Saturday, January 29, 2005

When ideology and reality meet, and ideology gets bitch-slapped.

Subtitle: "Boy meets world. World hoofs boy in nads."

(This is a piece I've wanted to write for a little while. It does have a point but it takes the long road to get there so make yourself comfy. And appreciate the fact that I can touch type 80 words per minute. :-)

Ideology and reality -- a love story in three parts (sort of).

As regular readers have noticed, the level of ideological discourse these days is pretty much at an all-time low. If you're listening in on left-versus-right debate, you just don't hear dialogue like, "Well, you have a point there, but you should also consider this ...". Or, "Hmmm ... you're right, I never thought of it like that -- I'll have to reconsider my position."

No, what you hear is more like, "You are a lying, hypocritical sack of cat crap. I blow my nose at you and I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster, and your father had intimate relations with Ann Coulter blow-up dolls." You get the idea. But how did this happen?

I think the major reason is that both sides of the discussion have pretty well developed their own cocoons -- call them "echo chambers" if you will -- that insulate them from the possibility of dissenting views intruding on their ideological tranquility. (Not surprisingly, I think the political right is far worse when it comes to this, but that's not an important issue here.)

Both sides have, at this point, developed their own communities, and rarely stray. The right have their own media -- TV networks, newspapers -- their own blog community, and so on, and what this does is give them the opportunity to avoid even the hint of a dissenting opinion. The blogs link to the newspapers, which refer to the columnists, which tout their newspapers, which promote the TV programs, which are used as blog material, which ... you get the idea.

With this self-sustaining community in place, it's not surprising that, after a while, people will simply take the most absurd things as gospel. "Social Security is in crisis!!", the majority on the right will proclaim, having no idea that that's just nonsense. All one has to do is look at the numbers to know that this is plain silliness but, being rarely presented with a dissenting view, it's almost impossible to blame them -- as long as they don't stray outside of the echo chamber, they'll never hear a different viewpoint.

And that's the problem. In effect, with this kind of intellectual cocoon, there is no notion of something like "checks and balances". There's no concept of an objective moderator to say, "I'm sorry, but that argument is just rubbish." Quite simply, as long as you don't stray from the echo chamber, you rarely get the chance to test your opinions against reality. Every so often, though, it happens in the most unexpected places, and the results can be enlightening.

I draw your attention to the previously-discussed story of one Ahmad Al-Qloushi who, as a 17-year-old student at Foothill College in California, became a right-wing cause celebre when, according to news reports, he was told by his college professor that he needed psychiatric help just because he wrote a stirringly-patriotic, loin-tingling essay praising the U.S. Constitution and Admiral Bunnypants. Not surprisingly, the college's Young Republicans leaped to his defense, without mentioning that Ahmad was, in fact, that group's president. Oops. That's the kind of thing that really belongs in any story about this. In journalistic circles, it's known as "disclosure". (See: Right-wing hacks secretly taking administration payola to write nice things about them. Sort of like that. But ... onward.)

Now, at this point, it's kind of important to figure out just how seriously we can take Ahmad's accusations, because it has a bearing on the rest of the story. So, while we have no solid proof, we can certainly speculate based on what's available. And, not to toot my own horn but, as a former faculty member at a Canadian university, I think I can safely say that I know of what I speak. So, what can we surmise here?

Well, let's first try to fill in the blanks. As we saw before, there appears to be little doubt that the essay itself is pretty well dreck. (There's also little doubt that this is the actual essay since it is being hosted by the right-wing Students for Academic Freedom, to which the college's Young Republicans provide a link. So I think we can safely assume this is Ahmad's actual work.)

And why is it obvious dreck? Because even the conservative commenters over here accept that verdict. Regardless of your ideological leanings, quite simply, Ahmad did not address the issue. He failed to discuss the actual question given, and proceeded to ramble on about unrelated and irrelevant issues. Even the commenter "Conservative TA" at that site could muster up only a lukewarm "I do not think the essay too bad", giving it a B-, and his/her logic to get even there was pretty lame.

In short, we're on pretty firm ground to say two things:
  1. The essay was junk.
  2. Based on the fact that it was junk, it almost certainly received a poor, if not failing, grade. (This is obviously speculation, but I think it's well-founded speculation.)
[Ed: Apparently, the failing grade is not mere speculation, as the Times article describes Al-Qloushi as "fearing the failing grade could cost him his student visa". We here at Cynic HQ stand corrected. And exonerated.]

Having established the above, we can now address Ahmad's primary accusation and, having a pretty good idea of how academia works (having worked on
both sides of the desk there), I think I'm safe in saying that it's highly unlikely things went down as Ahmad and his Repub college groupies describe it, for a number of reasons.

First, let's consider Professor Woolcock's most probable reaction to a crappy essay. Assuming that Woolcock has been doing this for a while, and has seen his share of crappy essays, it's highly unlikely that he would get incensed by this one to the point where he'd actively seek out Ahmad to recommend psychological therapy. Trust me on this one -- professors just aren't going to make the emotional investment in something like this. They will read the essay, realize it's shit, briefly explain why in large red letters, give it an "F" and move on and forget about it. Almost certainly, Woolcock has seen his share of junk in his time, and there's no reason to think that this particular paper would suddenly incite him to unreasoning anger.

In addition, the news reports make it clear that the student is 17 years old. This strongly suggests that the course in question is almost certainly a first-year course, perhaps in introductory political history or something similar. Now, it's possible that a faculty member might get a bit irate if someone in a higher-level course had handed in something so abysmal. Certainly, a paper that bad would be totally unacceptable in a graduate course. But anyone who teaches first-year courses anywhere has to expect everything from the brilliant to the appallingly stupid, and there's no way a half-competent professor is going to do more than just read the essay, mark it, hand it back and wonder if the faculty club is open yet.

(One final point. Given that the course is almost certainly a first-year course (or even second-year), it's entirely possible that the essays were graded, not by Woolcock, but by a tutorial assistant, which is quite common for introductory courses. And, trust me on this one too, TAs are certainly not going to get caught up in a pissing contest with a freshman. For the most part, TAs just want to get the job done, collect their stipend and hit the nearest keg party.)

In short, the accusations (at least, the way they've been presented by the denizens of Freeperville) are simply implausible. But if that's the case, where did this story come from? And here's where we can start to close the circle.

Based on all of the above, we can continue to speculate on the most likely sequence of events:
  1. Ahmad writes crappy essay.
  2. Crappy essay gets completely-justified failing grade.
  3. Ahmad gets back crappy essay with failing grade, and doesn't take it well.
And what do I mean by "doesn't take it well"? Time for a little more speculation here, so indulge me a bit longer.

Recall that Ahmad is not just a regular 17-year-old college student who can't write an essay to save his life. No, Ahmad is the president of the college's Young Republicans, which means he would almost certainly have been immersed in the right-wing echo chamber for some time. As the group's president, he certainly would have been expected to organize Republican-related activities, give promotional talks, perhaps have the occasional debate -- in short, he would be expected to carry the banner for right-wing hackery all over campus.

However, if you think way back to the first part of this essay, there's a good chance he would have done a lot of this in the environment of the insular right-wing echo chamber. That is, it's most likely that he would have participated in only those activities that reinforced his right-wing view of the world -- the blogs, the discussion groups, and so on. And as a 17-year-old, I'm willing to bet that he had his share of freeper groupies, constantly telling him what a wunderkind he was, how he was a Republican on the rise, someone to watch, and so on. And as insulated and idolized and pampered as he was, it's unlikely he ever had to test his ideologies against actual reality.

Until Professor Woolcock.

Because this might very well have been the first time that Ahmad, having basked in the delicious comfort of the right-wing echo chamber for who-knows-how-long, suddenly ran into someone who had the power and the authority to look at his typical arguments and say, "This stuff is absolute shit," and actually make it stick.

Imagine Ahmad's probable reaction: This isn't possible. I've toed the right-wing line faithfully and reliably, I have been praised, I have been commended on my obvious intellectual potential, I have never heard a harsh word from my fellow freepers. How can this be? One can only imagine how Ahmad's world is suddenly rocked by the idea that, for the first time, someone is telling him his ideas are crap, and one suspects he is not going to take this well.

Personally, I can visualize Ahmad striding imperiously into Woolcock's office afterwards, and making an absolute pain of himself (as 17-year-old right-wing wankers are wont to do).
I can imagine Ahmad standing there, absolutely baffled as to how his precious essay, which would receive only huzzahs and accolades from his buddies as a work of absolute genius, could have been so summarily dismissed as worthless junk. I can imagine Woolcock patiently trying to explain that Ahmad simply didn't answer the question, and Ahmad not even remotely understanding this. I can imagine Woolcock pointing out to young Ahmad that the "F" in "FDR" stands for "Franklin," not "Frederick".

And I can imagine Woolcock, after several minutes of this,
finally giving up trying to pound an actual idea into Ahmad's head and telling him to please get out of his office and, perhaps, making a snarky comment about Ahmad needing some counselling. And, no, this scenario doesn't in any way justify Woolcock saying anything like that, but it's certainly a more believable story than the one you've seen in the news.

As I've said repeatedly, a good deal of this is speculation, but I think it's pretty solidly grounded. At the very least, it's actually moderately plausible, but I guess we'll just have to watch the news to see how this plays out. I'll do my best to keep you posted.

In any case, we've come full circle and I need more coffee.


CC said...

Thank ya, thank ya very much. I'm here till Thursday. Try the veal. :-)

Anonymous said...

You know, the essay was off-point and badly written, but I must say I can't help but take issue with the phrasing of the assignment. It's exactly the sort of thing neocon wackos point at as proof of "liberal indoctrination" in academia, and it's guaranteed to antagonize the likes of the "Young Republicans" on campus.

A proper assignment would not attempt to write the student's conclusion for him as this one does. Try this change:

Dye and Zeigler contend that the constitution of the United States was not “ordained and established” by “the people” as we have so often been led to believe. They contend instead that it was written by a small educated and wealthy elite in America who representative of powerful economic and political interests. Analyze the US constitution (original document), and show how its formulation excluded majority of the people living in America at that time, and how it was dominated by America’s elite interest.

Dye and Zeigler contend that the constitution of the United States was not “ordained and established” by “the people," but instead by a small educated and wealthy elite who represented powerful economic and political interests. Challenge or defend this hypothesis using the text of the United States Constitution as your primary source.

The latter eliminates implied value judgments ("as we have so often been led to believe" is a particularly loaded expression in the original) and requires genuine critical thought on the part of the student responding to the assignment. This is not a mathematical proof where the object is deriving a predetermined answer. It's an exercise in choosing a position and defending it adequately.

Although the kid in question quite clearly earned his F -- he did not even adequately challenge the hypothesis -- it doesn't excuse the instructor's bad assignment design. At the most charitable interpretation, the instructor just phoned in the assignment. At worst, the instructor's ego is so overinflated he believes that anyone who doesn't agree with him isn't thinking critically.

There's plenty of room to argue this point on either side. Yes, it's true the founding fathers were wealthy and educated, and thus not representative of the majority, but without that wealth they would not have been able to pull a bunch of oppressed colonies into a new nation, and without that education they would not have been able to draw upon enlightenment-era social philosophy as a basis to attempt to formulate a self-restraining government beholden to its constitutents for its authority. Just because they didn't get every detail right the first time around doesn't mean they weren't headed in a valuable direction or that they didn't have the right intentions.

The trick for an obvious partisan hack like Al-Qloushi is defending the founding fathers without in the process recognizing that the United States was founded on strongly liberal principles. Clearly he wasn't up to the task.

CC said...

From CC:

Some very good points raised here. Give me some time and I'll follow up on some of them.