Thursday, December 28, 2006

Educating M.T. Suit

Educating M.T. Suit
By John Taylor; 2006 December 28
Over Christmess I caught some kind of fluey sleeping sickness and am
still only half recovered. Let us write something quick and easy for
now. Silvie asked me to explain this morning's Dilbert comic strip,
which goes like this: A new character is introduced with a nice suit but
no body. He says, "Hi, I am M.T. Suit. I am a man without substance. I
compensate by using buzzwords and attending meetings." We are then shown
a meeting where he demonstrates what he means. He spouts this
buzz-phrase, which was I believe first popularized by IBM: "We need to
sell solutions, not products." The boss looks on admiringly, thinking to
himself, "I like his style." I explained to Silvie the basic concept,
that this is a satire of the superficiality of business in particular
and the world of work in general, that a buzzword is a nice sounding
idea that after repetition not only loses its meaning, it actually
obstructs meaning by allowing unreflective non-entities like M.T. Suit
to shine in the eyes of others without having paid their dues by living
a sincere, reflective life.
Of course I do not need to explain that to Badi' list readers, do I? I
would though like to comment on why I think today's Scott Adams satire
is so scintillating. It looks at the same problem that the first and
most fundamental Baha'i principle addresses, the need to investigate
reality, seek truth, and never accept buzzwords or any other thought
substitute. How often do plans and accomplishments with real merit get
swept aside for what sounds good? How often do buzzwords and fake wisdom
elbow out reality? Very often, which is why the globe is heating up and
everywhere Adolph Nobody has so much sway, in spite of the fact that we
have more power and knowledge at our command than at any time in history.
A while back my bud Peter and I went into a new ginseng store on Upper
James and Rymal Road and got talking to the Japanese entrepreneur
running it. When it became evident that he had experimented for years
with the process of refining the ginseng featured in his establishment,
I said admiringly, "So, you are an inventor! That is wonderful." I was
surprised at his reaction. He was not only not pleased, he was genuinely
embarrassed. A Westerner would feign modesty, but this Easterner reacted
as if I had torn off his clothes. Later I recalled reading that
Easterners in the business world here are routinely passed over because
they truly value modesty and deprecate their own accomplishments. If you
fail to promote yourself and exaggerate your accomplishments in our
cutthroat business environment, you might as well kiss your career
goodbye. Buzzwords win out over reality every time.
Our educational system conditions us to competition from the day we get
out of Kindergarten. We are judged by a scale, and set upon one
another's throats. Cooperation skills count for nothing, just
comparative excellence. Trouble is, all that judging and marking we
undergo is time consuming and is getting very expensive. So now computer
programs have been devised that actually mark essays; not just multiple
choice exams but entire essays. How can a machine assign a mark without
ever having understood a word of what is written? Apparently, all it
considers is diction, how that student's choice of words fits in
statistically with older, model essays deemed by human markers to have
answered the question well. For a couple of years SAT scores and essays
written at the college level have been marked without ever being read by
human eyes.
I find this gut-wrenchingly astonishing, perplexing, for the same reason
that Silvie found it hard to believe that a suit without a body could
impress a boss by spouting platitudes. If the trend continues it will
soon be possible for a student to enter the work world conditioned
throughout their education by machines, not people. Each will truly be
an empty suit, able to spout the correct buzzwords in the right order.
It will be a generation of word choice experts highly skilled at
pretending to know. I find that deeply, deeply disturbing. An entire
graduating class with cap and gowns but no bodies at all, much less
souls. "What profiteth it a man to have gained the world...?"
I suspect that the entire scheme of examinations and marking throughout
school is fatally flawed, every bit as flawed as the boss's assessments
in business and the world of work. Marks are subject to the fallacy of
false precision, demonstrated by the old joke of the student summer-term
museum tour guide who declares to his listeners that a fossil is a
billion years and three months old. Why? Because it was a billion years
old when he started working there in the spring... Similar false
precision implies that a student with a mark of 73 percent is somehow
better than one with 72 percent, and both are better than another with
71 percent. All that proves is that the marker, like the museum guide,
is an M.T. Suit.
How would a cooperative, non-competitive system work? How would it teach
reciprocal principles like, "Judge not that ye be not judged"? Some say
that that teachers should give only pass or fail grades, leave it at
that, and not attempt to judge finer than the human eye can see. Leave
the fallacy of false precision to computer teachers and markers. Go
ahead, use automated teachers and markers, but only to be sure that all
prerequisites are complete, that every student who walks into class at
the start of the course is prepared and qualified. Once students start
dealing with human beings, let all be cooperative. Let overall
performance of the class be judged, not individuals.
After all, that is how it works most often in the real world. Entire
companies profit or go bankrupt, and large laboratories make discoveries
or do not as corporate entities; rarely are any individuals entirely to
blame or worthy of all the credit.
The overall goal of all educators, be they human teachers or software
tutors, should be to teach people how to create a workplace atmosphere
where a self-deprecating, humble Easterner will succeed and thrive
without being pushed out by a braggart or an M.T. Suit. I am not saying,
then, that artificial teachers and markers should be shut down once the
human-to-human classes start, just that at that point they should turn
away from suits and turn to persons -- or, in Jesus' terminology, from
washing the outside of the dish to purifying the inside. That is, the
cyber-tutor should then turn to teaching virtues and assisting with the
cooperative skills needed for teamwork.
A good education would teach students to work out conflicts one-on-one
before they affect group progress. It would teach them to teach one
another by setting the brightest students to helping the slowest, since
all succeed or all fail, as a group, just like in real workplace
conditions. How to do that?
How about this. One's cybernetic tutor can be designed to interact
freely with the automated tutors of fellow students; it might, for
example, conduct surveys to find out what the co-workers working closest
with him really think about the student. How large is the disconnect
between what the student thinks he is projecting and what others really
think of him? If the programs are sufficiently well designed, a
dysfunctional student's own tutor would bounce him out of a course
before he retards the overall progress of the class. At the same time,
it would not be in any student's best interest to casually complain or
put down other students, even anonymously through the proxy of their
cyber-tutor, according to the principle, "judge not that ye be not
judged." Complaints and backbiting are like an autoimmune disease in the
body, the problem is not the outside threat but a tendency to overreact
violently. Yet no progress or improvement is possible without criticism
and stable defenses. A good marking system would take the need for both
into account.
I think that such dynamic, cooperative assessment in school is not only
the root of better education but also of good government. We all admire
the good aspects of democracy without realizing that in essence it is a
contradiction, utterly impossible.
"In the strict sense of the term, there has never been a true democracy,
and there never will. It is contrary to the natural order that the
greater number should govern and the smaller number be governed. One can
hardly imagine that all the people would sit permanently in an assembly
to deal with public affairs; and one can easily see that they could not
appoint commissions for that purpose without the form of administration
changing." (Rousseau, Social Contract, 112)
The few will always have to work on behalf of the many, and the many
will have little direct contact with them. The trick is to be sure that
it is the right few are dedicated to the good of all and know how to
serve them. A cooperative educational system would not only sort the
wheat from the chaff but also teach each and all early on how to sort
for themselves. It would raise up good teachers and judges by teaching
them how and when to criticize, and how and when to encourage and uplift
their peers. The invention of computers and open systems will soon allow
mediation without separation, something formerly inconceivable.
"He who makes the law knows better than anyone how it should be executed
and interpreted. So it might seem that there could be no better
constitution than one which united the executive power with the
legislative; in fact, this very union makes that form of government
deficient in certain respects, for things which ought to be kept apart
are not, and the prince and the sovereign being the same person
constitute, so to speak, a government without government." (Id.)
As you know, the commonwealth of Baha'u'llah does combine legislative
with the executive branch of government. This is because it envisages a
time when technology will allow us to both separate and combine in a
single creative process. This would allow guardians to guard the
guardians, and governors to govern themselves, by means of cybernetic
proxies. This, we are told by the Lord of Hosts Himself, is how God's
Word Itself works.
"I testify that no sooner had the First Word proceeded, through the
potency of Thy will and purpose, out of His mouth, and the First Call
gone forth from His lips than the whole creation was revolutionized, and
all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth were stirred to
the depths. Through that Word the realities of all created things were
shaken, were divided, separated, scattered, combined and reunited,
disclosing, in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom,
entities of a new creation, and revealing, in the unseen realms, the
signs and tokens of Thy unity and oneness. Through that Call Thou didst
announce unto all Thy servants the advent of Thy most great Revelation
and the appearance of Thy most perfect Cause." (Baha'u'llah, Prayers and
Meditations, 295)

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