The Question of Purpose in a Learning and Teaching Organization: Diagram

Learning and Teaching Operational Models

Trying to balance accountability with accessibility is one of the key problems of leadership in any organization, but in educational institutions the challenges are unique in that the fundamental purpose of the organization requires engagement and collaboration from all those part of the enterprise. This model makes sense of the challenges of designing an institution that supports learning and teaching, but which balances two sometimes conflicting goals:  creating a culture of learning while achieving excellence in learning and teaching.

No single model is representative, each has its strengths and problems – the idea is to visualize the contrasts in some way.  The range of ‘less focus’ and ‘more focus’ is meant to refer to the central purposes of the organization.  So, if the central purpose leans more toward ‘excellence’ or ‘quality improvement’ that is one direction, while if it leans more toward ‘learning culture’ or ‘organizational development’ then that is another purpose.

Each model utilizes elements of the others and no model is exclusive, it is only in the degree to which the model leans in that direction that determines its position.  The description of each model refers to a series of metrics, including ‘who’ carries out the functions, the direction and type of learning and service provision, whether it is focused on goals or process, and whether it is competitive.

Ultimately, the purpose serves the organization by creating the conditions for its operation, as well as by shaping expectations for performance.  Like any good classroom, the function and purpose that underlie the enterprise should closely align with the structure.   At the same time, purposes should be flexible and, to my mind, not neglect the processes that allow people to be people, and to realize their best selves in any organization.

Speaking Screwdriver

Collaborative Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed: Approaching the Crossroads

3 Trends

Institutional centres for learning and teaching serve vitally important functions in higher education.  They focus on core educational activities.  However, across the country, for a variety of reasons, these offices are at a crossroads.  I’d like to consider at least some of the factors creating change as we move ahead to a 21st century learning and teaching environment.

What is the 'place' of teaching in higher education?
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The impetus to create centres for learning and teaching in the 1970s and 1980s arose from three main developments.

First, there was an explosive growth in literature in the educational field that could inform teaching and contribute to better learning outcomes.

Second, governments increased pressure on higher education institutions to make use of resources more efficiently and effectively.

Third, there was a growing unrest among students concerning the quality of instruction (understandably, given the rising cost of tuition and the declining relative value of a degree in an increasingly competitive job market).

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.  The need for cost savings conflicts with the desire for student access to quality teaching, and student demands sometimes conflict with the best practices of teaching.  As well, there has been an incomplete fit between the growth in teaching-oriented professional development and improved student learning outcomes overall.

The ‘Place’ of Teaching

In research universities, teaching has often been considered a ‘lower tier’ of academic activities .  This is not without reason if the focus is on graduate education, since on average only 30% of PhDs actually go on to academic positions in which teaching is a primary activity. Given this, it makes little sense to ask graduate students to devote a lot of time to prepare to be teachers. In addition, the universities’ focus on research as a source of funding means fewer expenditures on other initiatives with less potential for return.  As a result, despite the fact that teaching occupies a considerable amount of professors’ time and energy, professional recognition or institutional support for teaching remains comparatively low.  While less apparent in teaching-oriented universities and colleges, the same dynamics are at work driving teaching-oriented professional development at other institutions.

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.

The Great Acceleration

All three of the conditions that contributed to the creation of learning and teaching offices in higher education still persist.  The growth in knowledge about learning, student expectations, and governmental belt-tightening are still at work.  However, almost everything else about the environment has changed, creating a sense of flux and transition, opening up new opportunities and choices.

The crossroads confronting education is at least in part, a function of the wave of disruptive technology, including mobile and online options, which has upended education.  New technologies diffuse power, eroding the monopoly of knowledge and expertise.  This is evident in the boardroom as well as the classroom.  In response, managing technological transition has become a key focus for centres for learning and teaching.  The technological imperative is accompanied by the perception among administators (although not necessarily the reality) that new technologies will create cost savings and that students will demand them.  The drive to incorporate and disseminate new educational technologies and to encourage their adoption by faculty has become central.

Administrative Imperatives

The fear of being overtaken by competitors is almost overwhelming. As W.D. Smith pointed out in Maclean’s a few years ago, the drive to be competitive (which incurs increasing costs for recruitment advertising and change management) are causing ballooning administrative costs.  CBC news reports that “non-academic full-time salaries at Ontario universities, adjusted for inflation, rose 78 per cent from 2000/01 to 2013/14, from $934 million to nearly $1.7 billion (Davison, March 16 2015).”

The 2012 removal of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia was motivated largely by concerns over “competition, technology and scarce resources.”  Her subsequent reinstatement after an outcry from students and faculty vindicated her view that “corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university (Sampson, Aug 27 2012).”

people election
Professional development that uses a transmission model is less suited to a world of rapid technological change.

The pressure to compete and for cost control also accelerates a focus on superficial measurement of professional development activities.  As Broad and Evans point out in their summary of the PD literature, “evaluation connected to professional development tends to consist of “counting” or recording activities or outlining the activities undertaken with no analysis of their impact on learning or practice (25).”

Growth in Knowledge

The second big change is around the literature on learning and teaching.  There is little agreement on what kinds of professional development actually lead educators to improve their teaching practice.  The result is a cacophony of conflicting advice and forces. Approaches veer between the extremes of standardized delivery models on the one hand, and collaborative peer-led models of professional development on the other.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.   Together with the trend toward knowledge sharing facilitated by network technologies, the need for a collaborative model of professional development is increasingly apparent.

The benefit of a collaborative approach is its recognition and respect for diversities of opinion and for the knowledge and experience of teaching practitioners.  This philosophy prioritizes bottom-up expertise, dialogue, exchange of knowledge, problem-solving, realistic expectations, caring for the teacher and learner, and, at its core, a recognition of the ambiguity of the practice of teaching and learning.  It prioritizes a consultative, open, and mutually supportive culture that recognizes disciplinary knowledge and respects differences while working to improve student learning outcomes by building relationships.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.

This approach, while true to the state of the literature on learning and teaching, is at odds with the third driver, that of improved cost-effectiveness.  It is also at odds with the increasing pressures to be competitive and cutting-edge in an era of shifting technologies.  Managing change under this philosophy is slow, incremental, and consensus-driven.

Growing philosophies of learning focus the process on the learner.
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The future of learning and teaching will be shaped by many conflicting forces. Shifting student demand, changing technologies, and a focus on organizational efficiency and measurable outcomes will continue to influence decisions.  Proceeding as if all options are possible (and compatible) only deepens the cacophony and reduces effectiveness.   Managing change in this transition means going beyond superficial forms of consultation to create new, more inclusive and open forms of collaboration.  This is in line with the levelling influence of technology, and is a good fit with the dominant philosophies of education, which increasingly recognize the need to acknowledge and include the learner in all dimensions of the educational process.

When States Fail Humanity: Distance, Strangers, and The Home Analogy

Middle East

The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet.  Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy.  One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers.  If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis.  To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.

However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together.  Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies.  For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today.  Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways:  1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.

Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.

However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family.  In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.

BarbariansThis background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied.  It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states.  The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness.  Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law.  Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return.  Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary.  The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger.  The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers.  The defeat of the

The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do.  However, states are another matter.  States are created by humans to encourage the compassembrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up.  The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system.  What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.

Is Arts Education Ripe for Disruption?

In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused  about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies.  This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills.  Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.

It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’.  The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences.  The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system.  Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.

None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking.  Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs.  To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.  However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).

 To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.

Protest Signs
Political Science emerged from turbulent times.

In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’.  For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge.  This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.

Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations?  There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom.  These two learning settings can be complementary.  With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting.  Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners.  This can shorten the time necessary to learn.  However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria.  Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.

Is Higher Education Ripe for Disruption?

Disruptive innovations are those that open up new markets by creating a demand using a simpler or different package of attributes from those available in existing markets.  Such disruptions tend to emerge in contexts remote from the immediate concerns of an established industry, but ultimately have wide and deep effects that can cause radical shifts.  Disruptive innovation is often less about the product and more about the delivery system or point of access to the product.  For example, most of us still watch movies or tv shows, but tend to download or stream the content rather than visit a Blockbuster.  Most of us listen to music and follow the news, but tend to download or stream music and use the internet to follow the headlines.   In the past, we may have opened up our morning newspaper or put a record on a turntable.  One of the lessons is that it is not sufficient to rely on demand for the product to drive a given mode of delivery.

While it is difficult to identify industries and firms ripe for disruption, the tendency is to point to large-scale concerns with overpriced products and stilted business models based on industrial-era formats.  Higher education has been in the sights of those writing about disruptive innovation for precisely this reason.  Its reliance on mass delivery of material through face-to-face lectures, the credit system which offers degrees based on time investment rather than competency, and its increasingly overpriced credential system has the hallmarks of an industry ripe for innovation.

I would argue that higher education is not a perfect fit, however, for the types of analysis offered by Clayton Christiansen and Sebastian Thrun and others concerned with disrupting education and encouraging more radical innovations.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.  A better comparison might be with the travel industry, similarly engaged in delivering what might be termed an ‘experience’, and one which operates on the basis of time as an investment [or, in the case of a vacation or an education, a reward for effort].

Experience or even time is a more complex commodity than a book or a song.  Although web-based booking has almost completely replaced travel agencies, professors are not like travel agents in that teaching involves a more complex and involved relationship than simply the ‘delivery’ of the material and the ‘reception’ in the mind of the learner.  Music and movies are still ‘mass produced’ and streaming a movie or song is virtually the same experience as playing the song on a record or watching a VHS.  In those industries, innovation was more disruptive because the experience the products offered were interchangeable.  In education as in travel, the experiences are more differentiated and uniqueness is the stock in trade, and increasingly, it is theIfQYv singular and unique interaction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ that creates and adds value.

it is for this broad reason that I hesitate to apply the frame of disruptive innovation to higher education.  Yes, there are problems with the mass delivery model based on lectures and textbooks and tutorials.  Yes, there will be challenges to the delivery model through MOOCs and even peer-led educational models as found on Redditt and other sites. However, a more likely outcome than a full rupture may be a disaggregation of the educational functions of accreditation, time in class, competencies, and resources.  In my next blog post, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption.  In fact, I will further argue that Arts education is actually less vulnerable to disruptive innovation than the STEM subjects precisely because of its unique character as an experience created by the organic relationship between teacher and student.  Education is as much process as product.

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.

 

The Psychology of Wealth and the Social Contract

Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor
Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor

Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off.   Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems.  It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education!   Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences.  There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.

Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian.  He declared:

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.

This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies.  Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level.  Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor.   The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently).   As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.

 The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…

I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric.  Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket].   But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool?  It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.

I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society.  What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group.  For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.

Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests.  A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset.  Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another.  This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty.  If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.

Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby
Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby

Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].

Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!)  In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking  (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract.  That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.