Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The necessity of slaughtering the meritocracy of excellent sheep in order to breed more excellent sheep

I was considering reviewing William Deresiewicz's new screed against the meritocracy, follow-up to his now-ancient essay on his difficulties communicating with his mechanic, but in keeping with my all-important New Year's resolution to stop beating dead horses and a Twitter friend's affirmation that this horse was indeed dead, I decided not to. But what is this blog if not an equine cemetery? So I'll still mention it here. I do like Deresiewicz's writing for the American Scholar a lot, especially "Love on Campus," but on the meritocracy question, he is emblematic of the bipartisan impasse in cultural writing whereby we slam elite colleges without providing any real alternative to them.

That's not to say people don't make suggestions - admission lotteries, or Great Books for all, or most commonly, the commencement speech standby: a pop-transcendentalist excoriation to individual students to stop grade-grubbing and go introspect, preferably on an alpine mountaintop or some other Romantic setting, and then to thine own self be true, or whatever. But no one is really capable of wishing for anything other than a society - and by extension an educational system - in which the best flute players get the best flutes. Because on what other basis would we award the flutes? Parentage? Wealth? Hair color? The alternatives are inconceivable to us, and that's as true of those who can imagine the dangers of a pure meritocracy as of the tech-utopians who prefer computer overlords to less intelligent human ones. So everyone who begins by roaring about the imperative to dismantle "the system" ends by bleating pleas to improve it. The problem initially set out is meritocracy itself, but by the end, it's only our current approach to merit that's wrong: it's too narrow or biased, it excludes minorities, the poor, the rural, the sad. What that really means is that merit is still the standard, but that we need a better meritocracy, not "another kind of society altogether," as Deresiewicz boldly announces in his TNR book plug.

The two halves of Deresiewicz's essay perfectly depict the contradiction of this way of thinking. In the first part, we have the classic Rousseauian critique of conventional education*: it denatures man, teaching him to live for others under conditions where real citizenship - the wholesale Spartan dedication of the self to the common good - is no longer possible. The result is confused and contradictory men who are at war with themselves, "always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone." Elite schools suppress individual nature with their insane admissions demands and their "greasy pole" ideology of success. The result is basically zombies:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
The really Rousseauian solution to this is of course to dismantle universities altogether and educate all men "for themselves" rather than for society, but it follows from this that we may have to dismantle society too, so commentators understandably shy away from that conclusion. Then the waffling begins. And what are Rousseau's most recurrent and ubiquitous injunctions but, "Don't waffle!" and "There is no half-way!" (That's a direct translation.) So the romantic, Rousseauian beginning quickly deteriorates into a technocratic, anti-Rousseauian ending. When all of society is the system to be smashed, everyone suddenly drops the sledgehammers and takes up the duct tape instead.

This dilemma explains the blatant bait-and-switch in the second half of Deresiewicz's essay. It's entirely a lament of the unjust exclusion of the poor from an educational system that Deresiewicz has just denounced as corrosive to the soul. Now the problem is suddenly that the opportunities for corrosion are not universal enough. In Part 1, for example, we are informed that the "national leadership" into which a degree from these schools will catapult you is "nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to." In Part 2, a deficient understanding of leadership is apparently no longer the problem, but rather that "we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions." In Part 1, the problem is that students pursue staid, unimaginative careers like medicine and live programmatic lives. In Part 2, the problem is that they get their medical degrees from Penn instead of Ohio State, and live in, I guess, NYC instead of Dayton. What about the souls of the poor? How will they benefit from joining the Ivy League Zombie Track? Will they not be zombie-fied just like their affluent peers? How will the zombie track be improved by their presence?

Instead of answering these questions, Deresiewicz borrows from Charles Murray's "bubble" logic the feel-good suggestion that if the children of doctors just socialized more with the children of coal miners, America would be better. No mention whether its universities would be better or its students less "anxious." Was any of their anxiety, timidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity caused by their lack of exposure to the children of coal miners in the first place? Were the defects of the university curriculum or its culture caused by it? Unlikely. But wouldn't society be better off if it weren't so economically stratified? Now we've totally abstracted from our concern for the individual soul into a concern for the national soul. We've become social engineers. And like Murray, Deresiewicz recommends many ways that you - elite university student that you are - can turn your very presence into a form of charity and uplift for the poor by voluntarily and sacrificially placing yourself in their midst. No more building houses for charity over spring break and all that condescending frivolity; now the thing to do to help the poor is to play-act at being poor yourself.

How to do this? You might find the types of places where the poor like to congregate - waitressing jobs, state schools - and frequent them. Once there, you will learn from their down-homey values how to act like less of an "entitled little shit" (though, as a volunteer for this lifestyle, you will still technically be one), and they from your maniacal work ethic and ambition how maniacally and ambitiously. The suppressed intellectual curiosity of the Ivy League striver will finally be satisfied by his summer of washing dishes and wiping tables, while the other dishwashers will learn from him the poetry of Alexander Pope that he listlessly memorized for class and be inspired to attend the Ivy League themselves, where they will be turned into gradgrinds and sent home summers to wash dishes in order to inspire subsequent poor people to become like them. In the process, all schools will somehow become excellent so you won't even need to go to an Ivy League school to get a good/bad education and simultaneously satisfy your no-longer-contradictory longings to live for yourself and be approved by others. In sum, it's gonna be real good in the future, when there is a better meritocracy that is therefore no longer a meritocracy at all, and everyone is rewarded for their equal and unequal talents equally and unequally, thereby eliminating altogether the social scourge of entitled little shits.

The problem is, if you're not willing to consider distributing the best flutes by lineage or height, then you're not really against meritocracy. Rousseauian individual soul-training is tempting, but Rousseau is emphatic that there can be no educational system made from it, and maybe even no education in the first place, so it may not offer the best model for the systemic reform of education. One can worry about perfecting souls or about equalizing systems, but equalizing systems of soul perfection may prove impossible. Judging by his earlier articles, Deresiewicz is at bottom a soul-perfecter and not a system-equalizer, which is almost always the better thing to be anyway.

*As the great mid-century thinker Lesley Gore once said: It's my blog and I'll generalize if I want to.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Things to see and do

Sometimes you just have to update, even if you have nothing to say.

A highly selective encyclopedia of political thinkers.

- Here is Market Basket, the incredibly cheap grocery chain in MA to which I never lived close enough to be able to shop regularly, looking like the Soviet Safeway* on a bad day. I hope it stays in business, even though I'm living no closer to it this year than previously. But everything in Boston is so expensive that there has to be some reprieve somewhere, even if only in discount tomatoes.

- I've been reading Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer, some for a summer seminar and some more out of curiosity, and this is my most blog-able discovery: it's apparently not unusual for Ashkenazi Jews to be blond. All my life, I've been told that blond Jews were an anomaly and possibly evidence of some long-forgotten intermarriage to a wandering Swede who one day circa 1860 found himself in Galicia, but there are plenty of blond Jews in these stories.

*The Soviet Safeway is the Safeway in the Watergate building in D.C. Or it was that Safeway; I don't know if it's still around. But in the two summers that I spent nearby, it would regularly run out of food mid-week.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Selective enrollment schools, Chicago edition

Chicago's selective enrollment situation is a little more complex than New York's. There are strictly selective-enrollment schools (of remarkably variable quality) that admit all their students from a city-wide application based on exams and middle school grades. But there are in addition a number of schools made up partly by selection and partly by neighborhood residence. Such schools offer both IB and regular high school tracks, or are partially magnet programs and partially neighborhood schools. And there are also networks of public charters (mainly on the South and West Sides). In other words, there are a number of alternative public options in addition to the regular neighborhood school, some sorted by ability and some not.

Although the magnet schools have been around for decades, at least three new ones have opened since the 1990s, IB programs have been added to more neighborhood schools, many of the old community schools were shut down and re-organized into (still mostly bad) smaller "academies" in the 2000s, and the charters have come in within the past 15 years. The result has been more choice for students, and the result of more choice has been - "unexpectedly," according to Chicago Public Radio - more pronounced sorting by ability than ever before. High achievers prefer schools high performing schools, and the low scorers are left behind in the old neighborhood schools, as depicted in this nifty visualization. This is almost the inverse of the Stuyvesant complaint: now it's not that the smart minority kids aren't getting into the better schools, it's that apparently too many of them are.

There could be an argument against such sorting if the previous system of community schools that offered less choice and a greater mix of academic aptitude were a well-functioning one that had been arbitrarily dismantled and replaced with this cream-skimming machine that puts all the bad students in holding pens to become even worse than before. But that is in no way what the Chicago Public Schools looked like before these new choices were introduced. Everyone in this article conveniently ignores how almost across-the-board terrible the neighborhood schools were in the 1990s. How, even the better neighborhood options were average at best, and none, by 2000, were any longer good. Almost all of of them were de facto racially segregated because Chicago is de facto racially segregated. The majority of them were poor: nearly everyone who could afford private tuition left the system if they didn't get into a magnet school. The high-achieving students in them were clearly too few to "improve" their classmates, while the schools were dismal enough that they did little to improve the high-achieving students, if they didn't sabotage them. Who benefited from this "diversity"? And how could the system as whole really get much worse than this?

What strikes me is how little has changed from the old system. Although there is no historical comparison offered here, the old system's imprint is still clear from this graph: the worst schools are still in the worst neighborhoods - Englewood, Austin, Grand Crossing, etc. Only now, there are multiple schools of slightly variable performance where before there was just one very bad one. What, exactly, is the beautiful world of diversity we've abandoned by letting better students from the worst neighborhoods go somewhere less terrible than Englewood High School or Austin Community High School, especially given that they are likely still going to the marginally-improved remnants of these same schools? One thing this article doesn't address that seems important is whether there is more inter-neighborhood mobility as a result of these new options. That is, are more top-scoring students from Austin going to the better magnet schools, none of which are in Austin? That would demonstrate really pronounced sorting, whereas here we may be primarily seeing the results of intra-neighborhood sorting: where there are now three schools instead of one, there will be slight variation (really a matter of 1-2 points on the state exam) in who attends which. Such sorting is neither as alarming as this article suggests (total brain drain!), nor as heartening a change to the old system as one would hope for: it seems to have opened up some marginally better options to students in very bad neighborhoods and left all else much the same. The best selective enrollment schools are still getting the very best students, as they always have, the worst neighborhoods still have the worst schools, as they always have, and everything in-between resides in a stagnant puddle of mediocrity.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Department of bad ideas: closing selective enrollment schools

Reihan Salam, Stuyvesant alum, offers his own solution to the Great American Crisis that has most recently afflicted Stuyvesant High School: the Plague of Too Many Asians, which is also in this case the Lack of Any Minorities (as I've written before, these concerns always seem to appear together - when a school becomes "too Asian," we immediately complain that it is not black or Hispanic enough). He suggests that New York shut down the selective schools and disperse their students, along with their students' talents, among the smaller, specialized schools throughout the city where they will be more individually attended to. I suspect that the purpose of this argument is more to provoke outrage among the outrage-prone and thought among the thought-prone than to advance a serious policy proposal, since the view of education Reihan espouses here seems too laissez-faire to countenance the forceful closure of any kind of school that works for some sorts of students, and magnet schools do work for some students.

As far as I can see, Reihan's complaint against Stuyvesant is two-fold: first, it no longer promotes social mobility as well as it once did when it was whiter, and second, that it does a disservice to the bottom half of its graduating students, who come out of it no better off in terms of college and socioeconomic prospects than they went in. In addition, competitive schools breed cheaters. I have nothing much to say about the last accusation since I'm not sure that they do so at higher rates than other schools. And even if we found conclusively that there is more cheating at selective schools, I'm not this would mean that selective schools were worse if the reason for the discrepancy was that non-selective students so little value academic success that they neither cheat nor work hard attain it. That's a tricky trade-off. So let's move on to the other points.

Reihan actually gives two accounts of the purpose of magnet schools: the immediate purpose in the 1960s and '70s was to provide an incentive for white and middle-class urban families to remain in cities (New York's exam schools are older though). But the second rationale for selective admission Reihan offers is almost directly at odds with this:
Integration is about helping students build social and cultural capital. Notice, however, that Stuyvesant has grown less and less white over the years. It’s certainly not true that all white New Yorkers have more social and cultural capital than first- and second-generation Asian-Americans. As a general rule, however, native-born whites, and in particular rich native-born whites, tend to be more established in American society than recent arrivals from China’s Fujian province or Bangladesh...My gut tells me that Stuyvesant has grown steadily less attractive to white families with the kind of social and cultural capital that helps people get ahead in America. These families are seeking out other options, and so have savvy families of all ethnic backgrounds. Over the past three decades, New York’s wealth boom has contributed to soaring endowments at the city’s elite independent schools...More consequential still has been the rise of smaller public high schools, which offer well-defined curriculums that are a better fit for the large majority of students, gifted or otherwise, who need a bit of hand-holding. 
On this second view, magnet schools exist (or should exist) almost exclusively to benefit immigrants and low-income native-born minorities while doing nothing for the affluent native-born students they were designed to court. And, on this view, if native-born students abandon them (as they are doing), such schools cease to offer any benefits at all. But if magnet schools worked best when they served as centers of social-capital transfusion from native to immigrant, then why would native-born families ever have aspired to send their children to them in the first place? Why would admission be so competitive? Private schools were always an option for wealthier New Yorkers, and parochial schools and suburban migration to the less wealthy. It may well be that for many immigrants, the choice was between exam school if you could get in and the district public school if you struck out. But native-born parents who sent their children to the exam schools were choosing that over other options, so they had to have believed that the exam schools offered their children something more than the opportunity to help a clueless immigrant kid become familiar with indie music and high-end retail outlets.

And Reihan actually hints at what the real draw of these schools is for everyone when he says that,
I met two of my lifelong best friends there, and being surrounded by thousands of the city’s scrappiest strivers, most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants from New York’s outer boroughs, taught me more than I ever learned from any teacher.
So rubbing shoulders with native-born Americans seems not to have been the primary benefit of Stuyvesant for him, and it's not clear how rising Asian enrollment precludes a student today from having the same experience there as he did. The reason that exam schools are so sought after is because they're full of smart students, native-born or not. It was not whiteness or native-born American-ness that made these schools good, but the simple concentration of high-IQ students, which even the richest suburban schools can't match because they're required to take all district residents. Simply being the child of an affluent suburban family is not as strong a predictor of intelligence as intelligence itself, which magnet schools select for directly. And attending a school full of intense, competitive, smart people is a great experience for many (though not all) intense, competitive smart people. Smaller, specialized local schools with hand-holding do not substitute for this experience unless they are also selective, and the more selective they are, the more they will eventually resemble...Stuyvesant.

The social-capital angle is really that, if you are the child of a fry-cook from rural China or Honduras, competitive colleges will look more favorably on your application if you're a top-ranked Stuyvesant applicant than if you are a top-ranked student at, I don't know, Flushing High School. (This entire blog post would be a lot easier for me to write if it were about Chicago's magnet vs. public schools instead of New York's.) If you are the child of one of these "in-the-know parents" whose habits Reihan is concerned to imitate, you need the opportunity that exam schools offer less than the child of immigrants because you have other ways to demonstrate your talents. But, because immigrant parents will never be as in-the-know as the in-the-know, closing the exam schools will only close off this opportunity for them without replacing it with another. The immigrant family still won't be able to afford Dalton, and their district school will still suck. Now what alternative do they have? Perhaps over time, word of these "smaller public high schools" will spread, and immigrants will try to get their children in, but this again means only that competition for spots will increase, admissions standards will need to be implemented, and...Stuyvesant.

As for the sinking side of the sink-or-swim equation, the way Reihan frames it suggests that an appropriate amount of hand-holding would make successes of all students. Clearly, that can't be, since so long as there are evaluative measures of some kind, half the students at even these idyllic smaller schools must still sink below the average. But let's consider the strongest possible case for this, which is that every student at Stuyvesant could, in principle, be at the top of his class if he attended a non-selective school, since exam schools are essentially skimming talent from the student population at large. Would it not be better to drop these students back into their mediocre public schools, where none of them will mathematically have to fall into the bottom half of their graduating classes? Is the social and intellectual benefit of being a comparatively bad student at Stuyvesant greater than being a good one at a mediocre school? Well, which would you choose if 1) you were just starting high school and didn't yet know what your outcome would be, and 2) even if you knew in advance that attending Stuyvesant would mean graduating at the bottom of your class? I would choose the magnet school in both scenarios, probably regardless of how many Asians were there.

And does the bottom of the Stuyvesant class actually fail in life? Or, specifically, does anyone fail because of their low class rank rather than for other reasons that may also have contributed to low class rank, like craziness, family or drug problems, straight-up laziness? I have no idea, but I'd suspect not. Evidence requested. The education professor on whom Reihan bases his argument asks, "If you graduate from Bronx Science with a C average, what college are you going to go to?" So say you go to CUNY? Are you then doomed? And by contrast, had you gotten an A average at Medgar Evers Prep, where he recommends you go instead of Bronx Science, are you guaranteed a better college-and-life outcome by it?

Now, none of this defense of selective enrollment schools has anything to do with the perceived problem of minority enrollments. I don't have any great answers there, since I don't think the test-only approach is any worse than other absurd ideas like factoring in middle-school attendance (!?!). Chicago's magnet schools have never, as far as I know, relied on a test-only system, and the best (historically one, but recently four) schools in its system have remained excellent. Indeed, Chicago's selection process has long included a nepotism-and-political-clout component - arguably an even worse criterion than attendance. So I don't think that changing New York's admissions criteria will necessarily precipitate a huge drop in overall quality, even if it's ill-advised and probably motivated by irrational dislike of Asians.

However this problem is solved though, I don't think Reihan's own argument for closing the exam schools can really get any farther than a warning that these are competitive places that can be really soul-crushing for some people, and you matriculate at them at your own risk. Which is fair enough, but no more than a warning. Noguera, the ed prof that Reihan quotes, suggests that competitive academic environments are simply pernicious for minority students, and Reihan extends this claim to all students. But there is no evidence that this is really true, and it doesn't even seem to have been true for Reihan. It's far more accurate to say that some students flourish under such conditions, and some don't. For that reason, magnet schools shouldn't be the only options available, but neither should they be unavailable. The fact that white flight is no longer a problem in New York and there are now many more school options than in the past doesn't make exam schools useless or pernicious. If more smart kids (or really their parents) vote against Stuyvesant's competitiveness with their feet, so to speak, by choosing other kinds of schools, then competition for seats at the exam schools will relax on its own. We are even less likely now to reach a point when all talent is concentrated exclusively in three schools and the educational landscape beyond those schools is a barren wasteland than we were in the 1970s, so there is little reason to worry that "one warehouse of a school" has "hoovered up" all the smart students and forced a "one-size-fits-all" education on them.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cattus absens

My apartment is under extensive construction, so we're boarding the cat at a kennel (self-proclaimed "pet resort" that could more accurately be called "pet prison") for the week. I thought I would enjoy this respite from feline-induced fussing (did I leave cheese out? did I forget to check if he was in the closet before I closed the door? will this species of potentially purchasable plant poison him?), but actually, it's just sad not to have a compliant ball of warm fur at your disposal in regularly appointed locations throughout the apartment. And now I worry that he's contracting some exotic cat-borne fever or being eaten by his prison-mates instead.

Also, the fact that the Latin word for cat is cattus vindicates the perception of the average fifth grader that Latin is just English with an "us" appended to all the nouns. Sadly, little else about Latin satisfies that hope.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Hannah Arendt movie

Yes, this movie came out two years ago, and I have been anxious to see it for three, but such are the privations of living in paradise: we are not exactly the market for this kind of film. (My husband protests that the world slights "San Diego intellectuals," but our effort to identify even one candidate for this title resulted only in the smug guy who runs D.G. Wills.) But Netflix instant is a great democratic leveler, and now the movie is available on it. Everyone else who cares has already seen it, but what can we who dwell amid the swaying palms and rolling surf do about that?

As one of my friends observed when it came out, it's hard to make a compelling movie about people whose main activities are reading and thinking. Given this structural obstacle, this one was not too bad. But maybe its inability to get beyond not-too-bad suggests that movies cannot be "philosophical" by depicting the activity of philosophy, and are better off illuminating philosophy's questions by indirect means. The movie-fication of Arendt's understanding of Eichmann and evil was basically accurate and coherent, but her arguments are all conveyed via her monologues to her absolutely rapt students (these lectures are all of five minutes long! no wonder the students can manage to look so intensely absorbed) or in harangues to her cocktail party guests. These scenes alternated with absurd shots of Arendt lying on a couch chain-smoking with her eyes closed, to indicate "thinking." (Side note: These characters in this movie smoke as much as the characters in Cheever drink. Mid-century America really must have been the greatest time to be alive for lovers of permanent mild chemical stimulation.) (Experiment in living: if I lie on my couch and chain-smoke for four hours a day for the next year, will my dissertation write itself into brilliance? I'm sure I would enjoy testing this, but less sure I would enjoy the results.)

An important part of the movie is friendship and conversation, but the cheesiness of the dialogues is directly proportional to the clarity of the monologues. This seems to be a product of research almost too well done, since much of the dialogue is taken from Arendt's letters, and sounds unnatural when put into conversation. This is especially true of the exchanges between Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who comes off as a very sophisticated airhead. But it's even true of the tender conversations with her husband, who is clearly intended to come across as a serious thinker in his own right and a kind of philosophical muse to Arendt, but who actually only repeats one tired point for the entire movie (it was illegal to kidnap Eichmann and try him in Israel) even when this point's relevance is long past. It is never clear how Arendt's friendships provide more than moral support, encouraging her to keep going under adverse conditions, but not really contributing substantively to her thinking. When she is shown arguing with her friends, it's a battle of wills: she insists that Eichmann is mediocre and not an anti-Semite, her friends insist the opposite. Then someone swoops in and changes the subject before they come to blows. There was only one scene where it seemed that one of Arendt's friends says something she did not think of herself: when Kurt Blumenfeld explains that the generation of children born after the Holocaust blamed their parents for not resisting because they didn't grasp the totalizing, systemic nature of the Final Solution, and that the testimony of survivors at the Eichmann trial was intended to reveal this to them. This point was connected to the backlash against Arendt's claims about the complicity of European Jewish leaders, but I'm not sure this is clear in the movie. At some point very late in the film, she does admit that "resistance was impossible," but it's not clear what this means given how much the movie dwells on Arendt's own escape from France.

Another reason I think the depiction of Arendt's friendships falls flat is that the movie indulges pretty shamelessly in national stereotyping. There were the gregarious but intellectually shallow Americans (McCarthy, the New School prof, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling) contrasted with the brooding, profoundly insightful Europeans (Arendt, Blucher, Hans Jonas until he defects to the stupid side, and even Arendt's secretary), and in this case, it added a third type: the passionately nationalistic but self-deluded Israelis (Blumenfeld, Hausner, the non-appearing Ben-Gurion). Much is made of how ignorant Americans are of foreign languages, and the students in "Advanced German" whom Arendt teaches sound like they'd barely pass a first-year course. When Podhoretz and Trilling oppose Arendt's Eichmann articles, they're dismissed as opportunistic naifs who never had to personally flee Nazis and so have no credibility. The multi-lingual Arendt with her dark personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism is the only person who can be right about Eichmann. This clearly poses a difficulty with explaining why other German Jews with comparable personal experiences and linguistic abilities like Blumenfeld, Jonas, and Gershom Scholem (seemingly merged into Blumenfeld's character in this film) also objected to Arendt's book. And the answer the movie gives us is basically that they're stubbornly over-committed to Zionism. This is forgivable because they've been though a lot, what with the Holocaust and all, but ultimately, they are just too angry and close-minded to see clearly. Reason is on Arendt's side, passion is on theirs. (Which, incidentally, seems incompatible with her younger self's incomprehensible but apparently seductive soliloquy about "passionate thinking" to a clownish Heidegger in one of the Heidegger flashback scenes that this movie really could've done without.)

And, to be fair, I suspected in advance that the film would demonize Arendt's detractors while turning her into a paragon of free thought against their venal attempts at censorship, and was watching for confirmations of my suspicion. Most of the movie is not this lame. But the depiction of Blumenfeld's and Jonas's intractable, unreasoning opposition after Arendt's articles are published was pretty flimsy. Surely Arendt was not the only person in the world to think seriously and unhysterically about evil and totalitarianism? If, as the movie suggests, her main qualifications to think seriously about this were contained in her life experiences (a claim which real-life Arendt rejected) and the rigor of her education, then Blumenfeld's and Jonas's claims should be as strong. Plus, there is a scene where sinister Mossad agents ambush Arendt at her country house demanding that she retract her book (over whose printing they have no control) and threatening to ban it in Israel (which they also can't do). And she bravely stands up to these fascist thugs (see, Jews can be fascists too, especially if they are Israeli) and says no! That's straight-up agit-prop.

Even though I think it tries to avoid this, the movie depicts "philosophy" as consisting in feeling agonized over something in your personal life, lying around, producing a deep thought, and then browbeating the public with your thought. This requires great courage, because the more brilliant your thought is, the more strenuously the public will oppose you. I suspect that it's really just too hard to visually depict the reciprocal relationships between reading, talking, thinking, and writing, and that the best way to experience them short of actually living them is not to watch a movie about people who thought but to read the books their thoughts are in. I'm not actually sure how this movie would even be interesting to anyone who hasn't read Arendt, or that it alone would pique anyone's interest in reading her. But I can see the appeal of a visual depiction for those who already love Arendt.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More on YA lit is bad, parody edition

This synthesizes the situation, style-wise:
"Her eyes were green in a really specific way. Other people’s eyes are green sometimes, but
not like the way her eyes were green.

Her hair smelled good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb. “Your hair smells good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb,” I told her.

“Thanks,” she said. “I washed it.”

Monday, June 16, 2014

John Cheever, Collected Stories

Another ambivalent chronicler of proprieties, like Henry James lite, showing at once how stifling and crazy-making all these social rules are and also how necessary. But in this case, either because Cheever makes himself less distant from his characters, or because their proprieties are less distant from mine, the sense of their importance and violation is more intuitive than James's. I still spent plenty of time looking up things like Lady Baltimore Cakes, serge suits, and Episcopalian church services. (I at first thought the characters were Catholic because they took communion, then decided this was improbable, vindicated my doubt via the internet, then wondered whether I've ever even met an Episcopalian.) Also puzzling was why, despite the fact that all the characters drink enough to euthanize a horse, no one is ever depicted drinking a beer or even a glass of wine, unless they're abroad. Was there really a world so recently lost whose inhabitants exclusively drank cocktails, whose alcoholism was so stylish? Maybe it still exists somewhere or could return, so that we don't have to spend our social lives trying hopelessly to discriminate the fruit notes in a tasting flight of microbrews?

I read "The Swimmer" in high school, and although it was beautiful and impossible to shake off, it also gave me the inaccurate impression that Cheever was a typical mid-century critic of bourgeois suburban despair. But the progression of the short stories suggests a different development: Cheever's early stories are more New York-centric, critical of the bareness and compression of city life, but already ironic and redemptive. ("Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" is so aggressively ironic that it could be mistaken for something from O.Henry.) The middle stories are the suburban ones, taking place in old money (but besieged by new money) Shady Hill, where the burden of keeping up appearances has made everyone privately crazy, but where there is still enough sweetness in life that most of them eventually find something to keep them going, usually a crisis-induced realization of their love for or need of their spouses. In the Library of America edition that I read, there is a little essay inserted in the end, "Why I Write Short Stories," that strengthens my impression that these suburban stories cautiously embrace suburban life as a reasonable temporary shelter from the postwar storm, something less than the lofty dignity that its mishmash of historical facades aspires to, but something more substantial than mere appearances. It's the later stories, among them "The Swimmer," which are about irredeemable despair. But these are also less consistent - often we're abroad, usually in Italy, starting to approach Jamesian territory. I'm an impatient reader of the American expatriate's lament, so I skipped many of these.

One liberty that Cheever seems unable to permit his characters - in addition to a sip of wine or beer - is a divorce. There are many threats of and attempts to divorce, but the couples always recover each other in the end. In the only two stories of unsalvageable marriages, Cheever kills the couple's children first, as if in pre-emptive retaliation for their waywardness. It's not that there are no divorces or family abandonments off the page - we encounter many fatherless characters, and some who divorced at some point before the story begins. But that the story itself should countenance such a rupture seems impossible.

Finally, there is a short appreciation of Saul Bellow appended to this edition, particularly fitting for me because Bellow is one of the few contemporaneous writers I've read, and all throughout these stories, I kept thinking of their inversion of Bellow's preoccupations. Bellow's characters are hustlers, even those who find themselves in genteel professions (of which there seems to be approximately one for Bellow: the academic), where they proceed to become hustling professionals. And hustling works for Bellow's characters, though they sometimes suffer nervous breakdowns along the way. In Cheever's stories by contrast, there is a pronounced absence of hustling. He depicts some misguided efforts to hustle ("The Pot of Gold" and "O City of Broken Dreams"), but these schemes suggest that it's a doomed pursuit, in addition to being disreputable. In his appreciation, Cheever has a funny description of competing with Bellow: 
"I was determined to diminish the book. I read Augie March dead drunk in a heated room. I read it backwards. I read it upside down in a bucket of water. The clarity of the voice and the music he sang remained peerless. I then moved my family to Italy, where,on a winter afternoon, I saw a woman on a Roman bus reading with great intensity an Italian translation of Augie. I wanted to kill her."
I wonder if he saw him as representing American life from something like the opposite end, from the precariousness of clinging to the summit rather than the vagaries of climbing it?

Friday, June 13, 2014

On choosing an early modern sect to join

As a natural partisan, I have long wondered, while studying things related to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on whose side I would fight were I present at this time. I find it difficult to study any event or text or epoch, no matter how long-past, without vicariously taking a side in its disputes. Often the choice is easy, as when one must decide whether to be a Greek or a Persian, or an Athenian or Spartan in the fifth century BC, or a Ciceronian or anyone else in the first century. Sometimes it's more difficult, like the for some reason ubiquitous dilemma of my undergraduate life about whether to be a Greek or a Roman during the late Republic, a dilemma centering on a mutually exclusive choice between a philosophical and poetic tradition on one side, and a legal and historical one on the other. 

But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries present us with a unique proliferation of choices. Assuming you were not geographically constrained, would you be a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Huguenot (or some other continental Calvinist), Catholic, Jesuit, Anglican, Jansenist, one of those weird Bohemian heretics, or something even more bizarre - Quaker, Ranter, Anabaptist? And let's be clear, you cannot be any of these things casually, but must choose on the assumption that you will be fighting for it, by means of either pen or sword. A great deal is at stake in this decision: an entire worldview, a way of life, the social and political order implied or expressly demanded by the theology you embrace. 

In college and for some time after, I assumed I would have obviously liked to be a Calvinist of some sort, most likely English, so that I could be a Puritan, but Scottish Presbyterianism would be acceptable as well. And if not that, then surely some other respectable sort of Protestant - an Anglican, if necessary. But time and study have revealed to me the hard fact that, all things considered, I would probably be happiest as a Jesuit. (Yes, I realize I would have to be male to qualify, but that's no less improbable than time travel, so I'm unperturbed by that technicality.) This realization goes against all my entrenched sympathy for Protestantism over Catholicism, which can alternately be understood as a preference for early America over everything else. It has been hard to come to terms with this new understanding of my hypothetical historical self and its implications for my previous staunch Puritan partisanship, but I am trying.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A secular prayer for those afflicted by the World Cup

In the manner in which nondenominational, vaguely deontological benedictions were delivered to us in college:

We call this day upon the Great Benevolent Substance-Form That Infuses The Universe With Reason to preserve us against the irrational scourge of global soccer fandom by which we are quadrennially visited. From Thee, we seek patience and forbearance, especially those of us married to individuals of South American descent or those from the benighted nations of Europe and Africa whose peoples worship globular gods of synthetic leather on vast altars of turf. We ask

That when the screaming from the pub on the corner downstairs threatens our sleep, we may calmly close our windows and return to our slumbers and not launch projectiles in its direction.
That when we are shocked out of our sidewalk reveries by a car bearing foreign flags blaring its horn for no traffic-related reason, we are able to re-compose ourselves and continue on our paths rather than screaming obscenities after it.
That when we speak to our spouses whose heads are glued to their tablets, they do not respond with, "Gogogogogo...YES! GOAL! GOAL!" and then take a victory lap around our living rooms before re-affixing their tablets to their faces.
That when we are trapped in conversation about the relative merits of the various priests of this fanatical false religion, we may be permitted to pass through them unharmed with a non-committal response of "yes" to every question.
That when we are in close proximity to disputes waged by partisans of its competing sects, we may be preserved from the ensuing blows of their fists.
That when we are in the vicinity of partisans of a sect which has gained a recent victory, we may be spared the necessity of engaging in celebratory dance with them.
That when partisans around us have imbibed overzealously, we may avoid being the inadvertent receptacle for the contents of their stomachs.
That when we are dragged to viewings of these cultic rituals, we recall that with each additional enactment, we come closer to the conclusion of the whole.
That we may simply ignore our Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, and NYT feeds for the duration.

We beg of Thee a speedy deliverance from these and other instances of unreason which will beset us in the coming weeks, which we understand come as a logically necessary re-education for our ethically unsupportable actions of the past four years. For these things do we beseech you, Great Substance-Form, whose wisdom is complete and whose judgments are a priori just.