Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The conservatism of progressives

Related to yesterday's post, a recent media spectacle shows just how conservative the modern progressives are. Last week in Toronto, a woman was being interviewed on TV about her nonchalant attitude toward public wearing of masks [note: I do NOT endorse her views about masks! I repeat: I do NOT endorse her views about masks!] when a man suddenly came up and kissed her on camera.  The woman was apparently quite happy with what happened. Nonetheless, the television station faced substantial criticism for airing this incident, and subsequently issued an apology. Some of the reporting on the matter has even opened with a "trigger warning."

Now, let me start by saying that I do NOT encourage men to go up and spontaneously kiss women that they barely know.  I repeat: Do NOT kiss women that you barely know!

Oh, and just in case I wasn't clear, I should add that men should NOT go up and kiss women that they barely know!

That said, as inadvisable as his conduct was, I have to note that in subsequent interviews it turned out that they'd spent some time interacting earlier that day.  We don't know exactly what transpired in their interactions, but apparently there was some romantic chemistry there, and when he acted on that romantic chemistry it was reciprocated. He wasn't doing this blindly, he was following up on interactions, making judgments based on how she had responded to him thus far. In most cases his actions wouldn't be well-received, but the competent adult woman that he kissed responded positively to a kiss from a man that she'd been interacting with and was clearly interested in. I can't bring myself to condemn a kiss between two people who had already interacted with each other and developed some romantic chemistry. That has to mean something, that a real, live, and apparently* competent woman responded enthusiastically to a kiss from a guy that she'd been interacting with.

Nonetheless, because so much of the context was off-camera, it looks like something else, a kiss out of the blue with no interaction that would suggest it's welcome.  I get why that would be off-putting to people, and I get why they wouldn't want young people (especially young men) to see kisses like that without crucial context.  I get that it could send the wrong message.

I guess what I would say is that expressing disapproval of public sexual displays that lack crucial relationship context is a fundamentally conservative stance.  And there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with being conservative. There are many situations in life where I think a conservative approach is good, just as there are situations in which I think a liberal or progressive approach is good. Frankly, I think it's good to be conservative when it comes to telling young men to get consent (if not verbal consent then very strong non-verbal cues) before kissing. But let us not fool ourselves: Lamenting a media portrayal of a kiss that "sends the wrong message" is a conservative stance.

I harp on this because we need to get past the idea that nominal progressives are the heirs of 1968. They aren't.  Maybe that's a good thing. I mean, I wasn't around (or even conceived) in 1968, I have no stake in defending that year. But we need to get past the idea that the people we call progressives are heirs of an older counterculture. They aren't. Maybe they are wise to reject that counterculture. Or maybe not. But, wise or foolish, there is nothing counter-cultural about a cultural faction that can get a TV station to apologize for erring a spontaneous kiss without the prelude of a romantic relationship.

Yes, at this point somebody will say that the issue is consent, and I will say that consent also requires context, and emotional preludes are the appropriate context for seeking consent. Suppose that a man briefly interacted with a woman, and that there was no emotional or romantic chemistry in their interactions.  Suppose that he then formally, explicitly asked for consent to kiss. Even if he respected her inevitable "no", would anybody say "Yeah, this was an OK interaction"?  I think not.  Everybody would recognize that it is creepy and inappropriate to seek a kiss without strong signals of romantic interest. "Yes" may be the only thing that means "yes", but "yes" should not be sought out of the blue.

So, let us not kid ourselves: If we had seen the romantic prelude to this kiss, it's likely that many people would be less bothered by it, because they'd see an interaction with context that would make it seem plausibly consensual beforehand, not just afterward.

The woman and man in that video are the real bohemians. Maybe it's fine to be a bohemian. Or maybe they are playing with fire and unwittingly encouraging others to do likewise. Think of them as you will, but know that they are the bohemians, however good or bad you deem them to be. If you approve, well, maybe you're a bohemian. Or maybe you at least wish you were one. But if you disapprove, you are not a bohemian, no matter how outlandish the hairstyle that you wear while drafting codes of conduct.

Finally, since I didn't say it enough, men should NOT go up and kiss women that they barely know!

*I mean, I'm not a psychologist, I haven't conducted an interview and neurological exam to verify that she is of sound mind, but I'm going to make an assumption.

Monday, May 25, 2020

I am NOT a company man! I am an empowered creative with a non-conformist outlook that is valued in our diverse workspace!

This essay in American Affairs Journal is full of insights into how educated professionals conduct themselves as corporate bureaucrats while portraying themselves as non-conformists. For instance:
A key benefit of any prestige university is the social network. In order to take full advantage of this, students must participate in party culture without losing control of their appetites. Fiction often con­fronts open secrets, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt follows a group of eccentric college students who destroy their lives after taking their professors’ Dionysian stories too seriously. This might point to obvious truths about moderation: self-control accompanies success. Yet vices and virtues are not doled out equally, and when leadership training is done in a hyper-permissive atmosphere, we narrow the type of character who emerges.
When I think back to the rituals of certain honor societies in my senior year of college, I think about various rituals that involved long, sleepless nights, hard work and hard celebration, and the bonds that were forged.  And I get it. It's a balancing act of work and play reminiscent of Daniel Bell's observations in Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Not everyone can pull it off, but it's a badge of honor for those who do.

Also, regarding why so many in the professional classes eat up the dumbest pop psychology like it's pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's:
Forty years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that “modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence,” and today employers rub this insult in workers’ faces with a hideously infantilizing work culture that turns the office into a permanent kindergarten classroom. Blue-chip companies reward their employees with balloons, stuffed animals, and gold stars, and an exposé detailing the stringent communication rules of the luxury brand Away Luggage revealed how many start-ups are just “live, laugh, love” sweatshops. This humiliating culture dominates America’s companies because few engage in truly productive or necessary work. Professional genre fiction, such as corporate feminism, is thus often told as a way to cope with the underwhelming reality of working a job that doesn’t con­tribute anything to the world.
There is another way to tell the story of the young career woman, however. Her commute includes inspiring podcasts about Ugandan entrepreneurs, but also a subway stranger breathing an egg sandwich into her face. Her job title is “Senior Analyst—Global Trends,” but her job is just copying and pasting between spreadsheets for ten hours. Despite all the “doing well by doing good” seminars, the closest thing she knows to a community is spin class, where a hundred similar women, and one intense man in sports goggles, listen to a spaz scream Hallmark card affirmations.
Regarding genuine non-conformity:
Trump’s antics are indicative of his different route to power. Forget everything else about him: how would you act if you never had a job outside a company with your name on the building? The world of the professional managerial class doesn’t contain many characters, and so they associate eccentricity with bohemianism or ineptitude. But it’s also reliably found somewhere else.
Indeed, the more ostensibly bohemian a professional pretends to be, the more adamant they are about the Code of Conduct. I can recall sitting in a seminar where a speaker with a distinctly "alternative" appearance was introduced, and the host made sure to mention that this speaker had been quite active in developing codes of conduct for professional organizations. I'm old enough to remember when this person would have been denouncing the Code of Conduct, not writing it. I have never been a hippie, punk, or bohemian, and the only time my skin gets pieced by metal is during medical procedures. Still, I miss the days when deviating substantially from some "normie" expectation meant a person was probably harder to offend, not easier to offend.

Now, to be sure, I think conservatives have lately drifted too far away from codes of conduct, as evidenced both by the Tweeter-in-Chief and also some chance encounters with conservatives. At the same time, I think there has to be a middle ground where we keep our hands to ourselves and avoid the dirty talk while at work, but also don't elevate the perpetually-offended to the highest moral pedestals.

I miss the days when it was the right-wingers who wanted the kids to turn down their music and stop watching those blasphemous movies. The other day I was watching Monty Python's Life of Brian, and partway through I realized that this movie would be roundly condemned for blasphemy today, but the condemnations would come from the left.  The right has (mostly) learned how to deal with jokes about religion.  Or, at least, they know they can't bankrupt a theater chain. But the left would go ballistic over the punching down, never mind that Monty Python also punched up, sideways, diagonally, and into the fifth dimension. And never mind that Eric Idle's Loretta character actually had her name and pronoun preferences respected, snide remarks from Reg not withstanding.

Monday, May 18, 2020

This is NOT a test! I repeat: This is NOT a test!

The University of California, possibly in collaboration with the California State University, as well as anyone else who would like some roasted unicorn with a side order of rainbows and fairies, is going to devise its own admissions tests.  These tests will be totally better than the SAT/ACT, will do a better job of predicting college performance, and will NOT perpetuate inequities, because they will only test what REALLY matters.  So all groups will score equally well and all of our problems will be solved.

These tests will be made from scratch and available by 2025 (really, 2024 if they want to admit freshmen freshpersons people of freshness with it in the fall of 2025). Whereas so many other educational measures reflect disparities in American society, these tests will not show disparities, and so they will be much fairer than the SAT/ACT, and will get buy-in from all ethnic groups.  (Except for Asian Americans, who are doing great on the SAT/ACT and will lose spots from this.  But I'm told that Asians aren't diverse, so I guess that's OK.)

Look, if it is true that a test of what REALLY matters for academic performance is blind to all of the disparities and inequities in our k-12 system (not to mention the wider societal context in which k-12 students are reared and prepared) then those equities don't actually matter.  Years of under-preparation?  Irrelevant! None of it mattered.  The preparation that other kids got wasn't an advantage, and the preparation that some were denied was not a disadvantage.  Everything is the same for all people in all context so who cares about anything? Inequality of opportunity is just a lie. (And, well, yes, it springs from falsehoods, but falsehoods can do real harm.) If we accept these premises, then everyone is off the hook for the first 18 years of life, and all responsibility now rests on the shoulders of college professors.

Sadly, under-preparation is real.  Some of it can be remedied, because people are (to some extent) adaptable.  Some of it can't be, because what happens early in life is (to some extent) of lasting consequence.  But pretending that it's irrelevant, and everyone can just be admitted to the same programs that start from the same place and proceed at the same pace, that's insanity.

Let us not talk falsely now.  Everybody knows what this is about. Everybody knows what they want.  So let's do it.  Let's replace the admissions tests with neural nets that infer race.  It's what they want.  It's illegal under Prop. 209, but it's nonetheless ethically defensible (at least from certain premises), so do it, and let the righteous battle be joined.  Fight for principles and premises that you believe in, rather than demanding that we all tell lies about preparation and tests. My 100% sincere opinion about affirmative action is that it is far more honest than anything else we do in higher ed, and I hate lying more than anything else. So let's do it.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The inevitable consequence of egalitarianism

A syphilitic Roman Emperor recently mused on whether doctors should inject disinfectants into people in order to cure the COVID-19 virus, and now companies that make cleaning products are issuing statements warning people not to do that.

It's easy to mock him, but what on earth did my colleagues think would happen if we spent decades proclaiming that everyone is equally smart and every perspective is equally valid? Did they think that Marcus Aurelius would rise from his grave and usher in a new era of philosopher-kings?  Did they think that after we knocked the sages from their stages the demos would find enlightenment and start proclaiming sublime truths? Did they think that the products of these school systems would engage in skeptical, careful examination of hypotheses and demand sound statistical evidence?

What happened is that the American people selected a game show host who's failed at every endeavor in his life (except reality TV) to be their king, and a critical mass of the American people would push their Senators to acquit him when he inevitably conflated public and personal interests. That's what happened.  And now this idiot stands over doctors and makes them genuflect while he prattles on.

And every kool-aid-drinking liberal can say that this isn't what they intended, but isn't it?  Didn't they want to stop elevating the smart and accomplished?  Didn't they want every idiot out there to feel comfortable expressing their views?  Didn't they want to flatten society and diminish the importance of expertise? Didn't they want the smart kids to twiddle their thumbs while the teacher kept pace with the slowest?

You can't make it a moral imperative to hand a college degree to everything that floats to the surface of the k-12 toilet bowl and then scratch your head and wonder how an idiot is standing up there talking over America's most accomplished infectious disease specialists. This was inevitable.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Meritocracy and virtue signaling

I like this take-down of Ivy League faculty who virtue signal by arguing against meritocracy:
Look, it's possible that the anti-meritocratic and anti-competitive posture of so much of the enlightened academy is really grounded in academics' own experience of the rottenness of their paths to success, their skepticism that the system that produced them is producing good leaders for our regime, and their conviction that therefore, they are necessarily part of the problem. But given these kinds of arguments, it's not a very plausible conclusion. When you read stuff like this, the conclusion that the elites now turning against meritocracy are just people who've gotten theirs and now want to pull up the ladder behind them so that they don't have to face any further competition is much more plausible. 
I don't actually think that they're intentionally trying to pull up the ladder. Rather, I think that they don't actually think. When you spend your days around the products of selective educational programs, you see them with all of their warts. They are fully human (except when they seem more sub-human...) and have human flaws. Meanwhile, that nice assistant at the dentist's office seems at least as decent as any of the professors on your hallway, let alone that one jerk who acts so selfish in department politics. And you read all about kids who did poorly in school until someone sat down and really helped them and now they're flourishing. So clearly this whole selective education system is far from perfect.

Of course, if they thought carefully they'd realize that:
1) Well, nothing is perfect, including whatever system you'd like to replace the current one with. Have you actually made the case that the alternative is really better?

2) The dental assistant is a great person who deserves respect, a chance to advance in their endeavors, and the same safety net as anyone else, but that in and of itself doesn't mean they should (or would even want to) work as a college professor.

3) Yes, there are always some kids who do great when given an extra chance. There are plenty of kids who flounder when pushed into a more advanced path. By all means, make room for the diamonds in the rough, but not everyone is a diamond in the rough. There's a perfectly fine left-wing argument to be made that what most people need is a safety net and some respect for their middle class jobs rather than a shot at an elite educational path.

So this is less about shielding themselves from competition and more about remaking John Lennon's "Imagine" in op-ed format. To the extent that it might be about competition, it's about winning a virtue competition against other elites.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Hofstadter, wrapping up

For some reason I don't have it in me to laboriously type out every awesome quote in chapters 13-14. I'll just note two things:

1) Hofstadter's description of the "life adjustment" movement, which tried to make high school more relevant to the kid who isn't going to college, initially makes me sympathetic to them. The biggest challenge I face is working with kids who were pushed into college by progressive educators, not kids who were steered away from college by progressive educators.  Progressive education sure has changed!  In an earlier era they thought it was silly to put college on a pedestal, but now they want everyone to go!

The problem with "life adjustment", alas, is that they also didn't think much of preparing a subset of the students for college.  They thought everyone should get that same lowest common denominator, rather than different strokes for different folks.  If progressive educators actually appreciated individual diversity they'd be fine with individualized paths.

2) The chapter on Dewey is full of awesomeness, and I'm not going to quote all of it.  Several years ago I quoted the awesome closing line of the chapter.  This time I'll quote something from near the beginning:
[Dewey] has been praised, paraphrased, repeated, discussed, apotheosized, even on occasion read.
I've tried reading Dewey, and he's boring.  But one of these days I will make myself read a couple of his essays all of the way through, because I hate myself that much.

Now I'm off to read a few books that I probably won't feel like blogging.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Hofstadter Chp. 12, continued

Hofstadter had a lot to say about the history of American education and attitudes towards teachers. Teaching has never been a high-status profession in this country. He claims that it is (or was, in 1963) a high-status profession in other countries, and I've heard some anecdotal reports that it's a high-status profession in countries that do better than us on international tests (e.g. Finland, the country where I want to be). A few fascinating points from the reading:

1) On page 313, he notes that some towns got teachers via a mechanism remarkably similar to Teach For America:
Others accepted the fact that a permanent schoolmaster was all but an impossibility and employed briefly a serious of ambitious young men who were on the way to other careers, perhaps in the ministry or law.
2) On page 316, he notes that in the 19th century America did a very unusual thing, and adopted a European educational practice.  That practice? Sorting students by grade.  Previously (and continuing into the late 19th century in some places) children were almost entirely educated in one-room schoolhouses with ages and grades mixed.  But with the sorting of students came specialization, larger facilities, and hence respectability.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, though, while Hofstadter claims that sorting students led to respectability, he also claims that it opened the profession to women, because of increased demand for teachers.  Given that high-status professions have historically been slow to open to women, I'm a bit skeptical of this claim.

He doesn't do much to reinforce it, because he goes on to note that skeptics of women teachers were silenced by the realization that they could get away with paying women less.  On the one hand, it is unsurprising that people would be OK with paying women less, and that they would put aside other concerns if they could get something for cheaper.  Still, that doesn't buttress his claim that teaching became a respectable profession.

That said, I love this sentence about low-paid women teachers:
Here was one answer to the great American quest to educate everybody but do it cheaply.

3) A few pages later, Hofstadter quotes a New Jersey school administrator lamenting in 1855 that you can't attract men of ability and promise to the teaching profession when teaching is a low-paid and still disreputable profession. This seems to undercut the claim of a few pages ago.

4) Finally, on page 320 he discusses the feminization of elementary school teaching. He claims that (1) American elementary schools have many fewer male teachers than peer countries around the world (a claim for which I don't have 1963 data at hand) and (2) this is another cause of American anti-intellectualism, because it sent the message that the life of the mind is not masculine.

Regarding the percentage of teachers who are female, in this era the number seems to be highly variable around the globe. But regarding the alleged message that studying isn't masculine, I'll just note that the percentage of male teachers increases going from elementary school to middle school to high school to undergraduate institutions to graduate schools. If anything, this sends a message that the highest tiers of knowledge are very masculine, and the lower tiers of knowledge are feminine. I don't think it fits Hofstadter's claim.