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Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Holy Grail of Teaching: Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work and Grading




Introduction
This post is directed primarily at teachers but I think students and parents alike can benefit from reading it in order to understand what goes on behind the curtain. I'm going to focus on course design rather than teaching technique, although the two overlap. Designing a course is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging tasks under the sun because it requires balancing a large number of competing objectives. Let me explain.

1. Depth vs Breadth: Every class period you spend going deeper into a sub-topic is one class you take away from the breadth of the course content. And vice versa.

2. Reinforcement vs New Content: Every class you spend reinforcing previous content is a class you don't spend on new content. And vice versa.

3. Predictability vs Flexibility: For some reason, students panic or perceive instructors as disorganized whenever the original syllabus changes. However, different cohorts will find different units interesting (and uninteresting). Ideally, we want to tailor a syllabus to a cohort; that is, if a cohort finds a unit particularly interesting there are good pedagogical reasons to extend the unit. Similarly, if a cohort finds a unit boring, you want to be able to cut it short sometimes. The trade off, however, is that every time you change the syllabus, students panic or perceive you as disorganized . On the flip side, you maintain rigidity at the cost of students not getting additional time on what they enjoy or shortening units they don't enjoy.

4. Assessment and Incentive vs Time Grading: This is a big one. Here's the reality: For a variety of reasons I won't get into--because I'll start ranting like a lunatic--most students have been conditioned to see little if any intrinsic value in doing any school work. This includes doing the readings before class, any kind of written activity, or self-assessment activity. In other words, if it doesn't count towards their grade, most students either won't do it or will do a crappy job of it. However, here's the thing about learning a new skill or new content: It ain't happening without practice and repetition. To quote Aristotle, "We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act but a habit." So, how do we get students to get the practice and repetition they need for learin' to happen?

Easy fix, you say. Just make them do lots of assignments. Problem: students hate what they call "busy work." Students must perceive assignments to be both relevant and worthwhile for them. Instructors must give careful forethought to the content of assignments, how they fit in to course objectives, how they relate to other course material, and how much weight they should be accorded as a percentage of the course grade. When weighting an assignment or task you must consider the direct relationship between weight and student motivation. You must also constantly refer back to your course objectives: What do you want your students to be able to know and do by the end of the semester? This should inform your weighting.

The major trade off with assessments involves grading time. It's all fine and dandy to assign regular homework or assignments but someone has to grade those. And that someone also has to prep classes and probably wants a faction of a life outside of their job. And if that someone is a grad student, they also need to do coursework, work on their dissertation, submit to journals, submit to conferences, attend colloquium talks, attend various committee meetings, etc... You get the point.

Anyhow, in my method described below, I'll explain how to juggle these competing ends in a way that delivers better learning outcomes but with less prep-work and grading than you're probably doing.

Teaching College Kids in the Twenty First Century
Check it. Yo, yo. What's up? Immabout to drop some knowledge on y'all. <----Talk like that a lot.

Outside of the classroom more students than ever are working part-time or even full time. Depending on the source, around 5/6 of students work at least 19 hours/week. When they aren't working, many of them aren't doing school work. And if they are doing school work, many of them are simultaneously texting and watching cat videos.

Whatchugonnadoabouddit?
  • Choice 1: Whine and complain about students "these days." 
  • Choice 2: Only teach to the minority of students who are highly motivated and/or don't have jobs. This may be combined with Choice 1.
  • Choice 3: Accept that you are powerless in the face of broad sociological trends and adapt your teaching/syllabus accordingly such that you are able to reach the average student.
I'm not going to convince you which you ought to choose. Allz imma say is that I chose 3. And immabout to explain what that choice means in practical terms.

Most importantly, it means that with a few exceptions you must make class time for whatever skills or knowledge you want your students to acquire. Lemmi add a few details to that.

There are different levels of knowing which can be sliced and diced various ways. The three broad categories I have in mind when designing my courses and lessons are: (a) Basic comprehension, (b) application, (c) theory-level. There are other ways to conceive of levels and kinds of knowing--this is simply how I do it. Let's look briefly at what each means.

Basic Comprehension: A student has basic comprehension of a concept or argument if they can reproduce it. For example, they demonstrate basic comprehension when they can answer questions like: What does happiness mean for Aristotle? What does Locke think the purpose of government is? How does MLK distinguish between laws we should follow and those which we may permissibly break? Answering these questions doesn't require deep understanding but it demonstrates basic (superficial) knowledge of course content and themes. There is an even lower level of understanding which is recognition. This kind of "knowledge" is tested on multiple choice tests. The student needn't be able to recall or express the information on their own--only recognize it when presented to them. Pick the level you want your students to achieve and build in-class activities that bring them to this level. Basic comprehension is rarely the final goal; however, it's a necessary rung on the ladder to the other levels.

Application: The next level of understanding requires that students be able to apply new concepts, arguments, or skills to novel cases. For example, I might present students with a famous literary or movie character and ask them to evaluate whether Aristotle would call this person happy. Or I might ask them to evaluate whether Locke would consider a certain political revolution or law to be justified. Or I could present them with a particular law and ask them whether MLK would recommend we follow or ignore the law. In all cases I'd require them to justify their answers by appealing to the original author, otherwise there's no way to distinguish between lucky guesses and understanding.

Theory-Level: At the level of theory students begin to understand the various theoretical trade-offs and implications of different views. They compare theory to theory and draw logical implications of theories. This is requires a very high level of understanding and can only be reached after the first two have been firmly established. I find the best way to develop this level of knowledge is to get students to 'toggle' back and forth between theoretical frameworks. For example, I might present a case and ask them how different theories would appraise it. Then I'd ask them to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of the differing appraisals. (More on this below)

Whatever level(s) I want my students to attain, I must create in-class activities that foster those levels of development. Why? Because, if you accepted Choice 3 above, students are not going to do it (well) outside of the classroom. Now, you can go back to Choice 1 and whine and complain that they should. But guess what?

They. Aren't.

So you decide. Given that most students--culpably or not--are not going to engage in deep learning outside of the classroom, what level of learning do you want them to possess by the end of the semester? Pick it and stick it into your syllabus; that is, set aside class time for developing that level of knowledge.

The Bottom Line: The days of lecturing then sending students home with readings, exercises, and assignments is over. A student taking a full-load and working full time doesn't have time or make time to put in the deep concentration required for deep knowledge acquisition. Knowledge acquisition (all levels) must now be deliberately built into classroom activities otherwise it won't happen for most students. Stop whining and accept the new world order. Thanks, Obama.

The Basics
To repeat so far: All good courses begin with a firm understanding of the course objectives. You need to decide BEFORE designing the rest of your course what the students ought to be able to do and know, and the level at which they know it. This will help mitigate (but not entirely eliminate) some of the above competing trade offs you have to make. For example, if I want them to acquire a particular skill, then I have to build doing that into the syllabus. This means I'm going to reduce some of the content in order to make time for skill acquisition. To explain a bit more about how course objectives help 'set' your syllabus, I'll begin by describing common pitfalls.

On the first day of class, you read through the course syllabus, skimming over the course objectives/learning outcomes section. Or maybe you even spend a little time explaining each. What happens next? With the exception of the first week, for the rest of the semester you never mention them. Then, you are shocked! shocked! I tell you! when at the end of the semester you students fail to meet these outcomes.

Rule #1: Build in and reinforce your chosen learning outcomes. As I've said, one of my course objectives is for students to be able to interpret and argue from various competing positions. That is, I want them to learn how to see an issue through eyes that are not their own and to formulate arguments from that perspective. How to do this?

First, in each lecture, anytime an issue or case is presented, I ask the class to tell me what previous authors would have said. Then I ask them how another author would respond. This can be done through group work, take-home assignments, or soliciting volunteers. It's also important to model the skill yourself so students have template. The point is, anytime a situation arises where a course objective can be realized/practiced, we do it.

But here's what usually happens. Teachers fixate on getting through the material. "I can't stop anytime students have a chance to occupy different points of view, I'll never get through the material." This is what I mean by designing your course from the objectives.  If a core objective is for students to be able to argue from competing perspectives then opportunities to do this shouldn't be interfering with a well-designed syllabus. The syllabus should be built to allow students to practice exactly this thing!!!111!!!--not just to bulldoze through a set of readings. The fact that the pace of readings "interferes" with your course objectives should tell you to go back a revise the syllabus. Begin with objectives then decide on number of readings.

Build your objectives into the assignments and classwork. You can't just tell students "here are your objectives for the course" then magically expect them to achieve them. Where on God's green earth did someone ever acquire a new worthwhile skill without close supervision, repetition, guidance, practice, and critical feedback? It takes a lot to acquire a new cognitive skill. You are teaching someone to think differently. That means you're fundamentally changing the way their brain operates. This does not happen overnight and it certainly doesn't happen by accident.

All ranting aside: You must build time into your syllabus for your students to practice and develop the course objectives. Like I said, it does not magically happen. So, if you want students to be able to reconstruct arguments, you must build class time into your syllabus to do this. Also, the fact that you build it into class time in sends a message to students that it's important--it's not just an afterthought. In the next section, I'll give more concrete suggestions on how to do this and explain why it needs to be part of class time.

Rule #2: One of the wisest things I've ever heard comes from Paul Woodruff. In his excellent book, The Ajax Dilemma, he says "If you want to know what an organization values, look at what it rewards." Most students will only do what they are rewarded for and they will do it in proportion to the size of the reward. So, reward them (i.e., give them points) for the things you want them to do and how much you want them to do it. Want them to do the readings before class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to show up to class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to improve their writing? Reward the improvement not just the writing (more on this below). If you don't reward something, from the point of view of students, it's just "busy work." Reward the things you value for your course (which should be the course objectives).

Yeah, I know students are supposed to be intrinsically motivated by the beauty of knowledge and all that nice stuff. But if we want to reach as many students as possible we need to be a bit Machiavellian or Pavlovian--pick your metaphor--in our approach. Below I will give you specific ways that I have found to be successful in rewarding the various outcomes I seek.

The Holy Grail Method: How to Get Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work
Where I teach, most classes meet 3 times a week for 50 minutes. If you teach a course that meets twice a week, you can modify my method by making every 3rd or 4th meeting the activity day.

Overview:
  1. Mondays and Wednesdays are new content (i.e., lecture).
  2. Fridays are reinforcement, application, and critical appraisal.
  3.  5 minute, 5 question multiple choice auto-graded online quizzes at the beginning of each lecture class.
  4. Quizzes should involve the core elements of the reading. Lectures should answer the questions on the quiz.
  5. Fridays are in-class group work.
  • Each activity sheet contains three main sections: Basic comprehension, application to novel cases, theory-level questions. Ideally, the sections are related.
  • For all exams, questions are selected exclusively from the Friday work-sheets. This incentivizes effort and care in doing them.
  • Only grade 3 or 4 questions selected at random (same for all groups) for the assignment's grade. This reduces grading time but ensures members work collectively and check each other's work.
Grading:
  • Reading Quizzes: 25% of final grade. (lowest 3 scores are dropped)
  • In-class group assignments: 25% of final grade.
  • Midterm: 15% of final grade
  • Short paper: 15% of final grade
  • Final paper: 20% of final grade (2x10% each peer editing sheet; 20% responsiveness to peer reviewers; 60% the final version of the paper).
Getting your Students to Read: Any way you slice it, part of a good education at any level should improve reading skills. And how do we get better at anything? We do that thing, and we do it at a level slightly beyond our existing level. The? A? problem is many students nowadays don't read. [Shakes fist in the air]. How do we get them to read? Well, what gets rewarded gets done.

At the beginning of each class for which there is an assigned reading, give an online (i.e., auto-grading) 5-question multiple choice quiz. Make the quiz password protected (Canvas and Blackboard have this feature). Put the password up on the board when you enter the classroom. Doing this also solves attendance problems since you can only do it in class. You don't need to take attendance because students will show up if there are points at stake. Boom goes the dynamite.

Aside: I drop the 3 lowest scores. This allows me to avoid dealing with determining the legitimacy of absences. You get 3 free low scores. I don't care if you slept in or went to the doctor. You get three. That should cover life. Don't make me play detective.

Selecting Readings and Reading Length: Readings should be no more than about 7 pages or 3 arguments. Think about what you can cover in a class period. Can you cover more than 3 core arguments? My experience is, no. Not with any depth or discussion. So, why assign what can't be adequately covered?

Also, if the reading is longer than 7 pages, students won't read it. Remember they have 4 other classes. If every class assigns 7 pages per class that's 50 pages of reading for each class meeting. That's 150 pages per week if instructors only do lectures and no activities. That's just not going to happen. Don't set your students up for failure. I try to assign about 5 pages if it's dense and 7 if it's from a non-academic source.

Benefits to you: There's a happy upside to this. You only have to prep for 5 pages twice a week rather than for a chapter three times a week. You're welcome.

How to Design your Quiz: 
The quiz should not be difficult. Basically, you want it so that the average student will get 3/5 or 4/5 if they read the article. We're not trying to trick the students here. We're only giving them a small reward to do the reading. We are telling them, "I value you reading this article. Here's a cookie for doing it."

Question 1 should always be: "What is the main point the author of the article is trying to convince us of?" The other questions should involve core sub-arguments or sub-conclusions. Stuff like,
The author gives 3 reasons in support of X. Which of the following is not one of the reasons.
You can also do some obvious application questions: E.g., "What would the author say about the following case:[...]"

The point is that we need to reward them for the things we want them to do. We want them to read, so we reward reading. If they read the article, the quiz should be fairly easy.

Variation: Marcus Schultz-Bergin has a nice variation. Students are allowed to have notes open for the quizzes. This incentivizes them to be active readers and take notes while doing the readings. I'm contemplating using this myself.

Getting Students To Pay More Attention in Lecture.
Set the online quiz so that when they get a question wrong, the correct answer isn't revealed and build your lecture around the quiz questions. (And obviously ban cell phones once they've taken the quiz)
Most students will have gotten at least one question wrong on the quiz. They want to know what the right answer is. So, build your lecture (in part) around the questions on the quiz. If you built the quiz out of the key arguments and points, this should be fairly simple to do. Now, your students are looking for particular information throughout the lecture.

I know what you're thinking. But why should they care about learning the right answer if they've already lost the points for it on the quiz? Let me explain:

Quiz Redo: At the end of the week, students have the option of retaking their quizzes. The score of the first attempt and second attempt are averaged. This way, they're still penalized if they didn't do the reading the first time around but are incentivized because they can still improve. Also, the more poorly they did the first time around, the more incentive there is for them to listen and take notes during lecture. They are rewarded for paying attention and improving. Message to students: I value you improving and learning--See! Here's a cookie for doing it. Motivation problem solved. Learning is happening.

Details: Redo quizzes are open from Friday after class until Saturday evening. I don't allow the redo immediately after the first attempt because I want them to have to go back to their notes. This will better reinforce the information. I don't extend the redo time to Sunday because I don't want the quiz -taking to interfere with them doing the reading due Monday. Boom.

Activity Fridays
Imagine a world where you're told to read an article then you receive a lecture on it, never to hear about it again until six weeks later when you're asked to explain some ideas in that article from memory. Add to this that you have to do this for six weeks of other readings in five other classes. Gee, I wonder why students don't do well on exams. Then, a few months later at the end of the semester you're asked to write a paper that incorporates many of the ideas from the entire course. Your teacher is shocked and dismayed when you can't do this.


What do we want our students to do? Learn the content. Learn to apply the content. Learn the theoretical implications and trade-offs of the content. When in the above process did they do this? Answer: Nowhere.

Let's fix it.

Every Friday (or every 3rd period--you choose) I have students do activity sheets. The sheets are divided into three sections. As you might have surmised, the sections are: Basic content questions, application questions, and theory-level questions. Most groups create a group google-doc. The assignments are short enough that the average group should be able to do 80% of it in class and the fastest group should finish in class. However, it isn't due until the day after the next lecture (i.e., Tuesday at 5pm in my case). This way there's ample opportunity to polish. And--let's be honest--I ain't grading it until the following weekend anyway.

Fact: Most group-work is a dismal failure if it's assigned for outside class time. This has remedies but they're fairly involved so I'll set them aside. Besides, the purpose of the weekly group activities is fairly circumscribed so having them do most of it in-class works best. Also, I'm there to give immediate feedback and assistance if they're struggling or just need confirmation.

Here's a problem of group work that arises regardless of whether it's in or out of class: Some members do better work than others. If members are graded as a group, the students who did better work get penalized by the bad work. This is compounded by another problem: Students usually parcel out work for group work, so no one learns the content from questions they didn't do.

Solution: Tell the students, "I will pick 3 (or 4) questions at random to grade. Your score on those questions determines the group's grade on the assignment." Now, rather than each student working on their own questions and failing to learn/reinforce the content of the other questions, students have an incentive to at least work in pairs and check each other's work. [Previously I graded the entire assignment but I'm going to switch to this method]. Because they don't know which questions I'm going to grade, students are motivated to do well on all the questions and check each others work.

Benefit to YOU: Not only do you avoid grading a bunch of individual assignments but you also don't have to grade all of each group assignment. Onerous grading averted. You're welcome.

How to Get Students to Perform Better on Exams
Ok, I've just explained how we achieve and reinforce the various levels of learning. What about this exam stuff? The midterm exam will be composed exclusively of questions from group-work assignments. Now they have yet another incentive to carefully answer the questions.

Benefits To You: You don't have to come up with all-new midterm questions. Just select from the ones you already have on the sheets. Besides, everything you want them to be able to know and do should be on those sheets.

But here's the biggest benefit. In the old school method you had to prepare 3 lectures a week. That's a pretty big time suck especially if it's a class you haven't taught before. Now you're only prepping 2 lectures a week. You just cut prep time by 1/3 over the course of a semester.

I know what you're probably thinking. "Well, yeah, it's one less lecture but I still have to make the activity sheet." Yes and no. You do have to make it BUT you build the activity sheet as you're making each lecture--not on a separate occasion. So, on Sunday night as I'm making my Monday lecture, I'm also writing down questions I want the students to internalize based on the lecture I'm going to give!  For example, if in my lecture I'm covering Aristotle's definition of happiness then I go into the activity sheet and guess what question I write? [Whisper: Explain Aristotle's definition of happiness]. Then in the application section I'll present a case and ask whether Aristotle would consider such and such a person to be happy. Next comes theory...I might ask them to contrast or defend Aristotle's view against a hedonist view we covered earlier in the course. I repeat this process for Wednesday's lecture.

When Friday comes around, the activity sheet is already complete because I made it Sunday and Tuesday night as I was building my lectures. Now instead of making yet another lecture and grinding yourself into exhaustion, you can drink yourself into a stupor or do whatever it is you like to do on your nights off. You're welcome.

More on Exams
I think of exams as a test of my teaching, not of my students' learning. If I structured the course well, lectured clearly, allowed them to interact with the content sufficiently and in various ways, gave the right incentives, gave them a reason to care about the content, then the majority of my students should do well. If they didn't do well then I need to change some things. If I've done my job, the class average should be a B.

If that sounds high consider what's happened in the course leading up to the midterm:
  • They've actually read the material, 
  • They've gotten feedback on how well they initially understood the material (i.e., the first quiz),
  • They've had a lecture on the material where any misunderstandings can be clarified,
  • They've worked collaboratively with others to ensure that they can comprehend the content, apply it, and understand the relative theoretical implications and trade-offs,
  • They've had an opportunity to improve on their previous quiz and are rewarded for it; i.e., via the redo quiz they reread their notes and group assignment answers and they get more feedback on how well they understand it.
  • They get feedback on their group work.
  • They get a review session where they can clarify any uncertainties. (i.e., they interact with the content for the SEVENTH time.)
  • They study the assignment sheets in preparation for the exam (that's EIGHT times).
  • They take the exam.
Again, if I did my job right, a student would have to make a concerted effort to get anything below a B. They would have to willfully ignore everything that's happened in and out of class. (Yes, there are such students but they are a small minority.)

Here I have given you the blueprint for student success without overburdening yourself with grading and class-prep time.

My Studints Dont Rite Good and Reading There Riting Makes me Want to Stab my Eyeballs with Hot Needles

I'll elaborate more in a future post but here are the basics:

After the midterm I assign and grade a short paper (3 pages) with extensive feedback. This gives students a feel for how I grade and what I'm looking for (and of course I've also told them this when I assigned the paper). For all other papers there is peer editing (I only assign one more longer one). For their term paper I give them about 10 days to write the best paper they can. It's due 10 days to two weeks before the final version is due. I emphasize that it must be what they consider to be a finished version--not something thrown together the night before. I have them bring two printed copies and we do an in-class peer editing session.

Each student must edit 2 papers (meaning each paper is edited by two students). We do it on a Friday. Half of the time is allotted for each paper and what isn't finished is due on Monday in class. I've created a fairly extensive peer editing sheet. It should take around an hour for each paper. Their peer editing is worth 20% of their final paper grade (10% for each one) AND 20% of their final paper grade is how well they respond to each peer reviewer. Since they have motivation to edit each other well AND respond to the suggestions, the results have been great. What gets rewarded gets done. You can't tell them to invest a lot of time and effort into doing a peer edit then not count it for anything. Similarly, we can't expect them to respond to peer editing if there's no value in it for them. "I think it's valuable to respond to your peer editors. See! Here's a cookie for doing it."

Again, we want student to get better at writing. But you can't get better at anything unless you have a chance to learn from and correct your mistakes. If you simply ask students to turn in a paper at the end of the semester, when did they get to learn how to write better? Where was the opportunity for improvement? Most students just look at the final grade on their paper and that's as far as it goes. Responding to peer editing and rewarding it provides the opportunity to improve, and that's what we should be aiming for.

Also, as most of us know, weaknesses in own reasoning and writing are often invisible to ourselves--otherwise we wouldn't have made them public in the first place! Peer review allows us to recognize our own errors and weaknesses in the work of others. When we come back to our own work, we are better able see the once-invisible problems. Through peer editing we become better writers because we learn to edit ourselves.

If you'd like, here's a copy of my peer editing sheet to use or modify.

An Objection
I want to address just one of many possible to criticisms of my method. By using carrots and sticks I'm not teaching them the intrinsic value of reading, learning, knowledge, writing, etc... I'm only reinforcing what they've long been taught: That education and learning are primarily valued for extrinsic reasons.

This is where YOU come. The passion you bring to the classroom, the ways in which you tie the content to their lives and concerns, the encouragement you give, and the readings you select will all contribute to this end. Not all material speaks for itself for everyone.

I think it's unrealistic to think that most students will be purely intrinsically motivated from the start--especially if the course isn't an elective for them. But there's no reason why we can't have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Some might only respond to the extrinsic motives. Fine. But my experience has been that if we can just get them to do the reading, students will start to appreciate the intrinsic value of the content. If I need to use extrinsic motives to get there, so be it.

This is not to say there aren't legitimate worries of extrinsic motives for education crowding out or corrupting the intrinsic ones (See: Michael Sandel). Maybe I'm just being pragmatic. Wait. No. I'm not. I'm also an idealist. I really do believe that if I can just get a little bit of engagement, most students will come to see the intrinsic value too. Anyone in this line of work has to believe that what they're teaching has intrinsic value. Also, it's possible that students do sometimes see the intrinsic value of a class but for pragmatic reasons, they don't do the work. They've got a life and concerns outside of school, just like us.

We must fight fire with fire--or pragmatism with pragmatism. If it's pragmatic reasons (e.g., a part-time job) that prevent a student from acting on what they perceive as the intrinsic worth of doing a reading or thinking about their paper then I'm going to give them pragmatic reasons to counter those obstructing pragmatic reasons: "Federalist #10 is one of the greatest American political documents you'll ever read. It'll change how you think about democracy and about your government."

Still not enough to get you to read it? Ok.

"Here's a cookie for reading it."

Hey, teach! This is good shit!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Identity, Truth, and Stoicism in the Face of Crumbling Norms of Civil Discourse


Introduction
Yo. Check it. You can't have a functioning democracy without at least two things: a concern for truth and civil discourse. Although perhaps too obvious to state, democracy requires citizens have a concern for truth. Without it, policy will be ineffective at best. Y'see, in (many conceptions) of democracy, policy represents, to some degree, the will of the people. If "the people" are more concerned with short-term political one-up-manship rather than quality of evidence and argument, a country will be governed by policy disconnected from the best evidence and arguments.

A political community often contains an assortment of views on the same issues. While some differing views might each partake in some aspect of the truth, there's no reason to suppose all will. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but some beliefs just are false. 

Let's assume it's better to get everyone to buy into a policy or view than it is to force it onto a segment of the population. If each is equally convinced of their own 'rightness', how do we not only reach agreement but also lead those holding objectively false views into the light of reason--without outright coercion? That is, how do we get people with false beliefs to change their minds and endorse the policy based on the best evidence?

Think about how it is you discarded previously held views that turned out to be false. Did your change of mind occur by someone shouting at you and calling you an idiot? Did it arise after being ignored? After being mocked? My guess is probably not. 

While not the only means of effecting doxastic change, engaging in respectful discourse probably increases the odds. It also helps when people present compelling arguments, counter-arguments, and evidence. In other words, tone, attitude, and content all matter for changing people's minds. I'll call this loose cluster of methods and attitudes, the norms of civil discourse. [Note: There's a fair amount of philosophical literature on the exact content of the norms of civil discourse. For my purposes, a broad intuitive account is sufficient].


In this post, I want to explore the ethical dimensions of belief, and how the various things we cling to sabotage our path to truth and civil discourse. By drawing on Stoic ideas, I’m going to suggest we all have within us the resources to reconcile the competing passions that have lead to the current breakdown in civil discourse and its corrosive effects on good policy-making. 

Setting the Stage
In perhaps one of the best known psychological studies of the 20th century, subjects are asked to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. As they do so, they receive feedback on how well they are able to make the distinction. He's the twist (one of them, anyway): The feedback they receive has nothing to do with their performance. It's all a sham. Before they even began the task, experimenters had randomly pre-sorted the subjects into three groups: Those that will be told they are excellent, average, or below average. To summarize, experimenter feedback is predetermined regardless of how subjects perform and has no relation to subject performance

In the next phase of experiment, the fact of the predetermined feedback is revealed to the subjects. That is, the subject are told that the feedback was totally unrelated to their task performance. Subjects are then asked to self-assess their ability to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. 

Of the 20 assigned to the ‘good-guesser’ group, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the predetermined nature of the experiment was revealed to them? E.g., how many people who were told they were good-guessers evaluated themselves as average or below average? Keep that number in your head. Now, of the 20 who were told they were bad guessers, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the reveal?

Now that you have those two numbers in your head, I’m going to give you a choice. I can tell you the real numbers from the study, or I can invent some fake numbers to tell you.

Which do you prefer that I do?


I’ll reveal the real numbers in a moment but I want to make my first claim which is central to Stoic philosophy (it actually comes from Plato but the Stoics adopted it...): Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will. By this, the Stoics mean that it is human nature to want truth and knowledge. We have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. If we have false beliefs, it is only because we have been mislead or we have not yet been taught.

When I asked you whether you wanted me to tell you the true numbers or fake numbers for the study, you very likely wanted the true ones. I’m even willing to go so far as to say that you felt pulled to know the truth. And if I’d given you the fake ones, you’d have probably been upset with me. Human beings have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. You just experienced it yourself.

Not so fast though. What is the content of the study that you want to know the truth about? After debriefing, only three of the 20 subjects who had been told they were good guessers didn’t continue to believe that they were above average! Of the 20 who had been told they were below average, only three of them revised their beliefs about their abilities too! (For anyone familiar with all the p-hacking issues in psychology, this effect size isn’t one that can be waived away.)

I just finished telling you that a drive for truth and knowledge is intrinsic to human nature. But here we have a well-designed and multiply replicated study in which subjects were given the truth yet refused to take it into account in revising their self-conception. Their self-assessments were completely impervious to countervailing evidence. Only 15% of subjects in each group responded to evidence that undermined a prior belief.

What gives? Well, an affinity for truth isn’t the only component of human nature. As Aristotle observed, we are by nature social and political animals. In other words, we have an intrinsic affinity for being part of a group. Being part of a group requires two things: First, that we share the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values particular to the group of which we are a member. Second, that others see us as sharing those beliefs, behaviors, and values.

Let’s return to the study. Why didn’t the subjects merely accept the truth of what the experimenters were telling them and revise their self-assessments accordingly? To quote the study:
It is proposed that personal impressions and social perceptions become relatively autonomous from the evidence that created them. As a result, subsequent challenges to that evidence, and hence to the impression it fostered, will have surprisingly little impact— far less impact than would be demanded by any logical or rational impression-formation model. (Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard, 1975)
In other words, subjects began to self-identify and see others as identifying them as members of particular groups—‘good guessers’ or ‘bad guessers’. To generalize, when you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are not only challenging beliefs but their identity. In order for people to relinquish beliefs tied to their identity they must also change their identity. 

But that’s not even the most difficult part: They have to surrender their membership in a group. Groups are defined, in part, by their beliefs. If you no longer share the same core beliefs as that group, not only can you not self-identify as a member but the other members can no longer identify you as a member. When a group identity is central to someone’s life—like a political or religious group—you best believe they’re going to reject evidence before they compromise the relationships that imbue their lives with meaning.

Stoicism, Truth, and Civil Discourse
I began by telling you that we have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge but even if you hadn’t read about the above study, that claim is on the face of it worthy of ridicule. Everything we’ve witnessed in the the current political climate undermines it. Now we have an explanation: Another intrinsic human drive—belonging to and preserving identity and group membership—completely sabotages our natural affinity for truth.

I’m going to argue for two solutions that come out of ancient Stoic thought. Stoic thought can be boiled down to two practices: 
  1. Discover what is necessarily true of the world and 
  2. Determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. 
Below I'll suggest what I take to be three facts about the world and then I’ll  suggest what you can do about them. The first applies to how we self-identify and the second applies to how we conceive of others. The third, to how we handle our political environment.
Fact 1 About the World: If you self-identify primarily in terms of a group that is defined by particular beliefs you will sabotage your path to truth.
On it’s own, merely being a social animal doesn’t undermine our affinity for truth. It’s the nature of the particular groups with which we identify that do. People ARE interested in truth but only so long as personal identity and group membership aren't threatened. From the individual point of view, this means that individually we can be part of the solution to civil discord if we reconceptualize or, at least, re-order our identity. Instead of primarily self-conceiving as a member of a particular political group, I can self-identify as a member of the group "rational animal." 

What are the values and behaviors of members of the group "rational animal"? Good reasoning and a concern for truth. In other words, self-conceiving in this way pulls us away from a conclusion-based identity and towards a process-based identity. A reasoner examines the strength of reasons (evidence and claims) and the logical relationships between reasons and conclusions. 'Rational animals' are primarily concerned with quality and method of justification for beliefs rather than dogmatically clinging to and defending particular beliefs.

Importantly, when we identify primarily as rational animals, it shifts our disposition towards others: First, we more likely come to view those with whom we disagree as partners rather than adversaries in the shared enterprise of pursuing truth. We become more calm and charitable because we want to learn rather than impose or defend a view. 

Our concern for the process of justification--i.e., why someone believes something--helps us become better listeners since we can only evaluate justifications if we listen carefully. Not only are we better off for being better listeners, but we likely diffuse much of our interlocutors' animosity when we present ourselves as genuinely interested in why they hold certain beliefs. In short, we begin to turn down the dial on the reactive emotions and attitudes that have rendered political discourse so intractable. 

Epistemic Humility: We ought to always take seriously the possibility that our current view is mistaken. Self-conceiving primarily as a rational animal makes it easier to change our views in the face of new or better evidence and arguments.  Consider for a moment how many beliefs about the world you hold. There are probably an almost infinite number. Now consider all the other people in your country. How likely is it that there are more than a handful that share each one of your millions of beliefs? The odds are staggeringly small. Now consider the millions of people with whom you don't overlap on at least some beliefs. What are the odds that YOU, in the face of widespread disagreement, are the only one in the country that holds all the true beliefs about the world? 

As someone who primarily identifies as a reasoning being, you are not wedded to any particular conclusion but to standards of evidence and a process. So, your views can more easy be responsive to new or better evidence and arguments.

Fact 2 About the World: Conceiving of our Political Others as Evil or Idiots or Both is a Poor Strategy for Changing Minds
Stoic thought offers us insight in how we ought to conceive of others if we hope to mitigate the culture war and our own emotional outbursts that obstruct the pathway to truth. I argue we ought to adopt the Stoic teaching to act as though "every soul is deprived of the truth against its will." 

There are two ideas contained here. First, humans have an affinity for truth (despite the fact that other variables interfere with its attainment); and second, as members of the human species, we are 'rational animals'--which implies we are all sensitive to reasons and arguments (although, perhaps to varying degrees).

Here is Epictetus counseling his student on how to handle someone with an obviously false and harmful view:
Student: Yes, but she is in error.
Epictetus: Well, act on her idea. As long as you don't lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don't get angry at [her] for being confused about what's most important, and accordingly mutating from human to snake. (Discourse I. 26)
Marcus Aurelius had similar thoughts in this somewhat amusing example:
Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth. He has such armpits: It is necessary that such an emanation come from such things--but the man has reason, it will be said, and he is able if he takes pains, to discover wherein he offends. Well then, and you, too, have reason: by your rational faculty stir him up his rational faculty; show him his error [...]. (Meditations Bk V. 28)
And here is more of the same from Epictetus again:
Well, when a guide meets up with someone who is lost, ordinarily his reaction is to direct him on the right path, not mock or malign him, then turn on heel and walk away. As for you, lead someone to the truth and you will find that he can follow. But as long as you don't point it out to him, don't make fun of him; be aware of what you need to work on instead. (Discourse II. 11. 3-4)
Think of it this way. When a student reasons incorrectly on a math problem, we don't get angry with them. We assume they genuinely wanted to get the question right: They aimed for truth not falsity. No one would think it reasonable to yell and get emotionally upset because of the student's error.  


Instead, as a teacher or peer, we adopt a compassionate disposition and work through that student's reasoning process to help discover where they erred. I submit that reconceiving of our cultural and political *others* as truth-seekers--inadvertently making errors in judgment in good faith--will dispose us to be more kind and dial down our own animus both of which opens the door for civil discourse. [All the while we should adopt a stance of epistemic humility; i.e., we should continue to take seriously the possibility that our own view is mistaken unless it aligns with a consensus of relevant experts. Then more confidence is warranted.]

I can hear some of you, including my past-self, mocking this idea:
"This is lunacy. Have you ever read the comments section of an article on vaccines, climate science, GMOs, Trump, Obama, etc...? There is no way these people are even remotely deprived of the truth against their will. Their ignorance is entirely willful."
This may be true for what I call the 'true believers' but I don't think it's true of the vast majority of people.  There's selection bias in the comments sections of the internet. Those with the most extreme views and loudest voices are going to be disproportionately represented. Let's not make the mistake in believing those holding extreme views and attitudes are representative of all with whom we disagree. 

I think the vast majority of people are responsive to argument and evidence when its presented in a way that doesn't immediately threaten their identity or make them out to insufferable morons. Treating people as though they are genuinely concerned with truth raises the odds that they will be open to evidence and argument. And even if agreement isn't reached, we can all count as a win the gain in civility.

Final Fact: You Can't Outrun Disagreement
In closing, I want to dispense (draw on?) some wisdom from an American philosopher. In Fed #10, James Madison is trying to solve what is called The Republican Dilemma: How do we give power to the people but at the same time avoid the tyranny of the majority; i.e., avoid a large faction from ganging up and trampling the rights of a minority group. Part of his answer involves arguing against Rousseau. Rousseau's solution revolves around ensuring that political communities have relatively homogenous values, interests, levels of wealth, and ways of living. If everyone is in the same 'faction', the worry of some factions suppressing others is mitigated. Madison rejects Rousseau's view on the grounds that it is human nature for factions to form. He says
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. (My italics for emphasis)
Here is the insight: We can’t outrun disagreement. So long as people have different talents, values, and interests as well as the liberty to pursue them, we will disagree with each other. Even in our own families we must live with and get along with people with whom we deeply disagree. 

Again, we can appeal to the Stoics' useful advice: Figure out what is necessarily true of the world then determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. Knowing that you will never outrun disagreement with people with whom you must live, you must determine how to respond to it. They ain't going nowherez and neither are you. 

Are you going to demand that everyone believe what you believe? Are you going to get whipped up into an emotional frenzy with every dissenting view? Are you going to treat each person with whom you disagree as though they are idiots? This path is exhausting and yields no fruit. Trust me. I've tried it. I've tried it a lot.

To summarize, I instead suggest the following: (a) avoid identifying primarily as a member of a group defined by particular beliefs; (b) Identify primarily as a member of the group of people concerned with the process and standards of justification for beliefs rather than with conclusions; (c) take seriously the possibility that you could be wrong, particularly if you aren't an expert and your view conflicts with a consensus of experts; (d) engage with others as though they are deprived of the truth against their will; (d) avoid the temptation of identifying the loudest and most obnoxious as representative of a group (availability bias, sampling bias--for those keeping track!).

Drawing on Kant and Rawls and every major wisdom tradition, there's perhaps an even simpler way to think about the problem of disagreement and the norms of civil discourse: Employ the principle of reciprocity. How would I like to be treated by those with whom I disagree? You may be tempted to reply, "Ya, but...they aren't very nice to me!"  Ok. But barring some special cases, do you increase or decrease the likelihood of persuading them to your view when you adopt acerbic strategies? I mean, what are you even trying to achieve in engaging? 

And what about the state of civil discourse? We are all all responsible for the tone of discourse within our purview--regardless of what others do. That is in our respective control. Nothing I can do will guarantee someone's civility towards me, but this doesn't mean I can't affect the probabilities one way or the other.

Jefferson and Adams: A Beautiful Bromance 
A Case Study In Civil Disagreement
If there ever was a model for the kind of civil dialogue I'm talking about, it can be found in the friendship and correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two life-time friends and political adversaries wrote letters almost daily to each other despite fundamental political disagreement. They weren't perfect though: After Jefferson won the presidency (against Adams, the incumbent!) they didn't write to each other for 13 years. However, once the ice thawed, they resumed their regular correspondence in which they regularly disagreed, until both their deaths in 1826. (Crazy history note that boggles my mind: The two friends died only 5 hours apart. Adams' last words were 'Jefferson still lives'. But that's not all. They died on July 4th) 

There is lengthy exchange of letters between the two in 1813--the year they had renewed their friendship. The topic concerned equality and how to ensure that the 'pseudo-aristocracy' (i.e., those whose status and power are a consequence of wealth and birth--not virtue, talent, and wisdom) don't hijack government to their ends. Before addressing Adams' view, Jefferson writes:
On the question of which is the best provision, you and I differ, but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging in its errors. [my italics]
Notice a few things: The appeal to the values of friendship; that is, they can disagree on fundamental matters while maintaining mutual respect and while avoiding animosity. The value of the relationship and civility supersede any outcome. Also important is the acknowledgment and mutual conception of both as appealing to reason while also admitting their mutual fallibility--even under optimal conditions. 

Later, after presenting his arguments against Adams' view, Jefferson writes,
It is probable that our disagreement of opinion may, in some measure, be produced by a difference in character in those among whom we live.
Here, Jefferson importantly acknowledges the more general point that different life experiences shape our respective assumptions about the world. We cannot expect those who haven't lived our lives, met the people we've met, or shared the various circumstances that we have to hold the same views as us. Each of us experiences only a very minute subset of the human experience. And if our experiences shape our beliefs about the world, of course we will have different beliefs about the world, human nature, institutions, and so on... (Caveat: Relativism and infallibility don't follow--people can still be wrong).

Disagreement produced by differing life experiences has implications for our basic assumptions about the world. From the point of view of the norms of civil discourse, Jefferson's comments underscore the importance of mutually recognizing and acknowledging in one another the possible effects of our different experiences. I would venture that it is the failure of acknowledgement and consideration of differing experiences which draws out the reactive emotions.

Finally, in closing the letter Jefferson writes:
I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection: but on the suggestions of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.
The take-away here is that we needn't always agree. Sometimes agreement isn't forthcoming. However, given that we cannot outrun disagreement, what matters at least as much as reaching resolutions is how we engage with each other. Also, on matters where we do disagree deeply, there is an obligation to explain to others our reasons for the views we hold. That is, we must be willing to submit our own justificatory reasons to rational scrutiny. We can't simply demand that others agree with us.

Closing Thoughts
I study ethics and political philosophy. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my research over the last couple of years. Every time I come up with what I think is a good idea, a voice in my head goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t my parents tell me this when I was, like, five?”  And I don’t think much of what I’ve said here is any different. Nevertheless, that fact that so many, including myself, forget to employ these common sense ideas testifies to the value of their reminder. 

Additional note regarding self and group identity in terms of beliefs: I think there's an important distinction to be made between how we treat identity made up of empirical beliefs (observable facts about the world) vs identity made up of normative (i.e., value) beliefs. Without going into a lot of detail, I think there are good reasons for people to hold on more tightly to the value-based beliefs that form their identity. But I think we ought not hold on so tightly to an identity constituted by empirical beliefs. Doing so forces us into a position where we might have to deny a scientific consensus (think vaccine-safety denier, flat-earther, creationist, global warming deniers, etc...). This not only forces us to adopt dishonest strategies to maintain our beliefs and to dismiss legitimate argument and evidence but it undermines the important political role of empirical experts in forming policy. In clinging to empirical beliefs, as non-experts we apportion an inappropriate amount of credence to our own beliefs relative to those of a consensus of experts.

What I have said applies to the vast majority of disagreement. However, there are special cases where I'm not convinced such a conciliatory attitude is appropriate. Most obviously, this applies to how we deal with overt neo-Nazis deliberately intimidating the well-being of others. 

Whataboutyou?
Finally, before I'm inundated with tu quoques, let me make the following brief comment. We can acknowledge all I have said above and also agree that there is a time and place in discourse for humor, rhetoric, satire, and sarcasm. In fact, they are what can make political discourse fun--especially when done tastefully and between friends. Furthermore, in some contexts, humor and satire have shown to be effective means of persuasion (google it yourself--there's a lot of literature!). 

Finally, with respect to my failings, the Stoics present their virtues as aspirational; i.e., they recognize the human propensity to screw up sometimes despite knowing better. Nevertheless, they give us a target at which to aim as we bumble through life. I have screwed up and continue to screw up a lot in terms of acting on these norms of civil discourse but I'm working daily on hitting the target more than missing it.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Why Do Something Rather than Nothing? A Stoic Puzzle




Introduction
The first question of philosophy is, How should I live my life? For the Ancient Greeks, the answer was to live a good life. A trivial answer to be sure until we ask further, What is a good life? Or to rephrase it, what makes a good life good? Answers varied from school to school but for just about all of them a good life consists primarily in developing the virtues—both moral and intellectual.

From our modern perspective it’s perhaps odd to conceive of a good life primarily in terms of moral and intellectual development. For many people ‘living well’ and moral development aren’t necessarily connected. For the Greeks, however, they were intimately connected: You simply cannot have a good life without developing the virtues.

One prominent school, the Stoics, place the virtues at the absolute center of their philosophy of the good life. They believed that a life dedicated to developing the virtues was not only necessary for a good life but also sufficient. That is, a good life isn't possible with out the virtues and a good life requires no other thing. In this post I’m going to discuss their philosophy of living well along with an apparent puzzle that arises out of their view. 

I’m choosing Stoicism because over the last 8 months, as an experiment, I’ve been trying to live according to Stoic principles. For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to follow Stoic teachings to see how the quality of my life changes. Since at least my early twenties I’ve “tried on” various philosophies in search of a life well-lived. I doubt I’m the only one conducting these sorts of experiment. 

Despite the personal angle, I hope to avoid navel-gazing and stick to the philosophy. However, I do want to briefly mention that by living according to Stoic teachings, the quality of my life has changed dramatically—in the “good” direction. I’m still puzzling through parts of it and I’m not on board with many of their metaphysical beliefs but if you’re looking for a time-tested way to improve the quality of your life, I strongly recommend giving Stoicism a try. 

I’m not grounding this recommendation in a single data point but in a history of great names who studied and incorporated Stoic principles into their lives: Marcus Aurelius, Nelson Mandela, Seneca, James Bond Stockdale, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Sullivan (Mayor of Vancouver!), Arnold Swartzenegger, Beatrice Webb, Bill Belichick, T-Pain, Brie Larson, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tim Ferriss to name only a few.

Introducing Stoicism
If we want to live a good life we need to figure out exactly makes a life good in the first place. For the Stoics, a good life is one that is virtuous, mentally tranquil, and lived according to reason. An interesting feature of the Stoic system is that it is logically closed. By this I mean I can begin with any premise within the system and get to any other. This leads to a kind of logical equivalence between the various Stoic constituents for a good life: living according to reason, mental tranquility, and virtuous living all amount to the same thing. If I live according to reason, I will practice the virtues, and if I practice and develop the virtues I gain mental tranquility. I can start with virtue and make the same connections: If I am virtuous, my actions will conform with reason, and when my actions conform with reason, my mind is tranquil. 

From the point of view of teaching Stoicism, this internal logical structure makes introducing it a bit of a puzzle because it isn’t clear where best to begin. In this post, I’ve decided to begin with the aspirational goal of Stoic living as described by Epictetus: The aim of Stoic practice is to joyfully accept the world as it is. 

When I first read this, I thought this was some D-pak Chopra-level bullshit. I’m supposed to joyfully accept when shit goes wrong? What kind of pollyannaish new-age nonsense is this? 

Aside: You may have noticed that the idea of joyfully accepting the world as it is doesn’t conform with the popular understanding of the Spock-like Stoic. I’ll talk more about the Stoics and emotion in another post but a constant theme throughout Stoic writing is that one should cultivate a cheerful disposition. 

Alright, back to philosophy. The obvious question that falls out of the above aspiration is, How the heck are we supposed to maintain a cheerful disposition when so often our desires and goals are obstructed and frustrated? (Not to mention the general shit-show that the world can be). 

The answer requires we understand clearly what has value and what doesn’t (through exercise of reason!) and to pursue only that which has objective value; i.e., that which is valuable no matter who you are or what you believe. 

For most modern people, the idea that there are things with objective value is foreign: What do you mean there are things everyone should pursue? We are all special individual snowflakes, each with our unique set of things we should pursue to make life go well. Everything’s—like—subjective, maaaaaaaan! Amiright? 

Stoics argue that people get frustrated and anxious—and hence have their tranquility disrupted—because they pursue the wrong sorts of things. They pursue things they mistakenly think have objective value with respect to making their lives go well.

The Stoics divide objects of pursuit into two main categories: Internals and Externals. Externals, such as money, fame, material objects, relationships, career, sex, reputation, power, and even health have no objective value in so far as being able to make your life good or not. The only things that can objectively make your life meaningfully better are internals; i.e., the virtues. 

Note: There is more nuance to the Stoic view regarding the value of externals but I’m going to set that aside for now. It is enough to say here that, for the Stoics, externals have no ultimate value when it comes to determining the goodness of your life.

We can track the distinction between internals and externals as a division between things over which our will does or does not have ultimate control. For example, there are lots of things I can do to try to get recognition or affection but ultimately, receiving either depends on whether others want to give it (and continue to give it) to me. Because achieving these aims depends on something outside my own will (i.e., the wills of others) I set myself up for frustration and resentment when I don’t get what I want. And even if I do momentarily gain reputation or affection, I am anxious because its maintenance depends ultimately on elements outside my will. 

The same goes for something like money. I can work really hard, get the right education, and so on but ultimately the amount of money I get is outside my will: I can get robbed, my company can go bankrupt, my bank can go bankrupt, my business partner can make a bad deal, the stock market can crash, the job market can change rendering me obsolete, etc… 

It’s not that I have no control over acquiring externals, it’s that ultimately, at the end of the day, whether I obtain them and maintain them depends on forces outside my will. This explains why pursuing externals can never lead to a sustained good life. When attaining them is difficult or obstructed—which it inevitably will be—we feel frustrated and resentful. And even if we do attain some external, its maintenance is precarious. It depends not on our will but on the will of others and on the world conforming to our desires, all of which contribute to a perpetual state of background anxiety.

Marcus Aurelius put it this way: 

If you insist on pursuing externals "of necessity you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things and plot against those who have that which is valued by you. Of necessity a man must be altogether in a state of perturbation who wants any of these; and besides, he must find fault with the gods" (Meditations, Bk VI, 16).

I’ll make one more remark on Stoic attitudes toward externals. The Stoics were not naive. They recognized that a human life does go better when, for example, a person has some wealth rather than none. But the good that comes from externals is conditional. That is, it is conditional on the circumstances the individual finds himself in. For example, if someone with a bad opioid addiction came into a bunch of money, this would not be a good thing. The goodness of money, unlike the virtues, is conditional--not objective--with respect to making our lives go well. Similar cases can be constructed for any external: the world is full of unhappy people with good careers, fame, reputation, money, material wealth, and so on. 

When we observe that our life circumstances and desires will inevitably change over time, there is no guarantee that the externals we pursue and possess will preserve their goodness in those new circumstances. In short, externals on their own don’t reliably cause us to have a good life; in fact, sometimes they can make it go worse. The virtues, on the other hand, reliably cause us to have a good life: There is no situation or identity where courage, wisdom, self-control, and justice don’t cause one’s life go better.

Also, acquiring internals, unlike externals, depends entirely on my own will. The quality of the judgments and decisions I make (i.e., intellectual virtue), the character of the actions I choose and the way I react to situations (i.e., the moral virtues) are all ultimately under the control of my will. 

No one can force me to assent to a false proposition or make a bad decision, and no one can force me to act foolishly or viciously. Whether I develop wisdom, courage, self-control, patience, compassion, persistence, humility, generosity, and so on, depend entirely on my will. And the same goes for their maintenance. Since I can never be prevented by some outside force from developing and maintaining the virtues, I avoid frustration, resentment, and anxiety towards myself and others. 


The Puzzle
Early into my experiment with Stoicism, the following sorts of thoughts started to creep into my head:
If no thing external to my will has value, what the heck do I do with my life? Get a job? Meh, what’s the point? Money and a career can't make me happy. Besides, they could be taken away at any point. 
Deadline for my dissertation coming up? Meh. Dissertations ultimately have no value, so no real point in doing that.  
I should probably start preparing the lecture for tomorrow. Meh. The lecture has no objective value with respect to how my life goes.  
Well, since I'm not going to work on my dissertation or tomorrow's lecture, I might as well go to the gym to stay healthy. Meh. No point. I could just get sick and lose my gainz despite all my hard work. Worse yet, my time of death is out of my control which means I could die in an hour. Why workout if I might die soon?

Here's the funny thing. At this point, I'd been following Stoicism for about 5-6 months. Despite not caring about anything, I was actually noticeably happier than I had been in quite a while. Things that previously would have made me angry or upset rolled off me like water. Nothing bothered me cuz nothing really mattered. In a way, I’d internalized the most difficult lesson of Stoicism, to joyfully accept the world exactly as it is.

But this way of living, this grinning apathy, can't be right. And it isn't what the Stoics intended either. 

What had I gotten wrong?

Solving the Puzzle
Solving the puzzle requires we hold in our heads what appear to be two inconsistent beliefs: That externals don’t matter but that how we use them does matter. Somehow, Stoicism requires that I act as though externals matter while also believing that they don’t. Epictetus recognizes the apparent paradox: 
It isn’t easy to combine and reconcile the two—the carefulness of a person devoted to externals and the dignity of one who’s detached—but it’s not impossible (Discourse II, vi, 9). 
We can reconcile the positions by way of analogy. Think of a great sportball player. A great sportball player pursues the ball with courage, persistence, and skill—that is what makes her a great sport ballplayer. But does the great sportball player believe the ball itself has objective value? No. The ball, within the context of the game, is a means of developing and demonstrating the virtues of a great sport ballplayer. But no sportball player, no matter how good, thinks that the ball itself has objective value. What has value—what is objectively good or bad—is how sportball players pursue the ball.

As Epictetus puts it, we need
the star athlete’s concentration, together with his coolness, as if it were just another ball we were playing with too. To be sure, external things of whatever kind require skill in their use, but we must not grow attached to them; whatever they are, they should only serve for us to show how skilled we are in our handling of them (Discourse II, v, 21).

Or as he puts it another way: 
Life is indifferent, but the use we make of it is not indifferent. So when you hear that even life and the like are indifferent, don’t become apathetic; and by the same token, when you’re advised to care about them, don’t become superficial and conceive a passion for externals (Discourse II, vi, 1-2).

To summarize, Stoicism done right requires we inhabit a delicate doxastic state: We must believe that externals have no value yet we must act as though they do in order that we may develop the virtues. In a way, externals are a tool to develop the things that actually matter: the virtues. 

My mistake was was to focus solely on the idea that externals have no value. As a result I became apathetic. I failed to realize that apathy cannot breed virtue—the genuine aim of Stoicism and source of a good life. So, while it’s (sadly) true that my dissertation has no objective value with respect to the goodness of my life, how I go about writing it does. My lecture has no objective value but how I go about preparing it and delivering it does. My health has no objective value but how I go about sustaining it does. My career has no objective bearing on the goodness of my life, but how I go about pursuing it does.

How To (Genuinely) Joyfully Accept the World as It Is
In retrospect, I wasn’t genuinely joyfully accepting the world as it was. Because of my new-found non-attachment I think I was merely joyful to be free of the sorts of situations that previously would have sent me into a fit of rage, frustrated, or saddened me. Indifference was just a step up from all the negative emotions that come from attachment to and pursuit of externals. 

But when we adopt the complete Stoic view, that developing the virtues is what makes your life go well, then—through consistent practice—we can approach a joyful state of acceptance. How? Because at every turn, you will find an opportunity to develop at least one of the virtues. 

Stuck in traffic? Here’s a chance to develop patience. Working on a dissertation? Here’s an opportunity to develop persistence. Facing a difficult choice? Here’s an opportunity to develop courage. And just about every judgment, decision, and action affords us a chance to develop our wisdom. 

If it’s the virtues that matter for living a good life then we should be grateful every time we are presented with an opportunity to develop them. These situations should be received joyfully because they are opportunities to acquire something of genuine objective value to the goodness of your life—unlike the externals which have no objective value. Although, in order to develop the virtues we have to act as though externals have value, all the while understanding their objective indifference to the goodness of our life.


And so, as with so much so Stoic thought, we come full circle. If we internalize the idea that it’s the virtues that are the end goal and that have objective value, not externals, we see how we can joyfully accept the world as it is.