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codelling
The best book I read last year, and I’ve read it three times now, was The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

All two of my repeat visitors may be wondering as why they have not seen a review of this book. The simple answer is that the themes and messages were so fundamental and altering of one’s world view that I’m still trying to get it straight in my head and I worry that by writing a half-hearted review I will not do the book justice.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is similarly dense; however, this is a book with a belief and a wrong that it feels needs to be righted. A mission if you will. The subject is a contentious one; that making academic spaces places of intellectual and emotional safety does a disservice to the purpose of a university, to the students themselves, and to society as a whole. However, this is not a rightwing attack on the “snowflakes” of the left and the colleges of the liberal elites. The Coddling of the American Mind is a well thought out analysis on what is going wrong in our academic institutions, and therefore with our students, and how both sides of the political spectrum need to understand their part in how we ended up here. The book is also a plea for why seats of learning must change. As perhaps the most vivid analogy in the book states:

“Students are treated like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind. The goal of a Socratic education should be to turn them into fires, which thrive on the wind.”

This is a book written by liberal academics who care about the academic world and the students who undertake a college education. While the authors lay blame at a number of doors, including the left AND the right, it also offers up potential solutions and gives credit where credit is due to universities who are resisting slide towards “safety-ism.”
An area where the book really breaks new ground, in my opinion, is its definition of Generation Z or as it likes to call them iGen (short for Internet Generation). This is not the first generation to have internet access; however, it was the generation that always experienced having the internet in the palm of their hand, and always has had Facebook.

“This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving.”

I’m not a fan of the handwringing that seems to take place over millennials these days, but the tangible differences in information flow, and how iGen is exposed to the world and therefore responds to it, makes a lot on sense and of course is a significant cause for concern. The book also uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy to show just how out of tune the thinking of some students has become.

The Coddling of the American Mind treads some of the same ground as Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan (which I reviewed here) however its argument goes much further than Facebook and Social Media alone. With Universities bending to the will of students and parents, because they consider them clients, what is getting lost is critical thinking.

This is an important book for society as whole, but particularly for anyone in the academic world or who deals with the students it produces.

Which is probably everyone.

(Clicking on the image above will take you to Amazon where a tiny percentage goes to help my movie and book buying habit.)

 

Statistics, standardized testing, crime prediction, Google, Facebook, “Moneyballing,” insurance risk analysis, and mathematical models all have one thing in common; they can all fall into the catch all term of “big data.”

There are very few parts of modern life that are not impacted by big data; for better or for worse. The mathematical models that harness vast amounts of data are used for everything:  to determine who should receive a bank loan, which teachers should be fired, whether to hire a particular worker, where police should patrol, which colleges are the best to apply to, which students should offered a place in a college, how sports are played, and even the sentences that convicted criminals should receive.

Some of these mathematical models are transparent.  The model featured in the book and movie “Moneyball” (you can read my review of the movie here) would be an example of a transparent model. The data and the rules that lead to the model’s conclusions are open and available for everyone to see. However, more and more, the models are opaque and it is these models that Ms. O’Neil goes after with devastating logic and passion.

The fundamental issue with these opaque models, other than a lack of openness and therefore the impossibility to challenge their assumptions, is that they can suffer from a lack of feedback or create self-reinforcing feedback loops. Because the models are opaque, many people may not even realize that are in a mathematical model, or that the model is partially or wholly responsible for their circumstance.

As Ms. O’Neil states in her introduction: “Without feedback; however, a statistical engine can continue spinning out faulty and damaging analysis while never learning from its mistakes. Many of the W.M.D’s (Weapons of Math Destruction) I’ll be discussing in this book … behave like that. They define their own reality and use it to justify their results. This type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive, and very common.”

Ms. O’Neil does go to some great lengths to stress that a lot of these models have been built with the intention of being fairer. The idea being that removing flawed human beings from decisions that could be made by mathematical models would remove their biases and faulty logic from the progress. However, it is these same flawed humans that are creating the models and without proper feedback, monitoring, and proper understanding of statistics, the models themselves can cause far worse problems than the ones they are supposed to solve.

Written for the layperson, about a subject that would cause most peoples eyes to glaze over unless written by Ms. O’Neil, this is a great and important book and one that I feel will become only more important as mathematical models become even more entwined in our lives. This is also an important book for those is position to make use of mathematical models in their business as there can be significant pressure to accept the word of a program when we should be asking some pretty hard and detailed questions; not only to ensure that what we are getting is correct, but also to ensure that we are not contributing to the Weapons of Math Destruction problem.

Garbage in – Garbage out, has never been more apt.  

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