Free college is the wrong answer for a real problem

One of Bernie Sanders’ most popular positions is his call to, as his website proclaims, “make college tuition free and debt free.” While the proposal may strike conservatives as both absurd and unlikely, it’s worth paying attention to. For one thing, it may be less unlikely than it appears. Other countries–as Sanders is fond of pointing out–have adopted publicly-funded higher education, and the issue fits the same template that gave us Obamacare: a viscerally appealing reform for an undeniably broken system.

Whether or not we end up having a serious debate over free college, Sanders’ proposal is worth thoughtful consideration because it is the sort of policy we are going to see proposed more and more as the United States debates whether to continue our drift toward a more European system where core social functions are financed and administered by the government.

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Aspergers and learning The Rules

This week’s Weekend Interview in the Wall Street Journal features Temple Grandin, “easily the most famous autistic woman in the world.” It’s a fascinating read, particularly for anyone with an Aspergers child. Growing up in the 1950’s, doctors pushed to institutionalize Grandin as her autistic qualities became obvious. Instead, her mother hired a speech therapist and a nanny and forced her daughter to interact with adults and spend hours practicing basic social skills.

Today, Temple Grandin is a doctor of animal science at Colorado State University and the designer of more humane slaughterhouse systems that are used worldwide. She also writes and lectures internationally as a first-person expert on autism.

Her cadence is unusual, staccato-like, and her pale blue eyes sometimes drift off into the distance. But she seems a different person from the young woman in the film, for whom being hugged, let alone schmoozing at a cocktail party, seemed physically painful. What’s changed?

“The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic,” she says, “because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”

As I said, the whole article is well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by Grandin’s advice on how to help an Aspergers child learn to function more comfortably in the outside world. Doubtless influenced by her own mother, who “insisted that Temple practice proper etiquette, go to church, [and] interact with adults at parties,” Grandin says,

It’s about hard work. Young children need 20 or 30 hours a week of one-on-one time with a committed teacher or mentor. Money, Ms. Grandin says, should not be an obstacle. If you can’t afford a professional teacher, find volunteers through your church or synagogue, she says. Parents need to teach 1950s-style social rules “like please and thank you, basic table manners, how to shop.”

“1950s-style social rules.” Back then, The Rules were explained pretty clearly and explicitly, by parents, teachers, neighbors, or even random passerby when necessary. There was a basic, shared understanding of how one ought to behave, and an expectation that society had a responsibility to pass that understanding along to the next generation. “Do this. Don’t do that,” as the 1971 hit “Signs” rather unenthusiastically put it.

Today, instead, American society depends much more upon a sort of peer-to-peer absorption approach to social norms. With the traditional venues for social instruction (family, community, church) fading in their authority and significance, most youth learn basic social norms through entertainment or from their peers, through observation and adaptation. Gallons of ink have been spilled chronicling the underwhelming results of this approach, and my point here is not to add thereto. Instead, I’m interested particularly in how this approach affects those with autistic tendencies.

Reading the interview with Temple Grandin, it seems that our lack of explicit social instruction must be doing a tremendous and particular disservice to Aspergers children. Gradin isn’t the first I’ve heard liken living with Aspergers to being in a play. You learn how you are supposed to behave, and you fill that “role”; it’s actually a considerable relief, avoiding the frustration and confusion of continually violating norms you didn’t know existed.

The instruction must be explicit though. By definition, a child with autistic tendencies isn’t going to pick up on the cues that his peers use to learn social norms. He needs to actually be taught what other children might be able to unconsciously pick up. And yet, more than ever before, our society tends to avoid offering the clear, specific guidance that such a child needs.

I’m not suggesting that a greater social willingness to articulate and teach the rules of social behavior would be some magic bullet to make life easy for those with Aspergers. However, I do wonder how much it would help, not so much in broad strokes but with those brief little interactions that could help create the explicit, clear roadmap that is so important to individuals with Aspergers.

And… I feel like I should conclude with some insightful commentary, but I’m really just throwing this out here as food for thought. I was struck by it while reading the article, and hoped some of my readers would find it similarly interesting.

Unthinking

Apparently, a lot of people think the world is going to end in 2012. The ancient Mayan calendar ends in 2012, you see; also, a hidden planet named Nibiru is about to crash into the earth, destroying all life.

The apocalyptic warnings are being spread online through email and pseudo-scientific websites. A NASA scientist tells the LA Times that two different teenagers have told him they are considering suicide to avoid facing the end of the earth. “‘I’m getting more and more questions from people who are upset and scared,’ he said. Some people say their children are refusing to eat.”

Because earth is about to be whacked by stealth-planet Nibiru.

The seeming ease with which significant numbers of Americans fall for conspiracy theories like the 2012 scare, despite clear evidence to the contrary, is a disturbing phenomenon, particularly in a democratic nation. The thought that large numbers of American voters are actually convinced that the government orchestrated 9/11, to pick one example, makes one slightly queasy. It’s true that popular delusions are hardly a new phenomenon, but surely in today’s age of widely available information such large numbers should not fall for claims so easily refuted?

The problem is that Americans are no longer taught how to think critically, how to evaluate an idea on its merits or lack thereof. Today’s education is almost entirely centered around accumulating information, rather than evaluating truth claims. (After all, it is intolerant to point out that someone else’s truth, isn’t.) Even at the university level, the educator’s job is to present students with a set of facts, and their job is to assimilate and remember those facts.

Having become accustomed to uncritically accepting the statements of authoritative figures, is it any wonder such habits persist beyond school? Politics becomes a battle of slogans, because we rarely think to look deeper and ask, “Why?” Internet rumors and conspiracy theories are given credence, because we have not been taught how to evaluate claims before accepting them.

Like any other skill, critical thinking must be taught and practiced before it can be used effectively to distinguish between the plausible and the implausible. In a world buzzing with an unprecedented supply of facts and information, claims and counterclaims, it is small wonder that unpracticed judgments are often less than reliable.