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 reading books that I don't feel like blogging about.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

Meritocracy and predictability

There is nothing more predictable than a critique of meritocracy, and this article in the Chronicle is no exception:  It contains 10 critiques of meritocracy, most of them utterly predictable. Anybody who doesn't know how to critique meritocracy in the expected ways does not merit a place in educational decision-making.  However, it does have a nice opinion piece by Thomas Chatterton Williams, who knows how to say more than just what we expect to hear.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

*Wink* *Wink* *Nudge* *Nudge*

The Chronicle has an article on how "nudges" haven't lived up to their promise for fixing massive social problems.  Who knew that humans were complicated beings who couldn't simply be steered into doing hard but important things with a few well-timed text messages?

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Essay up at Arc Digital

I sold an essay to Arc Digital on the subject of "Why This Physics Professor Reads Old Books."  It summarizes a lot of the preoccupations of this blog.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

More on America's elites and The Restlessness

This article on political correctness and activism at Yale argues that the problem is not about speech, but about a loss of confidence by America's elites.  The writer (Natasha Dashan) starts by noting that the effectiveness of student protests were a symptom of loss of confidence:
But the appearance of bottom-up protest politics is always a bit of a false narrative.  It would be one thing if the students were polled and a majority said they wanted the name changed, or some other process was used. At least the university could say that it was making decisions based on some objective democratic process, and wasn’t just being pushed around. But this is not what happened. No polls were taken. There was no authoritative process. The school said no for a few months, then caved. If the school were actually confident in its position to resist, it could have easily pushed back on the protests.
I admit that on some level I don't understand why America's elites have lost confidence.  Yes, America has lots of problems, I disagree with its elites on lots of things, and I think they've made a lot of mistake.  But isn't that true of every era?  There's a whole lot that America does right, and a whole lot that it could still set right with sustained effort.  And plenty of other places and times have seen elites who did worse.

Maybe the problem is that America's elites know that they aren't really in charge.  I mean, yes, they control so many institutions, but they no longer control the government.  That may seem laughable on one level, with the Supreme Court being packed with Yale grads and plenty of Ivy Leaguers, rich people, etc. in Congress.  Not to mention the Ivy Leaguers packing the top of executive agencies and Congressional staff positions, i.e. the people who REALLY run the government and always have in every country ever.

On another level, consider the most intractable problem in American government:  The deficit.  You simply cannot have tax rates that are acceptable to Americans AND have the massive military that we have (and all the commitments that come with it) AND do something substantial about healthcare.  You can do any two of those, but not all three.  This isn't a matter of political ideology but rather arithmetic.  Nonetheless, it is impossible to raise taxes, impossible to cut the military, and impossible to do anything about healthcare that might threaten the bottom lines of entrenched interests.  There are too many different players with too much at stake.  And they can get the masses to vote with them.

OK, maybe all of those defense contractor executives and healthcare executives and upper-income taxpayers are elites, but (1) there are so many of them that the word "elite" gets stretched to something broader than "Top Ivy Grads", (2) they aren't the forward-thinking elites who know that some things can't go on forever (i.e. the sorts of people who are smart enough to rise to the top at Yale), and (3) these things wouldn't be politically impossible if the elites couldn't win elections while adhering to these stances, and lose elections by substantially straying from them. The people who benefit from these unsustainable contradictions have a critical mass of, well, the masses on their side. Something has slipped loose and is no longer under the control of smart old guys from New England.  It's not democracy, but it's also not an elite that's coherent enough to act together and accept short-term pain with the assurance that they know the other guys and can keep them from cheating.

Dashan seems to know this.  She says (emphasis added):
Western elites are not comfortable with their place in society and the responsibilities that come with it, and realize that there are deep structural problems with the old systems of coordination. But lacking the capacity for an orderly restructuring, or even a diagnosis of problems and needs, we dive deeper into a chaotic ideological mode of coordination that sweeps away the old structures. 
When you live with this mindset, what you end up with is not an establishment where a woke upper class rallies and advocates for the rights of minorities, the poor, and underprivileged groups. What you have is a blind and self-righteous upper class that becomes structurally unable to take coordinated responsibility. You get stuck in an ideological mode of coordination, where no one can speak the truth to correct collective mistakes and overreaches without losing position. 
This ideology is promulgated and advertised by universities, but it doesn’t start or stop at universities. All the fundraisers. All the corporate events. The Oscars. Let’s take down the Man. They say this in front of their PowerPoints. They clink champagne glasses. Let’s take down the Man! But there is no real spirit of revolution in these words. It is all in the language they understand—polite and clean, because it isn’t really real. It is a performative spectacle about their own morale and guilt.
I've written before about comfortable, well-dressed people sitting in conference rooms and nodding enthusiastically while people about them discuss TRANSFORMATION AND DISRUPTION!!!  It's not just about the federal budget.  In education the problem is the unsustainability of expanding access while preserving some modicum of excellence.  But denying access is simply not an option.  So everyone tries to look for too-good-to-be-true solutions, or at least tries to look like they're looking for them, so that they can look like they are the side of righteousness.  Because there's no politically feasible way to get off this train.  So they're all eating this shit up like it's pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.

And then a reality TV star with a Twitter account and more loyalty to Moscow than Main Street wins the Presidency and half the country freaks out while the other half jumps on the bandwagon.  Because our elites don't know what to do.  Yeah, he's a rich guy (sort of) and a businessman, but just about all of the business elite would have preferred a more competent rich guy to sign their tax cuts and appoint people who will deregulate.  And the old-school elites, who could think long-term, would have preferred somebody with a bit more discipline.

The elites lack confidence because nobody is in charge, or at least nobody can coordinate the people who are collectively in charge.  God help us, we're sort of a democracy.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Admissions and Math: Yes, but...

The LA Times has an op-ed criticizing the CSU (California State University) system for instituting a requirement that all students who want admission take 4 years of high school math or other classes with heavy quantitative reasoning (e.g. physics, economics).  I actually agree with this part:
The proposal raises some big questions about what a college education ought to encompass in changing times. Are extra math classes in high school really necessary for all Cal State applicants — including those who want to major in, say, English literature, philosophy or theater?
Indeed. Andrew Hacker made much the same point in his book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.  However, we then come to this part:
It might make more sense, for example, for Cal State to require extra quantitative reasoning courses only of students who plan to major in STEM-related fields. They already are more likely to have taken a fourth-year math course before college. The university also should introduce any changes incrementally, checking to see whether the extra requirement makes enough of a difference to be worthwhile and considering other steps that might be at least as effective at raising graduation rates.
If we are going to admit people who are not ready to major in quantitative STEM fields then we should not be held accountable if they change their minds, decide to major in quantitative STEM fields, and then struggle to succeed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Article in IHE

Yesterday I had an opinion piece published at Inside Higher Ed on the topic of diversity questions in faculty job interviews.  In short, I think that these essays are some mix of useless, counter-productive, and (as with most useless and counter-productive things) well-intentioned.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Three recent things on meritocracy

I noticed three recent things about meritocracy and related topics:
1) An essay in the Chronicle, written by Rita Koganzon, aka Miss Self-Important.  In short, she follows de Tocqueville's reasoning and argues that intense competition for top colleges is a sign of greater equality and less privilege, not more privilege and less equality.  I'm not sure that her analysis is applicable to all of society, but certainly the top tier is becoming more competitive rather than less.  It's possible, of course, that that bottom whatever percentage are more shut out than ever, but the top 0.1% or 1% or whatever now feel far more competition from the next few percentiles.

2) The movie "Yesterday", which is essentially a sci-fi love letter to the Beatles, inspired this hot take in Vox:
The problem is that people often don’t see the myth of meritocracy as a myth; they really believe in it. And when they do, it can have some unfortunate effects. The myth of meritocracy, according to Frank, can make us less willing to invest in the collective good. If you think that all it takes to gain renown is skill and effort, “you have a sense of entitlement to whatever comes your way,” he says.
The basic premise of the movie is that some weird sci-fi event happens and suddenly just about everyone on earth has forgotten the Beatles.  Their music disappears from the internet, their records disappear from people's collections, and when a struggling musician covers one of their songs for his friends are amazed by these songs that they'd never heard before.  He sees his chance to make it in the music industry and rises to stardom as the world marvels. The Vox writer's point is that it's naive to think that somebody got where they are just because they wrote great music.

On one level the writer is completely correct:  Success requires in a creative endeavor luck and hard work and people willing to help you promote whatever you've created.  It requires a creation that is not just good but also matched to the spirit of the time.  And it requires not just good creation but good performance.  Compare the first commercial recording of the song Wild Thing with the second.

First recording:
Second recording:

The second is far better.

Nonetheless, the point of the movie was not to legitimize the social order that the Vox writer hopes to better fit into by critiquing it.  The point was to produce a romantic comedy about a guy who feels like he's a fraud, and play some fun music along the way.  The Vox writer knows, though, that they'll get more clicks with a hot take explaining that this movie is a problematic work that defends the evil meritocracy.  And in critiquing the current social order they'll paradoxically fit in better with the gatekeepers of respectable opinion.

3) This tweet by Cathy Young, a writer who grew up in the USSR before coming to the US in the late 70's or early 80's (I don't know her exact bio):
So there's a fine @NewYorker article by Alex Ross on the Mozart/Salieri myths & recent Salieri revival, and ....
This is starting to remind me of how every Soviet essay on art or literature had the obligatory graph on Marxism-Leninism & the class struggle
She's referring to this passage from a New Yorker article that is otherwise an account of Mozart and Salieri, not the allegedly problematic notion of genius:
The danger of the word “genius” is that it implies an almost biological category—an innately superior being, a superhero. It is probably no accident that the category of “genius,” an obsession of the nineteenth century, coincided with the emergence of the pseudoscience of race, which held that certain peoples were genetically fitter than others. At the same time, “genius” easily becomes a branding term used to streamline the selling of cultural goods. The perils of the term become clear when the authorship of a work is uncertain. In 1987, the musicologist John Spitzer published an amusing and edifying article about the Sinfonia Concertante for Winds, K. 297b, which was long thought to be by Mozart. In its heyday, the Sinfonia was said to be “truly Mozartean” and as “monumental as a palace courtyard.” Once uncertainty about the attribution set in, the piece was called “cheap and repetitive.” The notes themselves had not changed.
I'm not terribly knowledgeable about classical music, so I can't say if the rest of the article is any good, but this sudden diversion into a very peripheral issue of the modern zeitgeist is jarring.  It feels like an obvious attempt to suck up to a certain kind of liberal near the end of an article that is otherwise unrelated to the signature issues of certain kinds of liberals.

I mean, if they want to critique ideas of intelligence, merit, fairness, etc. then have at it.  Say something interesting.  Pick a jumping-off point and then make an interesting connection with the bigger topic(s).  But don't shoehorn it in so as to flatter a certain kind of liberal.  It just ruins the flow of the piece and feels jarring and forced.