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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chapter 10 of Hofstadter: The chapter with the awesome title

Chapter 10, "Self-Help and Spiritual Technology", is about a number of things.  It starts off talking about self-help books, a genre with a long pedigree in this country, one that Hofstadter largely dissects from the late 1800's onward.  Personally, I'm not a fan of self-help books.  Whenever people come to me with some AMAZ!NG SYSTEM!!11! for solving some sort of problem, my general thought is "Hell, if I could just discipline myself to adhere rigorously to your system, I could probably just discipline myself to do/not do whatever it is that I need to do more/less of."  Consequently, I think of self-help authors as people trying to profit from telling the masses that there's a quick and easy trick to solving a hard problem, and hence as being of a piece with American anti-intellectualism.  Hofstadter, however, notes that in the second half of the 19th century, when the concept of the self-made man was very much on the rise, self-help books promoted virtues that no less than the Puritans would have esteemed:  Thrift, hard work, etc.  It is thus of little surprise that many of the authors of self-help books were Congregationalist ministers, i.e. the cultural, spiritual, and often genetic descendants of the Puritans.

On the other hand, Hofstadter does equate this genre of books with anti-intellectualism, but for a very different reason than I would have:  They promote the concept that hard work matters more than talent.  I actually agree with that to a large extent.  I see nothing anti-intellectual in Euclid's admonition that "There is no royal road to geometry." Being a physicist, I've encountered more than a few students who have explained that they like relativity and quantum mechanics because they match up with "my really weird, nonlinear way of thinking, man."  What doesn't usually match up with their "really weird, nonlinear way of thinking, man" is stuff like doing homework, showing up to class, etc.  There's nothing anti-intellectual in valuing time and effort on intellectual endeavors. What I see as anti-intellectual is the notion that timeless problems can be made easy if you just follow this one trick.  Genuinely useful insights, shortcuts, and simplifications are rare and often subtle.

On a different note, one observation of contemporary relevance in Chapter 10 was that the attitude of businessmen toward education changed as we went from the late 19th century era of growth of new organizations, an era that celebrated self-made entrepreneurs who were not generally well-disposed toward formal education, to the early 20th century, when mature enterprises needed a managerial class and welcomed college graduates.  This observation should give every academic pause, as it reminds us that we are ultimately tame creatures who thrive best in conditions of stable, established wealth.  It might also give us hope, though.  We currently live in an era where any Stanford drop-out with an app can get a venture capitalist to throw a million bucks at them.  It may not be a coincidence that in this era of growth in new industries there is a desire to hollow out, commodify, and digitize higher education.  I suspect that when we go to a period of consolidation and institutionalization of new business models there will be renewed appreciation for traditional higher education in our elite classes.  The bad news is that the coming era will see those traditional institutions chasing grants not only from the Gates Foundation, but also the Zuckerberg Foundation.


Phil Ebersole said...

These are interesting posts.

I think that in the last paragraph, you mean to say "went from the late 19th century … … to the earlhy 20th (not 19th) century."

Alex Small said...

Thanks for the compliment, and for spotting the error. I've fixed it.