Tuesday, August 08, 2017

 

Myths


How do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?

I saw another of those this week.  The Atlantic, which usually does better, published this piece asking why men have become rare birds on college campuses.  It argues that males’ distaste for higher education starts young, possibly in middle school, and that by the time they turn 18, it’s too late.  Clearly, young men need to be spared the tyrannical feminism of, uh, American high schools…

Except that the gender gap in college enrollments isn’t among 18 year olds.  It’s among 25 year olds and older.  Among 18 year old college students, there’s relative gender balance.  The real story of gender imbalances among college students isn’t about middle school or high school at all; it’s about adult wages for workers without degrees.  Regular readers know that I’ve hit this note repeatedly over the years.

But mere facts don’t seem to be enough to put the myth out of its misery.  The story seems to satisfy some need beyond mere, you know, accuracy.  It’s more of a parable than a report, but the parable has staying power.  It satisfies some other need.

Most campuses (and, I’m guessing, most organizations of any size) have myths like that.  

Some of them are based on a combination of reverence and forgetting.  A long-departed figure declared 30 years ago that there’s a rule preventing the college from doing x.  Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t, but the person was respected and his successors have adopted the received wisdom as gospel, perhaps even building retrospective tributaries from it over the years.  Someone stepping in from the outside raises the idea of x, and holy hell rains down, even though there’s actually no reason it can’t be done.  (“Liability” and “Financial aid” are the most frequent sources of mystery rules, in my experience.)  

Others are more cynical.  A common rhetorical move on campuses is the invocation of the lost golden age as a form of implied criticism of the present.  I remember the sense of satisfaction at a previous college when I had been there long enough to have direct personal memory of an invoked golden age, and to remember that the person invoking it had been bitter then, too.  As most historians know, golden ages tend to rest on very selective memories.  But they serve purposes in the present, entirely independently of their accuracy.

Arguing with good-faith factual arguments is a relatively straightforward process.  It may involve facts, or it may involve clarifying different definitions, but you can talk about what you’re talking about.  Arguing with myths is another matter entirely.

If you’re convinced that, say, a gender gap in college enrollment is still more evidence of the conspiracy against men in K-12 schools, then something as pedestrian as enrollment data for 18 year olds won’t dissuade you.  You’ll doubt the data (“FAKE NEWS!”), or find a reason to dismiss it.  You may simply ignore it altogether, and just change the anecdotes you cite.  After all, the facts themselves aren’t the point; they’re just there to serve the story.  The story is the point.

When I hit the point in conversation at which it becomes clear that facts aren’t the point, though, it’s hard to know what to say next.  If you keep arguing facts, you don’t get anywhere.  If you diagnose what’s happening as a sort of shadow boxing, you’re arrogant.  If you come back with a story of your own, you’re swapping one myth for another.  If you’re really good at it, that can work, but it has a way of backfiring.  And certain issues -- structural ones, rather than personal ones -- don’t really lend themselves as easily to storytelling.  

Wise and worldly readers, given only so many hours in the day and lacking a small army of research assistants, how do you argue with a false belief that serves a real purpose?

Comments:
This blog used to be a LOT better a decade ago.

(signed) Embittered Snarker ;-)

Actually, I love your move into activist topics like this one now that you have the broader forum offered by IHE. That said, I hope you are composing OpEd columns for the NY Times and/or letters to them and The Atlantic, but you really should revist some of your old classics for a new audience. A rewrite of your all time classic essay about meetings needing an agenda, etc, updated or extended to include start-of-year presentations, would be invaluable to both faculty and administrators as we start a new year.


 
Seriously now, I guess the best you can do is to get someone else to do the research for you. The main thing lacking from your article was any data at all, even data from your college, comparing demographics for you CC enrollment to HS grads a year ago and 7th graders 6 years before that. I don't have those resources either, but I do know that my college is predominantly female and that the ratios are heavily skewed by our significant minority population. What I don't know is the degree to which those ratios reflect HS graduation rates, but retention rates (and years behind in reading or math) trend heavily male in our schools, and have a significant economic and racial component.

Your view of the situation might reflect the community you are in.

As for that article in The Atlantic, I guess the world has changed a lot. Back in the day, more than 50 years ago, a place like Carlow College would feature a guy surrounded by 6 women in their promotions as a way to recruit men to their campus. These days, women are not trolling for an MRS degree and men aren't taking the bait. If anything, the women are hoping they don't have to support the guy they live with.
 
You can't argue false beliefs with a single person (see all the recent research that evidence actually makes people less likely to switch sides). What you can do is find shared goals and constraints with a group and work from there. I'm working through this now with a group of folks who think that a 50% pass rate on a national exam is signs of the success of their program. They correctly remember when our rate was only 25%, but other institutions regularly get 70-80% pass rates with similar programs/demographics. If I bring up what other institutions do, they see that as an insult to their hard-won gains. If I present data on new techniques used at other institutions, they recollect back to something similar they tried that didn't work. Basically, with any one individual we just go around in circles. However, as a group we can brainstorm ways to "continue the gains" and "support the students" without delving into the risky territory of "innovations", "changes", and "program not meeting expectations" which seem to send everyone into a tizzy and make them get stuck pining for the old days of big budgets, lots of staff, manna from heaven, etc.
 
Oh! I thought at first you meant false belief that serve *adaptive* purposes.
For example, it's been adaptive to believe my success depends on my hard work, and other people's failures are the result of bad luck. These things cannot both be true in the same way (though they are both partially true), but cognitive dissonance can work for you if you let it.

In this case, the problem is that the myth is maladaptive (and supports a worse worldview), but also true in specific contexts. "That's an oversimplification, it really depends on the kind of college" might be the best short term retort- even the most entrenched "Why have we stolen boyhood?!?!?" mindset folks realize that there's a huge difference between West Point and Vassar. Incorrect generalizations can sometimes be the jumping off point for discussions of valid specifics. Some small liberal arts colleges really do have trouble getting "enough" men, and it's an interesting problem for them.
 
It's always interesting to have been some place for a long enough time to have a sense for the history...

When I started at my final academic job (1987), late afternoon/evening enrollments (class start times of 4 PM or later) accounted for well over 1/3 of our credit hours--and had been rising for years. When I retired (2012), late afternoon/evening enrollments were under 20% (and continuing to fall). But changing the mix of course offerings was difficult. And this was something about which, as far as I could tell, didn't support any particular narrative.

(Also, when I started, our undergrad enrollments were about 60/40 female/male. When I retired, more like 70/30--but that was largely because our nursing and allied health enrollments had grown very rapidly...largely in response to demand for graduates. The actual number of male undergrads had increased, just not as rapidly.)
 
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