spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.

core curricula without the concept of the West

This post is prompted by Stanford’s new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) requirement. Stanford makes no claim to present something called “Western Civilization” in chronological order. Instead, it assigns texts about common themes from diverse sources. I basically want to endorse this approach (which is not unique to Stanford).

Shared readings provide the basis for focused conversation that can encompass disagreement. I also see an argument for choosing works that illuminate the ideas, values, and institutions that have become globally dominant in the wake of European imperialism, which we can assess both critically and appreciatively. However, I cannot see a legitimate rationale for selecting authors and texts that are labeled “Western.”

Important lines of influence have always crossed any border that would demarcate the West, which has itself been deeply diverse. The word “West” sometimes names the countries where the majority populations are seen today as white, but that is an indefensible basis for selecting sources. A tenable justification would have to explain how something called the West is both internally consistent and intellectually distinct (whether for good or ill); and I don’t see a basis for that.

It’s true that some works from non-European regions extoll community and denounce individual selfishness or advance holistic and integrated metaphysical views. These texts are taken as evidence that “the West” is uniquely materialistic, dualistic, and individualistic. But authors from traditions like Buddhism would not have taken the trouble to argue so forcefully against materialism and selfishness if those values had been limited to people thousands of miles to their west. Their elaborate and sometimes urgent arguments to their own compatriots provide evidence that the values labeled “Western” have actually been widespread in many times and places. Meanwhile, Europe has produced powerful voices for mysticism, communalism, and deep ecology.

I’ll quote a passage from Leo Strauss, not to criticize him individually (even though I once published a roman-à-clef about him), but as an illustration of a view that I think was commonplace not long ago:

All the hopes that we entertain in the midst of the confusion and dangers of the present are founded, positively or negatively, directly or indirectly, on the experiences of the past. Of these experiences, the broadest and deepest—so far as Western man is concerned—are indicated by the names of two cities: Jerusalem and Athens. Western man became what he is, and is what he is, through the coming together of biblical faith and Greek thought. In order to understand ourselves and to illuminate our trackless way into the future, we must understand Jerusalem and Athens.

Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Introductory Reflections (Commentary, June 1967)

One premise here is that modern European ideas derive from two main sources, classical Greece and ancient Judaism. Perhaps Strauss also thought that the resulting ideas were good or true, although I suspect his own view resembled the deeply skeptical argument that he attributes to Nietzsche in the same article.

Regardless of Strauss’ ultimate position, my focus here is not the claim that it’s valuable to understand the intellectual history that flows from “biblical faith and Greek thought.” I object to following that history only through European countries and their colonies.

We might envision Athens as a label for a set of contesting ideas that emerged in the Greek classical period, and treat it as node. We might likewise use Jerusalem as the name of a node that represents the various strands of ancient Judaism. Some thinkers of the Hellenistic period connected these nodes, forming the basis of Christianity. For example, when John writes (in Greek), “In the beginning was the logos,” he combines these two sources.

Zooming out from those two nodes, we can identify many influences on both. The Hebrew Bible describes a people who were profoundly connected to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Greek thought drew on the same sources, plus South Asia and perhaps Scythia. For example, Pyrrho of Elis may have been a Buddhist and was certainly influenced–as were several other Greek philosophers–by his travels in India.

The nodes labeled Athens and Jerusalem then radiated influences on many periods and places. Leo Strauss was an expert on the ways that Greek philosophy and Hebrew scripture shaped classical Islam. One center of medieval Islam was Spain, from which Greek and Jewish ideas and texts spread to Catholic Europe. The first people to depict the Buddha in statuary were Indo-Greeks, while Catholic monasticism may be modeled on India’s bhikkhus and sanyasis. Examples of such radiating influence could be explored endlessly.

It is then very odd to name the zone that was influenced by Athens and Jerusalem as “the West.” The influences of Greece plus ancient Judaism extend, for example, to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, which lies at the east end of Asia. Jerusalem is also in Asia, and Athens is far to the east of (say) Marrakesh. Until the 1800s, the word “west” referred to a compass direction and bore no other implications. The first use that I can find that clearly defines the West in terms of culture–or race–is from 1892, around the apogee of European imperialism. By the way, one reason that the phrase “Western civilization” then became prevalent was a deep anxiety about the condition and prospects of Europe, especially following the First World War.

Studying a canon of works that relate to Athens and Jerusalem has value. For one thing, it’s an opening to discuss extraordinarily diverse and contesting ideas. But defining its scope as the countries where most people have had white skin is untenable.

See also: the history of the phrase “the West”; Europa was an Asian woman, and other thoughts on the definition of Europeto whom do the ancient Greeks belong?Jesus was a person of color; The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress (in Aeon)

English dominance in academia

On a recent quick trip to a smallish European country (Czechia), I was reminded of the dominance of English in broad reaches of academic life.

We Anglophones have the privilege of being able to travel almost anywhere and enjoy rich discussions in our native tongue. This also means that English idioms and conceptual schemas are hugely influential, while specialized vocabulary can lag in other languages. And most of the world’s people face an additional burden when they try to use research: it’s mostly in English. As a Quebecois scholar writes (Lord 2023):

«Cette internationalisation de l’enseignement présente également quelques défis, importants notamment celui de préserver une culture nationale en recherche et un accès à la recherche scientifique dans les communautés locales.» (“This internationalization of education also presents some important challenges, notably preserving a national research culture and access to scientific research in local communities.”)

In many countries, citation counts are used to assess individual scholars and whole universities. That method is always problematic, but an additional problem in most of the world is that papers published in English–and in English-language journals–almost always have higher counts. In fact, controlling for other factors, English is statistically related to the number of times an article is cited (Di Bitetti & Ferreras 2017).

Two Spanish scholars (writing, not surprisingly, in English) calculate the trends captured by the Web of Science from 1980 to 2000. I present their data in the graph with this post. Overall, English represented 84.5% of all articles in 1980, rising very smoothly to 95.9% in 2000. Spanish–which has more than half a billion native speakers–is invisible on my graph, with 0.3% of all articles in 2000. (Bordons & Gomez 2004). The authors don’t calculate Chinese or Hindi.

In countries whose languages were never widely spoken, university life was always conducted in one or more foreign languages. Latin yielded to French or German, before shifting to English after WWII. But even languages that have hundreds of millions of speakers and/or international prestige seem endangered today in academia. Bordons and Gomez calculate that 59% of articles by French authors, and 62% by German authors, were written in English in 1980, rising to 89% and 90% (respectively) by 2000. I haven’t found more recent statistics, but that trend would lead to an English monopoly if it continued.

These data come from Web of Science. Although that database includes humanities, social sciences, and law, it tilts to the STEM fields, as do all citation counts. My own humanities and social science articles from the last few years are sole-authored publications that required many weeks of my work, and they will not receive any citations for quite a while. Being cited requires another scholar to read the piece, write an article that cites it, and then navigate a publication process that can take years. In contrast, I was part of two public health publications in 2022, along with co-authors. Each required hours of work from me. Just months after appearing, they already have 19 published citations between them. STEM simply involves a much higher volume and faster pace, basically swamping the humanities in numerical terms.

I mention this point about STEM because any data about publications will likely underestimate the humanities, where the written languages are probably more diverse. I find that when I want to know about specific works of art or literature, Google Scholar will often yield results in languages other than English. Nevertheless, English is dominant in academia as a whole, and its share appears to be growing.

References: Lord, F. R. (2023). La communauté universitaire sous tensions: analyse des dynamiques de communication et de gestion entourant la création d’une université (Doctoral dissertation, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); Di Bitetti, M. S., & Ferreras, J. A. (2017). Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications. Ambio, 46, 121-127; Bordons M and Gomez I. 2004. Towards a single language in science? A Spanish view. Serials 17: 189–195

what I would advise students about ChatGPT

I’d like to be able to advise students who are interested in learning but are not sure whether or how to use ChatGPT. I realize there may also be students who want to use AI tools to save effort, even if they learn less as a result. I don’t yet know how to address that problem. Here I am assuming good intentions on the part of the students. These are tentative notes: I expect my stance to evolve based on experience and other perspectives. …

We ask you to learn by reading, discussing, and writing about selected texts. By investing effort in those tasks, you can derive information and insights, challenge your expectations, develop skills, grasp the formal qualities of writing (as well as the main point), and experience someone else’s mind.

Searching for facts and scanning the environment for opinions can also be valuable, but they do not afford the same opportunities for mental and spiritual growth. If we never stretch our own ideas by experiencing others’ organized thinking, our minds will be impoverished.

ChatGPT can assist us in the tasks of reading, discussing, and writing about texts. It can generate text that is itself worth reading and discussing. But we must be careful about at least three temptations:

  • Saving effort in a way that prevents us from using our own minds.
  • Being misled or misinformed, because ChatGPT can be unreliable and even unbiased.
  • Violating the relationship with the people who hear or read our words by presenting our ideas as our own when they were actually generated by AI. This is not merely wrong because it suggests we did work that we didn’t do. It also prevents the audience from tracing our ideas to their sources in order to assess them critically. (Similarly, we cite sources not only to give credit and avoid plagiarism but also to allow others to follow our research and improve it.)

I can imagine using ChatGPT in some of these ways. …

First, I’m reading an assigned text that refers to a previous author who is new to me. I ask ChatGPT what that earlier author thought. This is like Google-searching for that person or looking her up on Wikipedia. It is educational. It provides valuable context. The main concern is that ChatGPT’s response could be wrong or tilted in some way. That could be the case with any source. However, ChatGPT appears more trustworthy than it is because it generates text in the first-person singular–as if it were thinking–when it is really offering a statistical summary of existing online text about a topic. An unidentified set of human beings wrote the text that the AI algorithm summarizes–imperfectly. We must be especially cautious about the invisible bias this introduces. For the same reason, we should be especially quick to disclose that we have learned something from ChatGPT.

Second, I have been assigned a long and hard text to read, so I ask ChatGPT what it says (or what the author says in general), as a substitute for reading the assignment. This is like having a Cliff’s Notes version for any given work. Using it is not absolutely wrong. It saves time that I might be able to spend well–for instance, in reading something different. But I will miss the nuances and complexities, the stylistic and cognitive uniqueness, and the formal aspects of the original assignment. If I do that regularly, I will miss the opportunity to grow intellectually, spiritually, and aesthetically.

Such shortcuts have been possible for a long time. Already in the 1500s, Erasmus wrote Biblical “paraphrases” as popular summaries of scripture, and King Edward VI ordered a copy for every parish church in England. Some entries on this blog are probably being used to replace longer readings. In 2022, 3,500 people found my short post on “different kinds of freedom,” and perhaps many were students searching for a shortcut to their assigned texts. Our growing–and, I think, acute–problem is the temptation to replace all hard reading with quick and easy scanning.

A third scenario: I have been assigned a long and hard text to read. I have struggled with it, I am confused, and I ask ChatGPT what the author meant. This is like asking a friend. It is understandable and even helpful–to the extent that the response is good. In other words, the main question is whether the AI is reliable, since it may look better than it is.

Fourth, I have been assigned to write about a text, so I ask ChatGPT about it and copy the response as my own essay. This is plagiarism. I might get away with it because ChatGPT generates unique text every time it is queried, but I have not only lied to my teacher, I have also denied myself the opportunity to learn. My brain was unaffected by the assignment. If I keep doing that, I will have an unimpressive brain.

Fifth, I have been assigned to write about a text, I ask ChatGPT about it, I critically evaluate the results, I follow up with another query, I consult the originally assigned text to see if I can find quotes that substantiate ChatGPT’s interpretation, and I write something somewhat different in my own words. Here I am using ChatGPT to learn, and the question is whether it augments my experience or distracts from it. We might also ask whether the AI is better or worse than other resources, including various primers, encyclopedia entries, abstracts, and so on. Note that it may be better.

We could easily multiply these examples, and there are many intermediate cases. I think it is worth keeping the three main temptations in mind and asking whether we have fallen prey to any of them.

Because I regularly teach Elinor Ostrom, today I asked ChatGPT what Ostrom thought. It offered a summary with an interesting caveat that (I’m sure) was written by an individual human being: “Remember that these are general concepts associated with Elinor Ostrom’s work, and her actual writings and speeches would provide more nuanced and detailed insights into her ideas. If you’re looking for specific quotes, I recommend reading her original works and publications.”

That is good advice. As for the summary: I found it accurate. It is highly consistent with my own interpretation of Ostrom, which, in turn, owes a lot to Paul Dragos Aligica and a few others. Although many have written about Ostrom, it is possible that ChatGPT is actually paraphrasing me. That is not necessarily bad. The problem is that you cannot tell where these ideas are coming from. Indeed, ChatGPT begins its response: “While I can’t provide verbatim quotes, I can summarize some key ideas and principles associated with Elinor Ostrom’s work.” There is no “I” in AI. Or if there is, it isn’t a computer. The underlying author might be Peter Levine plus a few others.

Caveat emptor.

See also: the design choice to make ChatGPT sound like a human; the difference between human and artificial intelligence: relationships

the Supreme Court against civic education

In Students for Fair Admissions v Harvard (2022), the Supreme Court prohibited affirmative action on the basis of theories about race in America, the Fourteenth Amendment, its own proper role and authority, and its power over other institutions (such as universities) that I strongly contest.

Those are the most important issues. However, the Court also adopts a problematic view of education that deserves attention. In essence, the majority sees education as a consumer good that benefits the students who purchase it, not as a public good that can be designed to benefit the society. Both Chief Justice Roberts’ decision and Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion explicitly name college admissions as “zero sum,” since “a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter.”

Many people share this assumption. To a significant extent, US colleges and universities act accordingly: they provide experiences and degrees as scarce consumer goods with tangible–generally economic–benefits for the individuals who purchase them (Levine 2023). But this is an impoverished view, and the Court’s ruling reinforces it.

Chief Justice Roberts writes that the Fourteenth Amendment bans consideration of race in the provision of all goods and services by public and private entities. “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it. … Any exceptions to the Equal Protection Clause’s guarantee must survive a daunting two-step examination known as ‘strict scrutiny.'” Under this test, any policy that considers race at all must be strictly measurable so that a court can determine whether it is necessary and effective for achieving a constitutionally appropriate end. “For example, courts can discern whether the temporary racial segregation of inmates will prevent harm to those in the prison.”

The defendants in Students for Fair Admissions (Harvard and UNC) had asserted that their affirmative action policies were necessary for important public goals:

Harvard identifies the following educational benefits that it is pursuing: (1) “training future leaders in the public and private sectors”; (2) preparing graduates to “adapt to an increasingly pluralistic society”; (3) “better educating its students through diversity”; and (4) “producing new knowledge stemming from diverse outlooks.” … . UNC points to similar benefits, namely, “(1) promoting the robust exchange of ideas; (2) broadening and refining understanding; (3) fostering innovation and problem-solving; (4) preparing engaged and productive citizens and leaders; and enhancing appreciation, respect, and empathy, cross-racial understanding, and breaking down stereotypes.”

Roberts replies:

Although these are commendable goals, they are not sufficiently coherent for purposes of strict scrutiny. At the outset, it is unclear how courts are supposed to measure any of these goals. How is a court to know whether leaders have been adequately “train[ed]”; whether the exchange of ideas is “robust”; or whether “new knowledge” is being developed? Even if these goals could somehow be measured, moreover, how is a court to know when they have been reached, and when the perilous remedy of racial preferences may cease? There is no particular point at which there exists sufficient “innovation and problem solving,” or students who are appropriately “engaged and productive.”

Roberts acknowledges that a court can determine at trial whether it is necessary to segregate incarcerated people by race, “but the question whether a particular mix of minority students produces ‘engaged and productive citizens’ or effectively ‘train[s] future leaders’ is standardless.”

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor argues that the “measurability” criterion is an innovation, not based on precedents. The court has accepted other goals that are not particularly measurable. In any case, we can measure whether students have been prepared for leadership, whether they are empathetic and knowledgable, and whether campus discussions are robust. We can also investigate the effect of any given policy, such as affirmative action, on such outcomes. There are large literatures on these topics. For instance, Bowen and Bok (1998) found positive effects, and their work has been cited 3,900 times.

But policies are not like chemical compounds that can be tested in randomized experiments and predicted to work consistently when mass-produced. Outcomes depend on the context, the participants’ motivations and preparation, the degree to which people undermine or distort the goals, and the evolution of relevant practices. For example, college admissions are managed by admissions officers who are selected, trained, provided with rubrics and other tools, and assessed–and those efforts can go well or badly. Meanwhile, applicants pursue their own interests, and at least some may try to “game” any system.

Thus the effects of affirmative action on outcomes like empathy or leadership will always be a bit ambiguous and subject to change. Besides, affirmative action is a very modest tweak to a system of intense competition for scarce economic advantage that could be reformed in much deeper ways. As such, it will never solve the problems it purports to address. As Roberts says, “There is no particular point at which there exists sufficient ‘innovation and problem solving,’ or students who are appropriately ‘engaged and productive.’”

But the Court says: You cannot try. Outcomes like leadership and empathy may be “commendable,” but they are too contingent and open-ended to be taken seriously in a court. Let’s face it, Roberts says, the real purpose of higher education is to sell individual consumers the services they prefer, and discrimination is illegal in any consumer marketplace. Colleges may claim that they are helping to build “an increasingly pluralistic society” or “preparing engaged and productive citizens and leaders” (and that is how they may justify their tax-exempt status, their public subsidies, and their fundraising), but they are not really in that business.

In her dissent, Justice Jackson commends UNC for considering racial diversity in its admissions process as a way of building a more equal society. “Once trained, those UNC students who have thrived in the university’s diverse learning environment are well equipped to make lasting contributions in a variety of realms and with a variety of colleagues, which, in turn, will steadily decrease the salience of race for future generations.” The Court forbids that approach. We are not allowed to try to make it work; we must immediately cease.

The decision does allow universities to consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Their account must be strictly individual. “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination.” (Italics in the original.) As many have noted, this holding will encourage students of color to write application essays that may distort how they really think about their own identities and goals, and it will offer advantages for people who can afford coaching and expert advice to write essays that comply with the law.

I would add, again, that Roberts’ logic here is consumeristic. An applicant is treated as a potential consumer who might be more valuable to the institution than is evident from test scores and grades alone, and who should be allowed to mention race in making that case. It is impermissible, however, to ask whether the applicant’s demographic characteristics might help build a better community for everyone.

As Justice Jackson writes, it has become illegal to ask whether students will make “a meaningful contribution to the larger, collective, societal goal that the Equal Protection Clause embodies (its guarantee that the United States of America offers genuinely equal treatment to every person, regardless of race).”

Justice Sotomayor concludes her dissent:

Notwithstanding this Court’s actions, however, society’s progress toward equality cannot be permanently halted. Diversity is now a fundamental American value, housed in our varied and multicultural American community that only continues to grow. The pursuit of racial diversity will go on. …. Despite the Court’s unjustified exercise of power, the opinion today will serve only to highlight the Court’s own impotence in the face of an America whose cries for equality resound. As has been the case before in the history of American democracy, “the arc of the moral universe” will bend toward racial justice despite the Court’s efforts today to impede its progress.

We can only hope she is right.

Sources: Levine, Peter. “The Democratic Mission of Higher Education: A Review Essay.” Political Science Quarterly (2023); Bowen, William G., and Derek Bok. The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Princeton University Press, 1998.

The Democratic Mission of Higher Education

Newly published: Peter Levine, The Democratic Mission of Higher Education: A Review Essay, Political Science Quarterly, 2023;

Abstract: Controversies about speech on college campuses attract intense popular attention. Three recent books analyze campus speech as one of the ways that academia affects American democracy. In The Channels of Student Activism, Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder argue that college-student activists respond to incentives. Progressive students have opportunities to engage closely with their universities but often end up frustrated, while conservative students get support from national organizations to work off-campus and endorse conservative visiting speakers as a way of influencing their own institutions. Among other recommendations, Binder and Kidder suggest that universities should promote democratic values by adopting more persuasive positions about controversial speech. In Cancel Wars, Sigal-Ben Porath defends one such position: universities should avoid censorship and punitive responses to speech while actively ensuring that all members of their community are valued. In What Universities Owe Democracy, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels argues that higher education affects democracy in many ways beyond explicit political speech, and he presents recommendations that involve admissions, curricular reform, and research. Levine finds many helpful insights and suggestions in these books but adds reasons to doubt the democratic potential of prestigious colleges and universities. He advocates serious public investment in democratic education for children and for adults who are not students.

when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the classic argument that all views should be freely expressed–by people who sincerely hold them–because unfettered debate contributes to public reasoning and learning. For Mill, controversy is good. However, he acknowledges a complication:

The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous (Mill 1859/2011, 81)

In other words, as people reason together, they may discard or marginalize some views, leaving a narrower range to be considered. Whether such narrowing is desirable depends on whether the range of views that remains is (to quote Mill) “true.” His invocation of truth–as opposed to the procedural value of free speech–creates some complications for Mill’s philosophical position. But the challenge he poses is highly relevant to our current debates about speech in academia.

I think one influential view is that discussion is mostly the expression of beliefs or opinions, and more of that is better. When the range of opinions in a particular context becomes narrow, this can indicate a lack of freedom and diversity. For instance, the liberal/progressive tilt in some reaches of academia might represent a lack of viewpoint diversity.

A different prevalent view is that inquiry is meant to resolve issues, and therefore, the existence of multiple opinions about the same topic indicates a deficit. It means that an intellectual problem has not yet been resolved. To be sure, the pursuit of knowledge is permanent–disagreement is always to be expected–but we should generally celebrate when any given thesis achieves consensus.

Relatedly, some people see college as something like a debate club or editorial page, in which the main activity is expressing diverse opinions. Others see it as more like a laboratory, which is mainly a place for applying rigorous methods to get answers. (Of course, it could be a bit of both, or something entirely different.)

In 2015, we organized simultaneous student discussions of the same issue–the causes of health disparities–at Kansas State University and Tufts University. The results are here. At Kansas State, students discussed–and disagreed about–whether structural issues like race and class and/or personal behavioral choices explain health disparities. At Tufts, students quickly rejected the behavioral explanations and spent their time on the structural ones. Our graphic representation of the discussions shows a broader conversation at K-State and what Mill would call a “consolidated” one at Tufts.

A complication is that Tufts students happened to hear a professional lecture about the structural causes of health disparities before they discussed the issue, and we didn’t mirror that experience at K-State. Some Tufts students explicitly cited this lecture when rejecting individual/behavioral explanations of health disparities in their discussion.

Here are two competing reactions to this experiment.

First, Kansas State students demonstrated more ideological diversity and had a better conversation than the one at Tufts because it was broader. They also explicitly considered a claim that is prominently made in public–that individuals are responsible for their own poor health. Debating that thesis would prepare them for public engagement, regardless of where they stand on the issue. The Tufts conversation, on the other hand, was constrained, possibly due to the excessive influence of professors who hold contentious views of their own. The Tufts classroom was in a “bubble.”

Alternatively, the Tufts students happened to have a better opportunity to learn than their K-State peers because they heard an expert share the current state of research, and they chose to reject certain views as erroneous. It’s not that they were better citizens or that they know more (in general) than their counterparts at KSU, but simply that their discussion of this topic was better informed. Insofar as the lecture on public health found a receptive audience in the Tufts classroom, it was because these students had previously absorbed valid lessons about structural inequality from other sources.

I am not sure how to adjudicate these interpretations without independently evaluating the thesis that health disparities are caused by structural factors. If that thesis is true, then the narrowing reflected at Tufts is “salutary.” If it is false, then the narrowing is “dangerous and noxious.”

I don’t think it’s satisfactory to say that we can never tell, because then we can never believe that anything is true. But it can be hard to be sure …

See also: modeling a political discussion; “Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas“; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groups; marginalizing odious views: a strategy; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science etc.

right and left on campus today

A recent book by Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, rings true to me and offers numerous original insights. It’s based on 200 hours of interviews with 77 student activists on four flagship state university campuses.

The progressive activists include liberals (who define liberalism as support for the Democratic Party) and leftists (who disparage liberalism). On campus, most find courses, professors, majors, and co-curricular opportunities–such as multicultural centers–that align with their views and interests. Progressive donors and foundations fund such opportunities by donating to the institutions, which remain in control of the students’ experiences. None of the leftist students have leftist parents, and often they have been radicalized by courses. This does not mean that professors brainwashed them; sometimes, rigorously presented material radicalizes people who choose to study it.

The progressive students are especially concerned about their own universities’ policies, whether regarding diversity, climate, or labor issues. They form close relationships with favored faculty and staff. However, many are frustrated when their institutions fail to change; and their faculty and staff mentors–who are employees with job descriptions and supervisors–cannot help them wholeheartedly. (In my experience, many employees are also torn between their personal political views and a professional ethic of neutrality.)

Progressive students who work with national or global organizations or networks provide free or cheap labor as “service”; some even raise money as canvassers. In short, they give more to national progressive efforts than they get back. Their activism rarely opens channels to post-college employment, and some even want to return to academia as staff or faculty.

The conservative activist students range ideologically from moderate institutionalists and intellectuals to MAGA radicals. However, they are fewer and they form more of a community on each campus than the progressives do. They express few complaints about university policies and are rarely interested in that topic. They are critical of campus culture, and they blame their fellow students more than the institution for perceived leftwing bias. In any case, they are mainly involved with national organizations and networks.

Conservative donors and foundations are leery about contributing to universities–or at least to their liberal arts, academic components–but eager to support conservative students directly with paid internships and other opportunities. Conservative students meet peers from other campuses at national gatherings and move readily into post-graduate jobs. They get more than they give from national organizations.

To the extent that conservative activists intervene on their own campuses, it is mostly by inviting speakers in the hope of influencing campus culture. For conservative national organizations that fund speakers, controversial visitors represent an attractive wedge issue. Although conservative students are deeply divided about the merits of the more controversial speakers, they are united about free speech. Besides, protests against conservative speakers attract national publicity that plays well on the right.

This sociological account explains more about politics on today’s campuses than a narrow focus on the universities’ own policies or an analysis of generational proclivities, such as an alleged turn away from liberal values. As always, most people behave according to incentives and norms–including radical people in radical organizations.

For me, the book raises complex normative questions (what should we want from higher education?) and policy questions. I hope to address those matters further in a review-article about this book and several other interesting recent works on higher education and politics.

See also what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech

the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy

I agree with William Blattner that “the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it’s a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident.”

The Continental and analytic schools each encompass too much diversity and overlap too much to allow them to be distinguished on the basis of doctrines or methods. Rather, they are two social groupings whose behavior can be illuminated by thinking about group-dynamics, incentives, and structures that may apply in other such conflicts.

In other words, we can put aside the content of the philosophical discussion and view analytic and continental philosophers as analogous to other examples of rival groups that display similar behavior, such as the Jacobins and Girondins during the French Revolution (minus guillotines), Weimar Classicists vs. Jena Romantics around 1800, or perhaps mods and rockers in British youth culture around 1960.

Here are the features I would note. Professional philosophy is a community that controls who can belong, and memberships (college teaching jobs) are scarce and desired by a larger population than can be accommodated. The community is decentralized, without a single authority; decisions about membership are made by local clusters (departments). However, the prevailing culture is hierarchical and status-conscious, and participants value reputation highly–fame is more salient than money. A small proportion of members have reputations across the community, but most are not widely known.

Within the whole community, two larger groups formed in the later 1900s and persisted for many decades: the analytics and the Continentals. They never encompassed all philosophers. There were also smaller self-conscious groups (American pragmatists, Thomists, specialists in classical and Asian philosophy, Marxists) and many individuals who refused to identify with a group at all. But some philosophers were committed to the analytic-Continental distinction and invested effort in debating, shifting, and maintaining the boundaries of their own group and expanding its influence.

Individuals may hold principled reasons to identify with one of these groups or the other, or not to participate in the distinction at all. They also have incentives to align or not align and to publicize or obfuscate their own stances. Such incentives vary. Is there an opportunity to get a job in a department that is overwhelmingly analytic? Is that department looking to reinforce that tilt or to diversify? Some philosophers may want to avoid such careerist considerations, but natural selection will weed out many of the purists.

A situation like this encourages people to treat some individuals as shibboleths. Perhaps a controversial person is influential–although not universally admired–within Group A. Most people in Group B cannot believe that this person has any admirers at all. Not only do they make tolerance for the person a defining characteristic of Group A, but they attribute aspects of his beliefs and behaviors to everyone in Group A.

Perhaps Robespierre is an example, polarizing Jacobins and Girondins even though many Jacobins hated him, and even though it is hard to identify sharp conceptual differences between these groups’ ideologies.

I think Blattner is right to attribute this role to Heidegger in the analytic-Continental divide. Although many Continental philosophers dislike Heidegger on numerous grounds (not only his Nazi phase), most would acknowledge that he belongs in the curriculum, that he inspired valuable work by others, and that one should know his work. For many analytics, he is a willful obscurantist, and they tend to attribute various aspects of his writing (an extremely self-conscious style, lots of hard-to-define neologisms, close readings of Romantic lyric poetry, an idealist history of thought) to Continental philosophy in general.

I am not sure which specific author to mention as a shibboleth on the analytic side, but it would be someone who dismisses historical philosophy and insights from the humanities in favor of only the latest natural science and logic and who denies being influenced by his (sic) social, cultural, and class position. Maybe A.J. Ayer?

Philosophy is usually under external pressure–since Socrates–and it now faces declining enrollments and doubts about its economic value. (See “the ROI for philosophy“.) External pressure could unify the discipline, and maybe it is doing so to some extent. But it can also fuel the fires of internal division, as when royalist invasions of France provoked Jacobins and Girondins to turn on each other as traitors.

There have been many examples of fruitful interaction at the level of individuals or even between groups. But the analytic-Continental conflict persisted for so long that plenty of people carry lists of grudges. “Yale Riot Protests Tenure Denial” said the headline after Richard J. Bernstein was denied tenure at Yale–in 1965–and that episode lingered when I majored in the same department two decades later.

Affective polarization within the discipline is a Bad Thing, because it discourages learning, promotes stereotyping, and discriminates against heterodox approaches. But I don’t think it is unusual or inexplicable. In philosophy, the problem may already be improving. To the extent it persists, we should think about group-dynamics and instutional incentives more than actual philosophical differences.

the links between capital and education

My employer and primary community, Tufts University, appears (along with virtually all US colleges and universities) in two massive studies by Raj Chetty and colleagues. I will use Tufts’ statistics to offer some general observations about the relationships between capital and education in our economic order. Tufts represents one type of institution that plays a significant economic role in the US and even globally.

According to his study of economic mobility, 62% of Tufts students who arrive from the bottom fifth of the income distribution attain the top fifth, which ranks Tufts #7 among “elite” institutions for upward mobility. However, students from the bottom of the income distribution are relatively scarce at Tufts (due, I believe, to our relatively small endowment), ranking us 40th in accessibility out of 65 elite colleges. Putting those two facts together generates a rank of 30th out of 65 for what Chetty et al. call “overall mobility.”

Basically, Tufts students tend to be economically advantaged, but their median income at age 34 is much higher than their family income was at age 18. This is typical of the institutions Chetty et al. call “elite.” (See the graphic with this post, which shows Tufts right in the midst of the elite schools.)

Meanwhile, according to Chetty and colleagues’ analysis of Facebook data, 94.4% of low-income Tufts students’ Facebook “friends” have high incomes, ranking Tufts in the 100th percentile among all US institutions on that measure. Tufts demonstrates relatively low “clustering,” meaning that Tufts students’ Facebook-friend networks are relatively cliquey. But these cliques do not seem to be economically homogeneous (Chetty et al 2022). In short, because Tufts is somewhat diverse and fairly cohesive but also predominantly affluent, students who are admitted from the lower economic strata obtain economically valuable connections while in college.

Chetty follows James Coleman (1988, cited 61,000 times), Robert Putnam (2001), and other authors, mostly Americans, in finding that social capital boosts educational success and upward economic mobility. The argument is basically that individuals–especially children and youth–are more likely to succeed if other people voluntarily support them and if many people support their schools and colleges, thereby making these institutions work better. If we define “social capital” as such networks of voluntary engagement, then having social capital benefits the individual and has positive externalities for the society. It is win/win.

A different literature is equally influential but has a different audience. Pierre Bourdieu sees education primarily as a way of reproducing economic stratification. His most famous idea is that educational institutions mark their graduates as members a specific social class by teaching them how to talk and act (Bourdieu 1983, cited 61,000 times). Members of the current ruling class dominate the institutions that mark people as upper class, ensuring that their children obtain “cultural capital.” Bourdieu also uses the phrase “social capital,” referring to the network-ties that further stratify a society. For instance, if a rich and powerful person knows and likes you, you have social capital. For Bourdieu, social capital is zero-sum, a means of gaining relative advantage over others.

To make these theories vivid, image two concrete stories.

First, imagine a US teenager who has only decent odds of completing high school, obtaining an associate’s degree, and getting a job that pays as much as her parents did when they started out. She will be more likely to succeed at these goals if her family members and other adults and peers offer emotional support, occasional financial support, and connections, and if many people support the local schools, sports leagues, and other community-based settings where she spends her time.

Second, imagine a teenager (we will call him “Brett”) who attends a selective private school in the Washington suburbs with a future Supreme Court justice, goes on to Yale, where his grandfather had studied before him, and then to Yale Law School, where he rooms with a future federal judge and plays basketball with the Yale professor who leads the Federalist Society chapter. He gets clerkships, jobs, and appointments that culminate in a seat on the Supreme Court along with his former schoolmate, two other Yale Law graduates, and five other former members of the Federalist Society. Brett was more likely to succeed at reaching his goal–the nation’s highest court–because well-placed friends looked out for him and supported the institutions where he studied.

Both of these theories could be true. They might name dynamics that apply for different segments of our population. I am not aware of empirical studies that explicitly juxtapose them in ways that would allow them to be compared and, perhaps, combined. Chetty’s work hints at some combinations. If he and his colleagues only studied institutions like Tufts, the main findings would be consistent with Bourdieu. But Chetty offers data for all colleges, universities, school systems, and neighborhoods, and often it appears that social capital benefits everyone, as in Coleman and Putnam.

I would also cite the tremendously ambitious Chicago study by Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997). As Sampson presents the results, this study finds very little evidence of economic mobility in Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans retain their class position as they move through life (Sampson 2012, Kindle loc. 5138). Nevertheless, individuals are much safer and healthier if their neighborhoods are more socially cohesive. In this model, social capital–which Sampson et al. re-conceive as “collective efficacy”–improves one’s quality of life without challenging the class structure. This is a way of synthesizing Bourdieu and Coleman.

I cannot offer additional empirical evidence, but I would like to suggest some conceptual clarifications. Basically, I believe that the categories in this debate are complicated and that neither Bourdieu’s Marxism nor neoliberal economics offers sufficient nuance on its own.

Capital takes many forms. Let’s define capital most abstractly as a stock that produces some kind of flow. This stock can be land (with our without natural endowments that benefit people), raw materials, equipment, organizational structure, know-how, basic knowledge, specific knowledge, network ties, and/or influence or even control over other people. Depending on the type of stock, it may or may not belong to groups, as opposed to individuals. Depending on the laws and economic system, it actually belongs to some entities and not others. Likewise, capital can have many flows, from money to happiness to prestige, and those outputs either benefit or harm different people or groups. Some flows accumulate while others dissipate. It may be possible to purchase one kind of capital with another. A classic example is the lucky nouveau-riche who buys cultural capital in the form of a fancy educations for his kids. But such exchanges face barriers and inefficiencies.

People want a variety of things: not only concrete goods for themselves but also relative status vis-a-vis other people, feelings of belonging, freedom, and various other people’s welfare.

Education has many aspects. It can mean practical knowledge with social or economic value for the individual, the community, or both; intrinsically valuable knowledge that may not be socially valued; an indication of relative talent and/or ambition; an indication of membership in a specific social category (e.g., the social elite, a religious group, the military); a process of accommodating individuals to current authority and prevailing norms; or a liberation from those norms. People may consciously seek various combinations of these outcomes for themselves or their children and may experience outcomes that they did not intend. For instance, think of parents who believe they are purchasing economic advancement and good behavior, yet they watch their children turn into subversive radicals–or the reverse.

The socioeconomic distribution can be characterized in various ways. Chetty and colleagues write a lot about mobility, which means movement from one income or wealth percentile to a different one. It is important to remember that upward mobility must be exactly matched by downward mobility, holding other factors constant. For every first-gen. student who attends college, one college graduate’s child must not go to higher education, unless total enrollments rise (which will cheapen the relative advantage of college). This explains why the upper strata are so fierce about preventing mobility. Studies like Sampson et al. are focused on absolute levels of human welfare, such as victimization by violent crime. It would be possible for everyone to rise above reasonable levels. Bourdieu might be interested in the ratio of the top to the bottom, although his relatively classical Marxism is more about power than income. (And France, which he studied, is unusual in its combination of economic equality with political and cultural elitism).

There are many kind of relevant institutions, from neighborhood public schools that appear open to all but may be deeply exclusive because of residential patterns, to public universities that are genuinely accessible yet internally segregated and stratified, to well-endowed private institutions that heavily subsidize a minority of their students in the interests of “diversity,” which may primarily benefit the best off, and more.

There are many policy options. As I understand it, the elite of Mexico congregate at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM, which enrolls 356,530 students, admitting just 10% of its applicants, and charges $900 for tuition thanks to federal support and a limited budget. About half of UNAM students graduate. A considerable number of affluent but less ambitious Mexican students opt for private institutions in Mexico or US colleges that offer more individual services at higher cost but with less distinction. In contrast, many EU countries do not allow their universities to differ much in reputation or selectivity, and they typically serve students from their local areas, again, offering limited services. Even relative inexpensive and more accessible US public institutions usually provide many more services, beyond classroom instruction, compared to European universities. One would expect different results in terms of mobility, stratification, minimum welfare, median welfare, and equality–which are different measures.

Here are some possible takeaways for different kinds of people:

  • If you’re prone to admire selective (Akil Bellow calls them “highly rejective”) institutions because many of their less advantaged students move upward on the socioeconomic scale, focus less on those few students and more on the vast numbers who aren’t admitted. Furthermore, if selective institutions offer exclusive social capital, their impact on mobility could not be expanded. Making them bigger would dilute their benefits for their own students.
  • If you view selective institutions as merely exclusive and all about preserving social advantage, you have a valid perspective. However, you might consider the public goods that these institutions produce (from highly trained physicians to translations from Sanskrit) and ask how we else we might generate those goods.
  • If you want to promote mobility by giving money to selective institutions, you should at least Google their per-student endowments. Some US universities (but not including Tufts) could already offer completely free tuition for all their students below a high income threshold. You might ask what they are doing with your fungible contributions.
  • If you think that universities should invest more in services and quality of life to promote their own students’ equitable well-being, you might consider evidence that such investments also make those institutions more selective and less accessible (Bulman 2022). Institutions could instead expand the number and/or diversity of the students they admit, but that means serving a hypothetical constituency instead of an actual one, and it rarely happens.

Citations: Bourdieu, Pierre. Forms of Capital: General Sociology, Volume 3: Lectures at the College de France 1983-84. United Kingdom: Wiley, 2021; G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 (2022); Chetty, Raj, Matthew O. Jackson, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert B. Fluegge, Sara Gong et al. “Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility.” Nature 608, no. 7921 (2022): 108-121; Coleman, James S. “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American journal of sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120; Putnam, Robert D. 2001. “Community Based Social Capital and Educational Performance.” In Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, 58–95. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Sampson, Robert J.. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press 2012; Sampson, Robert J., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277, no. 5328 (1997): 918–24.

See also why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?; four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; Bourdieu in the college admissions office; the ROI for philosophy, etc.