Evaluation entanglement and immunity to change

Back on January 5 (doesn't that seem like another age of Middle Earth by now?), Cal Newport wrote about what he termed "evaluation entanglement:

  • Evaluation entanglement. Keeping your productivity commitments all tangled in your head can cause problems when a strategy fails. Without more structure to the productivity portion of you life, it’s too easy for your brain to associate that single failure with a failure of your commitments as a whole, generating a systemic reduction in motivation.

Newport was writing in the context of New Year's "productivity tweaks," or what were once called resolutions. They usually go by the boards in a few days or weeks.

So far as I can tell, Newport borrowed "evaluation entanglement" from the physics of entangled states (Newport is a scientist) and description/evaluation entanglement in the work of Hilary Putnam (Newport is also a philosopher) –and both of these clusters disciplines are pertinent and informative for Newport's primary intellectual interest in computer science, distributed algorithms that help agents work together.  

Putnam's work on fact/value entanglement liberated "thick ethical concepts" that lie under sentences such as Nero is cruel from the straightjacket of notions of fact and value judgement, so that Nero is cruel can express a value judgement and a descriptive judgement at the same time.  The entanglement of facts and values is a characteristics of those many statements that" do not acquire value from the outside, from the subject's perspective, for example, but facts that, under certain conditions, have a recognizable and objective value." (Martinez Vidal, Cancela Silva, and Rivas Monroy, Following Putnam's Trail, ISBN 9789042023970, 2008, page 291)

Newport's point is simpler, but lies in the shadow of Putnam's entanglement of facts and values: a person can associate her or his single failure in one element or commitment (to productivity, in this context) with the failure of his or her commitments as a whole –and that this pervasive sense of value can generate "a systemic reduction in motivation."  In other words: I want to be productive in manners or projects A, B, C, and D, "and if I fail at C, I fail at the rest, and my life rots."  The fact of failure with C generates an evaluative entanglement that describes my whole life.

A life so described needs to be described in much thicker terms, however.  Such failure is very rarely simple, straightforward failure.

This is where the work of Robert Kagan and Lisa Laskow Lahey at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is very helpful.  They have focused on immunity to change: both individual's immunity, and organizational immunity.  In their book Immunity to Change, and their large online class (I hesitate to call it MOOC) Including Ourselves in the Change Equation,  they explore and describe the significant difference between undertaking technical means to solve adaptive challenges –when change is not simply a matter of altering well-known behaviors and thought, but involves adapting thinking and finding new mental and emotional complexities at work.  

Based upon adaptive theories of mind and organizational theories of change, Kagan and Lahey take their students on a journey of thinking new thoughts, or telling their stories in a new way –literally, changing the narrative in such as a manner that both visible commitments to change, and corresponding hidden, competing commitments that block change, can reveal a person's (or organization's) big assumptions about the world.  By holding up those big assumptions to the light of understanding and reflection, persons can question effectively and adaptively whether such assumptions in fact are valid.

I took this course last Fall, and found it to be a very rich experience.  I won't reveal what my own visible commitments, hidden competing commitments, and big assumptions were –only to say that I was working on a life-long issue that affects every relationship and commitment in my life.  My goal for change and understanding was something that definitely passed the "spouse test" –"oh yeah, that's you one hundred percent."

Kagan's and Lahey's metaphor one foot on the gas, the other foot on the brake pretty well summed up what I had been finding in attempting changes in my life and character.  That metaphor invokes neatly an "evaluation entanglement" — both a descriptive judgement and value judgement in the same phrase.  The "thick ethical concept" is a philosophical way of telling a story –telling a narrative of your own life (or your organization's life) that frames the descriptions and the values in a certain way of thinking.  Adapting such thinking to new complexities, and changing the story by expanding and deepening it, is the core structure that liberates a person, and changes and organization, from taking one example of failure as "failure of your commitments as a whole." Such increasing mental complexity and adaptive thinking is critical to avoid "generating a systemic reduction in motivation."  There's nothing that defeats a person or an organization quite like the experience of seeking change but blocking change at the same time, one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.  What is produced is a great deal of heat, significant atmospheric pollution, very little traction, and no progress.

Navigating the shoals of evaluative entanglement requires complex thinking and a certain level of lived experience.  There is no app for this.  But there is a course, and I recommend Including Ourselves in the Change Equation whole-heartedly to anyone who really wants to change.

Individual Learning & “Boring Old Books”

This post refers back to the post of May 14, 2010,  the post of August 25, 2010, and the post of January 30, 2011.

In those posts, I mentioned Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia) and his article Individual Knowledge and the Internet.  Sanger analyzes three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.  "First is the idea that the instant availability of knowledge online makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary."  The second strand claims that "individual learning is outmoded, and that "social learning" is the cornerstone of "Learning 2.0"  The third two strand asks, "is participating in online communities via social media a replacement for reading boring old books?"

Of course this question is either ironic or prejudiced –the latter if we assume that Sanger thinks that books are truly outmoded; the former if we understand (correctly) that he does not.  The question as formulated does go to the nub of an argument by certain popular writers, however, that books are in fact outmoded, old-fashiong, and non-interactive.  Books are alleged to "constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual."  Clay Shirky, the internet theorist who always has something novel and fashionable to say, has alleged we are now experiencing a profound shift in culture in which an older "monolithic, historic, elite culture" is passing away in favor of "a diverse, contemporary, and vulgar one."  This will entail altering "our historic models for the summa bonum [sic] of educated life."

Shirky's assumptions are breathtaking in their naiveté: since when is traditional Western thinking monolithic? I seem to recall that Socrates had some remarkably sharp things to say about his rivals, as did Peter Abelard, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Virginia Woolf and other men and women who collectively make a "canon" (not even to pass to "the canon").  Shirky truly betrays the shallowness of his thinking when he writes, "… no one reads War and Peace.  It's too long, and not so interesting."  He does admit that his observation "is no less sacrilegious for being true."

Interesting to whom?  I just spoke with a young Russian-American student who was vividly alive with reading War and Peace (in both English and Russian, his case), as well as The Brothers Karamazov –surely another book "too long, and not so interesting."  One might waspishly add that interesting is as interesting does –or does not, in Shirky's case.  His argument boils down to the Sophists' argument as presented by Socrates in various Platonic dialogues, notably Symposium, that the popular course will determine what is right.  Ah, social networking, Athenian-style.  But I suppose this is simply to appeal to "monolithic, historic, elite culture."  No age lacks those who articulate obvious wisdom, the wisdom of the crowds, and tickles those crowds with it –not ancient Athens, or 19th-century Paris, or 21st-century New York University.  Unfortunately Shirky's name always reminds me of Tolkien's Sharkey –the Shire-folks' name for Saruman, that speaker of half-truths extraordinaire.

The nub of the argument seems to be that books are boring –well, because they are.  And boring cannot stand in the age of constant distraction.  The distractions of social networks, online communities of learning, and "learning how to learn" –as opposed to learning any actual content– demand a rejection of "static, one-way conversation" of the author to reader.

What a complete misunderstanding of the role of a subtle writer to a subtle reader!  Think of seminal works of a variety of discourses –J. S. Mill's The Subjection of Women, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Karl Marx' Das Capital, even Ayn Rand– could anyone read those texts and not engage in response and dialogue in the course of reading?  Is the conversation really so "static" and "one-way"?  Isn't one goal of liberal learning in fact to learn how to engage a writer, how to recognize strong points, weak points, and no points at all?  Complex, dense minds require training on complex, dense texts whose meanings can be multi-layered and sometimes even self-contradictory.  So much for monoliths.

This is an advocacy piece: I am advocating liberal learning in the face of so much that seeks to depersonalize young students today.  I want my young students to learn to speak with their own voices, even when their voices profoundly disagree with my own.  I am advocating that the traditional ideals of liberal arts education –independent judgement, imagination, care with texts, the ability to doubt both the wisdom of the crowds and the wisdom of the solitary individual– matter intensely, and are not only valuable to our future, but essential to being human in the world.

The educational goals of Internet boosters –communal learning, substitution of crowd-consciousness for individual memory, the unique roll of co-created group knowledge– point to a future which will be profoundly illiberal.  What in such educationalist dreams might prevent the rise of another Fascism?  To be sure, German liberal education did not prevent the rise of a Fascism but at least some Germans, and many other people with them, witnessesed against it.  And ultimately it did not prevail.   The prejudices of a digital hive or tribe could be profoundly unsettling –just ask any member of any minority.   The educational methods of profound remembering –including, but not limited to, some memorization; the profound importance of individual learning with an individual voice; the importance of critical, dense, and complex texts– this is what a liberal arts university stands for, what a library enacts, and what librarianship at its boldest embodies.  It is a noble calling in an ironic age.