Back to School!

Classes start on Monday. I knew that intellectually, of course, but I had it brought home to me a few days ago when I innocently drove onto the campus, only to find a traffic jam and crossing guards directing the cars. Students were moving into the dorms, you see.

Higher education is beset with problems nowadays, and I can recite the litany as well as any faculty member. But for all the legitimate complaints, the bottom line is that I still think I have the best job in the world. I get out of bed in the morning excited to go to work, and the upsides of my job vastly outweigh the downsides.

Right now the big “back to school” news in higher education is this letter, sent by the University of Chicago to incoming freshman. The letter takes a strong stance in favor of free speech, and against political correctness, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other buzzwords.

I see that Jerry Coyne, on the faculty at Chicago, thinks this is great. P. Z. Myers, in a histrionic post, explains why he is less impressed. Personally, I’m mostly yawning. I’ve been working with and around college students for long enough to know that most of Chicago’s students, if they read that letter at all, will just roll their eyes and say, “Whatever.”

Entering college students are mostly children with no real life experience of any sort. In a flash they go from the prison-like atmosphere of high school, to the all out free-for-all of college. For the first time in their lives they have no adult supervision, and no one hovering over them to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow. They are given this freedom at precisely the time in their lives when they are becoming politically aware, and are realizing that they can actually affect some social change if they are willing to undertake the effort. And they are still teenagers, possessed of all the cockiness and arrogance endemic to the species.

Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised that college activism is sometimes superficial and poorly thought out. Sometimes a student’s sense of outraged self-righteousness overcomes his good sense. Perhaps they overreact to a “microagression” or reduce a complex issue to a simplistic caricature.

Those are not the students I worry about. At least they care about something beyond their own immediate social life and have the will to try to right the wrongs that they find.

But if you think that students today are a horde of ideologues spoiling for a fight then you have completely the wrong idea. The real problem is exactly the opposite. It’s apathy. Most students are barely aware of anything beyond finding a party go to on Saturday night. Far from being afraid of my students, I often find that they are a little too deferential and obsequious.

Political correctness is a problem on college campuses, but the magnitude of the problem has been vastly overblown. Any time you hear about an incident that conforms perfectly to the right-wing stereotype of college campuses, be very skeptical. You almost certainly are not getting the whole story.

Did you hear the one about the Emery students who were so traumatized by seeing pro-Trump slogans on campus that they asked for, and were granted, counseling? It got widely reported, but it was mostly made up. The reality was that a large number of racially-charged, pro-Trump slogans were placed right near areas where large numbers of Black and Latino students congregated. In response, a small group of students staged a rally.

Puts a different cast on the story, wouldn’t you say?

Or how about the one where hordes of rampaging Oberlin students were so scandalized by the low-quality of the cafeteria’s ethnic offerings, they were close to rioting over the racial insensitivity of it all? Again, mostly nonsense. What actually happened was that food services was claiming to serve “authentic” ethnic dishes. In reality, the dishes were not just poor versions of ethnic fare, but dishes that had little in common with the real thing. So a few students tried to do something about it by staging rallies and protests. Food services, for their part, met with some of the students to see what could be done.

The horror of it all! Oh this mad descent into political correctness!

And so it goes. Be very skeptical of horror stories about hypersensitive college students or about political correctness run amok. Almost inevitably, when you get the full facts everything seems a bit more nuanced and interesting. I sometimes come away thinking the students were wrong or that they overreacted, but I rarely come away thinking they had no legitimate point at all.

I say almost inevitably, because after you clear out the many incidents of wolf-crying, there remains a residue of actual horror stories. There are cases where faculty have had Title IX investigations foisted on them on obviously frivolous grounds, or cases like the great Yale Halloween costume fracas where things really did get out of hand. So, yes, there is a problem. But in the list of problems that menace higher education this one is pretty far down.

Look folks, college life isn’t very complicated. Ninety-nine percent of it is doughty faculty desperately trying to spark a little interest and engagement in the students, while the students for their part are more interested in socializing and sports. The picture of courageous, free-thinking students being intimidated and indoctrinated by fanatical faculty is a near-perfect inversion of reality. A more accurate picture is faculty trying to get students to challenge and argue back at them, while the students just want to be given a litany of facts to memorize for the test.

All I want from my students is that they do the problems right when test time comes around. If they pull that off I will be so delighted, I won’t give even one second’s thought to whether or not they are voting for Trump.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeffrey Shallit
    August 27, 2016

    I think this assessment is pretty accurate.
    Of the students that come by my office to ask questions, only a vanishingly small fraction involve some intellectual point. The overwhelming majority are questions about what will be on the test, how to study for the test, how they can be exempted from some course requirement, whether they can hand in something late, and so forth. Even whether I have a stapler they can borrow. Sad.

  2. #2 Don A in Pennsyltucky
    State College, PA
    August 27, 2016

    I still don’t get what the foofaraw regarding “PC” is all about.
    What do people have against being Polite and Considerate?

  3. #3 MNb
    August 27, 2016

    “I think this assessment is pretty accurate.”
    This assessment was very accurate during the seven years I went to college in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Of course there were politically engaged students – I was one of them and so is my son now – but they were the vocal exceptions.
    Then again I was always bad at memorizing facts, so I was one of those students you would have made very unhappy by giving such a litany.
    Even now I’m not capable of memorizing cellphone numbers – 8 digits is simply too much. Again I’m proud that my son (who’s better at it) is also too lazy for such work.

  4. #4 Tom Snow
    August 27, 2016

    Thanks for this; this is pretty much the same way I feel and I was starting to think I was the only one.

  5. #5 eric
    August 27, 2016

    Its something of the ‘shark attack’ phenomenon; with 360 million people in the country, the news can run all day, every day, on horror stories that are actually quite rare. FIRE does good work. I really liked “Unlearning Liberty”. But as a lawyer, he sees the worst cases of unconstitutional restrictions on a regular basis. Its a skewed picture of reality.

    Nevertheless, I like the Chicago statement. Not only is it a useful reminder for those rare students who may take things too far, but it would seem to be the sort of thing you would approve of as ‘sparking a little interest and engagement.’

    I won’t give even one second’s thought to whether or not they are voting for Trump.

    My understanding is, in this case, the statement and people like Jerry are trying to support just that sort of tolerance.

  6. #6 eric
    August 27, 2016

    I think this assessment is pretty accurate.

    It was my experience too. However, I went out with a woman from Smith a couple of times, and took a couple trips to Yale, and both experiences made me realize that its probably wrong to generalize from one campus to another. Colleges are by their nature something of a self-selected population, and my guess is that neither my alma maters, nor JMU, nor U. of Waterloo are schools where the applicants are a self-selected group of very left-leaving political activists.

  7. #7 Nihar D
    August 27, 2016

    Hey Professor Rosenhouse!
    I know this is completely out of the blue, and pretty much unrelated, but I thought this was one of the best ways to contact you. In your Progressive Monty Hall Problem paper, did you ever consider simplifying a nested fraction to prove the 1-1/e limit, or is it just too difficult to do?

    Thank you!

  8. #8 Kevin
    Nyc
    August 28, 2016

    Well, you should know that the Taco Bowl served at the Trump Tower Grill is absolutely 1000% authentic and is, in fact, the best Taco bowl served anywhere on earth! Hispanics love them! And me, the real trump!

  9. #9 Another Matt
    August 31, 2016

    This looks like it might be fun. I’ve been looking forward to these all summer.

    http://educ.jmu.edu/~rosenhjd/POTW/Fall16/homepage.html

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 1, 2016

    I’ll try not to disappoint! POTW will get started next week.

  11. #11 eric
    September 2, 2016

    Another Matt – since you are pining for the POTW, here’s a logic puzzle published (or recycled) on 538 recently:

    You have a camel and 3,000 bananas. (Because of course you do.) You would like to sell your bananas at the bazaar 1,000 miles away. Your loyal camel can carry at most 1,000 bananas at a time. However, it has an insatiable appetite and quite the nose for bananas — if you have bananas with you, it will demand one banana per mile traveled. In the absence of bananas on his back, it will happily walk as far as needed to get more bananas, loyal beast that it is. What should you do to get the largest number of bananas to the bazaar? What is that number?

  12. #12 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    I knew this problem in middle school as Corey the Camel. Corey needed a banana every mile no matter what. This is an interesting variant – thanks.

  13. #13 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    Speaking of bananas, here’s another classic from middle school or high school:

    A rope over the top of a fence has the same length on each side, and weighs one-third of a pound per foot. On one end hangs a monkey holding a banana, and on the other end a weight equal to the weight of the monkey. The banana weighs 2 ounces per inch. The length of the rope in feet is the same as the age of the monkey, and the weight of the monkey in ounces is as much as the age of the monkey’s mother. The combined ages of the monkey and its mother are 30 years. One-half the weight of the monkey, plus the weight of the banana is one-fourth the sum of the weights of the rope and the weight. The monkey’s mother is one-half as old as the monkey will be when it is three times as old as its mother was when she was one-half as old as the monkey will be when it is as old as its mother will be when she is four times as old as the monkey was when it was twice as old as its mother was when she was one-third as old as the monkey was when it was as old as its mother was when she was three times as old as the monkey was when it was one-fourth as old as it is now. How long is the banana?

  14. #14 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    In the camel variant posted here, the answer depends on how the camel’s demand works. Does the camel ask for a banana in advance of traveling a mile (or fraction of a mile) with bananas on its back, or does it ask for a banana after every complete mile it travels with bananas on its back? In the latter case, does that demand reset for each trip with bananas, or does he keep a tally of total miles traveled (including fractions), and charge one banana after each total mile?

    In the middle case (the stupidest camel compatible with the description), you can get all 3000 bananas there, so long as you never make a trip of a mile or longer. If you go a step further than 0.999 miles on each trip, you can move all 3000 in 3003 total banana-laden trips.

  15. #15 eric
    September 2, 2016

    I worked it assuming the banana must come out of the 1,000 cargo load (so the banana for the first mile of the trip could not be supplied from the starting-point stock and the banana for the last mile could not be supplied from any end-point stock). I also worked it using non-fractional miles, and didn’t consider the option that the camel works for free as long he only goes 5279.999999… feet per leg of the trip.

    So I guess you could say that the way I worked it, the camel demands his banana for the mile after he’s walked 1 Plank length of that mile. 🙂 The way I figure it, there are four solutions that get you the same maximum number of bananas to the market. However, one of those solutions allows the merchant to relax and eat two bananas during part of the trip, another allows the merchant to eat one, and two of the solutions don’t let him/her eat any. So I deem the 2-banana-snack solution to be optimal. 🙂

  16. #16 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    In for a Planck Length, in for a Mile.

    Yeah, see this is why word problems so often suck. Bad assumptions make for ambiguities.

    With your assumptions I can’t immediately get more than 667, but these tend to be tricky, so I won’t submit that as my final answer until I’ve had some time to think about it.

  17. #17 eric
    September 2, 2016

    Hmmm I’m getting one less banana than you. Maybe I did my simple addition wrong.

  18. #18 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    1) take 1000 bananas to mile 667 and drop 333.
    2) go back and take 1000 to mile 666 and drop 334.
    3) go back and take the last 1000, stop at 666 and pick up your 334 (you now have 668).
    4) take the 668 bananas one mile to 667, lose a banana to the camel, and pick up 333 for a total of 1000.
    5) take the 1000 bananas the remaining 333 miles and deposit 667 at the end.

  19. #19 Sean T
    September 2, 2016

    I think I have a higher number:

    If you take 1000 bananas to mile 500, you have 500 left. Go back and repeat two more times for the other 2000 at the start and you have 1,500 bananas at mile 500. Take 1000 of these to mile 750 (250 mile trip). You now have 750. Go back and repeat for the 500 remaining and you’ll add 250 to your total at mile 750, giving 1000 bananas at mile 750. Take these to the bazaar and you will be left with 750 to sell.

  20. #20 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    Yep, that just occurred to me too. You’ve done it here by walking 4000 miles total. You can do it in 3500:

    1) Drop 250 bananas at 750 (1500 miles round trip)
    2) Drop 500 bananas at 500 (1000 miles round trip)
    3) Pick up your 500 bananas at 500 and your 250 at 750, and you’ll have 750 at the end (1000 miles one way)

  21. #21 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    Nevermind, I think I counted 500 miles twice. I’ll plead distraction by Thomas the Tank Engine. 🙂

  22. #22 Sean T
    September 2, 2016

    Here’s the optimal solution (I think):

    Consider the mathematically equivalent problem of maximizing bananas sold at the bazaar given that you have three camels, each able to carry 1000 bananas and each comsuming 1 banana per mile while loaded. Now you would load each with 1000 bananas and start the trip. After 333 miles you notice that the camels have eaten 999 bananas. Assuming you now eat one there are 2000 left. Let one camel loose and load the other two with 1000 bananas. After 500 more miles the camels have eaten 1000 more bananas leaving 1000. Turn another camel loose and load the remaining one with those bananas. You have traveled 833 miles, so you are 167 miles from the bazaar. You reach the bazaar with 833 bananas.

    Obviously then, you must load your single camel go 333 miles and leave the remaining bananas. Repeat two more times and eat a banana. Load the camel again and go 500 miles then return to mile 333 and do it again. You are at mile 833 with 1000 bananas. Load those on the camel, go to the bazaar and sell the 833 bananas you have left.

  23. #23 Sean T
    September 2, 2016

    Here’s another that may or may not proove interesting. I actually thought of this myself while playing around on a chess app pn my phone. I had gotten the CPU opponent down to just a king while I had my original queen and five pawns. Just for the heck of it I decided to promote my pawns so I’d end up with six queens.

    Of course I found I had to be careful to not checkmate or stalemate black before promoting all the pawns. It got me thinking, If white has N queens on a standard chess board against only a black king, what is the maximum value for N such that black has a legal move. Chess rules for movements apply, but the pieces may be placed arbitrarily and the position need not be a legal chess position. In particular, any N>9 is not a legal chess position, but I did not intend to limit the answer to N<=9.

    I know the problem has a solution; for N=1 many positions exist for which black has a legal move. For N=63 black is obviously checkmated. Therefore there must be 1<N<63 such that there is a position where black can move, but for N+1 no such position exists.

    Like I said, I am not sure if this will be interesting or not, but give it a shot if you want.

  24. #24 Another Matt
    United States
    September 2, 2016

    Dammit, you beat me again. That’s the course I’ve been working on, too, but I’ve been trying to do it without sacrificing the one banana.

  25. #25 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    I think the only way to do it is assume that the camel only asks for a banana after it’s traveled a total banana-laden mile, and keeps a tab between trips. Then you can get the first three loads to 333 1/3, the next two to 833 1/3. Then from there you only need to travel 166 2/3 miles, leaving you with 834 bananas and a third of a mile to go before the camel would have demanded its wage.

  26. #26 Sean T
    September 2, 2016

    @AM

    Or you could take the camel 334 miles on each of his first three trips, then you pull out the two bananas you forgot you has in your backpack giving you 2000 at mile 334, 1000 at mile 834 and 834 to sell at the bazaar. Of course that’s cheating?, not to mention suboptimal since you could proceed as before arrive with 833 and then remember the two you packed giving 835 to sell. (And you even got to eat one along the way as an sdded bonus!)

  27. #27 Sean T
    September 2, 2016

    More seriously though you can do it without eating a banana but it doesn’t help. You can go 334 miles on your initial trip leaving 1998 bananas. Next load 999 bananas and go 499 miles then repeat. As before you end up at mile 833 with 1000 bananas so your final total is unchanged.

  28. #28 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    Well, but that’s a good question anyway: how many bananas can you carry? Surely you could keep the one banana in your hand and feed it to your camel. I’ve never tried carrying 100 bananas for 100 miles, but if I’m making this journey on foot with my camel through a desert, perhaps our assumptions about what I’m able to do are not realistic.

  29. #29 Another Matt
    September 2, 2016

    The version I linked to has a solution, but if you haven’t looked at it yet, it’s fun. The idea is exactly the same except the camel has to eat a banana every mile whether or not it’s got bananas on its back, so it has to save some for its return journeys.

  30. #30 ron taylor
    September 3, 2016

    It’s important to note that there really is something working in the minds of conservatives and libertarians (really the same thing in practice) that can turn any utterance by a liberal in any context into an insidious direct call for a Stalinist government crackdown on mom and apple pie. It’s actually the thing that unites both those groups even moreso than laissez faire economics. The rich deep history of violent authoritarianism on the right just never upsets them in remotely the same way even if its much much worse. — remember when presidential front-runner Ben Carson said the government should crack down on “radical” professors on campus? Not a whole lot of backlash. Any professor or student on a campus says anything about microaggressions and it spontaneously generates approximately 20,000 hysterical red meat articles through reason.com and the entire conservative media bubble.

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