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Archive for November, 2008

Not Just A Mystery

with 6 comments

Yesterday, in response to the posts, I got a pair of e-mails that don’t look, on the surface, as if they have anything to do with each other, but which I think are very much connected.   The one from John was about a teacher friend of his and her battles with the parents of her students, who think Junior deserves an A no matter what his work has been like and are outraged when she refuses to agree.   The one from Robert said the following:

>>>Truth is, the button of mine you push most often is not your defense of any work of literature, but your cavalier attitude toward those you despise as unworthy<<<

I’ve looked at that sentence a dozen times, and I still don’t get it.  I don’t “despise” works that are noncanonical, and I don’t see that anything I’ve said here indicates that I do. 

Nor do I assume that books have to be “worthy” in the sense that seems to be used above in order to be part of the canon–with the canon devised as a collection of works important in the intellectual history of the West, for instance, Uncle Tom’s  Cabin would make the cut where the minor novels of Jane Austen and all of Thackery except Vanity Fair would not, and Uncle  Tom’s Cabin is far worse of a novel (in the sense of fulfilling the defnition of a novel) than not only the Austen and the Thackery, but than Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer and even Somebody Else’s Music.

There is something going on there in that assumption that not to include a work in the canon is to look down on it that I think is key to the argument here.  And  I think it’s the key to John’s teacher friend’s problem with the parents of her students.

First, it seems to me that great big whacking hunks of the baby boom generation came out of school feeling that they’d been unfairly branded inferior by the system and their teachers.

Second, that these same kids, now parents, are convinced that the branding was all the more egregious because the standard on which they think it was based–the humanities in general and literature in particular–is something they consider nothing but subjective taste.  In other words, it was based on nothing real.  It was mere snobbery.

Somewhere back there a while ago, I pointed out that part of the problem with explaining the humanities to people is that it’s far easier to illustrate why an equation is wrong than why it is an idea about literature is.   That doesn’t mean that ideas about literature are subjective, or just a matter of taste, any more than ideas about quarks are.  It just means that they’re harder to explain.

One of the reasons why they’re harder to explain is that they seem to be something that everybody “gets.”  I’m not an idiot, am I?  I can read, for God’s sake.  You’re just making up all that stuff about Moby Dick being an allegory.

But Robert doesn’t fall into that category, and I don’t think anybody else here does, either.  So why make the assumption that if I don’t think Georgette Heyer is literature, I must “despise” her work?  Where have I said anything that indicates I “despise” it?

I did say  I thought Heyer was escapist entertainment–does that mean I “despise” it?  If it does,  I spend a damned lot of time indulging in something I despise.  I can’t handle the cozier sort of cozy–cat detectives, and that sort of thing–but Martha Grimes is escapist entertainment, and I loved her early novels.  Dorothy L. Sayers is escapist entertainment, and I have her complete works of detective fiction in the house somewhere. 

Back in the days when we taught people how to really read, the conventional wisdom was that there were three ways to read, each a little more difficult than the last–for entertainment, for information, and for understanding.   A book that provided an opportunity for all three kinds of reading had more claim to be taken seriously than one that  provided an opportunity for only one. 

But note–the requirement is all three, including entertainment.  The very best books provide that level for people who want it.  You really can read  Moby  Dick as an adventure story about a whale.  You can also read it for the information it provides about whaling.  You can also read it to understand the allegory.

A writer I like very much–a writer most of whose work is definitely escapist  entertainment–once pointed out through a character in a novel called Small Gods that books that can tell you how to fix the plumbing are all very well and good, but books in the humanities (literature and philosophy and history) tell you how to be human.

I don’t think anybody can outright tell you how to be human, but I do think that if you’re looking for a way out of cultural decadence and decline, you’re not going to get it from books on physics or theoretical mathematics.  Science is a great good thing, and when it has an impact on day to day life that impact tends to be huge, but a lot of it is the examination of issues that are of no importance to most of the people on this planet and never will be.   I think the whole question of whether the universe will expand until it reaches a steady state or get to some kind of end and retract again until it forms another ball for another big bang a neat thing to read about, but don’t tell me that I value science for its practical usefulness in the real world.  There is no practical usefulness in that, and probably never will be.

Physicists investigate the fate of the universe because they want to know for the sake of knowing, and I’m all for that.  The liberal arts–and physics is part of the liberal arts–are those things we study for their own sake, not because they will be useful to us.

But Terry Pratchett had a point–the humanities do indeed try to tell us how to be human.  They show us the different ways in which people have worked out their humanity, played out their lives, made the decisions that let to the consequences that got them to their end in one state rather than another.  This is useful knowledge to have.   The wider our understanding of how human beings live their lives, the better chance we have to live our own with some kind of decency and to build a decent society around us.

Nobody who has a thorough grounding in the humanities will ever tell you that morality is subjective and relative to different cultures, or that all cultures are equally worthwhile and to be valued on their own terms, or that it’s “just your opinion” that FGM is morally unacceptable.  One of the big jobs of the humanities is to teach you better than that.

Part of what’s so crazy making here, though, is this;  I’m pretty sure  Robert believes in God.

The push to make scientific procedures and standards the only procedures and standards is usually the province of very militant atheists.  It provides them with a basis on which to deny any evidence that does not fit a rather narrow agenda.  If man is “just another animal,” for instance, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t move to active euthanasia when someone is just “using up too many resources” and so threatens the “quality of life” of the rest of us. 

I’m not saying that all atheists have this sort of agenda–they really, really don’t–or that atheism in and of itself requires it (it really, really doesn’t), but the fact is that scientism–the use of “science” as ideology, the denial of all other kinds and enterprises of human knowledge–is a very useful tool for certain very specific political agendas.  It is not the political agenda Robert favors.  I don’t think it’s the political agenda anybody here favors.

Contrast that with the body of work of somebody like, say, George Steiner, who manged to work his way around to declaring, in Real Presences and Lessons of the Masters, that the existence of great art proved the existence of God.

Okay, not quite.  But close.  And  I have some real problems with Steiner, as a thinker.  But his basic point in all this is the same as Terry Pratchett’s.

The humanities are those branches of knowledge that deal with what it means to be human in particular.   That is, they deal with the things that make us different from every other creature that exists on this planet, and different in kind, not just in degree. 

Even medicine doesn’t do this.  It works off biological science that begins with the assumption that species are interconnected–that the digestive systems of mammals have a lot in common with each other, that the idiosyncrasies of the human digestive system are no more than that.  When neuroscience tries to “explain’ religion, or creativity, it talks about the ways neurons develop and the action of hormones on synapses–and in the end it tells us nothing about religion, or creativity, at all.

The danger of scientism is that we will begin to think science tells us about those things.  When people like Victor Davis Hanson lend their names and reputations to things like ID, it’s scientism they think they’re fighting, although they’re not.

The humanities are not subjective matters of taste with no objective foundation for understanding and evaluation.  They’re the only expression we have of our full and unique humanity and the only path we have to understanding it.

Trust me, science is not going to help.

To say that some work or other operates on the level of entertainment and entertainment only is not to “despise” it. 

And to set up a situation where we have only two choices–it’s great art, or it’s complete crap–doesn’t help anybody.


Written by janeh

November 30th, 2008 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Okay,  Okay.  Two posts in one day, and I do too much of it.

But Robert just posted this, and I have to respond:

>>>Indeed, ID is not testable, and therefor does not rate the respect given to that which can be and is tested>>>

I did NOT say that, because ID is not testable, it “does n ot rate the respect given to that which can be and is tested.”

I said that because ID is not testable, it  IS NOT SCIENCE.

But from the beginning of this blog, I’ve been ring to make the point that the scientiric paradigm is NOT the only one deserving of respect–that it is applicable to a subset of knowledge and only that subset, and is useless and wrongheaded when applied to other kinds of knowledge.

If ID was claiming to be literature, or even philosophy, I wouldn’t demand that it make testifiable claims.

It’s only because ID claims to be science that testifiability is an issue.

Scientific standards are applicable to an investigation of the natural workings of the material world,  AND NOTHING ELSE.

Applying scientific standards to literature doesn’t prove that literature is worthless, or even subjective–it’s just the equivalent of trying to read Chinese characters on the assumption that they’re supposed to be the Roman alphabet, and when you can’t make head nor tail of them with that approach, declaring that Chinese is an objectively meaningless language that must consist  of people making up subjective “meanings” as they go along.

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Sleeping With The Fishes. Or, You Know, Not.

with 8 comments

So John posted a comment on Intelligent Design, after he’d sent it to me, and I promised to yell at it.  Except,  I’m not going to, exactly.  The issue is a lot more complicated than that.  For one thing, John isn’t actually talking about Intelligent Design, which he admits to knowing nothing about.   He’s talking about certain of the “defenders” of evolution, which evolution would be better off without.

But the question matters, and it’s a kind of metaphor for everything else that is happening intellectually in the United States today.  It’s starting to happen in England, Canada, and Australia, too, and the elements are largely the same.  

And I  happen to have written a book, called Living Witness, due out this coming spring (hint, hint…) that deals with just such an argument in a small Pennsylvania town.

But let’s start from the beginning.

First, I agree with Cheryl and John–I think it would be a good idea to examine the claims of Intelligent Design in high school biology classrooms.

I think this would be good idea because it would address issues students hear outside the classroom and that are not usually addressed otherwise.

I think this would be a good idea because it would help illustrate the difference between science and scientific-sounding nonscience.  (And ID is nonscience–none of its adherents has produced any original research whatsoever to validate the ID point of view, for one thing).

And I think it would be a good idea because it would help illustrate the workings of a logical fallacy called the “argument from ignorance,” which students tend to love.  Essentially, ID is nothing but an extended argument from ignorance–you don’t know why that happens?  It must be an Intelligent  Designer that did it!

Actually, if we don’t know why something happens , all we know is that we don’t know.

Now, it would  NOT be a violation of the separation of church and state for  ID to be taught this way in high school biology classes.

Nothing in the US Constitution, or the concept of separation of church and state, forbids us from doing this.

The problem is–this is not what ID proponents want.

What they want is for ID to be presented as an alternative scientific theory to evolution with NO exacmination of the evidence that does or does not exist for its claims and NO comparison of its methods with those of the scientific community.

It would be like coming into a history classroom and saying, “Some people believe that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but other people believe it was Abraham Lincoln.  Views on this subject differ.”

And then NOT allowing any examination of the evidence unpinning (or not) the two claims.

Proponents of  ID refuse to allow examination of the evidence of their claims because most of them are aware that there is no evidence for their claims.   Their central premise–that some systems are so interdependent that they could not have arisen gradually by evolution since you need all the parts for the whole to work and if you lose one of the parts you have nothing (called “irreducible complexisty”)–was refuted 150 years ago.

In its present incarnation, that of Michael Behe’s complex molecular systems–workers in the field have actually sat down and worked out possible evolutionary paths for the very systems Behe claims it would be impossible to find evolutionary paths for.

If this was about science, Behe would respond to these critics or admit he was wrong–instead, he simply pretends they don’t exist, or, when he can’t, misstates their work.   There’s quite a lot about Behe here


which is the TalkOrigins website, a good place to start if you know nothing about evolution.

But it’s worse than that.  Virtually every single claim made by proponent of ID is not only demonstrably false, but known to be so to such a wide range of people, it’s difficult not to assume that the people making the claims are simply lying, and not just confused.

For instance–there are no transitional forms!  Actually, there are, tens of thousand of them, and between species as well as within species.

The peppered  moth experiments were faked!  No, they weren’t.  All that was faked was a photographic illustration of  how the process worked, used in many textbooks for a while.  You may like this idea or not, but most textbooks engage in this practice, and in fields far removed from biology.

The National Center for Science  Education has a whole raft of resources on the ID movement, including the claims it makes.  You can start here


where there are a lot of links.

But I want to address one thing that keeps coming up–the claim that ID is “another scientific explanation for the origins of life.”

First, nobody is talking about the “origins of life.”  Evolution does not deal with the “origins of life,” which could be anything, even God.  Evolution only deals with the origins of what we now call biodiversity.  ONCE life started, how did it develop so many different forms.”

At least two people have complained here that it is very wrong for opponents of ID to say that it is n ot science–but on this, even the idiots who think they’re defending evolution are quite right.  ID is no more science than Terry Pratchett is, and Pratchett’s ideas about the origins of the world are a hell of a lot more interesting.

I agree that there’s something wrong in restricting the definition of the scientific enterprise until it gets so rigid it can no longe produce new insights and innovations, but not to restrict it at all is to say that astrongomy and astrology are both ‘science.”

ID makes no testable claims.  That is, there is no way to test ID’s central premise, that life exhibits signs of having been “intelligently designed.”  Its central premise is essentially the old Argument from Design, and the Argument from Design does not hold up even as a construct in logic.

ID is not falsifiable.  That is, it allows no circumstances under which it can be proved to be wrong.   ID proponents know the importance of the requirement for falsifiability in science, which is why they are always accusing evolution of being non-falsifiable.  But evolution is falsifiable on many different points–find a single complex organism not based on DNA, for instance, and the whole edifice falls to the ground–and ID is falsifiable on none.

But the biggest problem with the ID movement is this–it does NOT want to get “intelligent design” into the schools.

It only wants to change the teaching of evolution so that children are taught that evolution is a “weak” scientific theory that “many” scientists don’t accept and is therefore a “theory in crisis” which is likely to be abandoned soon. 

That’s what they want.  That last paragraph is what they’re after.  It’s not science, and none if it is true.

That’s why ID proponents will NOT accept teaching ID in science classes and examining its claims–that’s the last thing they want.

I agree that some of the people who are supposedly defending evolution are arrogrant, hysterical and downright idiotic.  Several of the people who post to this blog were witness to a Usenet discussion in which an adamant supporter of evolution whose take on religious people was that they were all idiots willing to take anything on authority if it came from their church suddenly admitted that he didn’t actually understand evolution, but it was science, and that was enough for him.

Yes, people like that are annoying, even appalling, and it’s difficult to stand the idea of being on the same side of any issue.

But the fact is that ID was cooked up by non-scientists, and its purpose is not to present an alternative scientific view of anything.  It doesn’t even want to present a view.  It only wants to install a policy in public schools of teaching evolution as probably wrong, not supported by evidence, not accepted by the scientific community, etc, etc.  

And, like I  said, all those things are lies.

Towards the beginning of his career,  Philip Johnson, the grandfather of the new creationists, was quite outfront about why he was doing what he was doing–he was furious that scientists were respected and people who supported the literal interpretation of the Bible were laughed at.  If he’d been just another creationist, nobody would have paid any attention.  But he was not only a lawyer, but a professor of law at Boalt at Berkeley. 

ID is not about science.  It never was.  You can go here


and check out its history.   Barbara Forrest has made a career of keeping tabs on it.

But there’s one more thing–intellectual rigor has to be applied evenhandedly across the board.   We can’t jettison it because we just don’t want to be on the side of the guy who thinks there’s a difference between taking “science” on faith and the Pope on faith. 

I think the reality of real intellectualism is that it won’t give much confort to  liberals or conservatives.

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

We started out, back there somewhere, talking about decadance and decline, and whether Western Civilization in general, and American society in particular, were about to go the way of the Rome of Nero and the Greece of Alexander the Great.

And, believe it or not, I’ve actually been thinking about that, although I’ve been coming at it sideways, sort of.  At least, I’ve been thinking of it when I haven’t been overreacting to problems with my cell phone (which turned out to be fine) or putting ice packs on my foot. 

My foot is now purple, which is something else altogether.

That said, I want to provide a link that somebody sent me in an e-mail:


The link is to an article by Victor Davis Hanson, one of my favorite writers now working, and the author of the best book I’ve ever read in defense of a classical curriculum.

Hanson is a professor of classics, so when he defends a “classical curriculum,”  he means classical.  He wants to teach everybody Latin and Greek.  The book is called Wno Killed Homer?  and it’s worth reading for a single very long chapter on the “usefulness” (as Thomas  Jefferson would have put it) of classical study.

That said, it seems to me that the content of Hanson’s article above linked to and the evolution of his web site over the last several years point to a problem in this whole issue that make doom and gloom more likely rather than less, and not for the reasons they think.

Hanson belongs to a group of intellectuals who became “conservatives” because they rejected the anti-intellectualism and anti-Americans of the Sixties American left.  They include people like Allan Bloom (The Closing of the  American Mind) and the people we now call “neocons,” like Gertrude Himmelfarb and John Podheretz.

Some of these people actually became conservatives in the modern American sense, but most of them did not.  Himmelfarb and company, for instance,  support the idea of a welfare state long after their move to the “right, ” which was in actuality not a move to the right at all.  “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” one of them famously said.  “The Democratic Party left me.” 

And that made sense.  They were New Deal-John F. Kennedy liberals in a party that had departed for other shores. 

I don’t know where Hanson was on issues like these.  I’ve never read anything by him about economics or welfare, and even if I had I’m not sure I’d be able to pin him down.  One of my other favorite writers of the moment is the pseudonymous Theodore Dalrymple (Live at the Bottom,  Our  Culture, or What’s  Left of It), a British doctor with active socialists for parents whose spent his entire career working in third world countries and English inner cities, and although  I can figure out that he thinks the welfare state has done a lot of damange to the kinds of people he’s served,  I can’t quite pin down what he wants to do about it.

So I don’t know if Victor Davis Hanson is in favor of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, but I do know that he’s landed in a very odd place in his defense of the virtues of intelligence.  Maybe Allan Bloom would have ended there as well if he hadn’t died some time ago.   I don’t know.   Let’s just look at Victor  Davis Hanson for a moment.

First, as a quick perusal of the article will show, about a third of what he says here is relevant mostly to California.   I don’t know enough about California to know if his number 5 is true, for instance.   I know that his points about infrastructure, for i nstance, would not apply to Connecticut, where we tend to be very careful about fixing things and to go into hyperbolic fits when something falls down when it’s not supposed to.

I also suspect that number six–his point about young men now sounding so much like young women, he can’t tell the difference on the phone–is not only more true of California than of other places, but more true of some social classes than others.   I don’t usually have much trouble distinguishing male from female voices on the phone, but then I don’t usually talk on the phone to prep school boys who have spent their lives in the kind of schools that promise they will be introduced to a very narrow range of acquaintances.

Number ten, on the other hand, seems to me to be both wrong and right in different ways, and I’m going to quote it here so that it’s easy to access for those of you who don’t want to jump back and forth between web sites:

>>>10. The K-12 public education system is essentially wrecked. No longer can any professor expect an incoming college freshman to know what Okinawa, John Quincy Adams, Shiloh, the Parthenon, the Reformation, John Locke, the Second Amendment, or the Pythagorean Theorem is. An entire American culture, the West itself, its ideas and experiences, have simply vanished on the altar of therapy. This upcoming generation knows instead not to judge anyone by absolute standards (but not why so); to remember to say that its own Western culture is no different from, or indeed far worse than, the alternatives; that race, class, and gender are, well, important in some vague sense; that global warming is manmade and very soon will kill us all; that we must have hope and change of some undefined sort; that AIDs is no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease; and that the following things and people for some reason must be bad, or at least must in public company be said to be bad (in no particular order): Wal-Mart, cowboys, the Vietnam War, oil companies, coal plants, nuclear power, George Bush, chemicals, leather, guns, states like Utah and Kansas, Sarah Palin, vans and SUVs.

To begin with, I’d agree with him about most of the programs in most of the high schools, to the extent that they produce graduates with little if any common knowledge.

The thing is, I would disagree with his assertion that these graduates come out knowing “…10. The K-12 public education system is essentially wrecked. No longer can any professor expect an incoming college freshman to know what Okinawa, John Quincy Adams, Shiloh, the Parthenon, the Reformation, John Locke, the Second Amendment, or the Pythagorean Theorem is. An entire American culture, the West itself, its ideas and experiences, have simply vanished on the altar of therapy. This upcoming generation knows instead not to judge anyone by absolute standards (but not why so); to remember to say that its own Western culture is no different from, or indeed far worse than, the alternatives; that race, class, and gender are, well, important in some vague sense; that global warming is manmade and very soon will kill us all; that we must have hope and change of some undefined sort; that AIDs is no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease; and that the following things and people for some reason must be bad, or at least must in public company be said to be bad (in no particular order): Wal-Mart, cowboys, the Vietnam War, oil companies, coal plants, nuclear power, George Bush, chemicals, leather, guns, states like Utah and Kansas, Sarah Palin, vans and SUVs.”

The students I meet know none of that–they don’t know that those things are “bad,” and they don’t know that they’re good.  They’ve heard of Wal-Mart and SUVs because they’ve been there or owned one or nobody somebody who has, but they couldn’t find  Utah or  Kansas on a map, never mind come up with whether such states were good or evil.   As for AIDS and guns, if anybody ever told them that AIDS is “no more a homosexual- than a heterosexual-prone disease,” they’ve forgotten all about it, and they’ll tell you quite straightforwardly that AIDS is “gay.”  And they truly love guns.  The second amendment often is the only one they know for sure, and they’re all in support of it.

Much earlier on in this blog, we got into a discussion of what people were learning in high school, and somebody,  I don’t remember who, said that this was “victims studies” rather than traditional knowledge.  But the truth is that, at least in the state I live in, students are learning neither  victims studies nor traditional knowledge.

This is the whole point of “skills based” education–you don’t teach content, you teach “how to learn.”  And “how to learn” is defined very narrowly.  Reading is assumed to be about sounding out words by phonics and decoding standard forms of sentences, with the sentences used to teach carefully denuded of any cultural content at all, because cultural content might confuse the issue. 

My students come to me with so little cultural content that most of them would be unable to understand one of  Dr. Hanson’s own essays–they know the Vietnam War happened, for instance, but they’re not sure when and they’re not sure why; they don’t watch the news, so when asked to identify “Sarah Palin and Joe Biden,” they came up with “Sarah Palin is the daughter os somebody who has something to do with John McCain and Joe  Biden is her baby daddy.”

I am not making this stuff up.  If my students had been fed a diet of victims studeis, they’d be far better off than they are now, because they would at least have had to know the terms that victims studies deal with.  Instead, my students do indeed know who Martin Luther  King is, but they’re left astounded by the idea of segregation and they’ve never heard the term “Jim Crow.”  Hell, most of them have never heard the term “affirmative action,” and when I explain it to them they often simply refuse to believe it exists.

Somebody once asked W.H. Auden what students should study in school, and he said “it doesn’t matter as long as they all study the same thing.”  At the moment, they’re not all studying the same thing.  They’re in the hands of a profession that believes that “skills” can be taught irrespective of content, and the inevitable is happening.


And here’s my point here for the day.

Victor  Davis Hanson is among a group of people now–all of them public defenders of traditional learning, of the canon, of classics–who have started to lend their names to defenses of “intelligent design,” as if that was an actual scientific point of view.

I’m not saying that Hanson supports “creationism,” because I don’t know that.  I am saying that his web site presents at least one article “critical” of evolution in the  ID tradition–by which I mean that it makes points that are only convincing (or even interesting) to people who know nothing at all about what evolution actually says.  If it’s intellectual rigor you’re supposed to be upholding, then  presenting such arguments as if they were respectable is something worse than shooting yourself in the foot.

When William  F. Buckley set out to reform the conservative movement, his first big project was to get rid of the nutcases, among whom were the creationist loons of a  Bible belt trying to pretend that not only biology, but geology, physics, chemistry and immunology didn’t really exist.  It worked, because Buckley himself stood for an compromising intellectual elitism–if you didn’t understand the words, you could look them up–that proved to be a beacon for disaffected liberals in the midst of the Sixties anti-intellectual orgy.

Now the magazine Buckley founded serves up ID as well, and almost every one of the liberal intellectuals who moved right after the McGovernite takeover of the Democratic Party pays lip service to the “seriousness” of the “challenge” to evolution that does not exist.

It’s like I said when I started that.  There’s no way to go in for know-nothing anti-intellectualism on just one subject or just one field of study.  Once you start, you can’t stop.

Written by janeh

November 28th, 2008 at 11:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lost in the…something

with 3 comments

At the moment, I’m sitting at a computer at school absolutely losing it, because my phone conked.  It may not actually be totally and completely conked, but it might as well be, because I don’t know how to do the thing that is supposed to fix it.  Matt, my older son, does, and he got back for the week-end last night, so as soon as I get home this afternoon he’ll be able to try the “remove and then reinstall the battery” thing. 

In the meantime, I don’t exactly get it.  The building where I teach on Wednesdays gets virtually no cell reception at all.  I’m effectively cut off here no matter what I do.  I’d have no more access to phone calls here if my phone was working perfectly. 

And I’m not worried that the phone will be dead and cause me to be out of contact for days, or cost a lot to replace–the phone’s insured, and the company will overnight me a replacement if I call and tell them what’s happened.

Assuming it’s even happened.

And, okay, it wouldn’t get here until Friday, but there’s only one phone call that might come in on Thursday that really would have to be taken immediately, and I can back that up.

I don’t know what’s happening here exactly except that I’m used to having it, and not having it feels dangerous, somehow.  And dangerous is the word.  My car could break down and I’d be stuck on the side of the road unable to call for help.  Something like that.

But I was the last person I know to get a cell phone.  I’ve only had one for about a year and a half.  And I did my fair share of breaking down on the side of the road or (more common) blowing out tires.   In fact, about six or seven years ago, I practically made a hobby of blowing out tires on back roads in aeas without a housein sight.  I spent a lot of time trekking around looking for people willing to let me in to call somebody.

Sometimes I was just looking for people.  There aren’t a lot of them in some of the areas around here.

Maybe the problem is that I reailized, siting out in my car half an hour ago and trying to get the damned thing to work or open the battery case–that I don’t remember anybody’s phone number any more.  I can’t even borrow a cell phone from one of my students and call Matt, because I can’t for the life of me remember Matt’s number.  I know Greg’s number, but I also know that Greg’s phone is off so that nobody calls him up on a day when he can sleep in.

It’s the danger thing, though, that strikes me.  I would have said that I was experiencing none of the “fear” the news stations declare all Americans are awash in in a time of financial crisis, but maybe I’m just better at hidin it than most people are.  I’m not often a paranoid person–I do a good job of not borrowing troule most ofthe time.  I try even harder not to do that thing my mother was fond of of anticipating doom on any and all occasions.

But there I was, sitting in my car outside the new Tech Building, on a pretty day ih the middle of a pretty week, scared to death about my car breaking down orsomething else happening, some crisis, some emergency, in the face of which I would be helpless.

I wonder how much of what we fear has any connection wih reality.  In the middle ages, people died suddenly and young all the time–diseases we now think of as minor killed people off in a day or two, without warning.  Agricultural and other accidents, even crime, were rampant.  And yet I hear none of that fear in the work of Geoffrey Chaucerl. of Geoffrey of Monmouth, either.  Some of the religious writers might had it, but it’s hard to tell.  Most religious writers in the middle ages spent so much time worrying about Hell, they might have had little time for worrying about accidents.

Maybe part of the problem is that the world is so much more stable, and so much more predictable, than it was even a hundred years ago.  And I don’t just mean death and dying, I mean everything.  Vanity Fair–yes, I’m still reading Vanity Fair.  It’s a long book and I’ve had a lot to do–Vanity Fair is full of sudden twists and turns of fortune.  A man who is of the highest and most respectable level of society on Tuesday suddenly sees his investments go bac and ends up in bankruptcy court on Friday.  Ships sink.  Wars break out.  Put your money in the bank and when the bank goes bust it takes your money with it.  No matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, you can’t know from one day to the next if you will survive.

Maybe the underlying fear is hardwired into all of us, or most of us, so that we can’t get rid of it even when we’re in no situation that makes it reasonable.  Maybe that’s what drives the weird histrionic conspiracy manias that seem to flood the culture periodically.  There are left wing versions and right wing versions, religious versions and atheist versions, old people versions and young people versions.

I can see an explanation of this fear that is grounded in evolution–if you[re afraid you’re watchful and if you’re watchful you’re more likely to survive the unexpected on the rare occasions that it happens–and one that is grounded in religion (God is trying to tell you something about your immortal soul). 

But I suppose in the end I’m just angry at myself for feeling this way. 

And it annoys me that I can’t make myself stop, even though my reason tells me I’m being an idiot.

I’m gong to go teach classes without any students in them.

Written by janeh

November 26th, 2008 at 11:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with


with 3 comments

Okay, I can’t help myself.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is running one of those surveys, this one on what American citizens and American officeholders know about American history and government.  It’s here


Have fun.

Written by janeh

November 25th, 2008 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

It’s the kind of thing you can’t believe you actually did, because nobody ever does it.   It’s a sitcom cliche.

I was in the grocery store yesterday afternoon. Greg, my younger son, was with me, and he had the cart.  I was looking for The Turkey, and  I’d finally found my way to the bin with the frozen Butterballs in it.  And  I thought  I was out of luck again, because they all looked small.

And then  I saw it.

It was huge, well over twenty pounds, and it was, of course, sitting at the very bottom of the pile. 

So I  reached in and started to tug the thing out by its netting.   I had a hard time getting it to move.  It budged, and I pulled some more.  The pile of frozen turkeys was right next to a pile of frozen turkey breasts, with no divider between them.  When  I tugged on my turkey, the turkey breasts moved.

Finally, I got so damned tired, I gave the thing a big yank.   It came out, sending several of the small frozen turkey breasts leaping through the freezer door and onto the floor around my feet.

Except for one, which landed on my left foot.

Kerblam.   Just like that.

Enormous bruise.  Swelling to the size of a large grapefruit by dinner.  Ice packs.

I did not, fortunately, break anything.  But I’m supposed to “stay off it for a few days.”  In the run up to Thanksgiving.

Anyway, part of me wants to address Cheryl’s comment about positive rights, but  I’m a bit stymied by the fact that I don’t know the case she’s referring to.  I  do know that there are no positive rights in the US Constitution, and there is most certainly no “right to education.”   Some of the STATE constitutions have provisions of that sort, but they’re another story.  

The education issues that have been decided in our SCOTUS have been decided mostly on the basis of the fourteenth amendment–not even in the bill of rights to begin with–which guarantees equal treatment under the law.  But without knowing what the case was, and whether it was federal or state, and what state, etc, I don’t know how to figure out what happened.

What I can address is both John’s contention that things should be decided by legislatures, and  Robert’s that the world is getting worse because there are speech codes on college campuses and that hasn’t made any of them a pariah.

First, as to deciding things by legislative action–some things, yes, but  I think there are some things legislatures should not be allowed to make laws about, ever.  This was not at issue in the Navy sonar case.  In that case, the question was what the Constitution said should take precedent–laws enacted by  Congress or orders of the Commander in  Chief.  Since SCOTUS’s primary job is to tell us what the  Constitution says, it seems entirely fitting to me that, in a case where the wording was murky, they should untangle it.

This is precisely not a job for the legislature, or for the Commander in Chief, because both have a conflict of interest in seeing that the interpretation goes their way.

Robert’s case of campus speech codes, however, does speak to what I’m talking about here, about areas where the legislature should not be allowed to have any say at all.

The way Robert’s post is worded seems to assume that there was once a time when universities upheld free speech on their campuses, and that it is only recently (the past, say, forty years) when they have indulged in campus censorship.

But this is not true, and it has never been true.  And it’s not just universities.  Free speech may be a core Western value-actually, a core Anglophone value–but it isn’t that because the populations of Western countries have ever, at any time, actually agreed with it.

In fact, dig a little, and you’ll find that even Americans, who are more inclined to free speech than almost anybody else, have pretty much hated the idea from off.  Nor has there ever been a time when there has been no officially sanctioned censorship anywhere, or where universities have not engaged in it, or where the battle could be assumed to be won, or without the need of lawsuits to help protect it.

From the Alien and Sedition Acts until now, Americans have been of the “I agree with free speech, but some things go too far” persuasion.  Go look at any poll that asks the question, and you’ll find that the vast majority of Americans think that it ought to be illegal to say bad things about somebody else’s religion. 

And that’s not all they think should be censored.  Our public schools–including high schools–are battlegrounds every year.   The right wants to ban Catcher in the Rye, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the Harry  Potter novels.   The left wants to ban Huckleberry Finn and Of Pandas and People.

I’m not talking about instructional materials here, what will be taught in the classroom.   I’m talking about the mere existence of certain books in school libraries.  No compromises are possible.   We’ll put the book behind the librarian’s desk and she’ll only give it out to children whose parents have signed a permission slip allowing them to have it?   Nope.  Unacceptable.  Get that book out of the library altogether.

Before there were campus speech codes, there were campus loyalty oaths–most American colleges and universities banned Communists from teaching and banned teachers from advocating Communist ideas not only during the McCarthy hysteria but well into the Sixties and Seventies.  When I started teaching at Robert’s alma mater–well into the Seventies–I was required to sign a loyalty oath promising that I was not only true to the  US, but that  I was not and had never been a member of the Communist Party. 

Late Seventies.  Think about it.

Free speech has never been popular because it is counterintuitive.  It demands that we allow ideas that are in fact, objectively, wrong and bad.  It also, of course, demands that we allow ideas that we only think are wrong or bad, but it’s often hard to distinguish which is which in the heat of the moment. 

Andrew Comstock didn’t want to pass obscenity laws to keep pornography out of the mails.  He wanted to keep information about birth control out of the mails.  Various groups of people spend a lot of time trying to find a way to shut down the NAMBLA  web site.  One of the “drug czars” suggested that Congress should make it a drug offense to write or speak in favor of legalization, because talk like that was definitely convincing some people that it was all right to take drugs.

Left, right, center, it doesn’t matter. Most people do not accept the idea of free speech and they never have.  There was never a time when America in particular or the West in general supported freedom of speech and the press in any significant numbers.  

What most people support is an idea that was thrown up by the nineteenth century Catholic Church and that has since been taken up enthusiastically by various Muslim organizations in Egypt and elsewhere: freedom of speech is the right to speak the truth.  It is not the right to speak error.  Error has no rights. 

In other words, freedom of speech means being allowed to say stuff they agree with, but stuff the consider is wrong can be banned, because nobody has the right to say things that are wrong, or lies.  You can find this formulation in something called the Cairo Declaration, which was an attempt by Islamic countries and organizations to put out something to counter the US Bill of Rights and other statements of rights.  The Cairo Declaration is here:


and it’s Article 22 you’re looking at.

Free speech is popular with such a small percentage of human beings, that the wonder of the US  is the fact that we’ve keep it going to such an extent for so long. And campus speech codes notwithstanding,  Americans are freer in what they can say and print now than they have been at any point in their history.  Ever.

As to the universties in the present moment, two things: 

First, to the extent that these are private entities, the state has no right to tell them what speech they may or may not allow.  Part of the right of freedom of speech and the press, of freedom of conscience and expression, consists in the right to determine what speech you will allow on your own property.  If your opponent can take over part of your lawn to promote a candidate or idea your despise, your freedom of expression has been significantly curtailed.

Which is why both Robert and I have no use whatsoever for the “Fairness Doctrine.” 

Second, the courts have in fact been much better about protecting the freedom of speech and press of conservative students and faculty on today’s public university campuses than they were about protecting the same for liberal and leftist students and professors in the Fifties.  They’ve even done a credible job in some private university cases–I’m thinking of the Dartmouth wars here–where the university’s own mission statement has been used to provide grounds for lawsuts by conservative students against university attempts to suppress alternative newspapers and speakers.

We’re never going to get to the point where most people are willing to accept freedom of speech in its full sense.  It’s never happened and it never will.  That’s what we need the Bill of Rights for.

And I do not believe that human nature changes.  I think we’re going to need a Bill of Rights, and advocacy organizations to file lawsuits under it, pretty much forever.

Written by janeh

November 25th, 2008 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bills of Rights, and Kissing Cousins

with 4 comments

Well, to start,  I’d have to say that I heartily approve of our Bill of  Rights, and that I would not want out government run on the basis described by John as pertaining in Canada.

One reason is philosophical–in the  US Constitution, rights are assumed to be inherent in the person, prior to and superceding the institution of any government.  Rights are not something a society can ‘give” me, and although societies can and do violate them, they’re not something that can be taken away, either.   They are things that are true about human nature and the ways in which it functions in social groups, and especially in highly complicated civilized ones.

In the second place, rights in the US Constitution are negative–they’re limits on the power of government.   Which is why, I think,  I don’t have the same kind of problem some people here seem to with the courts considering some of the various matters they have.   I do have some problems with some of the decisions, but the process is imperfect, and that was inevitable.

As to the case referred to–that of whether they US navy could use sonar even if it harmed whales–that’s good news, not bad.  The issue isn’t whether they courts should be involved in determining naval policy.  They don’t presume to do that.   What they should be involved in is deciding what to do when laws and executive orders and rights and ratified treaties conflict, which happens all the time.

In this case, the problem was the conflict of naval policy with various environmental laws and international treaties.  Since the conflict existed, somebody needed to say what took precedence over what.

And the courts did not just step in and decide to consider something.  They can’t do that.  Somebody must bring a lawsuit.  In this case, the lawsuit was brought by, among other parties, various environmental groups who wanted to force the Navy to abide by environmental laws already in place.

And no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they were able to sue.   One of the rights in our Bill of  Rights sits at the end of the First Amendment, and says that the government may not abridge “the right of the people” to “petition their government for a redress of grievances.” 

In other words, if we don’t like what the government is doing, we have a lot of different avenues to stop them, and not just the ballot box.  This is not a bad thing but a good one, because some issues, although important in an absolute sense, fly under the radar of most of the population, or are so complicated that most of the population doesn’t understand them. The fact that groups with experts can challenge conflicts between laws or policies that conflict with established law or with the Bill of Rights is a good thing, not a bad one.

Right now, our Bill of Rights means that the US is, far and away, the country in which freedom of speech and of the press is most strictly honored.  The “hate crimes” legislation of the sort that has become fashionable in many parts of Europe and to some extent in Canada (and is being proposed in  Australia) is flat out illegal here.   To the extent that we have hate crimes legislation here, it is restricted to sentencing enchancement in cases that are already criminal in nature–that is, if you beat up some guy on the street and calling him the n-word while you’re doing it, you can go to jail for slightly more time (between eighteen months and two years in most places that have these laws) than if you didn’t call him anything.

Personally,  I think even that is too much, but you’ll note something here–beating up that old guy on the street is illegal no matter what you think of him or say to him.  Contrast that with laws in Italy that put Oriana Fallaci on trial for two years before her death from cancer for saying that Islam was brutal and savage and a danger to Italian culture–just for saying it, and writing it.   Or the laws in  Germany and elsewhere that make it illegal to buy or sell Mein Kampf or to deny that the Holocaust happened.

Robert is going to chime in in a moment about speech codes on college campuses, and I’m not going to deny they exist, because they do.   If you want to find out more about them, you can go to


which is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  They were founded to go after the speech codes, and they use that “petition your government for a redress of grievances” thing to file law suits against colleges and universities who try to install and enforce them.

And they’re winning.  In fact, in the case of public colleges and universities, the courts have been single-voiced and adamant–no arm of the government, federal or state, may restrict freedom of expression for adults.

(The problem of public elementary and high schools is more complicated.)

Again, this is not bad news, it’s good.  The very existence of FIRE is good news.   I want lots of organizations like FIRE.  I want them everywhere.   The Founders did not believe that Americans would be noble and idealistic and community minded.   They believed that the primary focus of the citizen would be self interest, and that the safety of rights lay in the fact that we’d all be fighting each other and none of us would want to allow the rest of us an inch.

Okay, that sentence should have been shot.

I think that the major problem with the courts, from the view even of people here, has to do not with the fact that they can so intervene in disputes, but in the fact that the country, being socially in flux, keeps running up against situations that are new to it.

The Catholic parochial school system in the US is the second largest school system in the world.  It exists because Catholics objected to their children being forcd to say the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer in school, and to read the King James Version of the Bible.   Other non-Protestant Christians–Jews, atheists, whatever–were just shit out of luck.  They were required to pay tax money to have their government endorse religious views they did not hold, and they were required to allow their children to be forced to worship (which is what prayer is) in ways contrary to their religious beliefs.

I’m sorry, but doesn’t my Constitution say something about Congress not being allowed to establish religion?  And were we really better off–and our rights better protected–when the federal courts turned a blind eye to state and municipal violations of the rights of conscience of tens of thousands of Americans?

Actually, if the court cases had stopped with school prayer and mandatory Bible study, I don’t think there would have been such a problem with them among the population generally or in the reports that sometimes surface outside the US.  The problems come with the squishy issues.

Personally, I tend to favor an approach that allows schools to do what they want with the squishy issues, but I  do understand why some people don’t.  What do you do about a Christmas celebration in a school where a quarter of your students are not Christians?  What do you do about a Halloween celebration in a school where a quarter of your students belong to the kind of evangelical Christian family that thinks Halloween is devil worship?

There has never been, in the history of the world, a society that has attempted to maintain within the core of its citizenry the kind of diversity–racial, ethnic, religious, philosophical–we have here.  And we’re mostly doing a good job of it.   But I don’t think it’s suprising that we keep running up against people who are unable to approach their differences with their neighbors except as a matter of all or nothing.

Those people are annoying, you understand.  And eventually we’re going to have to smooth the edges out and come up with some kinds of compromise–I’m damn near an absolutist on matters of the separation of church and state, but saying that you can’t teach the poetry of John Donne in a public high school does nothing but ensure that public high school education will be second rate.

But the basic impetus is good.

As for the kissing cousines, though, and the “Europeans” generally–although freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of conscience,  is the logical evolution of a number of ideas bequeathed to us by the Greeks, the fact is that the first full-throated defense of a near-absolute freedom of the press occurs with John Milton’s Areopagetica.  It is not a pan-Western concept, but essentially an English one.   It is most characteristic of the  Anglophone sphere.

Germany,  France, and Italy never signed on to freedom of speech and have never really practiced it except in truncated versions.  Their latest forays into “hate crimes” legislation as a code for censorship are just their latest forays into censorship.  Unlike the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, there never was a time when they gave it up, or even accepted the arguments for giving it up. 

But there’s another reason why I don’t think the US in particular is at that point where Rome fell.

Here’s a curious fact:  when those polling organizations run around asking people if they think their country is the best in the world, and if they’re happy to be people of their nationality, the Western Europeans vote resoundingly no to both, and the Americans vote resoundingly yes.

The immigrants in France and  German are unassimillable not because there are a lot of them, or even because they’re systematically discriminated against.  The late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century influx of Irish and Italians to the US was far higher, as a percentage of total population, than anything the European states are experiencing now or than we are.  And we were not paragons of tolerance during that phase of immigration. 

But Americans like being Americans, and immigrants here assimilate quickly not because they’re being forced to by schools and governments, but because they want to join a mainstream that looks to them not only rich but happy.  They assimilate so fast, and so relentlessly, that the California public schools fought a losing battle for a couple of decades trying to get them to “retain their culture.”  Instead, in spite of the hammer force of “bilingual education,” Spanish speaking immigrants like all immigrants before them find that their children speak English and their grandchildren barely speak any Spanish at all. 

Robert said, in the e-mail of his I posted, that I would have no hope of implementing “such a program” as the one I suggested.

But I do not want to implement such a program.   I don’t want a single program in the US public schools.  I don’t want the Department of Education foisting “patriotic ed” on towns and cities any more than I want it foisting No Child Left Behind on the same.

That’s not how you do these things, not if you hope to be successful.

Written by janeh

November 24th, 2008 at 6:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 7 comments

Hello.  The begin with, I’d like to thank all the people who sent me e-mails wondering if I was, you know, dead–although I would like to point out that, had I been dead, I wouldn’t have been able to answer them.  No, I was just tired, incredibly tired, so that I would do things like go, “hmmm, I’ll just sit here and have this tea, and then I’ll do something sensible.”  But  I’d be sitting in this big overstuffed chair, and an hour and a half later I’d wake up and realize I’d been asleep and the tea was cold. 

Anyway, I’m better now, and I do understand that I’ve gotten too old for the kind of schedule I was keeping over the last weeks, which doesn’t mean I won’t have to do it again in a month or so.  But in the meantime, I’ve been reading Vanity  Fair–no, I’m not a slow reader, the Penguin Classics ediction I have is over eight hundred pages long, and the type is not large; plus there’s that thing of sitting down and falling asleep–and I’ve been thinking about decadance and decline.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about why I don’t believe we are seeing the kind of situation Rome saw at the time of the fall of the Empire.  And no, I don’t just spontaneously think of things like that with no impetus whatsoever.  The impetus for this came from an e-mail Robert sent me, which responded to an e-mail of mine about what I would do to reform K-12 education in the US. 

My plan–and I really have to get this down somehow–was to turn elementary school and high school into arenas for building American idenity, to concentrate the content of education in those years on American history, literature, civics, art, etc, so that the one thing we would know about everybody who graduated from an American high school is that he would know how his government worked and what the history and culture of his country was.   I would provide a lot of material from Jefferson and Madison and Thoreau and Hawthorne and  Emerson and on down, in a comprehensive way, and leave the broader world–not entirely, but in any depth–to “higher education’ if the student decided to get to it.

If you are not American, you can rework the enitre plan to fit Canadian or  Australian or whatever history and culture, the point was that the purpose of  primary education and secondary education should be basic skills married to a knowledge of one’s own culture and country, a good enough knowledge to turn students into competent citizens, even if they decided not to be effective ones.

Robert responded to this idea with an e-mail that said the following:

>>> really, REALLY wish you were right, but I don’t think so–and one symptom is that you have no hope of implementing such a program. Picture the professorate, arguing that “American identity” is an insult to their particular hobbyhorses–racial, class and “gender” identity come immediately to mind, but there would be more. They’d lead the charge, and right behind them, killing the wounded and looting the dead, would be the teacher’s unions. (La Raza, NOW and Rainbow/PUSH would be the camp followers.) Remember the Bush I standards battles? This would be worse. The conservatives were out of the game even then, and we’ve had 20 years for liberals to die off and be replaced by whackos.

We stand–or stood–with Europe as part of a common culture, and now it’s gone. Three things: the willingness to judge ourselves by other’s standards, the inability to make and implement decisions, and–let’s be brutal here–the lack of the sort of patriotism a nation needs to survive.
We may annoy the French, but “Euro” is a marketing device, and a favorable one. That Baldwin ever worked again in Hollywood after that “I’ll go to France if I don’t get my way in the elections” bit is a VERY bad sign. Serious arguments that Americans should sign on for the ICC–forfeiting jury trials–is a worse one. When you reach the Supreme Court judging acceptable conduct for Americans by what is allowed overseas, the lack of national self-confidence is terminal.
Making and implementing decisions. Read something on the building of the Pentagon some day–or the transcontinental railroads, the Panama Canal, the Model T, the New Deal or the new governmental agencies of post-WWII.  Now watch the Osprey, the fence on the Mexican border, or the stimulus checks. Contemplate the hole in Manhattan and the Big Dig. Work out how long we’ve been trying to adjust immigration, entitlements and energy policy.  Compare the San Francisco 1906 recovery with New Orleans. I realized going into the voting booth this time that if I voted for a transportation program–that sort of thing does sometimes show up on the ballots here–I would retire and move back to Indiana faster than anyone would–now–build a road or a Metro line. After all, I only have 6 or 8 years left. I don’t know what’s caused it, but public or private, local or national, something’s gone, and it’s something critical.
And patriotism–yes, Americans are more satisfied with being Americans than the Euros are with any of their present identities, but it’s cheering for the local sports team, not a national cohesiveness. No serious bloc will give up its program in the national interest. They mean for someone else to do so. I’m a 25-year man–not retired, but that’s another story. When I heard about 9-11, I called my old unit and then the local recruiting station. I got right through. Yes, the nation was under attack, but this didn’t mean anyone should give up shopping and enlist. I read poor Beinert and I want to cry. He’s living in a world that passed away before I could vote.
When your news and entertainment, your educators and your ministers have turned against a culture, it’s over. We’re as dead now as Rome in 400 AD. The city isn’t sacked yet. The quarrel over the successor culture may go on for generations, and some of what I value will no doubt live on, but as a culture, we’re through. Gather a few books and take off before someone burns the library.
I think Robert is wrong on a number of counts above, in terms of the prophecy, but first let me point out one place we missed each other in passing.  Robert is talking about the United States of  America in particular.   I was talking about  Western civilization.
It occurs to me, for instance, that  Rome fell, but it didn’t exactly go anywhere.   Five hundred years after the fall, it was once again the single most important cultural force in the West, and would go on to be the single most important cultural force in the world.  It’s a cultural force now. both directly, and indirectly, through the fact that it was, in the West, the originator of  the Christian churches.
I think that Western civilization goes through these convulsions periodically, due mostly to the fact that most of our best ideas are also our worst ideas.   The emphasis on the primacy of the individual, for instance, gives us the principle of the primacy of conscience, the Bill of Rights, Jonas Salk and Ludwig von Beethoven.  Taken to its logical extreme, it gives us PETA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association,  copper bracelets that are supposed to cure arthritis, and Paris Hilton. 
I don’t know what the answer is here, but I do know that any attempt to reject our core principles–of which the primacy of the individual is one of the most important–ends in much more serious disasters than the fall of Rome. 
Science is an invention of the West.  It grew up in no other place.  It started to evolve in the Islamic empires and was ruthlessly and permanently surpressed.  China and India and Japan all made some discoveries about the natural world, but none of them developed a scientific ceivlization until we gave it to them.  Will one of them one day get better at it than we are, the way former British colonies now routinely beat the mother country in cricket?  Maybe.  But if they do, it will be because they have become part of Western civilization.
I am not a cultural relativist, any more than I’m a moral relativist.   I think human nature has rules that can be discovered, and these rules describe the consequences of what we do and think and are.  No communitarian culture has ever developed a scientific civilization, because scientific progress depends on people who refuse to go along to get along, for whom being rue to themselves is more important than being part of the group.  Individualistic cultures that have attempted to install any serious communitarianism have ended by wrecking their scientists and falling backward in the progress of scientific knowledge.
Robert says that we and Western Europe no longer share a common culture, but he’s wrong.   The Western Europeans are only farther down the road of taking our core ideas to their logical extremes.  Not only are they not non-Western, they’re hyper Western.  They take as given a set of ideas and principles that not only were discovered here, but that every other culture on the planet finds literally incomprehensible.  
Of course, I don’t think that news, education, ministers and and educators, in the US at least, are against us, but that’s a longer story.
Let’s leave it here for now. 

Written by janeh

November 23rd, 2008 at 10:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

There are a couple of things going on here today, but my attention got distracted by an article posted to Arts and Letters Daily this morning.  If you’ve never been to ALDaily, you should go–they’re run by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which took over for the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, and what they do is post a few interesting articles every day.  They cover all political and solution points of view over time, and they’ve got interesting taste.

The article that struck me today was by the son of the man who invented the term “meritocracy,” and it struck me because it may have something to do with why there is such an animus not only to intelligence, but to all things that remind us that intelligence is not equally distributed across the population.  And it gave an answer to the question of why we’ve become so obsessed with non-achieving celebrities tha I hadn’t thought of.

Anyway, the article is here:


and I’ll get to it in a minute, but first I want to clarify something.  John posted the following:

>>>Jane, I’ve never considered Heemingway to be an intellectual. But I do consider
historians, archeologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists,
biologists and even engineers to be intellectuals and they did have their homes
in Universities! Oh, I left out Philosophy! Perhaps we need to define

I definitely think we need to define “intellectual,” because of the above list, I would consider NONE of the mentioned people intellectuals, except perhaps historians, and then only if they are actively engaged in writing history, not just researching and teaching it.

Intellectuals are first and foremost people whose vocation is the invention, creation and dissemination of cultural ideas.  Most of the people John mentioned are not intellectuals but scholars or scientists.  Scholars engage in the research and explication of past ideas.  Scientists investigate the physical (rather than the cultural) world.  Sociologists and psychologists decided not to be intellectuals in an attempt to be scientists instead.  I don’t know how well that worked out.

But it really has been only recently that intellectuals have been found primarily in universities–Sartre, definitely an intellectual, managed to make his living as a writer and a philosopher with only temporary forays into the academy.  And yes, you CAN make a living writing for little magazines and intellectual journals.  You just can’t make a six figure income that way, unless you’re somebody ‘famous” like Sartre, and I rather think it’s the six figure incomes that attracted intellectuals to the  universities in the first place.

But then, until you get to the Sixties and the Seventies, university professors often made even less than intellectuals writing for little magazines.  It’s the  vast expansion of the university system that made “professional level” salaries possible for PhDs, and it’s that same expansion that has nearly killed the humanities as an intellectual endeavor in the United States today. 

If I was interested in writing a Faust narrative for our time, I would write it about the devil’s bargain the universities made to get all the money they’ve  been able to rake in over the last four decades.  And it was a Faustian bargain.  To get not only the public funding but the willingness of private people to pay the freight on sky-high tuitions, they had to pretend to believe in things they knew were not true:  that a college education made you better qualified for a “career,” that all students everywhere had the innate intellectual ability to do college-level work, that the only reason there was any differential in academic achievements between races or sexes or classes was “institutional racism” that could be rooted out by requiring the faculty to attend a few senstivity seminars.

That all of these things are lies is probably obvious to most people, and I think that’s where this intersects with Toby Young’s article about meritocracies and the “Celebutariat.”  Because young makes the following point:

The most striking thing about the new breed of celebrities is that they are not, by and large, “better” than the people who watch them.  They are “ordinary people” on every level, and that means that any ordinary person out there might–with the right combination of luck–himself become such a celebrity at some point in his life.  In a sense, becoming one of the new celebrities is like winning the lottery.  The playing field is absolutely level.  Anybody who is in it can win it. 

Now, I know that some of  you are thinking what I am, which is that no matter how lame these people seem, the chances are good that the playing field is not level.  Not just any girl can grow up to be Tyra Banks.  The fat squat one who is entirely unphotogenic isn’t going to be even a mediocre model, never mind and top one.

And no matter how utterly talentless, and utterly without a work ethic, somebody like Paris Hilton seems, the fact is that even silly celebrities often have to work very hard to get where they’re trying to go.  If you don’t believe me, cast your mind back to those several months when Britney Spears wasn’t putting the work in.  Rehearsals, diet and exercise, recordings, concerts, appearnaces, voice training, dance training–it can take a lot of blood and sweat to look brainlessly untalented on Letterman.

Possibly the reason that there is such an animus against intelligence and intelligent people is just this:  almost all of us spend most of our childhoods in schools, and schools are a place where intelligence is rewarded.

What’s more, it becomes clear to any child in kindergarten that the playing field is not level.  Some students just “get it” faster and more completely than others.  Some have to sweat and study for hours to achieve a C in a subject where others get As without even trying hard.

Add this to the fact that it is easier for a relatively unintelligent student to understand why his answer is wrong in a math course than it is for him to understand why his answer is wrong in English or history, and what you get are a great crowd of people who a) understand that they were born without something they need to succeed and b) that the fact that they were born without it will make a singular difference to their prospects in life and c) that their lack looks as if it’s of something completely arbitrary, that doesn’t mean anything and isn’t important in any substantive way.

In other words, that contests of intelligence are not fair.

Of course, realistically, John F. Kennedy had a point.  Life is not fair.  The unfairness starts with genetics and goes right on up through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the unfairness of genetics is especially galling in a democratic country. 

All men are created equal, Mr. Jefferson said–but even he talked of a “natural aristocracy,” which would be built up of people born more talented than their fellow men and willing to work harder to put that talent to use.

We can talk all we want about how Jefferson was referring to being created equal before the law, but on a day to day basis we live in a world where the facts of our born inequalities are inescapable.  When the universities started to encourage all high school students to go to “college,” they found themselves increasingly saddled with freshmen who were not only unprepared for college work, but unable to do it no matter how well they were prepared.

Robert says I must know very different young people than he does–I do.  I know the ones who are ‘bored” by history, literature, philosophy, and just about anything else that isn’t either immediate or entertainment. 

The dumbing down of college standards at the lowest levels of the system is truly breathtaking.  Where the demands of a field are inelastic, it is simply circumvented.  Consider the vogue of College Algebra.

When I went to college, Calculus was a freshman level course–and everybody had to take at least two semesters of it.  At the lowest levels of the talent pool in colleges today, however, Calculus is entirely out of reach.  Instead, students are required to take two semesters of something called College Algebra, which turns out to be high school Algebra I.  That’s Algebra I.  Not trigonometry.  Not geometry.  Not Algebra II.  We’re talking about the course that used to be given almost exclusively to high school freshmen on the college track.

In English, the situation is just as bad, it’s just easier to hide it.  When I was in college, everybody took “freshman English,” which was a literature course–read lots of novels and short stories and write about them.  Now, instead of ‘freshman English” there is “Composition,” in which students read only pasteurized “essays” chosen for being uncomplicated both structurally and in terms of vocabulary.  They are encouraged to use these essays as models for their own writing, which is restricted to things like “the compare and contrast paper” and “the process analysis paper.”  That last, which sounds very rigorous, is actually just a standard how-to. 

This is not just high school level work, it’s high school level work from the “general studies” track, the academically least rigorous of them all.  These are students who, in my day, would not have gone on to college at all, and in many cases would have dropped out after their sophomore years.  They have not been sent on to “college.”  They’ve been sent on to a holding pen where the system gets one more chance to give them a high school education, and an inferior high school education at that.

In the meantime, we’ve conviced them that “college” is a joke, and that those of their peers with the unfair advantage of high IQs and academic talent have somehow managed to get themselves in on a scam.  They’re less resentful of students in the sciences, because they understand that there is something truly “hard” about math, and that they can’t do it.  They think that it’s just a lot of bullshit that there’s anything “hard’ about explicating literature, or analyzing philosophy, or understanding  history.

And the new celebrities are celebrities because they could be anybody at all.

I’ve got a thing from Robert about decadence and decline, that belongs right about here, but it’s late, and this is getting long.

Written by janeh

November 20th, 2008 at 11:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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