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Boy, What Happens When I Decide To Go To Bed Early…

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Okay, before I get started for real, I need to stipulate a few things.

It’s interesting to me that I can never seem to begin this particular discussion without getting sidetracked onto a million things that are also worthy of discussion, but are either beside the point or part of the point, but not the point people think I’m making.

So, as to the stipulations:

1) I am  NOT defending Ivy League education as it presently exists.   In fact, if Yale and Harvard and Vassar and  Wellesley were doing their jobs, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.

2) I am NOT claiming that a “liberal education,” as it used to be called, will make you a better person, or even that it’s “useful” in any way.  The point of a liberal education is, precisely, to pursue knowledge for its own sake, to seek to know because it is good to know.  Practical applications of that knowledge do exist–of all of it, really–but those practical applications are the  province of professional training, not of education.

3) One of the things I  mean to argue against here is the idea that the only legitimate way to acquire knowledge is the “scientific method.”  At the moment, the scientific method seems to be very good for a certain class of things and completely useless in approaching anything else, and that anything else has a great deal in it.  That doesn’t mean that the anything else has no need for facts, or no need to test its ideas against reality.  It only means that the approach to such facts and testing in, say, physics seem to have a really bad effect when we try to apply them to politics, or to love.  If you don’t believe me, go look at the  DSM-II again.  It might be III by now.

4) I am NOT defending the “intelligensia” as it now exists.  In fact, I think that the mess that is now our self-consciously intellectual class is itself a result–and then a continuing cause–of the denigration of intellectual work outside the hard sciences.

That said, let me clear up one point that has been making me crazy for some time now. 

Too many of you use the words “liberal arts” when what you actually mean is the humanities, or the humanities and the social sciences.

The liberal arts have three divisions–humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences (including mathematics).  Physics is just as much a part of the liberal arts as philosophy is.  What makes something part of the liberal arts or not–aside from long tradition–is whether or not the knowledge pursued is, to repeat, for its sake alone, and not in order to make practical applications of it.

Of course, people do make practical applications of all this knowledge, or try to, but the issue is the impetus for acquiring the knowledge in the first place.

And yes, I know.  In practice, over the last forty years or so, all this has gone to hell.  But that’s part of my point, and I’ll get there.

I just want to clear up one more thing.  Robert complained, at one point, that there was something wrong with calling a standard of excellence “objective” when it could only be perceived by a small group of adepts.

Actually,  I don’t think that excellence in literature can only be perceived by a small group of adepts, if you keep in mind that recognizing excellence is not the same thing as “liking” a particular work, or “enjoying” it.   There are a lot of first rate novels out there that I can’t stand–anything by Louis Frederick  Celine, for instance, and most of Gogol–but  I can see, technically, how they rise to the level of complexity and artistry that makes them “great” works.

And, as a novelist, albeit a very minor and probably bad one, I can recognize in such work solutions to practical problems in writing, character development and plotting that are considerably in advance not only of anything I can do (that’s not hard) but of most of what has been done.

That being said, none of this is restricted to literature, or unknown in the hard sciences.  I have a good friend–well, okay, the first boy I ever dated, we’ve known each other since we were in diapers–who took his doctorate at Caltech before he was twenty.  In mathematics.   Well, okay, mathematics is the field where you take PhDs before you’re twenty, if you’re going to do it at all.

All my life,  I’ve been listening to this person try to explain to me why the solution to one mathematics problem or another is “elegant.”  This is apparently a big thing in mathematics, and important in deciding whether the solution to a problem is  “excellent” or not, but I don’t understand it, and my guess is that most non-mathematicians don’t understand it either.   It’s not unusual for people inside a field to be able to perceive  excellence in that field more clearly than people outside of it, or for excellence to be dim or unpercievable to quite a few people.

My students not only wouldn’t understand what “elegance” means in mathematical equations, most of them wouldn’t be able to understand why vaccination works or the work that disproves the contention that vaccinating children causes autism.  

Quite a significant proportion of them couldn’t do the following exercise:   After a week and a half discussing the Electoral College, putting the numbers up on a map,  and counting to 538 about three dozen times, I put the web site


up on the board before they came in to the room and, as soon as they sat down, asked them what the web site was about and how they knew.

Most of them couldn’t even guess.  And it wasn’t because they’d forgotten the number, or that it was the number of votes in the Electoral College.   Having met a stone wall of mulish silence–I’ve never heard of that web site!  How am I supposed to know what it’s about!–I told them to go back to what we were discussing the class before, and in the first sentence I got somebody who told me that “there are 538 total votes in the Electoral College.”

I waited.


I had the young woman repeat what she’d said.


The web address was still on the board.


I gave up and pointed out the connection.

The response?  “But, how were we supposed to know that?”

This is, to use the common cliche, not rocket science here.  This is elementary thinking, and even my worst students are smarter than the 50% of American students who don’t make it to any kind of college at all.  

There isn’t a single person out there who would claim that standards of excellence in mathematics, or physics, or biology must be reduced to the level capable of being understood by that bottom fifty percent.  There’s no reason to say that the standard of excellence for the novel should be reduced to that level either.  

It’s a mistake to believe that it’s possible to quarantine anti-intellectualism so that it affects only those fields you don’t like, don’t understand or don’t respect.   We’re seeing the first mini-epidemics of measles and whooping–the first deaths of children from measles and whooping cought–in fifty years.  Why?  Well, you know.  Those scientists don’t know everything.   Never mind what the studies say.  I read an article  and it said that vaccines can cause autism. 

Our political life is being poisoned by wave after wave of conspiracy theories.   Our public education is being poisoned by wave after wave of assaults by people who not only don’t accept evolution but who don’t accept geology, either (I don’t care what they say–they can’t prove a rock is fifty million years old). 

The great no-knowthing surge is not about snooty English professors or left-wing sociologists.  It is not a protest against “intellectuals.”  It’s a protest against intelligence

And we did it to ourselves, those of us who do what I do.  Which is what this series of posts started out to be about, and what I’m finally winding my way back to.

That said, I’ll try to repeat what I said in the first one.

Joe Biden is a profoundly ignorant man.  But when he gets caught in a moment of ignorance, he’s embarrassed by it.

Ignorance in and of itself doesn’t worry me.  All of us are profoundly ignorant of some things.  We correct that ignorance when we feel we need to, and, yes, we are embarrassed when our ignorance shows. 

What bothers me about Sarah Palin  is that, when she gets caught being ignorant, she stands up in front of a crowd and says, “See what the elite mass media is trying to do?  They think they’re better than real Americans.”

Apparently, real Americans are not only ignorant, but proud of being ignorant, and if I insist that it’s important for the Vice President of the United States to know what a vice president does, then I’m probably “anti-American.”   Or, you know, a Communist.  Or something.

And no, I’m not making that up.  I’ve been hearing all of it–including the phrase “elite mass media,” which must establish some kind of record for bald-faced contradiction–on FoxNews, which I’ve been watching obsessively for weeks.

If people could really spin in their graves, William F. Buckley,  Jr. would now be chugging along fast enough to power a generator.

Written by janeh

October 26th, 2008 at 6:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Boy, What Happens When I Decide To Go To Bed Early…'

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  1. Some quick random comments before I go out –

    The autism thing is probably as much due to desperation and emotional strain as anti-intellectualism. I did a quickie look into the issues when someone who has more medical knowledge than I do supported the vaccine (and diet) claims – I wasn’t convinced; she was. I don’t have an autistic child and she does.

    There is an extraordinary amount of bad scientific education out there, though, and a lot of people are very susceptible to someone in a white coat in an ad saying ‘Scientists have proven…’. I have the reverse reaction, myself.

    I’m glad to see you include the physical sciences – I once sat in a physics classroom in which the professor, obviously genuinely enthusiastic, exclaimed over the beauty of a particular set of equations, which I never could see. I confess I assume that ‘liberal arts’ doesn’t include science shades of an earlier academic culture war!

    I think non-scientists are far more likely than professional scientists to support the idea that the scientific method is the only way to acquire or prove knowledge. Actually, some of them aren’t too fond of the scientific method as simplified and taught to school children. And yet, in the non-scientist’s science classes they are all too often taught mere lists of facts – and some of them don’t want anything more than that, because lists of facts are easy to memorize and regurgitate. Identifying patterns and spotting connections is more difficult and scary. You can get it wrong much more easily. I once took a literature course in which the professor asked why the playwright had specified that a lamp with a green shade should be used as a prop, and we came up with all kinds of wild guesses about the symbolism of light and the colour green. I gather it was intended to show that the character had weak eyes!

    It is extraordinarily difficult to teach critical thinking. Sometimes I think there’s a place for memorizing rote information, like ‘how vaccination works’.



    26 Oct 08 at 7:58 am

  2. OK, that clears away a lot of dead wood. I for one have never used “Ivy League” as a synonym for either “well educated” or “intelligent” and was at a loss to see why the denunciation of Sarah Palin began with two verses of the Wiffenpoof Song.

    I can readily understand that any sort of intelligent creation may have features which only another expert in that field will properly appreciate. I can also appreciate that there are very real qualities which are difficult to quantify.

    But if we’re not discussing art, literature, history and philosophy as currently taught in our most expensive institutions, nor accepting the valuations of the experts we currently have on the payroll, I think the discussion would sidetrack less if we understood what and who you do include.

    “More humane” still doesn’t advance the argument for me. The benefits of studying the humanities may be internal, but if they don’t manifest in external ways, how do you know we don’t already have them?

    The “538” business helps: tricky to measure a quality of mind, but you can see it–or not see it, if you will. You might want to take a look at a book titled INTELLIGENCE CAN BE TAUGHT, written maybe 30 years ago, and if I were intelligent, I’d have looked up the author before I started the comment. He suggests that people like your students are victims of a certain “learned helplesness” (not his phrase) and believe that the problems don’t have answers–or at least not for them–and thus don’t methodically examine possible solutions. Of course, the older the person, the harder to break bad mental habits.

    As for politics, yahooery in America tends to peak as the gap between the self-esteem of our educational institutions and the performance of their professors and graduates widens–and when they decide to invent and teach their own morality. We’re reaching levels now not seen since the late 1960’s, and there’s a reason. Just as examples, I suspect Harvard MBAs are selling at a heavy discount, and if you could own shares in “editor of the law review” I’d be inclined to sell mine short. These schools will recover their reputations, or other schools will gain reputations instead, and when the science seems less politically driven, it will be treated with more respect.

    As for Joe Biden, the man is past 60 and in non-technical fields has to take responsibility for his own ignorance–or delusions, or lies. He’s embarassed the way a star college quarterback is embarassed to be caught plagiarizing. He knows he’s going to pass anyway, and he’s not going to change his behavior, but he wishes people would stop bringing it up.

    I see no reason to oblige.


    26 Oct 08 at 2:15 pm

  3. A confession, I am treating the US election the same way I treat a natural disaster in a remote country. I glance at the headlines and pass on. So I have no idea of how Sarah Palin is being sold or what Joe Biden said.

    Jane mentioned the “scientific method”. I have a problem with that – I’ve never heard a working physicist or chemist or biologist use the term. It seems to be something dreamed up by philosophers rather than something researchers worry about. For that matter, I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m a scientist.” They say they work in chemistry or biology or geology but they don’t say they work in science.

    One of the first things I was told as a grad student in Physics was “Half of what we teach you will turn out to be wrong withing 10 years.”

    I came across an analogy someplace. Consider the research frontier. The journal papers are like the foam on a breaking wave. In 10 years, perhaps 10% of the current research will make it to graduate level books. Of that, perhaps another 10% will make it to undergraduate books in 20 years. And of that, perhaps 10% will make it to high school books in 30 years.

    High school “science” tends to be rock solid – it reflects the consensus built up over many years. How is someone with no training past High School biology supposed to realize that a newspaper report of a current journal article does not reflect a solid consensus?


    26 Oct 08 at 4:09 pm

  4. “How is someone with no training past High School biology supposed to realize that a newspaper report of a current journal article does not reflect a solid consensus?”

    I’m tempted to say ‘Because it’s a newspaper report’.

    OK, they can’t be certain. They should know that science operates by verification, and one person, even one scientist, making a claim probably doesn’t carry a lot of weight until the claim has been tested by others. The claim is especially weak if the scientist isn’t named at all.

    While the traditonal Scientific Method as taught to intermediate school students doesn’t exactly represent how all real scientists work, it does give the students a valuable start with the ideas of hypothesis and evidence.

    I think this represents wandering off on one of the interesting diversions.


    26 Oct 08 at 5:26 pm

  5. Cheryl’s last comment “I think this represents wandering off on one of the interesting diversions.

    Yes but Jane has been talking about distrust of intelligence. When people read “Cell phones cause brain tumors” and then a few months later read “Cell phones do not cause brain tumors”, they are quite likely to begin to doubt the “experts”.

    I expect this sort of thing – its the nature of research – but when untrained people see biologists disagreeing and economists disagreeing and Doctors disagreeing, its not surprising that they develop a distrust for expert advise.


    26 Oct 08 at 6:14 pm

  6. Which they wouldn’t (develop a distrust, that is) if they had a better science education in school. They’d know scientists are as trustworthy (or not) as the average human, and would be able to spot some of the sillier claims made in the name of science.

    But science is only one part of what I think Jane is talking about. The whole includes the knowledge of where we came from – the ideas that form the basis of our society and how they have developed and grown across the centuries.

    There was an attempt to include history of science in school science courses, which got at this in a small way. I rather liked it, but students tended to find it boring (and not even science), and were horribly handicapped by not having the faintest idea of the chronological order of, say, the Greeks, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. People need knowledge, facts and dates, to hang ideas on, and they can’t really understand that science isn’t something announced by fiat by someone in a white coat if they don’t have any historical perspective or any idea of how understanding of the world developed, and is still developing.


    27 Oct 08 at 5:34 am

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