Another fine theory slain by an ugly fact

A reader reports, on the basis of personal observation, that my guess about the likely nature of UCLA’s mandatory “sexual harrassment prevention training” sessions was wrong:

I read your thoughts on the new UC sex harassment seminars and generally agreed. When I attended the training a few weeks ago I was expecting it to be the sort of Maoist self-criticism session I’d heard so much about.

Fortunately, it wasn’t anything like that. The instructor was a lawyer and she treated us as if it were a law seminar, the focus of which was informing us about what our legal responsibilities are in responding to accusations against our subordinates.

Unfortunately, one of the main themes was that the law is really ambiguous.

In this case, I’m glad to have been wrong, though of course not glad to have made a mistake in public. It sounds as if the sessions actually consist of education rather than training, and if my employer thinks it would serve a corporate purpose for me as a supervisor to be educated about the intricacies of sexual-harrassment law, I have no objection to offer.

The difference between “training,” which I find objectionable in this context, and “education,” which I don’t, lies in the intention behind the process and the roles assumed by the participants.

Training assumes as its end a particular behavior pattern; education does not. If I’m being trained as a pilot or a scuba diver, or if a group is being drilled in carrying out an emergency evacuation of a building, asking serious, challenging questions of the trainer is entirely out of place. The trainer knows how to do something, and knows how to transfer that know-how to those being trained. The role of the trainees is to suck up as much of that know-how as possible, asking questions only to resolve ambiguities.

A teacher has a completely different role in principle, no matter how training-like teaching can be made under the influence of, e.g., Open Court. (Of course, reading is a skill and not a subject matter, and pupils need to be trained to decode written language before they can be taught to read for meaning.) And a student, as opposed to a trainee, ought to approach what is being taught critically rather than in a spirit of pure uncritical appropriation.

In my own teaching, I try hard to treat my students as free and equal intellectual agents, reminding them that my opinions are not authoritative and that the authority I do claim on behalf of the discipline I teach is merely provisional; having come to understand what “policy analysis” is, it’s up to them to decide whether, and to what extent, that approach is a valid way of thinking about the world.

So I resent it when the institution I work for seems to be failing to accord me the same degree of respect. (Yes, I understand that my privileged social position makes me subject to much less of such nonsense than would otherwise be the case; I’d prefer to subject blue-collar people to less of it rather than equalizing the suffering by subjecting professionals to more of it.)

And, as I say, I’m glad to learn that my concern in this particular case was unjustified.

Footnote Mike O’Hare’s defense of the sexual harrassment prevention training process rests on a different basis. He takes it to be the case that sexual harrassment is a natural temptation, on the model of overeating, and that most people need “socially organized, serious, support” to overcome that temptation.

That starts to sound more like therapy than it does like training, which raises a different set of hackles.

Therapy, like training but unlike (well-practiced) education, creates a relationship of profound, albeit situation-specific, inequality between the therapist, presumed to know what healthy functioning is, and the patient, presumed to need the therapist’s help in achieving or restoring healthy functioning.

That’s the basis for having a legal right to refuse therapy: i.e., to refuse the patient’s role. (Note that the word “patient” has the same root as “passive;” a patient is someone who undergoes treatment by someone else.) Why shouldn’t employees have the same rights as schizophrenics?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: