Saturday, August 23, 2014

Contextual differences

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students.
Thus sayeth William Deresiewicz, would-be speaker of useful truths who is too passionately enamored of the monumental urgency of his cause to bother to speak carefully. But where have we heard these particular tropes about education before? Oh yes, here:
I have no doubt Miss Mackay wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word education comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is leading out of what is already in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and term trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls' heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads.
Is Deresiewicz being ironic then? I doubt it (though if he were, my estimation of him would undoubtedly skyrocket). But Spark certainly is. So beware.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What people are thinking when they speak to perennially outraged internet writers

There is a genre of internet ranting, common to Twitter and "women's blogs," wherein a writer describes a social encounter she has recently had with a stranger or a vague acquaintance, to whom she has recounted some aspect of her personal life and who responded with some well-intentioned comment or advice that proved unhelpful, or even absurd, to the writer. This hapless interlocutor's advice is then reproduced for the gratification of the writer's audience as evidence of the shocking insensitivity of people out there (as against all the right-thinking people in here) who will just walk up and say anything to you these days, you know, and without even knowing you. The reader of this Tweet or post is then invited to exasperate himself in solidarity with the writer in the comments section. Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

Here is one such rant, posted  on Facebook by my friend, featuring various questions and suggestions regarding the writer's long-distance academic marriage. The post itself is moderately funny, despite the strong undercurrent of bitterness, aimed I thought only partly at the people supposedly asking her these questions, and in part at the unpleasantness of her circumstances. But, judging by the comments, no, it's all, Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

For example, this comment:
"I would like, just once, to have an encounter with someone who says all manner of horrible, invasive jokes and comments you've heard 10,000 times before, and to ask them honestly why they say things like that. Do you really think that you, a stranger or brief acquaintance, are more familiar with this person's circumstances than they are? Do you really think you've offered them a solution to their problem they haven't already considered? Do you REALLY think that asking them personal questions ("But the sex is great then, right, because you only see each other so often?") will benefit you in some way??? "
Good news, outraged commenter peep: Miss Self-Important is here to tell you exactly why people "say things like that." No, it's not because they think they're more familiar with your complex and trying circumstances than you are, or they would probably not bother to ask you questions about them in the first place. It's not because they desire to floor you with the originality of their response, but fail to inquire whether their quip has not been offered to you on 10,000 prior instances. It's not because they doubt your superior competence in solving your own problems, which you have as yet failed to solve or else you wouldn't be complaining about them. No, short-fused commenter peep, it's because they're trying to be friendly and nice.

I know, I know, friendly good intentions are the absolute worst. We should probably just decapitate the people who dare to speak to you and demonstrate interest in you without knowing you from birth while we have them in sight, because such individuals are likely to be serial offenders, and if you don't stop them now, they'll only go on to victimize others. I mean, can't they see that you're a committed hermit, that you've taken vows of silence and are forbidden from all communication with the people by whom you're regularly surrounded? Isn't that obvious from the way you're standing around awkwardly at this party with a drink in your hand, or sitting on the train staring into space? Why do they insist on harassing you with their conversation when they haven't even been briefed about your life history yet? It's like they think talking is pleasant, or making friends is worthwhile, or some reactionary nonsense like that. I mean, really. There oughtta be a law.

There's little that annoys me less than being chatted with by strangers, or vague acquaintances. I hardly ever start up conversations with such people, but I love it when they start them with me. Maybe it's because I rarely talk to people I don't know that I'm glad they talk to me - how would I ever talk to anyone otherwise, or have any friends? I even love being asked for directions on the street, and I used to be sad when I didn't know the place being sought, but now I have a phone that solves all navigational quandaries. I also don't mind when men (or, as is often the case in San Diego, bums) on the street compliment my appearance on I suppose the off-chance that this will pique my interest in them or for no reason at all, although I guess that's something we're supposed to be against these days. I love all forms of non-threatening stranger interaction because I'm pretty certain that without it - that is, if everyone were as cold and stand-offish as I am - there would not be any civilization at all. And we should be willing to make small sacrifices for civilization, like the sacrifice of our right to flip out when people we've just met don't know everything about us and say useless or redundant things in absence of this knowledge. So when such people ask me what I do for a living and don't immediately understand how I can be a grad student at a school 2,000 miles from the city I live in, or that a political science PhD is not a path to a job in politics, it doesn't annoy me, though these confusions are common and recurring. Why should anyone not in your line or work be expected to know its ins and outs? How is it reasonable to expect, or demand, that people read up on the intricacies of the academic job market before talking to me, or only presume to talk to me if they already know all about it? Why ought their simply naive but not ill-spirited suggestions or questions be offensive?

In "Puritans and Prigs," one of her best essays in defense of Calvinism, Marilynne Robinson points out that by ascribing all priggishness to the long-extinct Puritans, we think ourselves cured of all their failings by the passage of time and hardly notice how much this move rests on willful self-delusion or our own even more ominous forms of priggishness. One modern form that priggishness takes is precisely such uncharitable persnickitiness about the speech of strangers:
A great many of us, in the face of recent experience, have arrived with a jolt at the archaic-sounding conclusion that morality was the glue holding society together, just when we were in the middle of proving that it was a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills. It is not easy at this point for us to decide just what morality is or how to apply it to our circumstances. But we have priggishness at hand, up to date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, self-persuaded as a method actor. It looks like it and it feels like it, both to those who wield it and to those who taste its lash... 
Priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism make its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And it is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig's formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradic- tion in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one's better nature, if only in order to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all... 
Recently I saw a woman correct a man in public - an older man whom she did not know well - for a remark of his she chose to interpret as ethnocentric. What he said could easily have been defended, but he accepted the rebuke and was saddened and embarrassed. This was not a scene from some guerrilla war against unenlightened thinking. The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable and more extensive than his, with the implication, which he seemed to accept, that right thinking was a property or attainment of hers in a way it never could be of his. To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage! And with an audience already entirely persuaded of the evils of ethnocentricity, therefore more than ready to admire! This is why the true prig so often hás a spring in his step. Morality could never offer such heady satisfactions.  
The woman's objection was a quibble, of course. In six months the language she provided in place of his will no doubt be objectionable - no doubt in certain quarters it is already. And that is the genius of it. In six months she will know the new language, while he is still reminding himself to use the words she told him he must prefer. To insist that thinking worthy of respect can be transmitted in a special verbal code only is to claim it for the class that can concern itself with inventing and acquiring these codes and is so situated in life as to be able, or compelled, to learn them. The more tortuous our locutions the more blood in our streets. I do not think these phenomena are unrelated, or that they are related in the sense that the thought-reforms we attempt are not extensive enough or have not taken hold. I think they are related as two manifestations of one phenomenon of social polarization.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Imagining the upsides of neo-feudalism

For practically as long as I've been conscious, I've been hearing complaints about modernity. These complaints come from the left and the righ: we're too technologically dependent or technologically mediated, we've lost a "sense of place", "disenchanted the world," submitted to rigid constraints on the varieties of erotic experience, stigmatized ecstasy and prophecy into mental illness, lost our capacity for "deep connection" with others (and with trees and buffalo and krill), oriented our aspirations towards impossible ends like the abolition of death even while we despise the banality of life, and so on. In sum, life was a lot more meaningful in the premodern past, which came to an end sometime between the 15th and 19th centuries, depending on whom you ask, and then gave way to liberal capitalist bourgeois tyranny.

Why then are we so averse to the re-creation of precisely the social arrangements of yore, with a small class of rentiers and a large class of...renters? Is this not - finally, after so long an exile - a road back to pre-modern authenticity? If these trends persist, we may even return to the long-disused forms of property-holding that obstructed the nation-state and the advance of modernity in the first place, like allodial and entailed land. Then the power of Kotkin's universalizing, centralizing "clerisy" will find itself in competition with that of the neo-feudal land aristocracy, re-creating an uneasy balance between our new ecclesia and the saeculum that might hold for a good four or five hundred years between the neo-Investitute Controversy of the mid-21st Century and the neo-Reformation of 2517. Not only will most of us successfully rediscover our roots in the necessity of our newfound poverty (imagine that; we always were from wherever we happen to be now! I myself come from an ancient family of Skokieans) and reconnect with nature, our labor, and the divine, but we'll decisively give the lie to progressive (and maybe even linear) theories of history. Aristotle was right all along, "practically everything has been discovered on many occasions--or rather an infinity of occasions--in the course of time."

I understand that for those positioned somewhere between the anti-liberalisms of the left and the right, who regularly invoke the miracle of penicillin and "creative destruction," this nostalgia is counter-balanced by a view of the Middle Ages as a time when everyone was born and died (of Bubonic plague at age 17) in the same sparsely furnished puddle of mud which he shared with 27 family members, passing his days in illiteracy, drunkenness, sexism, and superstitious belief in dragons and a flat Earth, politically repressed by the simultaneous despotism of feudal lords, absolutist monarchs, and an omnipotent clergy (a remarkably harmonious power-sharing arrangement). Holders of this view of the past may be less eager to return to it. But these images of the Middle Ages are merely dark mirrors of our present fears: material discomfort and inegalitarian social mores and appearing foolish in front of our peers. Since they were hardly true in the first place, it's not clear that they will re-appear in the second. Neo-feudalism may well retain the Ikea furniture and smartphones of modernity, for even the feudal serf had a few simple possessions. And there is no reason to think identity politics incompatible with feudal orders, is there? There will yet be fights over gender pronouns for the clerisy to work out in their ten thousand-page digests of the Twittersphere. So everything will be ok even for creative destroyers, who ought to take comfort in the lifetime sinecures that will cement their status near the top of the neo-feudal hierarchy, since the upside of stagnation is security.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Golding, Lord of the Flies

I've long been intending to read this for obvious dissertation-related reasons, so when I found it on the shelf of the apartment I'm staying at this weekend, the moment seemed opportune. And here is that rare example of a good YA book: by dramatizing the tension between nature and civilization both within the individual and at the level of a society, it serves as a prelude to the reading of Hobbes and Freud. Its appeal is not exclusive to the young, but it's clearly an introduction to the study of psychology and politics rather than an extension of such studies. I would've loved it had I encountered it first in high school, but I'm not sure what it offers over and above Hobbes, save for the emphatic gesture towards childhood.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rousseau on anecdata

"But this pretended truth [D'Alembert's assertion that the Genevan clergy is Socinian despite all their claims] is not so clear or so indifferent that you have the right to advance it without good authorities; and I do not see on what one could found oneself to prove that the sentiments that a group professes and according to which it acts are not its own. You will tell me next that you do not attribute the sentiment of which you speak to the whole ecclesiastical body. But you do attribute them to many; and many, in a small number, always compose such a large part that the whole must be affected by them."
--Letter to D'Alembert

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Doing it better, meritocracy edition

One last post on the meritocracy theme: a short essay that does it better. No revolutions in the name of uncovering the boundlessly interesting soul within, no absurd embrace of the most vulgar careerism just to spite the idealistic in the name of the people:
Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that...One of the ironies of college is that the impossibility of reading your way out of the modern predicament is something you learn about, as a student, by reading. Part of the value of a humanistic education has to do with a consciousness of, and a familiarity with, the limits that you’ll spend the rest of your life talking about and pushing against. So it’s probably natural for college students to be a little ironic, a little unsettled. It’s time, meanwhile, to admit that the college years aren’t for figuring out some improvised “sense of purpose.” 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Attacking the defenses of meritocracy made against meritocracy's attackers

As I've tried to suggest repeatedly here, no anti-meritocracy screed that I've thus far read has actually rejected the principle of meritocracy and proposed that college seats be distributed by anything other than qualification. All these laments about the exclusion of the poor, or minorities, or the interesting and authentic nonetheless presume that it's the most academically proficient among the poor, minority, or authentic who ought to get new or more thorough consideration. Even "nationalizing the Ivy League" and making it free - an apparently shocking and radical proposition - would only be for the sake of enlarging the pool of academically proficient applicants. In fact, I'll take your nationalization and raise you a universal application requirement - every high school graduate must apply so that no talent is overlooked as a result of such circumstances as insufficient familiarity with the schools, missed deadlines, or even simply lack of interest. And what would be the inevitable result of prestigious, free, state-run universities with mandatory applications? An even more competitive meritocracy, one with acceptance rates even lower than 1 percent. So much for "taking a meaningful stand against" elite education.

So, while some of these "exposes" of the secret soul-crushing depredations of the Ivy League have been entertaining because elite schools really are comical and absurd in many ways, none have landed a death blow. It's hardly news by now that this theme has become almost its own genre (as I wrote five years ago, which is almost an infinity of years in internet time). We can complain that, as far as genres go, it's not exactly at the level of epic poetry, or even political satire. But it seems almost worse than lamenting the Ivy League to lament the laments as constituting a form of class warfare. Are they "Edith Wharton characters with austere taste and Dutch last names sniffing with disgust at the vulgarity of new money"?

If they are, this is class warfare of the most inconsequential variety:
Since elite populism ultimately amounts to an intense discussion of the elite experience, it ultimately turns into a parlor discussion at the Harvard Club — albeit one that absolves participants from the shame of being the kind of person who hangs out at the Harvard Club, talking about Harvard with other Harvard people. If that sounds bleak, imagine Harvard guy discussing Deresiewicz’s article with the human object lessons he meets at his service-industry job. Even worse, right?
Yes. Urgent public health warning: Ivy League laments "ultimately" cause Harvard guy to use people he knows from Harvard as object lessons about the life he's lived as a result of Harvard during conversations with people who, by virtue of where he meets them, are connected to him only by mutual attendance at Harvard. Please try to contain your fear and outrage. And, really, what greater sin is there than not feeling the appropriate shame at hanging out at the Harvard Club? Besides, if Maureen O'Connor wants us to stop caring about what goes on at Harvard, then why is she so concerned with the bleakness of the conversations that go on at the Harvard Club? Perhaps it is she who is obsessed with those whom she accuses of obsession. Of course, this is always the problem of infinite regress that comes with sniffing at the sniffers, a problem whose depths have been amply plumbed by the Privilege Wars. If denouncing privilege is privilege, then isn't it also privilege to denounce the denouncers, and to denounce the denouncers who denounce the denouncers? If "the obsession with improving Ivy League conditions only further exalts those institutions," then doesn't obsession with this obsession exponentially exalt them? Here finally is a quandary even more tiresome than the Ivy League lament.

And what, in effect, is defended by attacking the psyches and motivations rather than the arguments of our Deresiewiczes? O'Connor positions herself as the nemesis of the modern academic equivalent of Dutch-surnamed austere taste, which in this case is those who extol "impracticality" in education and downplay the role of college as anything but an "opportunity for upward mobility." So whose friend is she? Who is it that really thinks of college as nothing more than means to upward mobility? People announce without shame or irony that, "Networking is all that's important to me. It's not what you know, but who you know." I guess if O'Connor believes that this noble creed and its exponents are really in need of defense from the "privileged" partisans of otium like Deresiewicz, that's good news. It suggests that we've really made a lot of progress in healing the long-standing rifts in journalist-investment banker relations.

As for me, I happen to be in New York this week. This article inspired me to look into stopping by the Harvard Club in order to exercise my privilege-denouncing privilege. But it turns out that it costs over $100, a Harvard degree, and a several-month application period to "stop by" there, so now I have to read these Ivy League laments in solitude while awaiting a real anti-meritocracy argument, without even a kindred spirit to whom I can convey my own anecdata. What happens to a privilege deferred?