Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An open letter to people with iProducts

Dear people with iProducts,

Please download the QuizUp app and play it (with me).

Miss Self-Important

Monday, January 27, 2014

"Old School Blogging"

I still do this! So do Withywindle, Phoebe, Emily Hale, and Flavia. Five people are keeping the entire old school blogosphere afloat, like the overworked turtles on whose back the world rests. Well, us and the army of mommy bloggers.
People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world.
I agree with much of Wilkinson's nostalgia and miss the days when more of my friends had personal blogs. Jennie, Julia, Alex, Drew, everyone else - where did you go? But there is a major oversight here about the DANGER of personal blogging for the young, the ambitious, the pretty much everyone whose IRL friends and enemies can look them up on the internet. That's why four of the five personal non-mommy bloggers remaining in the entire universe listed above are pseudonymous. I "hang out" with you for free at the probable expense of future employment.

Well, the good news is, I'm obviously never going to sell this blog, mainly because no one would ever buy it. It's like the time when one of my friends explained that she had virtuously avoided drugs in high school because "no one ever offered them to me."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Lakes of coffee"

Reading this, I came across a biting line from this, whose context I looked up and found this:
Everyone else felt, or at least declared, that graduate school was really no place for them, that the life was unreal, the projects inane, the themes and theses worthless, the professors disagreeable, the social conventions artificial, the competitions silly. Nonetheless, most of them stayed hermetically sealed in the graduate life, wrote the papers, kowtowed to the professors, plodded through the texts, consumed lakes of coffee a cup at a time, griped, whined, exulted over triumphs so minor they would have been unnoticeable in any other context, competed with one another endlessly, and, by the time they had been at it a few months, would scarcely have known what to do in any other world. To go back into what they liked to refer to as 'real life' they would have had to be reconditioned slowly, like divers coming up from the deep.
This is a very accurate account of the situation.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Athens in Dixie, part 5

The ongoing series goes on.

"There's a difference in living and living well
You can't have it all all by yourself
Something's always missing
'Til you share it with someone else"
--George Strait, "Living and Living Well"

"While the city comes into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well."
--Aristotle, Politics I.2

I mean, how much more explicit can my Greek thought/Country music analogy get?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting lumped

Remember that time when David Brooks wrote this:
I’d invite you, for example, to cast your eye over the new issue of National Affairs, the right-leaning policy journal edited by Yuval Levin. You’ll find nine different articles that hang together coherently around what could well be the dominant style of conservatism of the coming years. This is the conservatism of skeptical reform.
Hm. But, I suppose you could say I am for the skeptical reform of Machiavellian self-help books.

Also, I'm just going to put it out there that the picture of Irving Kristol next to the "Brooklyn Burkeans" teaser on the front page of the National Affairs site looks just like Yuval Levin in 20 years.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Two things I should not like so much

1) I admit, I find it kind of difficult to muster anything but amusement at the idea of politicians punishing one another with traffic jams. If scandal embroilment is unavoidable, this has to be the best of all possible scandals to be embroiled in - how long could anyone's real moral outrage over such a thing last? (Ok, that's clearly an invitation to be proven wrong. Maybe I just can't appreciate the gravity of this crime b/c I never drive between Manhattan and New Jersey?)

2) Joseph Epstein says the same thing about WASPs that David Brooks said a while ago, but adds that their additional virtue was keeping oversharing in check. Epstein does undermine himself a little by blaming the Kennedys for having too many extramarital affairs and then holding up FDR as a great embodiment of the WASP, but I offer my assistance in construing that comparison in a more fruitful way: FDR kept his affairs on the DL, and everyone around him helped with that. And everyone was correspondingly better off for it. The lesson to be learned here is that keeping things on the DL makes you the greatest American president.* Failing to do so makes you a soap opera character, which is awkward if you also happen to be an American president.

A carefully managed population of WASPs could be useful for keeping all kinds of internet-abusers in line - from oversharing parents to people who launch national considerations of such phenomena as Gwyneth Paltrow's (and their own) "long butt" - basically all of Phoebe's nemeses. Indeed, Phoebe would be the natural choice to oversee this endangered wildlife rehabilitation colony, what with her PhD in tense social relations between established groups and upstarts. Obviously, we can't have them overrunning the place again, lest they kick us out of the Ivy League in order to drag us into ill-advised wars in Southeast Asia, which of course we meritocrats would never do, but under wise supervision, maybe their stings can be deployed for good.

*The floor is not presently open to debate about this.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Do you want your children to climb a book, or read a tree? Consider free-range schooling.

Mark Oppenheimer is a good journalist, but he has written a strikingly bad essay about the beautiful soul-expanding effects of what I will call, for lack of a better term, free-range schooling, for its resemblance to the activity of grazing cattle.

The rhetorical trick that allows free-range schooling to come out on top of conventional schooling in every category is that Oppenheimer never tells us what schooling is actually supposed to accomplish. At various points in this essay, schooling should primarily: diminish angst, inculcate empathy, inculcate content knowledge, empower children to "take responsibility for their own education," and hand down fundamental community values like recycling(!). This is convenient, because when Sudbury Valley fails by one standard, Oppenheimer quickly elevates another by which it succeeds. He meets a student there who doesn't know who MLK was. Well, that's ok:
One could reply—and the Sudbury believers would—that he will figure out somewhere in his adulthood who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and will know as much about him as the rest of us do. That as soon as he enters the workforce and gets that day off, he’ll want to know what it’s all about. That the habits of citizenship learned at Sudbury practically ensure that he’ll want to relate to his fellow citizens with empathy and candor, so if he discovers that there’s a man who’s a hero to many fellow Americans, a man whom he knows little about, he’ll take it upon himself to learn. 
One could also reply that a Sudbury student with a passion for literature or American history could graduate with a knowledge of civil rights, and the milieu of the 1960s, deeper than most college students have...But the Sudbury advocates would also say that even if a given student never picks up on some bit of knowledge that we civilians deem essential, then so what? The tradeoff made at Sudbury is worth it: Every child will have some blind spots—and don’t children in most public schools, and even the best private schools, have blind spots?—but Sudbury children have a radical sense of empowerment and responsibility for their own education.
Our education is not about learning anything, but about making you into the kind of person who could potentially learn things, if you ever get it into your head to be "passionate" about them, or someone helpfully informs you that they exist in the first place. I wonder, isn't that kind of the default description of every human being without any kind of schooling at all, free-range or otherwise? And if you never get around to activating your potential to learn? Well, that's ok too, because Oppenheimer can't remember most of the stuff he learned in school and he's doing fine in life, so it's probably not that important for current children to learn stuff and better for them to come away "radically empowered" instead. So the argument shifts from the claim that children learn content better under free-range conditions because they're self-motivated or unstressed or self-governing, to the wholly contrary claim that learning content is not the aim of education anyway.

This is the kind of mushy-minded progressive education "reform" talk that is characteristic of parents who can't decide whether they love their children or their "values" more. Consider Oppenheimer's prediction that, "I will someday have a child for whom the local public school is not working." What does that mean - a school that's not working? Oppenheimer doesn't say much about what a "working" school looks like, beyond that the children seem happy in it, so one gets the sense that it would stop "working" when one of his children stopped being happy to attend. At the same time, he wants the school to convey "a complex of values and sensibilities, both canon and custom, that their parents, teachers, and town have concurred on: tolerance, environmentalism, don’t-litter, all people are created equal, and so on." So what if the reason that a school stops "working" for a child is that he begins to dissent from his community's values? Does that mean the school has failed, or the child? Whose side would Oppenheimer take in such a quarrel if the child were his own?

The education of children is necessarily coercive. If children didn't need to be taught - that is, forced to learn - anything by adults, then there would be no need for schooling in the first place, or a distinction between children and adults except in matters of height, and even benevolent cow pastures like Sudbury would be out of business. This basic conflict is heightened when we bring civic demands into the equation, as Oppenheimer has done. Then education becomes doubly coercive - it now demands both individual development and conformity with civic norms; you must learn how the world works and heed the imperative to recycle. This is the basic conflict that Oppenheimer hopes he can evade through some elusive curriculum that requires nothing from children but delivers everything to them. Sudbury demands little, and he discovers that it gives little in return. Certainly, it sounds like a pleasant enough place for children to pass time with one another, but then so is an open field. And there may indeed be some educations compared to which frolicking in an open field for 12 years would actually be preferable, but Oppenheimer is not comparing Sudbury to getting pounded every week by one's classmates in some chaotic Anacostia middle school. So he has to find ways to massage its pittance into a fortune - empowerment, egalitarianism, other such vaporous terms. If these were really the aims of education, then I wonder why Sudbury tolerates the hierarchy and disempowerment suggested by a "head of school," when surely it's an institution small enough to be democratic in the strict sense.

Oppenheimer is right that all public schools will some point not "work" for their students. All private schools too. The work they do must run against the desires of their students because their goals are communal rather than individual. If your child doesn't want to keep his hands off his classmates or do math problems, his school is not "working for him" when it demands these things of him, but it's not clear that the best solution is a less coercive school. And if you can't have an un-coercive, un-hierarchical school, then the real question is what kind of authority and discipline is necessary, not whether it is.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Athens in Dixie, part 4

Well, it's been some time since I last found an analogy between ancient Greek thought and contemporary American country music, but here is one:

"What makes democracy and oligarchy differ is poverty and wealth: wherever some rule on account of wealth, whether a minority or a majority, this is necessarily an oligarchy, and wherever those who are poor, a democracy. But it turns out, as we said, that the former are few and the latter many;  for few are well off, but all share in freedom - which are the causes of both disputing over the regime."
-- Aristotle, Politics, III.8

"I ain't got got a dime, but what I got is mine. I ain't rich, but Lord I'm free."
-- George Strait, "Amarillo by Morning"

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The truth about comics, sci-fi, and fantasy

Over the years, several supposedly serious people - almost all male - have tried to persuade me that the genres of comics ("graphic novels" say the sophisticates), sci-fi, and fantasy are actually good, or redeemable, or contain a few redeemable specimens, or something to this effect. No effort on my part to read their recommended redeemable specimens has yet yielded anything that I would consider good, or redeemable. Then, the other day, I discovered (via NPR, sadly) a comic called Axe Cop (here in cruder animated form, but it's now a Fox show). It is written by a five year-old, whose ideas are illustrated by an actual adult with actual adult illustration skills.

Peeps, it is the greatest comic ever. It is impossible to get through a single episode of this comic without crying from laughter. It makes almost no sense, except to the extent that the thought processes of little boys do contain a certain logic of recurring themes. In this case, there are a lot of unicorn horns, babies, turning into whatever you touch and being able to shoot it out of your hands, and try-outs for superheroes. As far as distilled child-brains go, Axe Cop has a very high alcohol-by-volume. I offer you, by way of example, Season 1, Episode 4:

In addition to being amazing and a highly-concentrated child-brain at work, Axe Cop is also a quite pure distillation of the essence of comics, sci-fi, and fantasy as far as I can discern it: take the logic-free imaginings of a five year-old boy about robots and unicorns, string them together into a series of conflict situations, then add small number of adult afterthoughts of variable coherence about politics and philosophy. Result: genre fiction with great appeal for men and no appeal for Miss Self-Important. Except Axe Cop, because Miss Self-Important is ok with real originals.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Addendum to the print edition

I have a book review about domesticated Machiavellism in National Affairs in which I claim, among other possibly unwarranted things, that Benjamin Franklin was the consummate American Machiavellian. I hadn't, at the time of writing it, yet gone down the Melville rabbit-hole, which is unfortunate, since I wasn't able to include this, from Israel Potter:
The first, both in point of time and merit, of American envoys was famous not less for the pastoral simplicity of his manners than for the politic grace of his mind. Viewed from a certain point, there was a touch of primeval orientalness in Benjamin Franklin. Neither is there wanting something like his Scriptural parallel. The history of the patriarch Jacob is interesting not less from the unselfish devotion which we are bound to ascribe to him, than from the deep worldly wisdom and polished Italian tact, gleaming under an air of Arcadian unaffectedness. The diplomatist and the shepherd are blended; a union not without warrant; the apostolic serpent and dove. A tanned Machiavelli in tents.
...Having carefully weighed the world, Franklin could act any part in it. By nature turned to knowledge, his mind was often grave, but never serious. At times he had seriousness—extreme seriousness—for others, but never for himself. Tranquillity was to him instead of it. This philosophical levity of tranquillity, so to speak, is shown in his easy variety of pursuits. Printer, postmaster, almanac maker, essayist, chemist, orator, tinker, statesman, humorist, philosopher, parlor man, political economist, professor of housewifery, ambassador, projector, maxim-monger, herb-doctor, wit:—Jack of all trades, master of each and mastered by none—the type and genius of his land. Franklin was everything but a poet.  

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's Resolutions

Unlike Phoebe, I have no anxieties about revealing my failings on the internets by posting resolutions, but I skipped some years due to the whateverness of making resolutions to do things that I have to do anyway or are largely out of my control, whereby they become more like predictions of what will happen out of necessity rather than resolute aspirations. I have poor resolve. But Miss Self-Important's low-aiming resolutions are back, to wit:

1. Write all of my dissertation, but probably really more like most of it, since there is no urgent reason to finish early.
2. Get some new ideas so I can stop infinitely repeating things I've already said in my non-academic writing.
3. Read long books, but also short ones, as the situation dictates.
4. Pet cats.
5. Make potato salads.
6. Temporarily escape California, ideally more than once. This may just a different way of saying, "travel."
7. Make progress towards permanently escaping California, with husband and cat and household goods in tow. This is just a different way of phrasing #1. But multiple perspectives on some things are important.