Notes and Comment Blog


Thorns, Ice, Danger

Feb 15th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

The article by Harvey Mansfield we linked to in today’s News section examines a number of ways students are coddled or spoiled or pampered at Mansfield’s Harvard, coddled rather than being challenged and stretched as he thinks they ought to be and as, surely, is the whole point of education. If we are all perfectly all right just as we are, what do we need education for at all? Decoration? A status symbol, a positional good, bragging rights? A pretext for playing football or getting drunk? An expensive way to postpone getting a job?

The article is accompanied by a colloquy which offers some hair-raising personal testimony on the subject.

A questionnaire I gave students in every class to test their general knowledge led to one minority student claiming that it made him “feel stupid.” I suggested that perhaps the student was reacting in an overly sensitive manner and was informed by the department chairman that there is no such thing as hypersensitivity. (I’m sure this will come as news to paranoid schizophrenics.)

A repeated theme is the idea of education as a consumer item. This is also the subject of an article in Harper’s from 1997 which points out the way student evaluations tend to make teachers want to please and entertain their students more than provoke or push them. The classroom becomes just one more stand-up routine, and students have a good time but are left as they are.

Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function — and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s — is to divert, entertain, and interest…I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says that she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind.

Just so. Enjoyment, pleasure, amusement, and especially ease, comfort, and self-satisfaction are all very well in their way, but they are not enough, and they are not what people need at age eighteen. Discomfort, agitation, fear, excitement, hunger, are what’s needed. Not soft pillows and fluffy blankets and a spot before the fire and a basin of Mr. Woodhouse’s nice thin gruel.



Sue the Teacher!

Feb 14th, 2003 7:08 pm | By

Education. It keeps coming back to that, doesn’t it. Especially education in the broadest sense, which emphatically includes self-education and education as an intrinsic good, along with institutional and instrumental education. Education, especially the institutional variety, can be where one gets infected with fashionable nonsense, but education, especially the intrinsic good variety, is also the way to inoculate against it, and the way to cure it once infected.

We posted a link a couple of weeks ago to a story about Michael Dini, a Texas biology professor who is being investigated by the US Justice Department for refusing to write recommendation letters for students who cannot affirm a scientific answer to the question of how the human species originated. Now we get to write a blog about a blog about a blog on the subject. (I wonder how many levels blogs can go. Infinite? Or only six billion or so.) The writer is Chris Mooney, who as he mentions here, wrote a piece for The American Prospect on the inadequacy of ‘Intelligent Design’ theory (a piece which, ever-alert, we linked to in early December). The core of this article is Mooney’s ‘I think higher education should challenge deeply held beliefs’ and Dini’s expansion on the same thought.

Nor is one guaranteed that his/her most cherished beliefs will go unchallenged. Indeed, many students find it difficult to communicate with friends and family after completing a college education because they no longer share the same beliefs and values. College has introduced them to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. For many, especially those raised by parents who were not college-educated, college is a time of “de-acculturation,” wherein one gives up the culture in which one was raised, and subsequent “re-acculturation” wherein one takes on a new culture. My hope for all of my students is that they will become acculturated in “the life of the mind.”

Of course, this is not what most people think college education is for. College education is vocational training, after which one will be able to get a job that pays better than flipping hamburgers, so that one can buy a Sport Utility Vehicle and intimidate everyone who is still stupid and poor enough to drive a smaller car or even walk. That’s what education is for. There are still some poor idealistic wretches who think otherwise, but a good lawsuit usually shuts them up. Mooney cites this discouraging article we just did a Note and Comment on yesterday, written by a classmate of his.

So which is it going to be? Education for the sake of critical thinking, and some understanding of why one believes what one does and whether one ought to go on believing it? Or education for the sake of Loadsa Money and an undisturbed set of evidence-free beliefs. Perhaps litigation will decide the question in the US.



Your Restriction is Their Freedom

Feb 13th, 2003 7:54 pm | By

This is a bottomlessly depressing story, which resonates with several other stories we’ve linked to over the past few months. This one about students who made death threats against a teacher being temporarily re-admitted to the school, for example, and this one from only three days ago, which reports that the Welsh teachers’ union is calling for new legislation after a student who actually did shoot a teacher, albeit with a ‘toy’ gun, was also readmitted. In the Welsh case, as the Guardian reported, ‘Headteacher Dr Michael Norton permanently excluded the pupil after the incident and was quickly backed up by his board of governors. But the boy’s parents appealed to an independent panel, which overturned the school’s decision and forced it to take him back.’ Hands up, prospective teachers who would like to go teach in that school! Or any school subject to that kind of second-guessing.

It was not one of Jesse Jackson’s finer moments, when he attempted to do the same thing – force the re-admission of students who had been suspended from school for fighting – in the autumn of 1999. Many people were bewildered at his sympathy for the fighters and lack of sympathy for students and teachers who would like to learn and teach in a violence-free zone. It was a simple fist fight, he said blithely. And the nonsense is not even confined to the Anglophone world: I saw a story on a French tv channel in November about teachers on strike in a provincial French town over exactly such an incident: student violence, expulsion, reinstatement. ‘These boys will now be heroes to the other students,’ a male teacher said passionately to the camera, ‘what sort of atmosphere is that going to create in our classrooms?’

But I doubt the French can match the level of muddle-headedness the Kaplowitz story reveals. I hope they still hang on to enough Gallic cynicism and irony and je ne sais quoi to insulate them from the bizarre priorities Kaplowitz encountered during his training.

But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training.

Alas, his story makes horribly clear that sensitivity was the last thing he needed. Stony indifference is probably the only quality that might have got him through his first year of ‘teaching’ unscathed.

Exiling my four worst students had produced a vast improvement in the conduct of the remainder of my class. But Ms. Savoy was adamant, insisting that the school district required me to teach all my children, all the time, in the “least restrictive” environment.

Oh yes. Least restrictive to whom? one wonders. Least restrictive to the students who want to wander around, assault other students, and make noise, which of course translates to very restrictive indeed to the students (the majority) who want to learn something. This is a large subject, and one we’ll be returning to on Butterflies and Wheels.



Watch

Feb 12th, 2003 6:01 pm | By

There is an argument in progress about America-hating among American academics. We’ve linked to a number of entries in this argument ourselves in the last couple of weeks. There is for instance Daphne Patai’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on accusations of attempted stifling of free speech by two Web sites, Campus Watch and No Indoctrination. There is Alan Wolfe’s review of several ‘American studies’ books in The New Republic. And today there is an article by Dave Johnson on the History News Network which examines the funding of conservative commentators and think tanks, including the above-mentioned Campus Watch. Johnson cites an article by Eric Foner and Glenda Gilmore also on History News Network, an article which does indeed express misgivings about ‘a broader trend among conservative commentators, who since September 11 have increasingly equated criticism of the Bush administration with lack of patriotism’.

Moreover, in equating opposition to government policies with hatred of our country, Pipes displays a deep hostility to the essence of a democratic polity: the right to dissent.

I certainly wouldn’t equate opposition to government policies with hatred of one’s country, to put it mildly. So who has it right? Is Patai right that the left only raises the free speech cry when its own ox is being gored? Are Foner and Gilmore right that it’s the other side doing the goring? And who is funding what and why? Maybe we need a Campus Watch Watch, and then a Campus Watch Watch Watch, and then–



Things Fall Apart

Feb 7th, 2003 4:47 pm | By

Well now…I must say, I’m a bit shocked. My comfortable certainties are all upset, what I thought I knew is sous rature, my binary oppositions are problematized, and things are just generally messed up. If the trendiest of trendy hippest of hippy French philosophers doesn’t like Seinfeld, well–well why bother, that’s all.

Earlier on in the film, an interviewer from South African television chooses to open her questions with a reference to Seinfeld : does Professor Derrida see any affinities between his thought and this ironic, situation comedy? Derrida’s eyes narrow. “Deconstruction as I understand it doesn’t produce any sit-com,” he says in English, audibly putting the last words into pointed italics. “Stop watching sit-com. And do your homework. And read.”

Read? Read? Can he be serious? Read instead of watching television? Do our homework instead of just sitting around being knowing? What the hell kind of injunction is that? What’s the matter with the guy? Has he come over all elitist and bourgeois and logocentric in his old age or what? And what’s with the scorn for darling sit-com? What’s up with that, huh? Sit-com is, like, the art form of the 21st century, doesn’t he know that? I think he needs to get out of Paris and smell the coffee.



Stop That This Instant!

Feb 4th, 2003 8:10 pm | By

Oh my. We are in Alice country. A principal tells a teacher off because her students were engaged in an activity other than…watching television.

Why, the little slackers! The naughty little skivers! What were they doing? Talking? Throwing spit balls? Composing new rap lyrics? Copulating? No. They were…it’s almost too painful to relate…they were reading.

Well. We don’t want that kind of thing in the American school system, thank you. That sort of behavior leads to literacy, and elitism, and intellectual curiosity, and wanting to know more about things like history and philosophy. We don’t want that, now do we, no, because we’re glad to be a Beta. So the principal took to spying on the teacher to make sure she wasn’t letting those children read during television period any more. It’s heartening to know the US school system has such dedicated professionals at the helm, isn’t it.



Not Just a Fashion Problem

Jan 29th, 2003 10:37 pm | By

This is a frustrating but typical article about psychoanalysis in the New York Times. It talks about the long time analysis takes and how expensive it tends to be, but entirely fails to address the very serious substantive questions there are about the scientific status of psychoanalysis: questions about evidence, falsifiability, and outright dishonesty on the part of Freud. The news seems still not to have reached the general public, including even the branch of it that writes for the newpapers, that psychoanalysis is not just out of fashion, not just not altogether cool anymore, but rather, largely considered a fraud by scientists in the field.

The article presents a false dichotomy throughout, between cheap and quick fixes on the one hand, and on the other, more profound, searching mental changes that psychoanalysis can offer. Not considered is the obvious possibility that any therapy that lasts for years and gives someone a chance to discuss her mind with an attentive listener would produce such changes. Not to mention what spending a similar small fortune on the right books might do.

At its best, Dr. Galatzer-Levy said, what analysis has to offer is change that is far deeper than what may be achieved in the 6 to 20 sessions of therapy covered by most insurance plans, change affecting ‘the way people think and feel about things, the way they act in the world.’

Certainly. But some of that change could be deep but in the wrong direction. And other, scientifically based forms of therapy, or simply some good hard thought, could produce equally deep change, and in less dubious directions. Freud was more than just a fad from last century, he was wrong. The word needs to get out.



Just Say No!

Jan 28th, 2003 5:53 pm | By

Since everybody and their dog seem to be sending me anti-war petitions, I thought I’d get in on the act.*

Dear Friend

As the world slides towards war in Iraq, we all feel at times as though we
are powerless. Well we are. But let’s just pretend for a minute that we’re
not. It will make us feel better, honestly.

No-one likes war, right? So we’d better oppose this one, right?

Please send this email on to everyone you know NOW!

STOP THE WAR IN IRAQ!

We, the undersigned, have no idea to whom this petition is being sent or how
seriously it will be taken. We don’t like the idea of war in Iraq and so are
prepared to say that we don’t, although we’re not going to get bogged down
in “what ifs” and so on. We know that Saddam Hussein is no angel, but he
can’t be worse than George Bush or Tony Blair, can he? Bastards!

We urge Bush and Blair to follow international law and respect Iraqi
sovereignty.

In the event of a second UN resolution, we urge Bush and Blair not to hide
behind international law and instead to respect the Iraqi people’s right not
to be attacked by anyone other than their own armies.

To all those ‘liberals’ who claim not to be hawks but who say things like “it’s
all rather complex and we can’t rule out an attack” we say: you’re either
with us or you’re with the imperialists. (Shame on you, the Observer!)

As the Kosovan conflict showed, the US and Britain are solely motivated by
their desire to control foreign countries and their oilfields. We deplore
all their repeated attempts to meddle overseas and their shameful refusal to
get involved in Rwanda before it was too late and sort out the Israelis.

The issue, like us, is very simple and clear-cut. NO WAR!

*With thanks to JB



Two Border-Crossers

Jan 27th, 2003 9:17 pm | By

Consider two writers and thinkers who are in the news at the moment, one because he’s just died and the other because he has a new book out. The New York Times said of Hugh Trevor-Roper that:

His approach to history was essentially belletrist – based not so much on original research as on wide reading and an ability to bring to bear insights derived from other disciplines on his subjects. He sought to appeal to a wide cultivated audience. In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor, he defended this approach, saying modern history would have “dried up and perished long ago” without the contribution of economists, sociologists, philosophers, art historians and even anthropologists and psychologists.

Surely his approach is indeed defensible. Research is essential too, of course, but the house of history presumably has many mansions, or at least, room for both specialists and generalists, original researchers and synthesizers, depth and breadth. It’s not as if the borders around history are all that sharp anyway, or as if economics or sociology or philosophy seem exactly irrelevant. And if the goal of inquiry is better understanding, surely the way things tie together rather than fall apart is one of the subjects we want to understand.

Richard Sennett is another who draws on many disciplines, as this review of his new book in the Guardian says:

But he doesn’t really write academic sociology, and is often criticised for it, from within academia and outside it…His material is an elegant mix of interview, anecdote and wide, deep book-research. His key terms have to do with common personal predicaments, understood as socio-historic formations: love and power, dignity and humiliation, impersonality and self-absorption, self-worth and self-blame.

Trevor-Roper drew on sociology to write history and Sennett draws on history to write sociology, and both produce a rich thick brew for the general reader.



Mind Readers on Radio 4

Jan 26th, 2003 8:37 pm | By

A recent Start the Week on Radio 4 discussed not one but two issues that we’ve been talking about here on Butterflies and Wheels. Nancy Cartwright, a philosopher of science, here asserts the trendy notion that the discoveries of science are a product of negotiation and agreement among scientists, and that the idea of universality (of science as well as of any other kind of knowledge) is one we should all be very suspicious of. Fortunately, there is also a working scientist on the premises, who disputes her views. Also present is Germaine Greer, who voices one of my favourite exasperations, with the fashion for gossippy biographies of poets and writers that give short shrift to the mental life of such people in order to concentrate on the really important business of what they got up to in bed. Greer gives a fine old rant about the fact that poets only get biographies written about them because of their poetry so why ignore the poetry in favor of the sex life eh? Just exactly what I always wonder! Her particular focus is Byron, and her outrage that the annual biography of him sells like mad while no one reads the wonderful ‘Don Juan’. I couldn’t possibly agree more.



Sigmund, Will You Never Leave?

Jan 22nd, 2003 6:53 pm | By

Oh honestly. Does nonsense never go away? Well I shouldn’t complain, it certainly keeps us busy and entertained here at B and W. But it would be nice to think humans could pay attention once in awhile. Take
this article about Freud in Time magazine, for instance.

At the same time, post-Freudian psychotherapists are figuring out that the old master still has something to offer the science of mental health: an understanding of the human mind and its many malfunctions that’s richer, fuller and more exciting than anything invented since.

Really? Well I suppose it depends how you define ‘richer’ or ‘more exciting’. It would be rich and exciting to be told our brains were full of gremlins and talking spiders and extra-terrestrial visitors and reincarnations of Cleopatra, too, but it wouldn’t be true. If the science of mental health is actually a science, does it really want the evidence-free speculations and faubulations of Freud to help its work?

One of Freud’s key insights was to divide the mind into the conscious and the unconscious: he showed us that beneath the surface banality of everyday thoughts and gestures lurk subterranean caverns of forbidden longings that reach all the way back to our earliest childhood memories.

Oh honestly. That old chestnut. Has no one on the editorial desk ever heard of Nietzsche? Schelling? The Romantics? Freud expanded on other people’s work, he was not the originator of insight into the unconscious. ‘But the goal of psychoanalysis is deeper understanding!’ the defenders cry. Good idea! Deeper understanding always a good thing! Start building your library now.



Basketball Rules OK

Jan 22nd, 2003 2:57 pm | By

A few days ago I took issue with a column John Sutherland wrote in the Guardian about the wonderful benefits of US university athletic programmes. Here is a delightful little story about some of the drawbacks of the US approach. College basketball fans harass and make death threats against an English teacher who has the unmitigated temerity to criticise a coach. Clearly, the basketball coach is important and the pesky teacher is just a thing that causes trouble. Could such an attitude possibly be harmful to actual, you know, education?



Burglar University

Jan 21st, 2003 5:58 pm | By

Sorry, but I do think this is pretty funny. It’s the bit about cognitive skills classes.

The cognitive courses all prisoners have to attend – usually Enhanced Thinking Skills – were deemed effective when they first started, but recent studies have shown that prisoners can emerge from these even more likely to reoffend than they were without them…Or it could be that they imbibe the skills without accepting the moral message, so they just come out with an enhanced ability to think crimes through and avoid mistakes like leaving their dog at the scene of the crime or ordering a pizza with a thieved credit card (both real occasions of burglar ineptitude in the past fortnight; the beauty of the prison system is that the people who most need some time in burglar university are by definition the people who end up there).

Oops! Enhanced Thinking Skills for Inept Burglars, this way please! Have pencils and notebooks ready, sit up straight, pay attention, sharpen those wits. Think twice before taking Spot along on your burglaries, and if you do, remember to take her away again. Use stolen credit cards only for major purchases, because it’s silly to get nicked just for a pizza. Don’t tell your victims your name, and don’t ask them to write you a check, and if you do, don’t cash it. Tomorrow: Dos and Don’ts of Getaway Vehicles.



Love That Derrida

Jan 20th, 2003 10:51 pm | By

I sort of hate to agree with The National Review about anything, but then it’s not my fault: if the left will insist on being so silly all the time, they have only themselves to blame. Anyway this is a very funny piece about Jacques Derrida and his inexplicable hold over the minds of far too many literary critics and other “theorists”.

Indeed, the critical point to be borne in mind with regards to Derrida…is that he is not now, nor has he ever been, a philosopher in any recognizable sense of the word, nor even a trafficker in significant ideas; he is rather a intellectual con artist, a polysyllabic grifter who has duped roughly half the humanities professors in the United States…into believing that postmodernism has an underlying theoretical rationale.

This is something I have been wondering about for years. What is it about literary critics that makes them so easy to fool? What is up with them, that they can be buffaloed into thinking someone is a profound and original thinker in a field not their own when all the other thinkers in that field could have told them he’s just a popularizer with a dash of vaudeville? Literary critics used to be such decent, modest, hard-working people, quietly reading their books and pondering ambiguity and metaphor, a nice harmless activity and, when done well, quite interesting and stimulating to youthful minds. But that’s all in the past, now they do Theory, and they are very keen for you to know that they do Theory and how important it is and how omniscient it makes them. Chaos theory, quantum gravity, paradigm shifts, de-centering the discourse of the hegemonizer, valorizing the signifier of Otherness, none of it is too much for them.

The fact that Derrida’s influence is least felt in the very discipline he claims to practice testifies to the ascendancy of dilettantism in the humanities.

Oh dear. It’s true. One has met a few such dilettantes in one’s time, and one has read or skimmed a great many of their books. They are out there, neglecting the metaphors and ambiguities for the sake of a bogus High Theory about every subject except the one they actually wrote their dissertations on. They are the snappiest dressers though.



Not Really Such a Brilliant Idea

Jan 18th, 2003 9:43 pm | By

This is a very peculiar comment in the Guardian. John Sutherland recommends that Blair and Labour imitate the American way of getting more racial minorities into higher education: via athletics. Why? He never really says. He does say he thinks it’s a good idea and that it’s been a great success in the States, but he doesn’t say why he thinks it’s a good idea, or in what sense it’s been a success. He does say that the athletics programmes created open doors through which not only black athletes, but also non-athletic blacks, could enter, but then he fails to explain what he means. He says the figures speak for themselves, but they don’t, at least not clearly enough so that I can understand them. What connection is there between the number of non-athletic blacks and the presence of athletic blacks? Do the athletes make the non-athletes feel safer, or less isolated? Do they have some unspecified effect on the admissions office? Sutherland doesn’t say.

He also says, oddly, that college athletes are held to high standards academically. He says they are required to maintain a B average, but fails to mention the well-known phenomenon of grade inflation, which makes a B a pretty low grade, frankly. Not to mention the pressure on teachers not to mark athletes down. He says athletes have to get 820 on the SATs…but doesn’t add that that is a very low score indeed. The fact is, there are plenty of people, black as well as white, who are not so charmed with athletics as the path to university for blacks. There is the implicit insult, for one thing, and there is also the implicit devaluing of academics as the logical criterion for an academic institution. There are the periodic scandals about corruption or flouting of the rules, there is the diversion of everyone’s attention from pesky old books to ball games, there is the amount of money spent on athletic programmes while teachers are fired and library hours are reduced. It’s not such a raging success as Sutherland says.



Rashomon at the White House

Jan 16th, 2003 5:21 pm | By

We all know history is written by the victors. It’s also worth remembering that it’s written by a lot of other unreliable witnesses besides. By participants, loyalists, traitors, friends, enemies, people with various kinds of axe to grind, people who were paying only selective attention (and who ever pays anything else?). Which is not to say that it’s all a fairy tale, that no history is more accurate than any other so there’s no need to be careful with the evidence or the conclusions we draw from it. It’s only to point out how tricky it all is. This story in the Guardian is a good example. Tony Blair and the people around him are quite sure they have influenced George Bush to enlist the U.N. in the conflict with Iraq. They talk of a crucial meeting between Bush and Blair at Camp David in September last year. But then the Guardian story points out that other people don’t seem to see it quite that way. Bob Woodward seldom mentions Blair in his book Bush at War. There, it is at a dinner with Colin Powell in August that Bush becomes persuaded of the merits of the UN. Perhaps Woodward has it right and the Blair people are deluding themselves. But then again…

But the fact that Mr Powell plays such a heroic, single-handed role may have something to do with the fact that Mr Woodward depended greatly on the secretary’s version of events for his book. Mr Blair was not interviewed.

Ah. Woodward doesn’t have a god’s-eye view either, does he. The account he gives does depend on which people he talks to. Naturally. And we’re all the heroes of our own stories, aren’t we. No doubt if Woodward talked to Powell’s cook and Blair’s driver, they would play a more central role than anyone suspects. A conversation in the car, mind-altering spices in the paella. It all adds up.



Wide Awake

Jan 12th, 2003 9:10 pm | By

Speaking of Fresh Air…there was an interesting display of Pathetically Reduced Expectations on that show a few days ago. The political ‘commentator’ David Frum was on to talk about the year he spent as a speechwriter in the Bush White House. He has an unctuous, soft, childishly enthusiastic voice, and he kept getting in a flutter of excitment and admiration at things that were not worth getting in a flutter about. It was all too depressingly reminiscent of what we used to hear about the Reagan White House, when people would tell anecdotes that proved the President was actually conscious and awake as if they proved how brilliant and perspicacious he was. One example in particular struck me by its naive glee. Frum assured us that the President pays close attention to what his speechwriters actually write, and he has (oh boy!) a big marking pen with which he scribbles in the margins (gosh, really?). In one speech someone wrote ‘I saw it with my own eyes,’ and our dazzlingly clever Chief Executive wrote next to that: ‘duh’. Wow! Is that impressive or what?

Frum also confirmed something I’ve long suspected, which is that the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have been outlawed in the American language. It is, as I thought, official. The boss of the speechwriters has a lot of rules for what can and cannot be said, and among those rules is one that outlaws the word ‘parents’. It has to be ‘moms’ and ‘dads’. Because…what? The word ‘parent’ is too long? Too high-falutin’? Too elitist? No, I know, don’t bother to explain. It’s not cozy enough, not cloying enough, not sentimental and intrusive and folksy enough. Duh.



What Would Jesus Drive?

Jan 12th, 2003 7:23 pm | By

I do like to see a good roundhouse attack like this one in The New Republic, on that contemporary American plague, the Sport Utility Vehicle. I only wish there were more of them (and that they did any good). There was an auto industry reporter on Fresh Air a few days ago, and it was a pathetic series of missed opportunities as Terri Gross let the guy rhapsodize about the wonders of the SUV without bothering to point out the obvious drawbacks. For instance he sang a little aria to the joy of being so high up off the road and able to look over the other traffic. Well yes, and SUV drivers are so high up that they are also able to look over pedestrians, look over them so completely that they often don’t see them at all. I wonder how many times I’ve been walking innocently down the sidewalk and been nearly flattened by someone hurtling out of a parking lot in a giant SUV without noticing any pesky pedestrians.

But I hadn’t realized I was being impious in thinking this way. The New Republic article says Washington Post auto industry reporter Warren Brown ‘deliriously proclaimed that the Hummer is what Jesus would drive. Its size and its profligacy are justified, Brown said, because “if you are a missionary like some of my friends,” you could use a Hummer “to bring loads of food and medical supplies” to the poor.’ Of course! That’s what all those people high up over the walkers and talking on their cell phones are doing–shlepping food and meds to the poor! I knew that! ‘In the beginning was the Durango, and the Durango was with God, and…’



Apples and Oranges

Jan 10th, 2003 7:45 pm | By

This is an interesting and uncomfortable story. The American Association of University Professors is about to publish a study which shows that Affirmative Action policies at US colleges and universities have failed to close the gap between whites on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other.

The article will highlight admissions policies that give special consideration to the children of alumni and donors to colleges; prepaid-tuition plans, which benefit only those parents who can afford to save money for college; and the current movement among many public colleges to tighten admissions standards and end remedial programs, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Surely that sentence skates rapidly over the difficult issues inherent in the subject. Surely there are two very separate problems that the article plans to highlight. Special consideration for alumni would indeed seem to give an advantage – an arguably unfair and arbitrary advantage – to people whose parents went to universities in the past, which will naturally be white people. But what of this movement to tighten admissions standards? Is that unfair and arbitrary in the same sense? Is it unfair and arbitrary at all? Is it inherent in the education process? Perhaps the study addresses these issues. Perhaps it is simply impartially listing the causes of the gap. But a newspaper story’s grouping all such factors in one sentence, without reference to the differences among them, could create a false impression.



Who Needs Evidence When You Have Publicity?

Jan 9th, 2003 6:41 pm | By

Oh good, another piece of Imaginative History, or The Case of the Peekaboo Evidence. Not unlike the Clonaid festivities last week, when the ‘Raelians’ announced the birth of the first cloned baby, but when invited to provide DNA evidence to support such a surprising claim, came over all bashful. There is a good deal of sly wit in Natalie Danford’s Salon piece about retired Admiral Gavin Menzies’ claim that the Chinese sailed to America seventy years before Columbus. It was a shrewd move, for example, to rent the lecture hall of the Royal Geographical Society as the place to announce his ‘discovery’. And publicity does do the trick: there has been so much attention that Menzies’ American publishers have advanced the date of publication by five months. Danford talks to three experts in the field who are unimpressed or plain skeptical of Menzies’ claim, and she wonders why a serious publisher like Morrow ‘didn’t question these unorthodox research methods or the veracity of the statements Menzies has built on them’. The executive editor Danford spoke to resorted to speculation on motives rather than answering the question.

Wachtel theorized that skeptics are threatened by Menzies’ attack on the status quo: “People don’t like the basis of their fundamental knowledge to be challenged, and we all know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Ah. That explains it then. Because people don’t like their knowledge challenged, therefore bizarre claims based on shaky or no evidence are true. Interesting argument.

But of course we like this kind of thing. Think The Education of Little Tree. Think of the ‘Chief Seattle’ speech, that was actually written by a Hollywood hack. Think of Black Athena, and The Goddess, and The Gentle Tasaday. Think of Tacitus’ wildly romanticised version of the Germans, people he’d never laid eyes on and knew nothing about, but used to vent his hatred of ‘decadent’ Rome. No doubt the Chinese arrival in America in 1421 will soon be on the curriculum of many a school.