

Q:  Thank you very much. 

Part thirty-five of the imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 30 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Everything is true, but some details have not yet happened. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] The message was first presented at the convocation celebrating the 100th anniversary of Yeshiva University.  A version, “A moral mission for colleges,” was published as an op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 14, 1986 page A35 and another version, “Are we creating ethical illiterates?”  appeared in USA Today, March 1988 page 55-56.  The New Times version was reprinted in Dr. Lamm’s book: Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, Volume 1 chapter 20 page 214-216. (New York : Ktav, 2001).

[3]  This section is still present in the current constitution, but it was amended.  Here is the current version:

The Encouragement of Literature, etc.

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people

[4] Renewing Civic Education : Time to restore American higher education’s lost mission.” Harvard Magazine  March-April 2012.  Retrieved May 30, 2016 from: http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/renewing-civic-education