Student Idealism

We commonly rank motives from high to low, and distinguish “cynics,” who ascribe low motives to common behaviors, from “idealists,” who ascribe high motives. Official propaganda tends to be idealistic, including what we teach in schools. While basic concepts in economics and sociobiology can be understood at young ages, we teach them much later. This isn’t an accident:

Sarah Hrdy … questioned “whether sociobiology should be taught at the high-school level … The whole message of sociobiology is oriented toward the success of the individual. … Unless a student has a moral framework already in place, we could be producing social monsters by teaching this.”

Also:

Cynical descriptive conclusions about behavior in government threaten to undermine the norm prescribing public spirit. The cynicism of journalists – and even the writings of professors – can decrease public spirit simply by describing what they claim to be its absence.

Many say we are better off training kids to help others, even if we have to lie and suggest most folks do this.  Nietzsche said “society encourages self-sacrifice because the unselfish sucker is an asset to others.”  But this theory suggests local temptations to defect; I would want your kids, but not mine, to be taught to help others.  Instead, however, we see parents pushing their own kids to be taught idealism.  Why?

One reason I think is that moderate idealism is an attractive feature of potential associates; it suggests they will be helpful and cooperative to associates. For example:

Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head. Georges Clemenceau

We expect high idealism from college applicants, less from grad school applicants, and far less from older job applicants.  So while we expect folks to slowly learn the cynical truth about the world, and we expect smarter folks to learn faster, those more cynical than their cohort are seen as untrustworthy, while those more idealistic are seen as impractical or stupid.  I wish I could find the source, but I once heard that a far larger fraction of Harvard law admitees than graduates planned to do public interest law.

This theory says students and parents have a common interest in being seen as learning age-appropriate idealism.  But an experienced high school teacher explained to me last weekend why young students have an even stronger desire to be taught idealism: students strongly prefer teachers they can personally trust, and students see cynical teachers as untrustworthy.  That hadn’t occurred to me, and not only does it make sense in general, it makes sense of one of my failures.

In fall 2006 I tried to create a class for non-econ honors students.  These tend to be high-test-scoring female non-science-major sophomores taking classes like Conceptions of Self, Reading Cultural Signs, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives.  My class was Reforming Social Institutions:

We will go one by one, week by week, through major institutions of modern life … [and] review the basic features and supposed functions of existing institutions, some common complaints about those institutions, and some suggested reforms.

My teaching style was mostly my usual, emphasizing discussion, and thought I balanced cynicism on current institutions with idealism on reform.  Many loved the class, but alas others hated it, and our evaluation system punishes variance.  When typical evaluations are 4 out of 5, one student saying 1 cancels three students saying 5.  So I got by far the lowest evaluations since my first year of teaching seven years before (when I was terrible).  Sample comments:

“class discussions were not related to the material and were not conducive to learning.  I would suggest a different Professor teach this course.”
“instructor has no place teaching an honors course.  Discussion topics … were brought down to an asinine level”
“too much sexual innuendo in class discussion”
“felt uncomfortable in class -> – too many sexual innuendos – felt he has interest in female students”

(I’ve never had remotely similar complaints re sex.) This seems weak personal confirmation: many kids distrust and dislike cynical teachers.  Of course another factor might be their other teachers hostile to econ-style cynicism.  At an interdisciplinary conference I once asked an English professor, half-joking, “Why do you guys hate us?”  His immediate serious reply: “You know.”

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  • eigenman

    every Robin Williams movie, ever, exacerbates this phenomenon

  • Mike

    Robin: Not sure you need to do much else than quote Nietzsche on slave morality. The power elite create a morality that enslaves others. The power elite themselves never follow their own morality.

    Al Gore lives in a mansion and flies on public jets. Yet he preaches against the evils of global warming and carbon consumption.

    Catholic leaders preach abstinence while raping children (and covering up the rape of children).

    The Saudi Morals Police exists by royal edict. Saudi royalty rape their sex slaves without any hassle from the Morals Police.

    Parents who teach their children idealism are simply doing what those parents have been programmed to do.

    • Nick Tarleton

      Al Gore lives in a mansion and flies on public jets. Yet he preaches against the evils of global warming and carbon consumption.

      Maybe he has more effect on net by spending his willpower on advocacy rather than personal virtue.

      • Jamie_NYC

        um… and how would living in a smaller house decrease his net contribution? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that people would trust more someone who leads by example? Yeesh!

      • Eric Johnson

        Because there is a tight budget of will, and conversely a minimum pleasure requirement, and the two interact somewhat. At least in the relatively more anhedonic half or third of the population.

        After one kiss from Zooey Deschanel, I would easily keep my chin up during a bloody and protracted demise, even decades later.

        Anyway, I dont think this is working out in the case of Gore’s crusade, because so many people have called him out on the contradictory logic.

  • http://www.angryblog.org Brian Moore

    I’m curious about the sexual innuendo comments. I am assuming that you were not actually doing anything of the sort, but I’m interested in why some students thought so — was it because you were explaining the behavior of certain individuals in terms of their sexual motives? If so, aren’t there huge tracts (heh) of literature dedicated to this type of analysis? Why would they be unfamiliar with it?

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.comItry Hopefully Anonymous

      I think Prof. Hanson’s implicit analysis is that female non-science non-econ honor students felt he was untrustworthy because he was deviantly cynical (and I’ll add this, not in a way that narrowly gives esculpatory cover to women through an ideology like feminism) and reached for innappropriately sexual as an explanation.

      I’m sure that like most professors attracted to women he was sexually attracted to many of his female students, but if he taught in a different context he would be seen as sexy, or at least professional, rather than an untrustworthy male authority figure.

  • anon

    Idealism is literally a “lie-to-children”; a useful heuristic that often approximates enlightened rationality. In most real-world PDs the consequences of defection are non-trivial and hard to foresee, so being trustworthy does not make us much worse off.

  • david

    Part of many feminist-studies courses involves learning to see power plays and sexual messages in the media and mainstream discourse, so that may have been a factor. You may have been saying the exact same phrases another teacher was proclaiming as perpetuating a gender hierarchy an hour earlier.

    This isn’t very difficult – make any claim suggesting that women might use sex to gain social status (for example), and obviously a sensitive female student might feel threatened. This is even though it might be a direct consequence of the observation that some people want sex with women and might be willing to offer status for it, and some women want status, hence trade.

    I will bet that “31 Oct, 2 Nov Romance and Marriage Short paper due Thursday.” played a role, as perhaps did “Lunch. Talk to me at lunch one day. No more than two students at a time please. 5% of grade.”

    • anon

      This isn’t very difficult – make any claim suggesting that women might use sex to gain social status

      The problem here is that the words “use” and “gain” cover a wide variety of behaviors and situations, so the statement looks awfully simplistic and speculative. Sure, it might be true in a sense, but stating it as a matter of fact in class? If I were one of Robin’s students, I’d hold up a [CITATION NEEDED] sign.

      • david

        It is speculative, which is rather the point: an economist’s intuition is to see opportunities for trade everywhere – people do things because both benefit from it. Hence speculation and an absence of detail; the assumption of rationality and general equilibrium disposes of the finer points. Doesn’t matter what the specific behavior is, in this case, since the woman (or whoever profferring sex for gain) is revealed preferred to otherwise.

        But for many other social studies, the intuition is to see other things first, like institutionalized power disparities enforced through subtle patterns of thought. In this case, in casually ignoring whatever reasons our hypothetical sex-profferrer is offering sex to begin with, I could reasonably be argued to be mentally reinforcing the concept. And so on. Then it matters what the details are.

        But economists tend not to think like this, and I can see why a female student (for instance) might feel personally threatened if a (male) professor went into too much careless speculation about how females gain from modern gender institutions.

      • Asher

        Seriously? Anyone who has been in the dating and mating market for more than two minutes is well aware of this phenomenon.

      • anon

        Yes, anyone who has been in the real world is “well aware” of a number of things which might or might not be true. But academics should be more accountable than that, especially on potentially controversal or disreputable matters such as sex. I’m not sure what your point is.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Wives using sex for power was a post a few days ago – the class was three years ago, and I’m sure that wasn’t discussed then.

  • retired phlebotomist

    Guess it’s a matter of taste. Hopefully there were one or two “just the right amount of sexual innuendo” comments to balance it out.

  • conchis

    Based solely on what you’ve written, the “cynicism” explanation of your teaching evaluations is pretty unconvincing. It seems a little too self-serving to begin with, but also has little obvious connection to allegations about sexual innuendo. Moreover, the “asinine” comment seems (from a total outsider’s perspective) more likely to be related to your tendency (as described by Tyler) to focus on big ideas over messy details, or simply political disagreement, rather than a lack of trust.

  • http://www.angryblog.org Brian Moore

    Hopefully there were one or two “just the right amount of sexual innuendo” comments to balance it out.

    I think this is the “just the right amount”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=go9I1LvXcuU

  • Y

    Mr. Hanson,

    I grew up and attended high school (equivalent) in Soviet Union. My experience was exactly the opposite. If a teacher and especially fellow student came across as a ‘believer’, he was considered either stupid, or untrustworthy, or both. Cynical teachers and professors were the cool ones.I suppose that this was because the propaganda was so blatantly obvious.

    Regards.

    Y.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      So which is unusual here, the US or USSR? Anyone have data from other cultures?

      • Y

        I think this is more complicated than it seems. Once again, all I am providing is anecdotal evidence. I have been living in US since 1992, but I did visit Russia on occasion over the period of last 10 years. I see two trends. On the one hand, most Russians believe that Americans are stupid for believing the US ‘propaganda. On the other hand, the majority of Russians clearly believe the Putin propaganda, part of which, ironically, is that Americans are idiots. Go figure.

  • Someone from the other side

    My by far dearest econ class was tought by the perhaps most cynical I ever met. Before that, I usually assigned that title to myself…

  • hamilton

    “At an interdisciplinary conference I once asked an English professor, half-joking, ‘Why do you guys hate us?’ His immediate serious reply: ‘You know.'”

    And in all seriousness, don’t you?

    I got the same reception at a new faculty lunch from two humanities professors when I was a visiting instructor teaching macro. I was hurt, but I was not surprised.

    • magfrump

      As a math guy (rather than humanities or econ), I have no idea what’s going on. Even assuming economists understand being hated, could you outline it for the rest of us?

      Or are mathematicians just oblivious?

      • Peter Twieg

        I think Bryan has a quote along the lines of, “economists are very good at telling you what you can’t do.” (ie. raise minimum wages without increasing unemployment, increase progressivity of taxation without altering incentives to generate wealth or exacerbating jurisdictional competition, etc.) A lot of idealistic goals run afoul of economists’ critiques.

      • Eric Johnson

        Not to mention the critique of charity by the original “dismal scientist”.

      • david

        That’s the economist side of the story, of course. The other side usually complains that economists are cavalier about theoretical rigor and overambitious with assumptions on human nature.

        Which is a complaint that isn’t without some justification – much of economic theory either has reasonable assumptions, or interesting conclusions, but not both. There are very few results which are both true and non-trivial (and the exceptions – e.g., the disappointingly negative results of general equilibrium theory – tend to be quietly disregarded). In the end we have to invoke the Friedman “it’s true because it’s useful” defense, which obviously exposes economics to charges of ideological bias. Useful? To whom and to what end?

        Notice that even within economics it’s not difficult to construct an entirely coherent model that permits minimum wages above a previous equilibrium without unemployment (for example) – invoke any one of a variety of complications and external effects.

      • Eric Johnson

        You really think humanities profs are worried about econ’s theoretic rigor? Maybe an elite few. I think most of them have an animus better described by what you call the econ side of the story.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        David, I think you might be confusing Friedman with Rorty. Friedman wrote that billiards-players act as if they are solving certain mathematical equations, so use of such equations is predictive of how billiards-players will act. He wrote “Essays in Positive Economics” because the thought there was an importance distinction between the normative the positive, with the latter being scientific. Rortyean pragmatists don’t think as much of that distinction.

      • Buck Farmer

        Guess:

        Economics reasoning has become very popular (freakonomics, etc.) and the profession has imperial designs for applying its methodology in other (content-defined) fields.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      In all seriousness, I have some clues but I really struggle to understand the hate. Which is why I asked, and keep asking.

  • Aron

    I’d like to have seen the cited examples for sexual innuendo. They probably read too much David Mamet.

    • retired phlebotomist

      No such thing as too much David Mamet.
      “Oleana” is the bomb. Hanson’s favorite movie that Hanson hasn’t seen.

      Yesterday’s post, with this quote: “our governments wanted to indoctrinate us into certain beliefs” made me think Mamet too:

      “The stoics wrote that the excellent king can walk through the streets unguarded. Our contemporary Secret Service spends tens of millions of dollars every time the president and his retinue venture forth.

      Mythologically, the money and the effort are spent not to protect the president’s life–all our lives are fragile–but to protect the body politic against the perception that his job is ceremonial, and that for all our attempts to invest it with real power–the Monroe Doctrine, the war powers act, the “button”–there’s no one there but us.”

  • Kezia Kamenetz

    I’m confused. Why do students distrust cynical professors?
    Even if this is true, how do the comments you listed point to the idea that your students distrusted you?

    But mostly, I’m confused about your use of the term cynic. So while we expect folks to slowly learn the cynical truth about the world

    What is the ‘cynical’ truth about the world? The definition of a cynic I found was “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.” Has it be proven beyond a doubt that only selfishness motivates human action? Surely this has been shown to be the case in many instances, but is it really the only option? This entire piece seems to take for granted that cynicism is just true. I think both idealism and cynicism are just opposite forms of a type of bias, and both can prevent realization of important truths.

    • anon

      “Has it be proven beyond a doubt that only selfishness motivates human action?”

      This is vacuously true, by defnition of “selfishness” and “human action”. Any sort of human action is intended to improve the agent’s satisfaction and relieve her dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, some philosophers and economists think that this simple fact implies that the agent’s ends must be motivated by cynicism. But this is a fallacy.

    • http://twitter.com/tdr_dmorgan Daniel Morgan

      “A person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”

      Thanks for supplying a definition.

      I can think of two reasons someone would believe that:

      1. They take game theory seriously.
      2. They are trying to alleviate guilt by painting all the world as selfish.

      I don’t have a problem with 1’s, but it might be wise to distrust 2’s.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I defined cynical in the post’s first sentence.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The Wikiquotes page for Georges Clemenceau here.

    The marriage & romance part was probably responsible, also the evolutionary psychology. Or prof. Hanson could just be creepier in real life.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that courses in feminism were not responsible, there is a general distaste for econ/evo-psych/public choice cynicism.

    Data from complaint about low numbers of HLS grads going into public interest here, but nothing about applicants.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Tangentially related, the complaint about HLS grads not going into public-interest was the basis for the notorious (at least on law blogs) “Never Again” student review note by Phil Telfeyan. An exquisitely hilarious example of idealist outrage at self-interest.

  • lemmy caution
    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Hmm, which of our beliefs are like “insulting the meat”? Interesting book link.

  • Mike

    “Nobody cares about what you know, until they know that you care.” Cliche; but probably true. A cynic doesn’t care – or he seems that way. An idealist seems to care.

  • James D. Miller

    I’m a professor at an undergraduate college and have a law degree. Students who want to go to law school often ask me for career advice. Lots tell me that they want to go into public interest law. (One student told me this about an hour ago!) I always tell these students that most people who go to law school wanting to go into public interest law end up doing corporate law and so they should figure that if they do attend law school they are more likely to become a corporate lawyer than a public interest one.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    Reminds me of this.

    I think back to your post on Wordsworth and Byron. Wordsworth’s writing was largely about losing one’s youthful idealism, particularly concerning the French Revolution, while Byron, typically thought of as the cynic, remained a true believer in revolution to the end.

  • Eric Johnson

    I’m pretty sure your class was great, but what’s with the “discussion”? I believe discussion is superior to lecture in undergrad — if and only if you Robin do about half the discussing, or more. But thats not usually what people mean.

    • Chris B.

      I took two of Robin’s classes a few years ago; I can see how the discussions would be off putting to non-econ majors. Normally, when a student would make a statement, Robin would reply why they were wrong or with a cheaper alternative. For example, someone would make a suggestion to deal with some problem, and Robin might reply, “Well, we could just put up signs to deal with X”. Sometimes these responses would seem absurd, but I remember them mostly being plausible and caused me at least to think about it. In the classes I took, I cannot think of any other professor who had that style of discussion (which is probably the reason, but I personally enjoyed them).

      • Eric Johnson

        That sounds good. Dialogue is more natural and easier to pay attention to, which was no mystery to Plato. But students mainly talking to each other is the blind leading the blind, as proponents of lecture point out.

        In grad school I think lecture is not as bad, especially in small classes where you are “up close”: a student is naturally fearful of looking inattentive, and the professor I think is naturally more fearful of giving a lame lecture. But I have sat through some deadly lectures in large grad classes.

  • Bill

    Actually, I see more idealists–people making sacrifices where they would have better paying alternatives–than I would expect to find in the real world.

    That really has surprised me in my life….the editor of the Georgetown law review, brilliant lawyer who could have left the Antitrust Division to serve any of the Asst Attorney Generals who went back to private practice…the doctor who works in a clinic that serves poor persons and both teaches and invents at the University….the person who serves on a non-profit board and devotes tons of time and his advertising firm’s resources to help the indigent…

    I’m sorry. There are plenty of people who have lives evidently different than others.

    They exist.

    Really.

  • Bill

    Following up on student idealism, I’d also like to challenge a statement that graduate students become less idealistic. That also is not my experience.

    I have taught graduate MBA classes at a school which only admits people who have been in business for more than 5 years.

    You would expect this to be a hardened group. No way.

    I am not an environmentalist, but I can’t tell you how many times green proposals, credits, etc. came up in product pricing and marketing and positioning and how some of the students (executives) were advocates of some environmental proposals within their firm. Same goes for renewal and recycle.

    I actually learned something from them. I think people are more idealistic than you give them credit for. It may not be in your face. Hell, my son, an investment banker in NYC, yells at me for not composting.

    • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com richard silliker

      Nice post.

  • Yvain

    I’ve seen the same sort of shocked disgust at economists’ cynicism as you have. But many other sorts of cynicism are encouraged and appreciated in college classes. For example, a lot of sociology is about how everyone, even the most virtuous people, have racist, sexist, class-ist, etc prejudices. Political scientists seem to benefit whenever they say that our government is hopelessly in thrall to either giant corporations or dictatorial bureaucrats. Postmodernist art and literature teachers talk about the lack of universal standards of truth or beauty, and Continental philosophers go on all the time about the meaninglessness and futility of life. All these people seem to gain status from their cynicism.

    What do you think is the relevant difference between the cynicism of economists and these other kinds of cynicism

    • Eric Johnson

      For one thing, those examples are all exaggerations of reality. Econ seems to be more like “reality is qualitatively not what you think” — that certainly applies to Malthus, to the minimum wage, and to Robin’s signalingism.

    • Dain

      Maybe the difference is that economists apply their brand of cynicism even to themselves? That could be particularly disenchanting.

    • Violet

      I think it might be how it is communicated.

      I don’t think cynicism is the problem, but rather very incompatible ways of communicating. And if you e.g. advocated that women should be coerced to have sex (see the sex+marriage posting), then it is no wonder that some of them are unhappy with the class.

  • Buck Farmer

    Simplest explanation I’ve thought of:

    People with high natural endowments (beauty, intelligence, athleticism) encounter fewer hardships in aggregate than people with low natural endowments.

    Encountering fewer hardships means you’re less likely to become more cynical than your ‘society’ (whether broadly or just your peer group)

    Thus, cynicism is a signal of low natural endowment and people will consciously or unconsciously select on it.

    Exemplum gratia:

    “Women trade sex for status”
    -> Speaker believes that women do not love him (or people) for his (their) natural endowments
    -> Speaker has evidence of this
    -> Speaker has personal evidence of this
    -> Other women have not loved him for his natural endowments
    -> His natural endowments are low

    • Buck Farmer

      More complicated explanation:

      We recognize that we exist on a power continuum. Given that we prefer for the relatively powerful to take care of us and for the relatively less powerful not to strive against us.

      Ergo, we want our leaders to be idealistic/optimistic and our potential rivals to be cynics/pessimists.

      Exemplum gratia 1:

      Even though politicians are generally over 30 and should be cynics by Clemenceau’s quotation, we favor politicians that offer ‘hope’ instead of ‘realities’. Look at Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama.

      A politician that we believe to be idealistic we believe will be less likely to harm us for his own gain than a politician that is openly cynical.

      Exemplum gratia 2:

      Idealism is dispreferred when hiring older workers primarily because we prefer for them not have any ambitions whether personal or to upset the status quo. Young workers are less of a threat because they are ‘inexperienced’ and usually very ‘junior’ in the hierarchy, thus they are expected to ‘bide their time’ and even if they were ambitious in the short-run they would be ineffective due to their position in the network.

      Older workers typically come in at a higher level, were hired because they have valuable external experience, etc, so they more directly compete with those that make the hiring decision.

      • jay

        You make a lot of sense in these comments. You should start a blog.

    • anon

      Along these lines, see Hanson’s paper The Cynic’s Conundrum. But the cynicism of most economists (including Robin Hanson) is not motivated by low social status.

      • Buck Farmer

        True, but the heuristic may be applied to them regardless of its accuracy.

    • Bill

      I think that is a good argument. Should pursue it some more.

      Is cynicism frustration? If you had all you want, would you be a cynic? Are you a cynic because you don’t fit in a group, have low social status, poor social skills, have always been an outcast?

      Is there a personality type associated with cynicism? Is there a psychology of cynicism?

  • Pingback: Zynische Lehrer kommen schlecht an « Erlebt

  • Buck Farmer

    Sadly, neither of my two proposals covers why cyncicism would be acceptable in PoPoMo (Post-post-modernisim) but not in Econ (Economics).

    The following uses a very broad mischaracterization of PoPoMo and Econ. Substitute whatever relevant groups you like:

    Economists are cynical about possible worlds (and the current)

    PoPoMo-ists are cynical about the current world (but not possible as much)

    -> Economists believe change is in expectation less likely to be an improvement than PoPoMo-ists

    However, students are young and low status in society. Regardless of their beliefs about socially optimal arrangements it is advantageous for them if others believe in change since in all likelihood this will increase their status position (though perhaps not their absolute material wealth).

    Ergo, students are incentivized to support cynicism that promotes change and disincentivized to support cynicism that decreases it.

    I expect that this effect would be less among student for whom a significant drop in status is a real possibility i.e. those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and more among students who have strong social safety nets i.e. heirs and heiresses.

    • anon

      Many economists advocate large changes in society, most likely larger than advocated by sociologists or political scientists. In fact, Robin’s honors course was named “Reforming social institutions”.

      • Buck Farmer

        The economics most people encounter as undergrads tends to reinforce the idea that by and large the market has produced efficient outcomes…at least, that was my experience and I only graduated two years ago.

        In Robin’s case…I don’t know. Could be a prejudice bleeding over from economics generally into his course via perceptions or via his language/conceptual-categories, or it could be that the explanation is wholly bunk for this case.

        You bring up a good point though:
        1) Either my conjecture/hypothesis is wrong

        or

        2) There is a meaningful distinction between the types of change advocated by economists and the types of change advocated by others

        (1) I admit is fully possible, but my fully biased intuition suggests their may be something fruitful in exploring (2). The first thing that comes to mind is maybe economists tend to propose changes that reinforce or leave unchanged status hierarchies i.e. allowing for more trade benefits everyone, but benefits those with more resources initially more (unless the value of those resources drops faster than they can be converted into something else under the new more open regime).

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        We like idealism about us, and cynicism about them. Econ-cynicism is more about everyone, but more acceptable cynicism is about a bad them who the new us will overthrow, bringing peace and prosperity across the land.

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin,

    I think this discussion has turned a little too much to focus on why students don’t like cynicism. Because this touches close to your work, I’m sure it is a salient topic, but I fear that it could get close to navel gazing.

    A much more interesting topic you discuss earlier in your post is we don’t teach sociobiology, economics, social sciences (in their modern form) before college generally.

    Now, we can all speculate about the many positive reasons why we as a society have made this choice, but in the spirit of overcoming bias I’d like to hear your thoughts on the implications of more/less idealistic education/propaganda regimes as these implications might help those among us with consequentialist leanings to decide our normative position on them.

    YOS,
    Buck

  • http://www.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk Richard Kennaway

    A digression. I read the web page for Robin Hanson’s course, I am wondering how his methods of assessment work. The only university courses I have ever taken for credit were in mathematics, assessed by solving mathematical problems in a three-hour exam. So when I see items like “Talk to me at lunch one day. 5% of grade.”, I boggle slightly. I presume you are assessing them on their intelligent conversation about the subjects of the course, and not their table manners and correct deployment of cutlery, but how do you turn that into a number? And why over lunch?

    • Buck Farmer

      Usually, those things are ‘participation credits.’ If you show up and talk you get your 5%…at least, that’s how things like attending discussion section were treated in most of my classes.

      Robin will be able to say what he does, but I’d be surprised if he relied on his own abilities as an interviewer since I believe there’s evidence that people typically overestimate their ability to judge others via interview.

  • josh

    From what I’ve heard about Robin’s teaching style, it sounds like he just doesn’t treat the students with the kid gloves they are used to. The typical teacher/professor replies to a wrong answer with “Nice try, but…”, or will call an absurd suggestion “an interesting idea, but..”. It sounds like Robin doesn’t do this, and it probably makes his students angry. The whole cynicism angle seems more of a reach.

  • Bill

    I think economists are cynics because they’ve taken game theory courses and act on the premise of rationality in all parts of their lives.

    But, ala Thaler and Ariely, we know that people are not rational automatons, so there is hope.

  • Bill

    There may be some reasons per Buck’s observation why “we don’t teach sociobiology, economics, social sciences (in their modern form) before college generally.”

    The reason sociobiology is not taught in high school: YOU would have to talk about Darwinian evolution, treat people as animals, etc. The Christian right would be down your throat. If you go to college and want to learn that, fine, or you could go to a good theological seminary and not learn about it at all.

    Economics is taught in high school, and it is classical economics. And, it is malthusian. And, it does question the minimum wage. But, what it doesn’t do is talk about behavioural economics.

    Social sciences in their modern form: ??? The only criticism I would have of social sciences in high school was that they glossed over racism and slavery when I was young. You mean the Civil War wasn’t over states rights? I’ll be dammed.

  • mikem

    Where is this Nietzsche quote from? Not that the sentiment is out of place for him, but I find it odd to hear a nineteenth century philosopher using the term ‘sucker,’ which is more post-freudian vernacular (though Nietzsche was a big influence on Freud).

  • http://mchouza.wordpress.com Mariano Chouza
    • anon

      I knew all along that Nietzsche was totally gay, but it turns out he was man enough to admit it in the very title of his book! Cool guy.

  • http://graehl.posterous.com Jonathan Graehl

    “Too many sexual innuendos”, “felt uncomfortable” etc. – hilarious. Pampered worldview under fire and raising the emotional barricades, one supposes. Probably also ignorance of the actual meaning of “innuendo” is at work as well.

    • Violet

      You think it is hilarous that students feel bad in a course?

      It is most probably an issue with the teaching style being unsuitable and them learning to be averse to the subject matter by associating the distaste of the lecturer to the topic.

      • wedrifid

        It seems more likely that they are learning to be averse to the teacher by associating the distaste of the topic to the lecturer.

  • Violet

    One thing that might confuse people in the selfish thing is:
    “selfish” == “optimizes own utility function”
    vs
    “selfish” == “the term for other people is small in the utility function”

    Much of the disagreement whether people are selfish stems from the two very different definitions.

  • Joe

    I like that Robin didn’t even consider the most obvious explanation for his students’ comments: that his analysis was asinine and full of needless sexual innuendo.