Cultural Psychology

Archive for March 2012

Revisioning the University, Part 2: Extra-Educational Motives for College Attendance

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The first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern technology makes it unnecessary.  Free, or nominally priced distance-learning courses are an alternative.  As proof of concept, a later post constructed a sample liberal arts curriculum using existing high-quality video courses, with an estimated cost of $400/year.

Given that viable alternatives exist, why do young people still feel compelled to attend status quo corporate-style universities, even if that means paying insane tuition? It seems we must look to motivations beyond the simple wish to gain an education, i.e., to explanations in terms of emotional, social, and ‘intangible’ factors.  Let’s consider a few of these.

Rite of Passage

Every young person instinctively seeks to gain social recognition – i.e., some form of achievement such that society will say, “you have arrived at adulthood.”  This seems a basic requirement for self-esteem, at least in our society.  Graduation from a college or university can meet this need for achievement.  That is reasonable in itself.  But the question must be asked:  should we really subject students to massive debt merely for this purpose?  Other ways to meet the need are possible (climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail, going on a mission, starting a business, completing a Great Books list, etc.)

We should add that there is both a good and a bad form of this.  The good form supplies ways that young people can derive *genuine* self-esteem by accomplishing something beneficial to others.  The bad form is elitism, whereby a person does something for the sake of gaining status.  Modern universities appeal to this elitism.

Socialization and Partying

Clearly many students see college largely as an opportunity for socialization and partying.  The former is arguably productive, or at least benign:  young people make friends, join clubs, participate in intra-mural sports, etc.  However this often degenerates into a partying lifestyle.  Not only does that serve no productive purpose, it means that, in the case of public universities, taxpayers are required to subsidize this kind of atmosphere.  This is also unfair to those students who approach college more seriously.

Delay of Entry to Workforce

If there are no jobs, society must have some way to handle the surplus labor.  Colleges can be misused for this purpose.


Today’s public elementary and secondary school education, combined with the dumbing-down forces of modern culture generally, have potentially left young people today less emotionally and intellectual mature than in previous generations.  Not really knowing who they are or what they want, students attend college for indefinite periods, hoping to eventually ‘find themselves’. However, all too often what happens instead is that they acquire the habit of laziness and lack of focus.

Transition from Parental Household

A seemingly minor point, but actually fairly important.  If young people didn’t have some convenient and non-threatening way to move out of the parental household, they might stay there indefinitely.  So young people and parents alike have this tacit incentive for  the former to move off to college.

Having noted a few of these secondary motives for attending college, we can ask:  is there some alternative way to address these without making young people pay enormous college tuition?

Of course there are, and if society tried, it could come up with better solutions.  One simple example would be a program of nature camps, whereby young people (e.g. ages 18-20) spend a year or two living and working, say, in the mountains somewhere.  Nominally, they’d do things like building trails or planting trees, maybe train in athletics.  Informally, they could socialize, party, become more mature, etc.  At least in the past, this paradigm was followed in certain Scandinavian countries.

Another alternative would be to encourage a wanderjahr abroad – informal traveling, perhaps organized around some theme of interest, like historical sites, national capitals, or museums.

Once they’ve sown their wild oats and gained maturity, young people could return at age 20 or 21 to begin their college education in earnest.  When I taught I was strongly impressed by how much this age difference helped in terms of student focus.  For example, students who started college after military service just breezed through courses; it made teaching much easier.

The bottom line is that we can separate the educational purpose from certain unnecessary social functions of the modern college.  By addressing the latter in other ways, we should be able to make the educational function of colleges much more efficient, and can reduce tuition accordingly.

The Fable of the Ten Dollars

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One day Sam woke up early.  It seemed like a good day for fishing, and he thought he’d try his luck.  He headed out to his favorite fishing spot, and before long caught a splendid fish.  He brought the fish directly to the village market, where it sold almost immediately for $10.

“Just what I need,” thought Sam, “to replace my old and nearly broken fishing pole.” He walked across the marketplace to the stall of Mike the woodcrafter. Sam picked out a new pole made of willow, and bought it with the $10 he’d just earned.

A little later that morning, Mike the woodcrafter had a hair appointment at Pete the barber’s. Mike got a haircut, and paid with the same $10 he’d received earlier from Sam the fisher.

At lunchtime, Pete the barber went to a nearby cafe, where he bought lunch for himself and a friend, paying the $10 that Mike the woodcrafter had paid him.

A few minutes later, the cafe owner, Sally, noticed she was running low on lentils.

She sent her assistant to the grocery to buy some.  “Here, take this”, Sally said, handing her assistant the same $10 that Pete had paid for lunch.

When Sally’s assistant arrived at the grocer’s, Angela the farmer was there with a delivery of apples.  Sally’s assistant bought $10 worth of lentils from the grocer, who   then paid the same $10 to Angela for the apples she’d just delivered.

One the way home, Angela stopped at store of Evan the potter, where she bought a watering pot – paying the same $10.  Later, on his work break, Evan went next door to the Chloe the masseuse.  Using the $10 he’d gotten from Angela, he paid Chloe for a relaxing massage.  Later, Chloe visited the baker, where, paying the same $10, she bought bread and pastries for a party she was having that evening.

Now this continued all afternoon and evening.  In less than a day, the same $10 changed hands twenty times. As a result, twenty people were enriched: some had delicious meals; some had new tools to make their work and lives easier; some had new clothes; some were better groomed; some entertained.  All were happier.  The total wealth gained by the village, measured as improved quality of life, had increased by $200.  All this happened because of the same $10.

That same day in another village, another fisher also woke up early.  He looked outside and thought, “What a nice day to sleep in. I don’t really need the money. Why work today?”  This fisher caught no fish, earned no $10, and bought nothing.  In consequence, many other people in his village — the barber, baker, grocer, and others — had an empty hour in their day, when nothing was bought or sold.  To fill the time, people napped, or watched television, or gossiped, or argued, or drank, or  fretted and felt depressed, or in various other ways wasted time or made mischief.

Now what may we conclude from this little story:

1. The wealth of a community is not a function of how much money people have. 

Here $10 bought $200 worth of actual goods and services. But that’s just the beginning.  In each transaction of our idealized story, there were two direct beneficiaries. The purchaser benefited by gaining a new good or service.  And the seller benefited from (1) the satisfaction of having served and made happy another villager, and (2) from the enjoyable time spent pursuing his or her vocation.

Each villager was passionate about his or her work.  Each person found greater meaning, purpose, dignity and self-respect by engaging in productive activity.

Sam, for example, liked fishing so much that, in truth, he would have paid $10 for the opportunity to fish.  Anyone with a passion for their work knows this to be true.

Therefore, if we were to include the value of the experience of working, the  wealth gained by the community was more like $400:  $200 for the receivers of the goods and services, and another $200 worth of satisfaction, enjoyment, and fulfilment by the producers.

Moreover, each transaction was itself a positive experience.  Each affirmed the integrity and usefulness of both individuals, and of the community as a whole.  Both parties felt respect for themselves and for the other.  Their trust and confidence in each other grew. Therefore we may add at least $2 gained – $1 for each person – as psychological benefit in each transaction.  Thus in twenty transactions, the community profited $40 more this way.

Further, we could consider how many harms the village avoided by keeping everyone productively and happily occupied.  In view of the crimes not committed, the problems not instigated, the vices not pursued due to idleness, we could easily allow that the village profited another $400 in avoiding costs associated with these problems.

Thus the $10 led to an enhancement in quality of life in the amount of $840.  Had we included a few more people, this could have as easily been $1000, or a two-orders-of-magnitude increase.

2. Rapid circulation of currency is more important than total capital. 

For example, if each villager had $1 million in the bank, but didn’t spend it, the functional wealth, measured in terms of improved quality of life, would not have increased at all.  Even if the money earned interest every day, it would just be an abstraction – numbers on a bank statement – unless it became a good or service shared with another.

3. The wealth of a community is the eagerness and willingness of people to work for one another.

In our scenario, people were eager to both supply and to purchase goods and services.  The only limits on how much total quality of life improved was the speed and skill which people performed their work, and their interest and efficiency in purchasing things from others.

In every economic transaction of our idealized, happy village, each person, whether buying or selling something or exchanging services, seeks not just to maximize self-interest.  Each party further wants the transaction to benefit the other; and, moreover, the entire community.  Each transaction becomes an opportunity to practice, affirm and develop a favorable community ethos.  Each is a re-affirmation of one person to another:  I live, I work, I derive my meaning not just for myself, but for you and others also.

And added to this benevolence, magnanimity, or whatever we choose to call it, is another virtue, namely that of promptness, energy, and industriousness in work.

This again is an attitude or ethos that may permeate a whole community. We have described more than just a community of people with good intentions and positive sentiments.  We’ve described a community of hard-workers. There are few, if any, stronger motivators of human activity than a loving desire to help others.  This is how human beings are designed:  to work, to work hard, to enjoy work, and for all this to serve others.

4. Every economic transaction was direct, person-to-person. 

This further encouraged and supported the villagers’ natural tendencies to act ethically and pro-socially.  When doing business with an anonymous entity – some corporation or bank – these positive social forces don’t operate. If one buys something from a fellow villager, it pleases one to know that the money will improve the quality of that person’s life.  Doing business with a corporation, this is not so.  The money may just sit in a bank, be put to questionable use, line the pockets of someone who is absurdly rich; or be sent out to anonymous stockholders who will little appreciate either the money or its source – namely the dedicated labor of a fellow human being.

If it is a good corporation, say a producer of clean energy, some of these problems are offset or not present; however there is still lacking the reinforcement that comes from positive, person-to-person interaction.  We see no smile, no light in the eyes of a corporation, or, usually, not even in an employee of a corporation, however benevolent it may be.

We may work out of love for each other; but we cannot work out of love for a corporation, a government, or another anonymous entity.

5. The economy is stimulated by ethically positive work.

Essential to the scenario is that the work performed in each case was productive and ethically positive.  If we were to insert into the sequence say, Zack the adulterated cigarette maker , it would break down:

  • First, Zack himself has a conscience, and would know that what he is doing is morally questionable.  This would make him enjoy his work less.
  • Second, to the extent that Zack was conflicted and internally divided, it would impair his productivity.  His heart wouldn’t be in it.
  • Third, people who did business with Zack would feel guilty, either consciously or subconsciously, because they are asking him to do something which is not good and emotionally fulfilling for him.
  • Fourth, people who supply goods and services for Zach’s business might feel uncomfortable knowing that they are, at least indirectly, supporting Zach’s questionable work which harms others.
  • Fifth and finally, the opportunity for Zach to be delivering some other, truly productive service to the community is missed.

In closing we consider two more speculative points.  Concerning these the author is more hesitant, having no firm opinion whether they are correct, or whether some other interpretation would be more accurate.  However they suggest general lines of thought suggested by the fable which might bear further investigation.

6. Some forms of taxation are intrinsically unfavorable.

Taxes are a necessity, but are problematic in our village.  In theory, taxes are used to help the community.  If a person saw that 10% of every dollar spent went to feed the hungry or treat the sick, and that this had a demonstrable benefit on the recipient’s quality of life, there would be no difficulty.  One would be no less psychologically motivated to purchase goods and services.  One would work just as hart to earn money with which to purchase things.  The loss in purchase power, such that 1/10 of every dollar went to the taxing agency, would be offset in seeing the benefits of taxes in the lives of others.

However, to the extent that taxes are unfairly high, or revenues are mismanaged, so that they do not improve the lives of community members, then this benefit is lessened.  It is also reduced to the extent that tax-payers do not personally know the recipients of tax-funded community programs.  A merely abstract charity – whereby one believes that one’s money is helping some anonymous others – is much less potent a psychological reinforcer and motivator than a personal charity – where one directly sees the effect it has.

As for modes of taxation, a sales tax on each transaction would seem to have the worst possible effect on our ideal village economy.  The miracle of the $10 occurs precisely because people seek commerce: all other things being equal, it is better to include more, not less people in the chain of transactions.   A sales tax, however, produces an incentive to reduce the number of transactions.

An income tax, provided that expenses (purchases) are exempt from tax, would not have this effect.  This would amount to a profit tax, rather than an income tax.  Note that this has the effect of discouraging saving currency, i.e., making profit.  However, in our model, profit per se, if that means accumulating more money than one can spend on natural (community-harmonious) goods and services, is something, arguably, to be discouraged.

7.  If there is a lull in the economy, the government should not try to remedy this by creating jobs.

One can create a job, but one cannot create a vocation or a passion. Passion is something either God-given, or develops instinctively in the context of a community of people with needs and interests.  Passionless jobs immediately remove half the value of work – the value to the workers in the enjoyment of their labor.  Unmotivated workers are slower and less efficient.  At the end of the day they go home exhausted and depressed, not much interested in improving their quality of life by purchasing goods and services of others.

The rejoinder might be:  what if the government could create jobs that people find fulfilling?  The answer is obvious:  nobody needs to create jobs that people like to do.  They will do them anyway, given the chance.  If anything, the government should seek to remove obstacles to people being able to follow their own chosen vocations.

A government could, however, act constructively and supportively in other ways:  for example, by promoting education and culture, building a marketplace for the exchange of goods; constructing and maintaining roads and infrastructure, etc.

Written by John Uebersax

March 19, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Superman: Unanswered Questions (Humor)

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Superman:  Unanswered Questions

Everyone likes Superman.  He’s a modern legend.  A heroe’s hero.  But there are a lot of funny things about him that somebody really needs to clear up.

Here are some of the more obvious questions:


Everybody knows that kryptonite incapacitates Superman.  So why don’t his archenemies just use kryptonite every time they fight him?   Instead, it seems like an occasional, capricious thing with them.  Like all of a sudden they remember, “Oh yeah, Supermen can’t handle kryptonite.”  But the rest of the time it never occurs to them.

Lead protects Superman from kryptonite.  Why doesn’t Superman line his suit with lead?  Then he would always be protected.

By the way, kryptonite is still not listed in the periodic table of elements.


The bad guys in Superman stories are always called  his “archenemies.” Does he have any regular enemies, or just archenemies?

Energy Requirements

Superman must have incredible metabolic requirements.   Does he get this from food, or from another source?  It must be the latter.  You could probably show with math that the amount of energy he expends in a typical super adventure is more than someone would get eating Baskin-Robbins banana splits nonstop for 100 years.

The Superman “Eulogy”

The 1950’s television show began with the following famous introduction:

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!

Yes, it’s Superman — strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman — who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent (mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper), fights a never ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

This, of course, is very inspiring, but it bears close scrutiny.  Let’s examine it.

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Superman can fly, right?  If you can fly, who cares if you can leap tall buildings?  Unless maybe the point here is that he leaps buildings by a different method than he flies by.  Maybe he flies using anti-gravity or something, but leaps buildings using very strong leg muscles.

Update!  According to the Wikipedia, the old Fleischer cartoon company (Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman) is “responsible for Superman being able to fly.”  When they began making Superman cartoons, they complained that a “leaping” Superman, though it might work in panel comics, was “silly looking” in a moving image medium.  Hence Superman became a flying hero.  The phrase of the cartoon prolog was accordingly changed from “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” to “able to soar higher than any aircraft.”  Why the 1950’s television series reverted to the earlier formula is anyone’s guess.

By the way, the animation in Fleischer Superman cartoons was way ahead of its time.

(Speaking of Wikipedia, here’s an article on Powers and abilities of Superman. )  Now to continue…

Look, up in the sky.  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s Superman!

Is it really that hard to visually distinguish Superman from a bird or plane? When he flies he doesn’t look anything like either of them.  He doesn’t flap wings.  And there are no contrails.  If anything, he might be mistaken for a UFO.

Yes, it’s Superman!  Strange visitor from another planet…

Is Superman “strange?”  Unusual, perhaps; or unique.  But he’s not really strange, is he?  Except for his powers he really seems fairly ordinary—especially compared to some of the villains he fights—giant robots, creatures with tentacles, etc.  All in all, Superman is fairly normal.

And about this “visitor” part.  What does that mean?  A visitor is someone who comes for a while and then leaves.  This seems to imply that Superman is going to leave.  Otherwise they’d call him an “immigrant” or “refugee” or “asylum seeker” from another planet. When is he going to leave?  Why?  Where is he going to?

Does this reveal something we’re not supposed to know?  Like the world is going to blow up soon, so that there won’t be an Earth and Superman will have to fly to some other planet?

…with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Are there other kinds of men besides mortal men?  Anyway, it seems like this confuses the issues of mortality/immortality and having super powers. These are really separate things, aren’t they?  It might be more precise to say “powers beyond those of non-super men.”

Superman–who can change the course of mighty rivers,

Well, that is impressive!  How would he do this?  By digging a channel very quickly to divert the river?  Or maybe by using his super breath to make a huge wind that changes the river’s course?

It’s worth noting here that Superman has never actually done this.  It ‘s just a hypothetical power.  Seen in that light, it seems funny they would pick this particular example;  it’s not the kind of thing people think about much, unless you’re a river diversion engineer or something obscure like that. They could as easily say, “who can change the course of hurricanes,” which  might be more relevant.

Or they could allude to an even mightier hypothetical power—like “Superman, who could hurl up the sun like a softball all the way to another galaxy” or something like that.

Update! After writing this I found that one of the several variations of the opening prolog of the Fleischer Superman cartoons was in fact:

 Faster than a streak of lightning, More powerful than the pounding surf, Mightier than a roaring hurricane,

bend steel in his bare hands…

What?  They’ve just said he could change the course of mighty rivers. That’s probably stronger than 1 million men combined!  But—bending steel?  Any circus strongman can do that.  They might as well say he can tear phone books in half or lift really heavy rocks.  Sheesh!


Because of his powers, don’t you think the U.S. government would try to draft him or something?  Like, why spend trillions of dollars fighting wars when you could just send Superman?

And not just national defense.  They’d probably want to use Superman to fight the war on drugs, build a lot of highways, or put satellites into orbit.

Would he do these things?  If Congress passed a law, or maybe if all citizens got together and amended the Constitution to make him do our bidding, wouldn’t he, patriotic guy that he is, just go along with it?

But if, say, Congress passed a law that Superman had to obey them, and he refused, how would they enforce it?  The only recourse would be either (1) to cut a deal with Superman’s enemies, maybe offering them immunity or a lot of money to capture him; or (2) to use kryptonite to make him to cooperate.  The second alternative is more likely because it could involve defense contractors like Lockheed and Halliburton, who would make a lot of money designing and deploying kryptonite devices.

Probably Superman would hire good attorneys (friends of Perry White) and take it to the Supreme Court.  (Something to think about when voting — you don’t want a President who’d appoint namby-pamby Justices who are too soft on the Superman-slave issue.)


Superman could easily win every event in the Olympics, except maybe synchronized swimming.  (Badminton is questionable—it’s not clear whether he has super fine-motor control.)    That he hasn’t participated and hogged all the Olympic glory reflects well on Superman.  Most people would probably want to do it at least once, just to prove the point.

What would happen if Superman played pro sports?  It might be fun to watch at first, but would probably soon get boring.   They’d eventually have to change the rules to negate the advantages of his super powers–like the NBA did with Wilt Chamberlain.

Still, you’d think Superman could at least make a Wrestlemania appearance.  He could make millions and give the money to charity.

This is just sad.


One naturally wonders how Superman would do in a fight against various other superheroes.  For example:

Batman.  Ordinarily, this would be no contest.  Batman doesn’t have super strength at all.  He can barely knock out a human villain with a punch. Basically, he’s just a regular guy in a bat suit.

On the other hand, Batman is the one superhero you’d most expect could get his hands on kryptonite, since (1) he’s rich; (2)  he’s good with technology; and  (3) he’s friends with the Gotham City police, and could borrow stuff they’ve confiscated from archvillains.

Spiderman.  There should be no doubt but that Superman would kick Spiderman’s spider-butt. Spiderman couldn’t even beat Supergirl.  Even Batman would probably beat him.

A few years ago, publishers D.C. Comics and Marvel Comics collaborated on “Superman vs. Spiderman.”  But it was ridiculous:  Spiderman’s powers were temporarily boosted to super levels by archenemy Lex Luthor.  You can’t cheat like that, even in fiction.  I mean, they could have as easily given Spiderman a potion that made him 1000 feet tall.  With Superman and Spiderman at their normal strength levels, Superman would obviously win.

The Incredible Hulk.  This is the most promising match-up of all.  Superman and Hulk have about equal physical strength.  But, owing to all his other powers (heat vision, super breath, super speed, etc.) Superman would likely win.  Besides, the Hulk is incredibly dumb, so Superman could easily trick him.

Superman and the Hulk have fought a few times in the comics.  In this example you can see what I mean.  Superman has a really patronizing attitude towards the Hulk.  Like he’s talking to a dog or something.

The comic book battles themselves are indecisive.  The only real conclusion is that if these guys fight there is a huge amount of collateral damage, so you probably don’t want to be around.

Wonder Woman.  This is a hard one to answer because, whereas Superman’s powers are well established, Wonder Woman’s are more vague.  For one thing, she has powers that verge on the magical, which takes us off into a completely different realm.  Anway, the point is moot, because Superman would have a hard time fighting a woman.

Superman and Wonder Woman fought once, but I don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously.  It was just a excuse to sell comics:

Hercules.  Superman would win.  Hercules was basically like a very, very strong man (or maybe technically a demi-god – but not a god).  For example, if Hercules threw the discus, he would beat all the other competitors by a wide margin. But Superman would send the discus clear out of sight—into outer space, if he wanted!

This question, however, has an interesting spinoff.  The most famous Hercules movie actor, Steve Reeves, has the same last name as George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on television.  So if we asked instead which of these actors would win in a fight, the question is potentially answerable, though we will probably never know.  Steve Reeves had a lot of muscles, but George Reeves looked pretty strong, too:

George Reeves (R.I.P)

Steve Reeves


Godzilla.  Godzilla is not usually thought of as a superhero.  But sometimes, he sides with humans against rival monsters or aliens from the future, so he might qualify.  In any case, I think Superman would probably beat Godzilla.

Superman has never fought Godzilla one-on-one, but there was a three-way battle between him, Godzilla and King Kong once.

Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2012 at 2:17 am

Posted in Humor, Uncategorized