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Jan 19, 2021

Hybrid as default: Imagining a post-COVID university

The year of forced distant learning is revealing two contradictory ideas: One is that meaningful instruction in the online environment is possible, although not easy. The other is that students and faculty physical co-presence for relationship building. My prediction is obvious: the post-COVID higher education will settle somewhere in between. While students and faculty crave on-campus experience, they are not craving all of it. Students will still love to hang out on campus, but not necessarily sit in hot packed classrooms. The need for human connection can be satisfied in fewer hours and trips on campus, without significant loss of learning. I think we should expect the hybrid mode of instruction to become the default. Obviously, there will be expanded online-only programming, and there will be exceptions at the other end, For example, I cannot foresee theater or dance programs going hybrid. But the bulk of coursework will settle somewhere in between. I know this may sound as a simplistic prediction, almost too obvious to matter. However, the most obvious is often the most realistic.

Sac State is engaging in planning for a new campus in Placer County. So far plans look somewhat boring: they for a typical college campus, with need for rooms driven by CSU formulas and matrices developed decades ago. How about envisioning a hub of hybrid instruction? We probably need fewer classrooms, but also classrooms that allow remote participation in instruction. We would need more places for students to work individually or in small groups. It would be nice to integrate cafes, shopping areas, entertainment venues, so life is not as separate from learning as it used to be. As we cannot expect large public investments, perhaps the new campus should also use a non-traditional economic model. Otherwise, it is not clear where they money will come from.

I am just so relieved to start thinking about wonderful mundane and practical things, and stop worrying about the coup d'état.

Jan 9, 2021

Trump syndrome or the assimilation bias

One may not think much of Donald Trump, but he seems to be sincere. Sincerity even that of an error is a major part of his appeal. His case is a spectacular example of a particular cognitive deficiency, the inability to accommodate. The basic distinction between assimilation and accommodation is one of fundamental Piaget’s ideas. Assimilation is fitting new knowledge into a pre-existing mental schema, while accommodation is changing the schema to explain the new knowledge. A paranoid mind creates a universal super-schema that is infinitely elastic and can accept almost any volume of conflicting information. To kill your ability to accommodate, accept the following model:

1. I have a unique ability to see the truth.

2. Those who disagree with me are either evil or stupid.

3. Any piece of evidence that contradicts my belief is created by mean people that want to harm me.

The assimilation bias is not unique to Trump, and it is not limited to small children or mentally impaired people. Unfortunately, it is widely spread. The ability to change one’s mind if forced by new evidence is not that common. Millions of Trump supporters are no doubt sincere in their adamant belief that the 2020 election was stolen from them. The reason for that is that assimilation is emotionally painless, while accommodation is never free of cost. Accepting a new cognitive schema almost always involves an admission that you were somewhat wrong before. That implies a certain loss of self-respect. Being right all the time, on the other hand, makes one feel whole. That is what the Trump syndrome is: the assimilation bias fueled by insecurity. Mind cannot be endlessly accommodating; we need schemata to think. But overly rigid schemata weaken our ability to reason and makes our behavior less adaptive.

The problem with the Trump syndrome is other people. A few people disagreeing with you can be easily explained – they just don’t like me and are doing it out of spite. However, when you have a lot of other people disagreeing and presenting conflicting facts, the schema demands more and more elaborate additions and extensions. The overblown rigid schema needs intricate superstructures explaining away the large evil, or large stupidity out there. You really need the notion of a massive conspiracy to hold the whole worldview together. And of course, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. Without a conspiracy, how would you explain other people?

Thankfully, the assimilatory super-schema is not a stable cognitive construct. It must keep growing to include more and more contradicting pieces of evidence without bursting. The super-schema is powerful, but unstable. It tends to grow more and more absurd branches, like a completely secret conspiracy of tens of thousands of poll workers and country clerks, like the magic ability to create and throw in millions of ballots within hours, like Antifa activists infiltrating the trumpist mob, like over 60 judges, including known conservatives being in on the conspiracy, etc., etc. The more profound is the paranoia, the fewer people around you are willing to share it, and the more “traitors” you will see. Not just Lindsey Graham, or Mitt Romney; even Trump himself is becoming a traitor after his de-facto concession speech. Calling your messiah traitor kills the religion, eventually. The paranoiacs are terrible at building political coalitions.

Because cognition is a profoundly social phenomenon, it includes self-correcting mechanisms. At some point, most people can stop assimilating and start accommodating. They may not abandon their super-schema altogether but will shed some of the most outrageous extensions in order to maintain some socially accepted level of sanity. History shows that mass psychoses almost always recede. Some people believe that the era of social media may present a different situation. I do not think so. The echo chambers of splintered media may slow down the destruction of the Trump syndrome. However, the mechanisms of self-correction are much deeper, they have evolutionary roots. An intelligent species that would be completely susceptible to the assimilation bias would not survive. Well, sometimes it ends with a civil war, but not very often. This shall pass, too.

Instead of vaguely defined and immeasurable “critical thinking,” educators should focus on the assimilation bias. The ability to accept truth even if it is painful is a defining trait of an educated person.

Jan 4, 2021

The Deep State does exist, and we are better off for it

It is not what Trump thinks, not a conspiracy of bureaucrats against him. This country has a cadre of civil servants for whom maintaining the democratic institutions is more important than personal interests. They are both Republicans and Democrats, they serve at different levels, some political appointees, and some are career bureacrats. Brad Raffensperger is just one of them. So much focus has been on Trump’s bullying that his responses got lost. He is calm, reasonable, and factual. When he has enough of the nonsense, he basically hangs up on the President of the United States. That took courage and convictions. He is a part of the real Deep State, perhaps the most important of all democratic institutions. Yes, the division of powers works, too – look at the Supreme Court’s mostly honorable performance. Yes, the freedom of the press is important. However, we also saw how close Trump came to overriding the legitimate elections. The last-ditch defense are the civil servants in every state and every county. Their unwillingness to go along with the attempted coup is what made the difference in the end. The irony is that Trump can intimidate a number of US Senators, but not a county or a state election official. The layer of these people is very deep; hence the Deep State metaphor seems to be appropriate.

I think it is time we recognize all these people who made sure the institutions of democracy have been holding under the unprecedented onslaught from Donald Trump and a group of reckless opportunists he was able to gather. The system is holding, thanks to Raffensperger and people like him everywhere. Perhaps a quarter of republican Senators will vote to not certify the results of the elections. However, the rest of them will, and this is the story that we need to focus on. Let’s celebrate the good news: democracy is winning, and authoritarianism is failing.

That works on a smaller scale as well. I have seen countless time when my colleagues override their preferences and make decision in the long-term interest of the institution. They are mindful of the institutional memory, and of setting precedents. They are aware that fair governance is not a one-time thing, it is an institution that needs preservation and cannot be damaged to expediently solve a one-time problem. The depth of the Deep State goes all the way down.