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.

Hofstadter: sySTEMic pattern

I have just one quick observation from chapter 9, on business and intellect:  America has largely had a culture of optimism for the future, and a culture of progress (not to be confused with "progressive" in the left-wing sense).  Consequently, the area of intellectual endeavor that we most esteem is science, associating it with the promises of the future, while we often associate humanities and social science with reading old books from the past (*cough*).  Likewise, while there's something of a rockstar culture around top theoretical physicists working on esoteric things, any kid who actually proposes to study esoteric topics in theoretical physics will get a lot of "Great!  So, um, what will you do for a job...?" questions from the family.  And in academic culture, the more progressive-minded people sometimes have conflicted views on the value of the theoretical side of the subject as a measure of student understanding.  This conflict doesn't always translate into a preference for applied science over basic science, but it can lead to (often healthy!) debates over the importance of the more abstract and mathematical aspects of the subject in the training of a practicioner.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Anti-intellectualism in professional life

In chapter 4 I came across the story of Dwight Moody, a 19th century evangelical preacher.  It is noted on page 108 that somebody asked Moody what his theology was and Moody's response was "I don't know, you should tell me."  He was not a formally educated religious scholar, but he was a man who worked in the trenches of religion, reaching out to people and preaching to them and interacting with them, and discussing the Bible with them.  I suspect that many of the academic readers of this blog are either non-religious or else religious in a more intellectual sense, but one needn't share Moody's religious views to appreciate that he was an authentic minister of his faith, lack of Latin and Greek jargon notwithstanding.  In this respect, I realized that I have some considerable sympathy for him, if I compare his disinterest in the jargon of the learned to my own disinterest in the jargon of managerial classes.

Just about every American employed in a corporate or institutional job has at some point encountered a person who demands that they explain how their work in the trenches relates to some sort of management theory framework.  They don't ask "What do you do and why do you do it?"  Rather, they ask "How does your work fit into the mission statement of the organization?"  They don't ask "What do you teach in this course?"  They ask "What are your learning objectives?"  They don't ask "What do you sell?"  They ask "What is the end-user experience that you are providing?"  They don't ask "What are your students graded on?" but rather "What is your method of assessment?" These people have been mocked in one of my favorite movies and in tales passed 'round teh intertubez.  Everyone hates these people. Everyone.  Even the boss hates them, because the boss is required to make a show of obeisance while secretly fearing that he will get in trouble because he spent too much time making things happen and not enough time fitting things into six sigma management rubrics or whatever.

The big question is whether disrespect for the jargon-slingers of the managerial class is a form of anti-intellectualism.  The jargon-slingers would certainly claim to have a considerable body of research on their side, and thus those of us who mock them are the ones saying "Look, I don't need no fancy book learnin' to know how to do my job, I just gotta use my good ol' common sense, I tell you whut!"  Certainly I get the occasional twinge of discomfort when I go against educational fads that have some claim to a research backing.  I know that I am not alone; most of the intellectual class that I belong to hates the jargon-slingers, either because we are stubbornly defending our turf from perceived threats, or because we disdain them as false intellectuals using long words to hide lack of substance, or some mixture of the two.

Is it anti-intellectual to eschew the jargon of the managerial class?  The answer is not 100% obvious to me, because as much as it all stinks to me I also get uncomfortable when I remember that some of them do conduct research on this.  Not all research is good research, and I have what I fancy to be a well-reasoned hunch about this, but reliance on hunches over lit searches is still anti-intellectualism...

Hofstadter blogging: Higher ed is in a Great Awakening

As soon as I finished blogging about how I can't put this book down I fell asleep, and then spent most of the next day on other things.  But I did manage to finish chapter 2 and much of chapter 3 yesterday.  I want to focus here on chapter 3 and the religious roots of American anti-intellectualism.

Hofstadter was, at least at an early stage in his life, quite the Communist. However, he does not let that ideological sympathy diminish his admiration for the devoutly religious Puritans.  Of all the early American cultural strains, the Puritans were without a doubt the ones most amenable to learning and intellectual discourse.  I will point the reader to Albion's Seed* for a full run-down on literacy rates and other educational achievements in the Puritan settlements, and simply note, as Hofstadter does, that the Puritans established schools from the elementary level up through Harvard college, that they had a great many clergy with college degrees from Oxbridge schools, and that they had a tradition of publishing sermons for public study and debate.  They were also, by the admittedly lamentable standards of their time, egalitarian in matters of gender, and they had a thrifty and industrious culture with a remarkably flat income and wealth distribution that modern-day critics of inequality ought to celebrate.  Moreover, while slavery was at one time legal in New England, the Puritans and their descendants had a very low rate of slave ownership (relative to most of the other colonies that became the US) and gave America some of its most fervent white** Abolitionist activists, up to and including zealous holy warriors with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.  (If one translates "jihad" as "holy war" then America's first jihadists were not Muslims, but rather were Christians fighting against slavery.)

In spite of this intellectual, egalitarian, and liberal spirit, in the mainstream cultural narrative we remember the Puritans for little except Thanksgiving (the modern gluttonous celebration of which would have appalled the thrifty Puritans), the Salem Witch Trials, and an allegedly dour and anti-fun culture.  One would think that the more politically correct elements in modern leftist culture, the sorts who can point out how problematic your favorite entertainments and notions really are, would have some sympathy for dour, anti-fun Puritans.  As for the witch trials, such an ugly and unconscionable episode really ought to serve as a cautionary note on how even the most progressive and enlightened cultures can get caught up in a frenzy and commit atrocities.  Instead, our mainstream narrative treats the Witch Trials as the signature moment of the Puritans, and ascribes every conservative element in modern American culture to them.  This is particularly strange when people ascribe the more "southern fried" evangelical religious aspects of our political scene to New England Puritan roots.  Hofstadter takes it as a sign of American anti-intellectualism that the colonists who are arguably the most pilloried in our mainstream cultural narrative are the ones who were in fact the most intellectual.  (One might also take it as a sign of racism that we have negative narratives about a cultural strain that gave rise to fervent Abolitionism but few narratives concerning waves of Southern colonists, just as one might take it as a sign of classism that when we do hear narratives about white Southern colonists they mostly concern the backwardness of the impoverished Scots-Irish rather than the sins of the more affluent Cavaliers who actually owned plantations.)

Anyway, the Puritans were busy reading the Bible and writing essays, but over time they were getting less inspiring in their preaching, and so there was a religious vacuum to be filled.  In the 1720's a wave of evangelical preaching started to sweep the US, a wave that crossed regions and generally featured less learned preachers encouraging the masses to testify to their own Biblical interpretations and faith experiences.  This wave of preaching and reignited religious fervor is now called The Great Awakening, it was a major challenge to the authority of the learned clergy, and we see its effects to this day in the American religious scene.  It is not necessarily a negative thing, whether from a viewpoint that emphasizes democratic equality or from a viewpoint that prizes religious devotion.  It is, however, something that clearly has analogues in other parts of American culture. It also resonates with my own observations on academia.  When I went to the AAPT New Faculty Workshop in 2007, an event focused on getting new faculty into the spirit of reformed pedagogy, I noted to somebody on the shuttle bus from the hotel one morning that I couldn't figure out whether the organizers wanted me to teach physics or find Jesus.  I'm not from a Puritan or Congregationalist background, but as a Catholic and a graduate of a Catholic school I am certainly steeped in a culture of sages on stages, and the preachy aspects of the workshop reminded me of campus evangelical groups whose meetings I had tried out (and quickly abandoned) in my freshman year of college.  "Campus Crusade for Clickers" is how I sometimes describe pedagogy workshops.  Some people hear that as a denunciation of reformed pedagogy for alleged irrationality, but I do not offer religious analogies as critiques of irrationality.  Rather, I offered it as a critique of the cultural elements, the narratives of transformation and conversion, and the preachy spirit.

Anyway, reading of the wave of evangelical meetings that swept the US in the 18th century, challenging the status of the learned clergy who gave us our oldest university, I feel like I am starting to grope toward the cultural roots of some of the crazes sweeping the modern academy.

I'll close with a note on how history repeats itself with ironic twists:  On page 72 Hofstadter notes that revivalist Jonathan Edwards criticized Yale for failing to do its part to uphold and promote Christian teaching.  It is funny that two hundred years later no less of a traditionalist than William F. Buckley offered a similar critique, though from a somewhat different set of sympathies.

*A good friend is a historian who has pointed out to me some of the limitations of the analysis in that book, but the compilation of data on the early Americans is impressive irrespective of the validity of Fischer's extrapolations to the present day.
**It is only fair to put that qualifier here; surely the most fervent supporters of Abolition were the African Americans who suffered under slavery.  However, among the white supporters of Abolition, New England gave us some of the most fervent.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hofstadter blogging: I might not sleep until I finish reading this book

I got delayed in picking up this book because I had final* exams to write, administer, and grade, but that is done.  I'm a few pages into chapter 2, and I don't think I will be able to put this book down except to blog about it and maybe attend to a few biological necessities.  (Maybe.)  I decided to start blogging about the books I'm reading because I'm trying to understand certain fixations in the academy.  I have long lamented that I do not understand these fixations, but I feel like they are placing some sort of social mission ahead of the subject itself, whereas I believe that it is impossible to serve my students well unless I serve my subject as an even higher duty.  I have been mystified by the number of people who seem to "drink the kool-aid."

On page 26, Hofstadter reminds me that I am not the first to feel this frustration.  "We know, for instance, that all academic men are not intellectuals; we often lament this fact."  I have often wondered why a few of my colleagues have openly boasted of moving away from reading assignments in classes; now I understand that my frustration is not a sign of some modern decadence but merely the latest skirmish in a constant battle.  The presence of anti-intellectualism in even the academy itself is not something new.  This reassures me.

On page 28, Hofstadter says the things that I have only said to a few close confidantes, rather than openly voicing, for fear that the openly mystical undertones would be mocked:
Some years ago a colleague asked me to read a brief essay he had written for students going on to do advanced work in his field.  Its ostensible purpose was to show how the life of the mind could be cultivated within the framework of his own discipline, but its effect was to give an intensely personal expression to his dedication to intellectual work.  Although it was written by a corrosively skeptical mind**, I felt that I was reading a piece of devotional literature in some ways comparable to Richard Steele's The Tradesman's Calling or Cotton Mather's Essays to do Good, for in it the intellectual task had been conceived as a calling, much in the fashion of the old Protestant writers.  His work was undertaken as a devotional exercise, a personal discipline, and to think of it in this fashion was possible because it was more than merely workmanlike and professional: it was work at thinking, work done supposedly in the service of truth.  The intellectual life has here taken on a kind of primary moral significance.  It is this aspect of the intellectual's feeling about ideas that I call his piety.  The intellectual is engage--he is pledged, committed, enlisted.  What everyone else is willing to admit, namely, that ideas and abstractions are of signal importance in human life, he imperatively feels.
Can I admit here that I detest TED Talks as borderline blasphemy because they tell the listener to feel as though their 10 minutes of listening has made them Enlightened?  It seems cheap, and it always flatters a certain type of shallow technocratic sensibility.  I privately regard knowledge and learning as a pathway to the mind of God Himself, much in the way of a Hellenistic scholar worshiping Sophia, and I do not see how I can serve my students, even in the manner of a humble shepherd, without first serving knowledge.  Indeed, I unironically quote these lyrics to express my views on Wisdom:
And I'll feed your obsession
The falling star that you cannot live without
I will be your religion
This thing you'll never doubt
You're not the only one
You're not the only one
Back to reading.

*We're on quarters.
**Emphasis added.  I think many of my colleagues would use such a descriptor, unfavorably or otherwise, to describe my attitude towards many educational fashions.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Further prelude: My own views on experts and sages

Since my motivation for reading and blogging about Hofstadter's book is to understand Americans' ambivalent views about sages on stages, I should say a few things about my own views about sages:

First, I don't want to delve much into my family background right now, but suffice it say that like a great many children of divorce I have tremendously complicated Daddy issues.  I suspect that my reverence for my college professors, my cherished memories of the better lectures, and my particular reverence for some of the sterner mentors that I encountered, might stem in part from that.  Of course, there are plenty of academics in my generation who were children of divorce; I suspect that most of them react to sages on stages in the exact opposite way that I do, so I don't know how much one can generalize from my experience.

Second, one thing that I love about lectures is that I think a good lecture is one of the few times when a novice can see truly expert reasoning "in the wild."  Reformed pedagogical approaches in the classroom are all about getting the students to do things that they are ready to do.  Textbooks, regardless of which school they come from, are distillations.  The older ones are often too clean, too tidy, too perfect.  They are what an expert presents when they have finished figuring something out.  The more progressive ones mostly try to clean things up while making them simpler.  There are noble exceptions, like Matter and  Interactions by Chabay and Sherwood, or Moore's Six Ideas.  Also, I really like Schroeder's thermal physics book.  Mostly, though, textbooks fail to convey how an expert actually thinks about the field.  One reason why every physicist loves Feynman's lectures is that they are among the few books out there to have the rough and unpolished feel of an expert thinking through something rather than an expert presenting a perfect, finished package (or a teacher presenting a perfect, simplified package).  Feynman's lectures are sub-optimal for a first reading, and sub-optimal for figuring out how to do homework, but an indispensable supplement for somebody who wants to see the subject from more than one angle (and how else will you really learn a subject, if not by reading more than one viewpoint?).  Likewise, a well-done lecture can straddle the balance between the simplicity that a beginner needs and the sophistication that an expert brings, and really bring out the process that an expert follows.

Perhaps one reason why I am in a seeming minority faction in STEM is that walking the freshman through expert reasoning is the archetypal humanities approach to teaching, while STEM (along with many social science fields) has focused on polished textbooks.  In humanities, you don't typically have the freshmen read somebody's simplified synopsis of Plato; you have them read Plato.  You don't have them read somebody's synopsis of a classic essay; you have them read the essay.  The denser books are typically not assigned to freshmen, and the freshmen might be expected to write essays that give less in-depth responses to the texts, but they are reading the primary sources.  They are encountering the experts, not textbooks distilling and simplifying responses to the experts.  Of course, humanities courses also include ample discussion (and always have), so there's a natural balance between the reasoning of a sage and active participation.  STEM, however, seems to be fighting a war between an old school "lecture, lecture, and more lecture" approach and a hip, progressive "Sit in a circle and do activities while the expert stays on the sideline" approach.

Finally, since I have said that new pedagogy seems to be striking some sort of psychological chord amongst many of my colleagues, I should offer a story from my own past, to give some insight into the biases and experiences that I bring to this:

When I was in fourth grade I changed grade schools.  I hated my new school.  I had spent k-3 in a Franciscan grade school, and then I moved to a snooty suburban public school.  The Franciscan school was liberal in its social outlook (the priests and teachers mostly focused on Jesus's teachings on charity) but fairly traditional in its approach to reading, writing, and math.  The suburban public school, though, was all about visual learning.  At the time I didn't really know what an education workshop was, but I knew that somebody had done something to these teachers, and what they had done was not good.  Everything had to have an art project attached.  Everything.  I could read well above grade level, but I was getting mediocre grades in reading class because we had to make 3D mobiles and stuff for reading assignments.  Seriously?  I can read and discuss any book that you throw at me and you're going to grade me down because I don't like making mobiles?  I thought mobiles were for a baby's crib, not reading class. (To be fair, some of the teachers were at the same intellectual level as a baby in a crib, so, yeah, I guess it made sense.)

Anyway, eventually somebody got a clue (the public school bureaucracy moves slowly) and moved me to the more advanced reading class.  The number of art projects didn't diminish, but the teacher did get more annoying.  (I kind of wished I'd stayed in the less advanced group; that teacher introduced us to Shel Silverstein, which is more than I can say for the idiot that they assigned me to in the "advanced" reading class.)  At some point we got to discussing encyclopedias.  Now, I knew everything that there is to know about encyclopedias.  I loved encyclopedias.  I'd been reading encyclopedias since second grade.  I had probably read more encyclopedia pages than the idiot teacher.  So when the teacher asked us what we knew about encyclopedias, I was able to raise my hand, spout off umpteen million facts, and even correct her on a few points.  She was not impressed.  But then this little ass-kisser raised his hand.  She called on him.  He said "Sometimes encyclopedias have color pictures in them."  She was in ecstasy; she practically had an orgasm. (I didn't know what an orgasm was, but I did know that the teacher was taking inordinate pleasure in this.) "Good!  Sometimes they have colored pictures in them!"  She was loving it.  And the little ass-kisser was beaming.  He knew exactly what he'd done.  I knew exactly what he'd done.  The girl sitting next to him knew exactly what he'd done and was clearly impressed. (I didn't yet get the significance of that fact.) But me?  I was fuming.  He'd gotten praise, the ultimate coin of the realm, for using the most simplistic bullshit imaginable to push the buttons of somebody who had drunk the kool-aid, while I had gotten a dismissive look for citing hard facts.

This may play some role in my continuing distaste for progressive educational reforms.  But enough about me; let's move on to what Hofstadter says about American views on intellectuals.

Prelude to the next book: Stages need sages

My next blogging topic will be Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter.  My main motivation for reading this book is that I am trying to understand the roots of current educational fashions, and I believe that the roots lie outside the academy.  Higher education is currently in the grips of two awful fixations:  One is that there are easy solutions to timeless problems, and the other is that the Sage on the Stage is part of the  problem.

Opposition to sages on stages is a rather strange stance for academics to adhere to, especially given the sizes of our egos.  An easy explanation would be that those of us who have spent the longest time in school have encountered more bad lectures than anyone else, so of course we hate lectures.  There's a valid point there, but most of us in academia also encountered some absolutely dazzling, inspirational lectures, and the sages who gave those lectures inspired us to go farther in our academic disciplines.  Why is it that current educational fashion is more focused on the first case than the second?  Another very easy explanation would be that there's a tremendous body of data in favor of active learning approaches in the classroom.  That is certainly an argument against any classroom approach that is 100% lecture, and I certainly don't lecture all of the time.

However, if you listen to people who were inspired by an educational workshop, they aren't talking about learning gains that are statistically significant with a p value of less than 0.5% or whatever.  They aren't talking about studies and control groups.  Rather, they are talking about how it transformed their approach to their teaching, and how it resonated with them.  There is something psychological going on, some sort of deep resonance with something in the mind of the modern academic.  I want to understand this, and I believe that I might learn something about this issue if I combine discussions with colleagues and readings on American culture.  Hence I will read Hofstadter's book and blog my reactions.

Besides the cultural and psychological resonances in the minds of workshop attendees, there's also something interesting going on in the minds of workshop presenters.  I am quite certain that many of them are cynical hucksters and shills, people who would have peddled some other ware to the unwary if they had lived in a different time or entered a different field of endeavor.  However, I am also certain that some of them are quite sincere and well-meaning, and I freely admit that some of their wares have real benefit--indeed, I do use clicker questions in my introductory classes!  I know some truly sincere and intellectual careful ones (just as I know at least one shill...).  What is interesting is that more than once I have heard both presenters and attendees speak of the value of letting go of their expert role, and how learning isn't occurring if the professor is talking and the student is listening.  Leaving aside the fact that I'm pretty sure that some of these people would advocate for an approach of "Shut up and listen!" in other contexts, there is clearly a deep psychological resonance for them in letting go of the authority figure role.  I believe that American views on intellectuals and expert voices might play a role here.