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Long before postmodern architecture celebrated the "decorated shed": a pretty facade for persons fleetingly to look at as they go into a building with banal spaces inside for them to spend [expend...] their lives in[fn.3a] --, hubcaps decorated banal stamped metal automobile wheels. There always were wire wheels, but they were expensive (yes, there were premium hubcaps that looked like wire wheels!). On bottom-of-the-line "standard" car models, a partial hubcap that covered only the center of the wheel was standard, and full wheel cover hubcaps were an extra cost option. Frequently, there were several hubcap designs, at increasing prices, available as optional equipment for a particular car model.
Progress: Today, even many less-than-luxury models come with die-cast alloy wheels, or "styled steel wheels" that are presentable in themselves so they can forego hubcaps.
"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works...." Show your true wheels! --When I lived in Maryland, I seem to remember legislation was proposed (ca. 1972) to require restaurants to specify on their menus what items were canned or frozen. The restaurant business community lobbied against the bill, and it did not pass. I wondered: If restaurant owners and chefs truly believe that canned and frozen foods are so good that they want to serve them to their customers, surely they should welcome opportunity to advertise acting on their principles, and, thereby, to win greater admiration and gratitude from their customers:"Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller [/Jones/Bunker/...]! We are pleased to offer, as our special tonite, FoodCo. portion-control frozen Chicken Kiev. No, sir and madame, not any of that fresh stuff!"
I also seem to remember (ca. 1980) a student's parent telling me that part of the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America (the other "CIA"...), is learning how to make canned peas presentable in a fine restaurant....
You may have noticed, dear reader, that we haven't here even begun to address the question whether persons should need to use automobiles (with or without hubcaps...) to get to work and other core life activities, instead of living near to these things so that they could walk. [An early 1970s Democratic Presidential hopeful, Fred Harris of Oklahoma, proposed this idea, but he didn't even get his party's nomination.]
Eric Sevareid once said (on the CBS Evening News):
America has taken the automobile into its heart,
and the automobile has taken over America.
In hubcaps we trust.
Read how gas guzzling threatens America's national security.
Learn more folkways of American life.
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|Prototypes and mockups|
In my 26 year work experience as a computer programmer, I have noticed that, sometimes, "business people" commit their companies to projects that, to them, look straightforward, but, "underneath", are much more difficult to implement. One thing that can contribute to delaying their being disabused of their delusions is if somebody cobbles together a "prototype" for them to show to the customers, which, in fact, is not a prototype but a mockup.
What's the difference? I define a prototype as an implementation which may be hand-done, lack a lot of functionality and/or be put together in ways that ultimately prove unworkable for full-scale production, but which, in some plausible way, actually implements key parts of the proposed system. The automobile analogy would be a hand-built car that has a real engine and is driveable. A mockup, on the other hand, is like the clay design models that the automobile companies make: They are not driveable at all, but, if "finished" (painted, hubcaps affixed -- see above, etc.), may look like real cars.
The danger is that the business people fancy the mockup is closer to a duck than a decoy, and proudly show "the prototype" to customers, who may not have opportunity to learn the details, and thus, in their turn, come to think that what now they see is what soon they will get ("Oooh! Ahhh!..."). The denouement, often, is that the workers back in the plant (office, etc.) get to play real-life roles in a virtual [i.e., it's not really a film] avatar of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.[fn.10a] Dulce et decorum...?
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|"I'm sorry, but the computer requires you to do it this way."|
This is one of the most trenchant criticisms of computer systems: That people design them, and then, when the users find the systems frustrating (or worse...), and demand that the systems be made more reasonable ("friendly", etc.), the computer people who stand between the users and the computer tell the users that it can't be changed, because "that's the way the computer requires you to do it", etc.
In a certain sense, this is nothing qualitatively new in human life. Every child who is told to do [whatever], and asks: "Why?", and gets back from adults the answer: "Just because" ("That's the way it is", etc.), experiences the same thing. Maybe the problem is that computer systems make persons in positions of relative authority submit more often to such indignities, and not only do they not "like" it, but they are also used to getting their way (a child who "wants his way" is throwing a tantrum; a boss who "wants his way" gets it). Another possibility is that persons who feel too "put upon" already, find in the computer's affrontery either "the straw that breaks the camel's back", or else an opportunity to "kick the cat". My point here is not to go into an extended description of the social dynamics involved, but to try to suggest what needs to be done to deal with the situation.
Users are entirely correct to believe that the reason the computer treats them the ways it does is because somebody programmed it to "act" that way, and that the people who programmed the computer could have programmed it differently. On the other hand, computer programmers are people, too. If programmers should see to it that computers are "user-friendly", then the users should reciprocally see to it that the computer programming process is equally "user friendly", i.e., that the gentility of programmers' working conditions matches the gentility the users [rightly] expect from the products of the programmers' work.
If programmers are overworked, etc., why should the computer be polite to users? That's hypocrisy: a "smiling face" hiding trouble within. When a computer system is "user friendly", that should be "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace": a symbol of the friendliness of the work process of the persons who produce the [friendly] interface.
Programmers' working conditions should be as appealing as the users' interface. Of course in times of emergency (plague, flood, famine, etc.) programmers may need to work hard; but then the users should be working hard, too, and nobody should be enjoying the situation. But when some people are working hard for other people to have fun, that is unfair; and the plausible outcome should be for the ones forced to work hard to spoil the fun in which, not only are they not participating, but which the others are having thanks to their alienated exertions.
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|Where the consumer is
A. B. C. D. F. --Schools are a paradoxical part of capitalist society.
The student (or their parents) pays for the service, but the student is also the person whose performance is judged. This is not an altogether foolish idea, as is illustrated by the case of a certain automobile repairman I know, who refuses to accept as a customer anyone who does not maintain their car in good condition. But I hope that you, my reader, will have found the last sentence somewhat "dissonant" -- since, "normally" it's the customer who judges how well the service provider -- in this case, the automobile repair person -- does their job, not the other way around.
Why shouldn't it be the same with schools? Let the teachers evaluate the students, but let the students evaluate the teachers and administration moreso (I'm talking here about decisions concerning faculty hiring and retention, specifics of curriculum content,[fn.11] etc. -- not the filling out of "student course evaluations", which, like the adult activity of voting in national elections, has no direct causal efficacy). Let it be clearly understood by all that a student's performance is fundamentally dependent on the school's performance, so that causes of "failures" should be sought primarily among the employees (teachers and adminisrators), not among the employers (students). Nobody can dispute that the students (and their agents: parents, etc.) are the ones who pay, and the teachers and the administrators are the ones who get paid (employees).
To return to the automobile repair shop analogy: No matter how conscientious a vehicle owner is, in the end, unless they fix their own car, the car's condition logically depends on how well the repair person does their job. The repair person earns the right to be selective about whose cars they will fix, by doing such a good job of fixing cars that persons want to have their cars serviced by this person. In the end (again, unless the customer fixes their car themselves...), all the customer can do if the repair person fails to do a good job is to take their car some place else.
Hopefully my reader has again felt a vague "dissonance": Students, especially at pre-college levels, often are not direct employers of the teachers et al. Instead, it's generally parents who pay. So maybe all's right with the world after all: i.e., parents pay schools to judge their children. Of course there is some truth to this statement -- just like parents pay doctors to judge their children. We note, however, that it is usually considered the doctor's, not the child's fault (or an "act of God"...) when a child "fails" [medical] treatment.
To help clarify the structure of interpersonal relations here, I have described parents as children's: agents. I see parents' role as analogous to lawyers: to represent their client (the child) in a situation where the client (child) lacks competence to represent themselves. Therefore, if someone wishes to try to evade my precept that it is primarily schools and not students which should be judged, by arguing that the employers are not the students but the parents (an argument which is false on its face for much post-secondary education, where "student loans" and "bursary jobs", etc. are ubiquitous...) -- if anyone wishes to argue that the parents are the employers, my response is that they are the agents, and one reason why students are not direct employers is that our society allocates purchase-power "tokens" (aka: paychecks) largely to proxies, e.g., when, in the paradigmatic Ozzie and Harriet family (although, not in Ozzie and Harriet's own family, where everyone was on the payroll!), only father gets money, even though mother works fulltime as "housewife" and the children work fulltime as "students".
Pay children and let adults submit RFPs [Requests For Procurement] to be parents. If one finds that proposal too extreme, then surely we can compromise and at least agree: power can be justified only as trusteeship. Just as power of teachers (parents) over students (children) can be justified only in terms of the teacher (parent) empowering the student (child) to outgrow their tutelage, so too can (e.g.) the power of employers over workers only be justified in terms of the employer empowering their workers to outgrow their tutelage, so that, in the end (i.e.: ASAP!) -- to slightly modify a phrase from Albert Camus -- there should no longer to be either students or teachers, either employers or employees (Camus' own pairing was: victims and executioners), and all will be peers in a substantive (not merely "formal") democracy, wherein a universal discourse concerning the administration of things replaces exclusionary discourses in which some persons deliberate the governance of other persons.
Here as always, there are limits: the comatose, the severely mentally ill and defective, pre-verbal children, etc. -- i.e., those who, in the eyes of justice, are not [responsible] persons, because they are not able to respond to questions concerning their actions and interests. Instead of "a universal discourse", I should have said: a universalizing discourse, for one of its main themes must always be to raise those who are not yet fully part of itself (children, employees, the treatable sick, etc.) to the fullest participation of which they are capable. As for the rest: the hopeless and the dead, in them universal[izing] conversation reaches one of its ne plus ultras -- a boundary on the other side of which there is no light, and, for the "constituents" of which region, no one can provide more than care or remembrance.
Consider the following excerpt from a New York Times article: "Is It Grade Inflation, or Are Students Just Smarter?" (Karen W. Arenson, Week in Review, 18Apr04, p.WK2): "Stuart Rojstaczer, a geology professor at Duke who runs the Web site www.Gradeinflation.com, says that higher grades are the result of a culture where the student-consumer is king. 'We don't want to offend students or parents,' he said. 'They are customers and the customer is always right.' [/] Valen E. Johnson, a biostatistics professor at the University of Michigan and author of 'Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education' (Springer Verlag), said the use of student ratings to evaluate teachers also inflates grades: 'As long as our evaluations depend on their opinion of us, their grades are going to be high.'"
One professor has come up with a novel and powerful solution: apply a "difficulty multiplier" to grades, as is applied to (e.g.) moves in swimming or skating competition. Thus, a wuss who got an "A" in a philosophy course where "A"s are common, would end up with something like 4.0 out of a possible 8.0, whereas a student who got a "B" in an Electrical Engineering or Organic Chemistry course where "C"s are common, would end up with perhaps a 6.0 (--Michael Bérubé, Prof of Literature, Penn State Univ., "How to End Grade Inflation", NYT Magazine, 02May04, p.32). In this way, we can precisely numerically compare the merit of all human knowledge, as well as of all learners (electrical engineering and organic chemistry are more honorable than philosophy, etc.).
To conclude about dynamics of schooling under capitalism: I once attended a class where no one failed. It was a computer programmer training class. United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co., had hired about 12 persons "off the street", none of whom had any previous computer background. The company contracted to have IBM teach this group COBOL programming. The company paid the students full salary during the (six weeks) of training. Obviously, the company had a quantifiable investment in everyone learning and no one failing. And everyone did learn: some were "brighter" than others, but all the students became productive programmers as a result of the course. I think this suggests a way to restructure education in capitalist society, to: (1) maximize incentives for "the system" to help students learn, and (2) remove incentives to make school an ordeal ("ordeal" being a word from "The Inquisition"). But if learners have to pay to learn, then let them organize and collectively negotiate the terms of their tuition on the basis of their combined tuition fees, without which the providers of tuition would go out of business.
|In loco parentis...
Friday, 27 April 2001, I returned to my "alma mater" (Yale) for an afternoon, to attend the opening session of a symposium on Hermann Broch. I arrived way early, so I spent several hours walking around -- revisiting what, more than thirty (30) years before, had during almost 4 years been my daily sights and sounds as an undergraduate student.
Only the austere and lucid beauty [the real Lux et Veritas...] of the 5-story spiral stairwell in Louis Kahn's Yale Art Gallery, which seemed to wall out everything surrounding -- the assignments and the tests and the grades and more --, interrupted feelings of claustral terror, as I recalled the so very many "classes", "assignments", not to mention all the "tests" I had been subjected to, every day of those 4 years.... [I don't know how I survived; I did only just barely survive my 4 undergraduate years!]
This sunny, pre-maturely warm afternoon on the April-May border, as I wandered about the well-manicured Yale campus, I was genuinely surprised to find myself pervasively feeling bitter indictments of miasmic horror in just about every direction I looked. I reflected that, had I anticipated anything besides the symposium (and visiting the bookstore and the art gallery...) during my drive to New Haven that morning, it would probably have been a vague sense of relief that I had managed to graduate instead of flunking out ("Thank you, mother....").
To recall college administrators' own phrase from the time: in loco parentis.
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