Monday, June 30, 2008

Teh glory, teh wonder...teh internets!

The Washington Post has a fascinating profile of an important project being undertaken at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that is sure to fundamentally enrich our understanding of political life in America. First, some background on the researcher:
"Allen was ideally suited to embark on such a difficult hunt. She boasts two doctorates, one in classics from Cambridge University and the other in government from Harvard University, and won a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" award at the age of 29. Last year she joined the faculty of the institute, the only African American and one of a handful of women at the elite research center, where she works alongside groundbreaking physicists, mathematicians and social scientists. They don't have to teach, and they face no quotas on what they publish. Their only mandate is to work in the tradition of Einstein, wrestling with the most vexing problems in the universe."
Ok, phew. And what is this vexing quandary that requires two PhDs, a MacArthur grant, and an appointment at IAS to solve? Turns out, it's that age-old dilemma: who started that "Obama is a Muslim" email chain?

Hours of exhaustive archival research A quick Google search led to the shocking conclusion that some of the text of the email came from postings on Free Republic. Allen then read the archives of the Free Republic, printed them out, and organized them into really scholarly-looking folders. Then she hunted down some of posters on the Free Republic, and they (surprisingly!) turned out to be paranoid retirees who opposed Obama, but would not admit to writing the email. Neither would Andy Martin, another borderline nutcase. It was at that point, after nearly six months of intense intellectual effort, that Allen gave up the search.

But, don't cry! This potentially earth-shattering inquiry was not a totally lost cause. She did gain some valuable insights from her journey to almost-enlightenment that she'd like to share with us:
"What I've come to realize is, the labor of generating an e-mail smear is divided and distributed amongst parties whose identities are secret even to each other," she says. A first group of people published articles that created the basis for the attack. A second group recirculated the claims from those articles without ever having been asked to do so. "No one coordinates the roles," Allen said.
Wait, you mean spammy chain mail is not a highly coordinated plot by a hierarchical terrorist cell organized around the single aim of undermining Obama's campaign? It's just paranoiacs in their pajamas sending out crap?

Academia is so much more awesome than I imagined.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The uses and abuses of elite education, part III

One final thing about all these woe is the meritocracy complaints--Deresiewicz's, Samuels's, Gessen's, and Kirn's: as personal narratives of then I was lost, now I am found, and also of glances into a coveted world, they have a certain undeniable appeal. And they tell us some true things: some people at elite schools are snobby or careerist or simply corrupt a lot of the time (and almost everyone is sometimes), there is a lot of grade inflation (the A- effect--true), a lot of posturing and pure bullshit, there are indeed too many awards for mere aptitude rather than actual accomplishment (perfect attendance is not an accomplishment, nor is a high GPA), and so on.

But are these writers' own bad experiences evidence that "the system" is rotten, or merely that they were themselves unserious at the time, that they assumed that getting into elite schools was their only responsibility, and that, once there, the school would hand them an ideal university education in a box with a bow? Walter Kirn, for example, admits that he was always cynical about Princeton, that he had gone there not for an education, but for social promotion, and that his attitude never actually changed while he was there. So should we be shocked or blame Princeton when he ended up learning nothing, and doing a lot of drugs instead? If Princeton had been less tolerant of its students' obscene behavior and toolish intellectualism and forced them all to read all the Greek classics in the original or something, would he have fared better? Judging by his own account of his intention to game the system, I don't see how.

None of these people seem to have gone to college to get a serious education, or at least, none of them seem to realize that it's as much a student's responsibility to find such an education among distractions and false starts as it is the school's responsibility to offer one, so why should we cry for them when they become disillusioned? Disillusionment is a good first step; too bad they didn't act on it sooner and stop caring so much about their roommate's neckties or their classmate's estates while they still had time. Julia suggests, "I think, if he had bothered, he could have learned something at Princeton." I agree.

UPDATE: Another interesting point at Ferule and Fescue:
I also have a hard time feeling that it's a huge loss if someone who isn't willing to take risks declines to take them. Would I have liked to have seen the novel that student of mine might have written? Yes. But I'd probably also like to have seen the novel that one of my freshmen comp students at RU might someday have written--had he had parents who were academics, who encouraged his writing, and who sent him to a fancy school where he could participate in 10-person fiction workshops with prize-winning novelists. But he didn't, and he's majoring in criminal justice. Is the unwritten novel of the former more valuable than that of the latter? I'm sure Deresiewicz would not say so. But his argument comes close to implying that, because one is privileged enough to know the good things in life, one has a moral obligation to pursue them at all costs. The other kid? Well, he probably has to support a family, or whatever.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The uses and misuses of my donation money

Ok, so I finally gave in to the incessant begging of the alumni association and donated $5 to the U of C. Five dollars is also how much my parents were forced to "donate" to my grade school's PTA every year when the ever-cheerful PTA moms would call every week to remind my parents that I was free-riding on their important educational benefits--like the frosted chocolate cupcakes with orange sprinkles we got on Halloween. Five dollars is a meaningful amount. And now that Chicago allows you to choose the use to which your money will be put from an extensive drop-down list including "other--please specify," I got to send my $5 to a particularly worthy cause.

At first, I considered sending it to the Humanities Core, but I figured there was no actual fund for that and they'd just send my $5 to the College Fund and misuse it. Then I considered earmarking it for campus landscaping because at least $5 can buy some tulip bulbs. Finally, I figured that Social Thought might have a bank account, and Cheryl thought Social Thought was a more worthy recipient than campus landscaping, so I ended up donating $5 to the Committee on Social Thought.

I'm pretty sure that's not what the super-excited maniacs who sent me 100 emails this year had in mind when they begged me to donate. On the other hand, I don't think Social Thought can do much with my $5, so I still feel like I win in the end.

The uses and abuses of elite education, part II

William Deresiewicz is really sad about a lot of things. He is sad that elite schools are producing too many analytical thinkers and not enough spiritual wanderers. Never mind that some of his sadness is sometimes contradictory (he wants high school students to only pursue the one or two subjects they love, but colleges must provide broad educations and prevent students from specializing), or that his romantic notions about what goes on in third-rate state schools are probably somewhat misplaced (though America no doubt has its share of Ben Franklins). University Diaries has a good response to the essay and its many cousins in the "woe is the meritocracy" family.

That said, one recurring lament that I don't fully understand is that universities do not cultivate enough rebellion or "thinking outside the box." The very use of the cliche seems to betray exactly the problem to which official encouragement of out-of-boxness is subject, namely, that no one who really thinks outside the box would require such cliches to express their ideas, and those who do require cliches can't think outside the box themselves. Doesn't iconoclastic rebellion require a status quo against which to rebel? If everyone is rebelling, what is left for them to rebel against? Mass student rebellion has already been tried, and it collapsed into a smoking pile of pieties and different but equally rigid standards of behavior--a new box for us all to think in.

If we recall the allegory of the cave, we might remember that in every actual regime, by definition, the outside-the-boxers must be the exception fighting an unwilling public, not the rule. What would the regime look like if the puppeteers facilitated their version of enlightenment? I'm afraid it would result in a lot more self-abortion art.

But based on my purely anecdotal experience, some approximations of Plato's philosophers stubbornly persist in universities, largely undisturbed by the careerist ambitions of some of their classmates, and the world-saving ambitions of others. (And it should be noted here that even Thoreau does not precede the NYSE--this tension has a long history in American universities.) Everyone knows people in college who just wanted to contemplate Egyptian hieroglyphs or write poetry forever, and who believe that this is an image of the good life. These types go straight to graduate school after college without giving even a passing thought to gainful employment, or they simply go off somewhere and do something weird without any regard for what their classmates think of them (as opposed to those who do calculated weird things completely out of regard for their self-image). They can often be identified by their lack of interest and skill in money management, which arises out of distraction rather than acquisitiveness. Most people cannot be like them no matter how much the university exhorts them to sacrifice petty pleasures and gossip (even most academics can't sacrifice these things), nor is it clear that America would be better if everyone were Thoreau.

While I'm sympathetic to Deresiewicz's (very Arendtian) fears about the decline of solitude in modern life, I think the university is among the most amenable places for such solitude, and I have no idea what he's talking about when he reports that his students are never alone. Maybe they should transfer to the U of C. I was alone all the time in college and spent probably the equivalent of six months wandering around Hyde Park. Also, I wrote all my papers alone, except for those times the 5402 tried to work together and spent the entire time giggling. I ended up writing all those papers alone too, since nothing was accomplished when collaboration was attempted.

All that solitude, and still I am petty and gossipy and not even an approximation of B. Franky, our American Plato. Some things are just not meant to be.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The uses and abuses of elite education

Is it an evil thing to use your elite education to get a consulting job at McKinsey instead of attempting to save souls with Teach For America? I think there is something to the idea that the elite in America have more civic responsibility than everyone else, but that hardly means everyone needs to abandon worldly ambition and live only in the service of the poor. If it weren't for the 20 percent of Harvard grads working 70 hours a week at McKinsey, there would be no TFA for the rest of their classmates. The connection here is quite concrete--McKinsey has actually donated money and consultants to TFA to keep it afloat in the '90s. And more broadly, where does Howard Gardner think all the money for all these do-goody non-profits is coming from if not Wall Street firms? Much of the new social entrepreneurship is closely and consciously linked to corporations, in terms of funding, but also in its outlook and emphasis on data and results. Has it occurred to anyone that making money might actually make it easier for some people to make the world a better place, either by giving them the time to volunteer or the money to donate to keep Harvard's professional world-savers in Birkenstocks for the year?

And what, ultimately, is the end goal of all this teaching for America and anti-poverty initiating if not to help put the underprivileged into the position where they can obtain precisely the high-paying job and comfortable life that Harvard apparently wants its graduates to hold in contempt? And what ever happened to the claim of elite schools that their student bodies come from "diverse backgrounds." If that's really true, then presumably some of those from the less well-endowed backgrounds have some loan debt they have to pay off before they go "make the world a better place"?

And really:
“It’s like applying to college all over again,” he added. “ ‘I applied to 8 to 10 Ivy League colleges, and I got in here. I applied to these 40 companies, and I got into these ones.’ It’s exactly the thing that appeals to the Harvard competitive spirit.”
As if TFA is any different.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

An open letter to Craigslist posters

Dear Craigslist posters,

Let's have a little talk about lying. As you may have heard, lying is typically defined as knowingly saying things that are not true. If you haven't heard, it's a good thing you're reading this letter. Now, I understand that it's sometimes hard to sell your stuff, especially when your stuff sucks. So you dress it up to make it seem more desirable by suggesting, for example, that it is antique instead of simply weird, dirty, and insane. Fine. At least you're up front about it being an egg incubator instead of a coffee table. (And who knows, maybe someone wants to grow chickens while watching tv.) But, Craigslist posters, there are some tricks that are just mean, especially in the highly fraught housing section. Let's you and me discuss some common lies that we perpetrate:

1. If your apartment is three miles downhill from the nearest metro station, it is not acceptable to use the term "walking distance" together with "metro" anywhere in your ad.
2. If your location requires taking a bus to the metro, it is not "near the metro."
3. If your open room is a basement and you fail to note this, you are an evil person.
4. Are you "laid-back" and do you "avoid drama"? Guess what! You're not unique! Everyone writes this! It's never true! If your roommates refuse to pay their rent, are you just going to "lay back" and "avoid drama"? Didn't think so!
5. If you live in Columbia, MD or Charlottesville, VA and think that it's appropriate to advertise yourself as being "in the DC suburbs," you are clearly geographically challenged. There are, like, cows out where you live. Cows =/= suburb. Don't you have your own Craigslist region? Ames, IA does. Maybe it's time to petition.

These things are lies, Craigslist posters. They annoy me and impede my ability to find things. I am sorry that your house sucks, but that doesn't mean I want to live in it more if you lie about it. Together, Craigslist posters, we can work for a less annoying Craigslist experience for all.

No love,

Miss Self-Important

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Wanted: weird people

Since I put up a Craigslist ad for the rooms in our house, we've had a few people over to look at it and get interviewed as part of that great Craigslist ritual in which finding a room is sometimes harder than finding a job. And the sad thing so far is that all of them have seemed totally normal!

Unlike most people, who write "I avoid drama" in their responses to my ad (which, incidentally, is a meaningless point since sometimes house drama is unavoidable), I love drama. Specifically, I love it when other people have drama to which I can be a bystander. I have always wanted to live with weird people, primarily so that I could write about it later (or concurrently), but somehow, it's always other people who get the crazy roommates. Like Alex, whose first-year roommate stripped her bed of sheets and then spent nearly all her time on it, under a blanket with her laptop. She also dated a guy whom she wanted to keep a secret from our dorm, so she would force him to hide in the closet for hours if anyone came into her room while she was with him, which was kind of inevitable since she shared her suite with three other people. That is the kind of awesome weirdness that I would like in a roommate, but Alex did not switch rooms with me that year, though I did offer.

Or there was Drew's first-year replacement suitemate, who never slept at night, ate only pizza, and spent seemingly all his time scribbling top secret notes in a notebook he carried around. At dinner, he would try to strike up conversation with his housemates by telling them extremely inappropriate things, like, "I bet you love to masturbate" or, when someone asked him what he was writing in his notebook, he would reply, "I am drawing cosmic vaginas." Eventually, his roommate was discovered to have fled their room and taken to sleeping on someone else's floor in order to escape this kid's craziness.

In the meantime, all my roommates have been almost completely sane. Except that one time that Julia left my melted bar of soap on my pillow, or that time that there was a dude living in our closet for several months, there have been no bouts of craziness in my vicinity. I did have two sex-obsessed roommates during my summers in DC, but they were not so much crazy as living on the vulgar side of typical, which is just inconvenient and not interesting. One summer, our apartment had a subletter who was "into pain" and possibly a vampire, but alas, I wasn't living there at the time.

So now is my chance for a crazy person, but I can already see it slipping away as normal young professional after normal young professional files through the house. Crazy people, where are you? Why do you not answer my ad? I thought the internet would only make finding you easier!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The kids are alright

I understand that Joseph Epstein is at a point in his life where his primary vocation is being a grouchy old man and writing about that, and that's fine. His essay on being a grouchy old man, for example, was quite good. And I am naturally inclined to like him because we share many superficial commonalities. He grew up about a mile away from me, in the neighborhood where I in fact lived for three (dimly remembered) years. We also attended the same university, though several important decades apart. He is a Jewish conservative. Apparently, he's spent several weeks of a summer in Eagle River, WI (and if that's not life-defining, what is?). So it's not out of spite that I totally pan his essay on kids these days , which is just too grouchy for me.

Some trends are alarming, no doubt. Recent technological and social changes might be disastrous, or, at the very least, lead us in unknown and untested directions, which is in itself no light matter. Maybe Facebook is the apocalypse, or the hook-up culture will bring down Western civilization. I also believe in the declinist narrative, and I don't think criticisms of youth culture are empty bluster. But, also, maybe not.

The problem is that simply denouncing kids these days as harbingers of doom without identifying what exactly made them so awful is clearly not the path to addressing any of these problems. Nor is it helpful to identify some vague cause (too much parental attention) for some vague malady (too much self-absorption) without defining precisely what the ideal generation of children would be like, and also, when and how childhood can be said to end and adulthood begin. Epstein himself is contradictory on these points. Parents need to back off from so much obsessive child supervision, but traditional Catholic schools--not exactly known for their laissez-faire approach to education--are the best schools. How can that be? Or, children are too cocky and self-important (I know, I know) because at 22, Epstein still understood that he was expected to respect his elders. Fine, but when does it become acceptable for children to speak up--25? 30? 70? Isn't the supposedly pernicious childification of adulthood only being exacerbated by Epstein's extension of childhood long into one's 20s?

This is one long, unsubtle grouse, hardly more valid than when baby boomers condemn kids these days for their taste in music, as if the various subcultures of the moment were not directly descended from the rock of the 1950s and '60s. (I might also add, mainly out of pettiness, that the generation is called the millenials, not the "milleniums," parenting became self-conscious in the 17th century, and the SAT is no longer out of 800.)

It also seems to me that any discussion of kids these days should take into account that there are two parallel conversations going on about childhood. One is about the organization kids, and that conversation is largely about what virtues we should cultivate in the best of the American youth, and how we should prepare them for their future as elites, and how we should determine who is included in this group. The second conversation is about, basically, white chicks and gang signs--how we can prevent the rest of American children (not exclusively white chicks) from slipping down into the stupidity, vulgarity, and degeneracy of the underclass and lowering the bar for everyone as adults.

And there truly are things to be alarmed by in both discussions. Maybe the best students are being sapped of their potential by too much scheduling, and maybe pop culture makes the average coarser. Epstein also fumbles around an important point about coddling children--yes, some parents hover, but is the problem the hovering, or the exclusive hovering by parents? Moreover, the extension of childhood into adulthood (evidenced in the grups, but also in the responsibility-free party culture of urban twentysomethings that is my life) seems to be a basically bad thing that encourages the parent-as-friend paradigm and discourages the adult-as-authority mentality. And what is it that we want our children to be like? Why? Who says? Are not, after all, the organization kids admirable and doing good things? Are there promising directions for the white chicks and gang signs crowd?

These things have no obvious answers and merit a more thorough examination than the dismissive kids these days pooh-pooh. And...that's why you should accept me into your graduate program to study them!

341 alumni gifts or you're fired!

Chicago's new subtle shill:
"The generosity of alumni like you supports the next generation of talented Chicago students. And it sends a resounding message to employers, graduate admissions officers, prospective students, and parents, all of whom look to alumni giving rates as evidence of student satisfaction and an indication of a university's prestige.

341 alumni gifts equal another participation percentage point for the College. Your participation is critical to reaching the goal of 1,798 young alumni donors before June 30th. Every gift counts, no matter the size. Make your gift today."
I'm sure your employer is looking up Chicago's alumni giving rate as we speak. And what is this mythical "percentage point" for? Such mysteries...

Monday, June 02, 2008

Guilt and responsibility

During one of my high school campaigns to undermine authority, I once attempted to derail a mindlessly stupid English class discussion how racism is bad (newsflash!) by asking why it was that we should be made to feel personally guilty for slavery when there was a good chance that not a single person in the class was descended from anyone who ever owned slaves, and most of our families had not even come to America until after the Civil Rights movement. We were historically blameless, so why did we need this crash course in guilt?

The subsequent discussion, like all our vapid discussions, didn't really go anywhere. Partly, this was because we were dumb, but as I've since learned, a good teacher with a clear direction and definite conclusion in mind can shepherd even most vacuous discussants towards comprehension. But the only discernible goal of this course was that we should be made to feel really bad about oppression and other bad things through exploratory exercises such as looking at photos of the Vietnam War and sharing our feelings about them (sad), writing stream of consciousness essays (mad), and taking our shoes off and meditating on the floor (bad: this activity ended in a chorus of grumbling about each other's stinky feet).

For our final project, which was to be a creative work interpreting one or more of the books we read that year, one of my classmates held up a distinctly familiar "painting" of blue vines against an orange background done in cray-pas. "This represents the contrast between black and white in Invisible Man," he explained. "See, the orange is the opposite of the blue, and the shading of the vines represents the shades of gray that represent racial tensions caused by white people, who are racist, for the protagonist." Lingering questions about this artwork remained, such as what in Invisible Man could possibly be represented by vines, and why it was orange and blue instead of black and white, but these questions answered themselves when we caught a glance of the back of the poster while he was turning it in. On it was scrawled his name, and the room number of our third grade art class. Let us just say this project was more of an "adaptation" than an "original work." Nonetheless, his stellar insight into Ellison's portrayal of racism earned him a B+, as far as I recall. This project stands out as one of the more brilliant examples of high school irony in my life. (My effort for this assignment, which was way less awesome than turning in my third grade art exercise in shading for an AP English final, can still be seen here. Not related, but equally awful.)

So what is the point of telling this story (other than its inherent awesomeness)? My high school English class, it seems, hits on one of the good reasons that everyone is so down on liberal guilt. Guilt alone--in a personal, juridical, or divine context--is the mark of blame for a crime, and it is the basis for punishment. But what do you do with liberal guilt--a subspecies of historical-political guilt--except wallow in it, and perhaps, if it's a collective guilt, persuade other blameworthy people to wallow with you? Reihan points out that, while feeling guilty over historical injustices is preferable to being pleased with them, guilt doesn't actually guarantee any better corrective action than cold-hearted calculations of interest, or any other approach. The missing piece between guilt and corrective action is judgment, and the trial analogy breaks down where it requires a disinterested judge to pass a sentence. For the historical-political crime, where is such a judge?

This problem has to be at least as old as the Oresteia, where the insufficiency of guilt for politics is amply evident. In the House of Atreus, guilt begets guilt in an unending cycle until vengeance gives way to trials as the mode of justice. In Aeschylus' telling, this shift marks the foundation of a city out of disparate collection of warring tribes, since it prevents perpetrators and victims from sitting in judgment of their own crimes, in which they obviously have vested interests. And where does this justice leave the historical-political crime? Well, if Orestes' crime is any indicator, the fact that divine intervention is required to adjudicate it should suggest that it might be problematic for humans to judge.

It's possible that "the first step to justice is an acknowledgment of guilt," but perhaps the more relevant point is trial analogy itself is not well-suited to addressing historical crimes (and, in fact, in our legal system, acknowledging guilt is not actually a prerequisite for being brought to justice). After all, strictly speaking, I might have been correct in my twelfth-grade belligerence to suggest that many of the most apologetic Americans are not guilty. They may be descendants of the guilty, or they may identify with them, but only gods have ever laid claim to the ability to visit the sins of the fathers on their children, and our comparatively short lifespans tend to make us incapable of doing the same. If the case of my English class has any greater implications, it might very well be that guilt impedes our judgment, and allows us to mistake what is obviously a crude third grade art project for a decent interpretation of Invisible Man so long as it's couched in the rhetoric of racial apology.

Ross agrees that guilt implies culpability, which is impossible to apply directly in hindsight. How can you ever be sure that a conservative in 2008 would've been sympathetic to Jim Crow in 1928, or a German today would've been a Nazi 60 years ago? He suggests that shame and dishonor would be a better paradigm for evaluating historical injustices with which one was not directly involved. This is a finer distinction insofar as current Americans should feel ashamed of slavery and racism, but it's not clear how shame is enough to get us away from wallowing towards a course of action.

So let me suggest another approach. What if we thought about this in terms of responsibility rather than blame? Let us say that I was wrong in my hotheaded assertion that I, having been born in a country where there were approximately zero black people, should bear no guilt for American racial injustices of the past. I should not feel guilty as a private person, but rather, I should be responsible as a citizen. Civic responsibility, unlike guilt, exists in the doing of it, it falls on everyone, and it requires the kind of judgment that conflates individual and common interests (maybe that "common good" that no one after the 18th century seems able to define?).

The Eumenides, titular characters of the last play of the Oresteia cycle, are perhaps the best illustration of the transformation of personal guilt into civic duty that is required for the foundation of a city. The Erinyes embodied vengeance, but after Athena's absolution of Orestes' crime and the foundation of a city under law, they are recast as "The Kindly Ones"--civic goddesses who reward those who do them honor with prosperity and punish those who renege. Good-bye Furies, hello patron-goddesses. Good-bye in-class meditation, hello community service.

UPDATE: One of my high school teachers (not the above-mentioned) responds.