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Thornton Hall

The Revolution Will Be Kuhnian.

Wrongness Studies

Emphasis mine, throughout.

How we organize (and stifle?) our search for truth

What does it mean that our universities have a biology department and an education department? Who decides whether the philosophy department gets to question what goes on in the economics department?

The subject was free speech on campus, but I'm more interested in the way this libertarian describes the division between academic departments. From Jacob Levy, Safe spaces, academic freedom, and the university as a complex association:

If the philosophy student fails to be a good philosophy student on the terms of what it means to be a philosophy student: written work submitted in class, discussion in class, the inquiry into philosophy; then we can fail a student and it’s fine. If a chemistry researcher fails to be a good chemistry researcher: if they defraud in their research or they fail to do any research or fail to publish any research then they get fired. But we can’t, we don’t, we won’t, do so for extraneous opinions that aren’t to do with disciplinary business.
Now, who is it who judges what counts as being a good philosophy or good chemist? At first approximation this is “the discipline” which on a university campus means the department. We don’t expect the biology department to come tell the philosophers what good philosophy research looks like. They’re awfully bad at that kind of thing. At any research university that’s big enough and complicated enough there are big committees where the scientists, the social scientists, and the humanities professors all get together and we recount over and over again just how bad the scientists are. They just look at us over and over again and say: “but you’re making it up! Where is the experiment?” The good news is “you don’t have to understand how we do what we do, because we are self governing. We decide how we do what we do.” 

The “we” here is an intellectual community. It is not every professor fends for themselves and every student fends for themselves. And so, while academic freedom robustly protects what happens in a classroom, it does not protect the freedom of the astronomy professor to one day decide that he is an astrologer and start teaching how it is you read your fate in the constellations. The community of astronomers has long since said: “that’s nonsense, that’s not the enterprise; and if you do that, you’re failing to be a good astronomer.” Could there be something like astrology taught in the faculty of religion? There could be. The astronomers don’t get to run the whole show, they get to run astronomy. The evolutionary biologists get to run evolutionary biology, and if the evolutionary biology professor stands up there and is suddenly a young earth creationist and says “God created all the species exactly as they are 6000 years ago” then the biologists get to say “you aren’t doing we what do” and will say: “we’re not going to hire you, we’re not going to keep you on, and we will fire you eventually if you insist on running your classes that way.”


Academic freedom is the core meaning, the core institutional life, of freedom of debate and freedom of inquiry in the university setting. And one thing that’s notable about academic freedom as I’ve just labeled it is that it creates safe spaces. The people who are doing the work on an ongoing basis be they students, teachers, or researchers, don’t have to spend all day every day answering the challenge: “where are your experiments?”. That get’s boring and is unproductive. If I as a political scientist want to do some research if I want to make some intellectual progress, I have to not be constantly harangued by the biologists or the chemists saying: “It’s not a real science you know”. By the third time, there is nothing new to learn, it’s going to get in the way of our ability to do what we are doing. The same by the way is true of the metaphysicist in a philosophy department who says to the physicist: “Well you know that your assumptions about the nature of reality are really up for contestation.” It’s really hard to argue with and the physicist replies: “Get out of my way, I’m trying to get some work done!”

Consequences of division 

The safe spaces that protect economics from biology and all of social studies from an assault by philosophers have real world consequences.

Mark Seidenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has a book out called Language At the Speed of Sight that is mostly about the science of how we learn to read. That science is an academic field that is part of cognitive neuroscience called "psycholinguistics." In the later part of his book (which I have not read) is an argument that I first heard discussed on the podcast Lexicon Valley, in an interview of Seidenberg by John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia.

Another interview about the book was done by Hayley Glatter in The Atlantic. I've put a good chunk of it below to illustrate how the academic division that creates safe spaces for each discipline described above by Jacob Levy plays out on the subject of reading and reading instruction between the separate fields of cognitive science and education. To encourage veterans of the education wars to hear what he's saying, I'd note that Saidenberg agrees... 

  1. No Child Left Behind Was A Disaster, and
  2. Poverty is a huge factor in education and achievement gaps.

Nonetheless, a problem we can do something about is the startling division between the science of education and the academic discipline called The Department of Education.

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Seidenberg: What I try to do in the book is trace it back pretty far and look at how two cultures developed. There’s one that studies reading and language and other things from a science perspective. That involves psychology, linguistics, and now neuroscience. It has its own standards and ideas about how you answer questions and its own unique, distinguishing characteristics.

Then there’s a separate culture, which is educational culture. And it really has developed pretty independently even though we’re concerned with the same questions. There are, what I call them, cross-cultural differences, and it’s very hard to cross the boundaries between these two. And basically, when we think about educating kids, we think about education, and so we go to schools of education, we go to the people who train the teachers, and we go to the educational establishment for answers. And my belief is that that’s really kind of going back to people who have helped create the problems that we have and really have not been able to deal with them. And one of the reasons is because they really have very little contact with this whole other body of work that says much more about how reading really works, how children learn and develop, and so on.

Glatter: Along with that, you talk about the socialized culture and the cultural construct of teaching. Can you expand on the idea of the separation between learning literacy versus learning how to actually read?

Seidenberg: On the education side, you know, it’s a pretty in-grown group. They develop their own sort of beliefs, and in that culture, reading is really something that is hardly discussed. If you go to a school of education where they’re teaching the teachers of the future, there are few, if any, courses about reading. Educators are not interested in reading. They think that’s just sort of the basic nuts and bolts, kind of the lowest-level problem of recognizing letters and recognizing words, and that’s just the mechanics. What they are interested in is literacy, and so effort focuses on developing children’s interest in books and thinking about how they’re structured, how they function, and what they mean in different kinds of cultures.

That leaves all the stuff about how kids actually go from not reading to beginning reading to skilled reading out of the curriculum. So they emphasize “literacy” and we emphasize, I would say, the prerequisite: being able to read quickly and accurately with some basic skills under your belt. In my view, the way that they’re taught can actually make it more difficult. They focus on a high-level notion of literacy and assume that just being able to pick up the mechanics is easy. All of us have the goal of getting kids to be able to read challenging material from which they can learn and ask questions, but we disagree about how to make sure that children get to that point.


It’s clear that poverty has a huge impact on children and on education. And it is certainly one of the factors that contributes not just to children who don’t learn to read, but also to children who don’t benefit from school and who are at risk for dropping out. So poverty is obviously a huge issue, and I wouldn’t want to take any attention away from attempts to address basic poverty issues.

However, poverty is a difficult problem to solve. And in the meantime, we can’t just stop educating kids because they happen to be poor. I think that there’s more that could be done to help education serve the function of helping to overcome some of the effects of poverty.


So when No Child Left Behind was passed, there was the federal government intervening in education as it was occurring in every classroom across the country. That legislation was really disastrous, but it was a response to a real problem, which is chronic low literacy, and a failure on the part of the educational establishment to acknowledge or address the problem. Well, the pushback against that legislation took the form of saying, ‘Actually, our educational system does really quite well. Elementary education doesn’t really need fixing at all. It’s doing fine, except for the problem of achievement in low-income areas. And really, all this legislation was totally unnecessary.’

The idea was that educational achievement in reading and other areas is not an educational problem. It is a problem of social policy and social justice. It is a problem of poverty. There was a line of argument that got very popular among many educators and others that said we don’t need to examine closely how well education is working: It’s working fine. What we need to do is address the poverty issues in the U.S. If we did that, then all these other issues about reading achievement and so on would be moot.


Lots of things are sort of being outsourced, but that model assumes that there’s a parent in the home who can help, who speaks the language, who’s available. And that’s not going to be true in many cases. It’s not going to be true if the parents are low-income and they’re working multiple jobs. It’s not going to be true if there isn’t an adult in the home who is a native speaker of the language. And it’s not going to be true because people from a lower-income background may not be as aware that the way kids are taught kind of assumes that they’re going do some of the heavy lifting.

So parents need to understand that the schools have shifted some of the burden for instruction onto them, and I think they should push back. I think they should say, ‘Hey, schools have the responsibility for teaching children basic kinds of skills, and parents are not professional teachers. Parents are not educators. And moreover, parents may not have the backgrounds, skills, or financial resources to fill in the gaps.’ So hold the schools to the obligation to teach children to read and not assume that the parents or caregivers are going to pick up the slack.


But the failures are determined by multiple factors. I’ve tried to focus on one part where I think the science really has something to contribute. We know more about how children learn, we know more about how reading works than people have recognized and that there’s a lot there that can be made use of. Science is not the solution to all of these problems; it can’t get rid of poverty by itself. But we don’t want to accelerate that by doing a poor job of teaching kids in the first place.

I’m Galileo

A Human Being Who Thinks He Helps People